Written By: Aileen Martinez & Hyunmin Oh
Historically, the superhero genre has been, and still is, mainly dominated by hegemonic masculinity. The majority of superheroes are white, heterosexual, and cisgender men, all of which are tall and attractive. The characters outside of these traits are either the sidekick, comic relief, or villain. Fast forward to present day, the superhero industry is putting in effort in order to bring about more diversity. By analyzing the development of Black Widow’s character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, viewers can see how the industry has evolved over time in their portrayal of emphasized femininity.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Natasha Romanoff or Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, was first introduced in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Iron Man 2 (2010). She was the first and only female superhero in the MCU until Scarlet Witch in The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) debut. In the beginning, Black Widow displayed many characteristics of emphasized femininity. Hechavarria and Ingram define emphasized femininity as, “a conceptualization of the female, which endeavors to preserve hegemonic masculinity through conformity with gender structures” (2016, p. 246).
When Black Widow first appeared in Iron Man 2, she was portrayed as the “sexy secretary” who seductively stared into the camera as she entered the boxing ring in her tight blouse. Throughout the entire movie, she wore body-con dresses with a low neckline which emphasized her curves in an attempt to gain the appeal of young male viewers. During one scene of the film, Black Widow changed in the back of the car, causing the driver to swerve as he was distracted by peeping at her half-naked body. Keep in mind, this movie is rated PG-13.
The Avengers (2012)
Unfortunately, this hyper sexualization of the only female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not stop. In the very beginning of The Avengers (2012), Black Widow was tied on a chair surrounded by multiple men dressed in full suits. I find it difficult to find another reason besides fetishizing BDSM and abuse towards women for her short black dress and high stockings as she was interrogated by the villains. Moreover, how can we discuss sexualization without taking her uniform into account? In the film, Black Widow fights in a leather unitard. God forbid the suit is not fully zipped, because that would be too “uncomfortable.” I may not be a super spy, but if I were to fight aliens and super villains who were trying to take over the planet, a skin-tight leather suit sounds extremely incongruent.
While Black Widow was ranked third for most screen time in The Avengers (2012), she was overtly sexualized and played a ‘mom role’ to her male teammates that embodied hegemonic masculinity. Take the poster for example, her pose is significantly different from other fellow heroes in the hit film. She is strategically positioned to exemplify her breasts and behind simultaneously while the male heroes appear strong and powerful. To criticize the sexualization of female heroes in the MCU, a trend called “The Hawkeye Initiative” started via Tumblr. This movement was created to reiterate sexualization of women within the superhero genre by replacing Hawkeye’s character in the place of the female character and seeing if it is acceptable or not. Avengers Booty Ass-emble by Kivinbolk demonstrates “The Hawkeye Initiative” by criticizing Black Widow’s pose for The Avengers (2012) wall poster.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Instead of her solo movie, Black Widow appeared next in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Although her sexualization substantially declined compared to her first two appearances, her suit remained the same. She still smirked suggestively at the villains before the fight and managed to stay sexy while fighting. In addition, her role as the assistant and caring after the men did not change at all. Up to this point, her character primarily assists the male protagonist, which is Captain America in this case, reach his goals. While the male heroes are written to be imperfect and allowed to develop over time, Black Widow has to be impeccable at all times so she can assist their growth instead of hers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
From Iron Man 2 to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the character Natasha Romanoff or Black Widow has ‘developed’ from sexy secretary to sexy spy with her impressive combat skills and feminine physique to destroy enemies of all kinds. Unfortunately, up to this point, she is unable to progress far from the stereotypical romantic and femininity tropes. Drawing from Hechavarria and Ingram’s (2016) article, emphasized femininity is a “conceptualization of female ideals supporting male authority and dominance through the practices of women and is seen as complementary to or opposite those of a culture’s ideal male” (p. 246). Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the female characters either begin as or simply become a romantic interest centered around a main male character. The film Avengers: Age of Ultron features a glimpse of Black Widow’s past which ultimately weakens her character and fuels a relationship between with Bruce Banner or the Hulk. The backstory led to more controversy concerning Black Widow’s representation due to the fact that the character refers to herself as a monster because of her infertility. Natasha confides in Bruce:
“They have a graduation ceremony. They sterilize you. It’s efficient. One less thing to worry about. The one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier. Even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?”
Her dialogue plays into the gender role characteristics associated with emphasized femininity, implying that the worth of women depends on their capabilities as mothers and insults women who cannot bear children. DeMarchi (2014) highlights the fact that men maintain the structural power and women maintain the intimate power (p. 32).
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War, Natasha’s Black Widow costume continues to showcase her body and cleavage rather than her combat skills. In reality, her sexualized apparel would make running painful without proper breast or feet support (DeMarchi, 2014, p. 31). Every article of women’s clothing and pose in the Marvel Cinematic Universe never fails to reiterate the patriarchal body objectification characterized in hegemonic masculinity. Moreover, the female characters within the MCU continue to lack agency in comparison to their male companions. In Captain America: Civil War, Natasha warns Steve Rogers to stop pursuing Bucky Barnes, watching out for her friend. While her advice is considered, her fellow Avengers do not heed her counsel (Gerard & Poepsel, 2018, p. 43). Black Widow visually demonstrates the caring, communal, and relational attributes of emphasized femininity.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Nearing the end of the Avenger’s series, Avengers: Infinity War took multiple strides in an effort to give Black Widow the representation and credit the character deserves. Not only is Black Widow the only female founding member, she is integral in the formation of the Avengers. Natasha, after all, brought in Iron Man and the Hulk (Gerard & Poepsel, 2018, p. 44). Her combat uniform throughout the international hit was less form-fitting and did not appear as sexualized as the films before. While her screen time was shorter in comparison to the male characters, she performed an equal as she walked alongside her teammates. In this capacity, Black Widow is depicted with more agency, professionalism, and a sense of the greater importance.
*SPOILER ALERT BELOW*
Avengers: End Game (2019)
Sadly, as the Black Widow’s character came to an end, this photo essay is at its end as well. The final film in the franchise Avengers: End Game ended with the epic sacrifice of Natasha Romanoff. The character received more screen time than she has had before and continued to remain less sexualized as in Avengers: Infinity War. By recognizing the major differences from her introduction to her death, it is clear to see that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has diverged from the stereotypical characteristics of emphasized femininity. Over the course of the multi-billion franchise, viewers were encouraged to lust after Natasha, be in awe of her power and capabilities, and pity her. (Gerard & Poepsel, 2018, p. 50). All in all, Black Widow was predominantly characterized in ways which upheld the male dominant social structures. However, the filming of her solo film began in late May of this year, so fans have yet to see if her portrayal continues to break from the concept of emphasized femininity or falls back into the highly sexualized and feminized representation of women in the media.
DeMarchi, M. L. (2014). Avenging women: an analysis of postfeminist female representation in the cinematic Marvel’s Avengers series. College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations. 167. https://via.library.depaul.edu/etd/167
Hechavarria, D. M., & Ingram, A. E. (2016). The entrepreneurial gender divide: Hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity and organizational forms. International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship, 8(3), pp.242-281, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJGE-09-2014-0029
Gerard, M., & Poepsel, M. (2018). Black Widow: Female Representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts & Science Journal, 8(2). Retrieved from https://ojcs.siue.edu/ojs/index.php/polymath/article/view/3314/1334