Recently I overheard a distressing conversation in which a group of female twenty-somethings discussed Marvel’s Black Widow (the film version, not the comics). This group called Black Widow “one of those nasty girls,” because she was working with Captain America in his most recent film, instead of Hawkeye. Note at this point we don’t know all the details of the backstory between Hawkeye and Black Widow. It could be romantic, it could be platonic. Either way, it doesn’t make her a slut.
This struck a cord. Black Widow is probably my favorite Marvel character from the chain of Marvel films that continue to imbue our modern film experience. Thus far, she hasn’t had even one romantic or sexual relationship, let alone enough to qualify her as “one of those nasty girls.”
Overhearing this conversation brought up a few different issues for me: First, the role of women and how it would seem that regardless of a female character’s behavior or the type of relationship with male characters, that female character might always be relegated to romance or sexuality–even if it is unwarranted.
Second, the affliction of slut-shaming. Personally, I don’t care what your sex life is like or what you deem moral or immoral. What I do care about is if you shame other people for failing to live up to your personal standards, instead of their own. Shaming is never okay. And slut-shaming, with its presumptions and name-calling and limited scope is woman-centric in a highly negative way. I’m not a fan.
Third, this conversation makes me wonder how people view real-life women who have guy friends–whether one or two guy friends, or many. I myself have a friendship history made up primarily of guy friends–most of whom really were just friends. Do I have a reputation as “one of those nasty girls” that I have been blind too, because of my list of awesome guy friends?
In full disclosure, I’m unsure of how reflective this conversation is of the population at large. I prefer to think it is an anomaly. Maybe it was a group of girls buying into the “gossip equals good conversation” mentality. Maybe the people involved have so little experience with the opposite sex they just don’t understand that a woman can associate with men without being sexual or romantic.
However, given that Black Widow herself is quite the anomaly in film, I worry that the mentality of this conversation is not limited to just this group of women. Black Widow is an anomaly in that so far she hasn’t been a romantic interest. She has been an independent, kick-ass (literally) female character with as much brains as fighting prowess. She’s an anomaly because most often female characters are Black Widow’s opposite.
Most often, female characters exist to look sexy. Most often female characters exist to be the romantic lead for the male protagonist or to be the damsel in distress or to inspire the men. Most often, female characters are surrounded by sex and romance. They are rarely there as independent, fully-rounded characters. Thus, it might not be too much of a stretch for film-goers to view Black Widow as the sexy, romantic lead even in the absence of sex or romance for her character.
And I want to restate that in this I am only speaking of the films, not the comics. I am not a comic reader therefore do not want to speak for the comics or comic readers. This is strictly film.
So let’s get nitty-gritty about this by way of subheadings.
Role of Women and Female Characters
This conversation could very well be a symptom of the pervasive attitudes towards women in film, namely that women in film should support the men and/or be the love interest or sex object for the men.
I’m impatiently waiting for this mentality to fizzle and die. Love stories are wonderful. Love is one of the most basic and common of human experiences, therefore stories about it are expected and great. That does not mean that every female character in the known universe is obsessed with love or only exists for the benefit of male characters.
Black Widow has not once had a definitive relationship with any character in the Marvel films. Thus far she has been fairly asexual, meaning there hasn’t been any implication of sex or romance.
And yet, despite her saving lives, proving her mental brilliance, her backstory of which we only see the occasional tid-bit (Black Widow movie, where are you????), the absence of any love story, she is still relegated to the love interest and what she does with her body.
Are we so far gone in the idea that women only exist for romance and sex that even in the absence of those traits, that is all we see?
Ah, the old tradition of slut-shaming. It is not too original to relate this trend to The Scarlet Letter, but it is such a very apt description.
Hester Prynne wears the scarlet letter ‘A’ for “adultery” in her Puritan town. SHE is the one who wears the letter. SHE is the one who bears the scrutiny and mockery. And yet, doesn’t it take two people to create a child the traditional way? Isn’t that basic biology and sex ed? YES!!! It is!! But Hester’s co-adulterer is safe from all shame!
We don’t make people wear letters anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’ve moved past shaming or judgement that is most often aimed at women. That is why we have characters like Barney Stinson who is “awesome” and we have characters like Black Widow (who hasn’t had any love interests that we know of) who is “one of those nasty girls.”
The discrepancy is revolting, and the shaming needs to stop.
Translation Into Real Life
Does this mentality translate into real life? How?
Most reasonable people will not watch movies and think of them as a roadmap for how real life ought to be. That does not mean the lessons and values we see in film don’t translate into our everyday perceptions.
Study after study shows that how women are portrayed in media–including film–impacts the well-being of women in reality. It impacts body image, self-worth, health, dreams and aspirations. It also drives many women to feel they are pitted one against another, instead of feeling unified as women.
I’ll let the website for Beauty Redefined fill you in on all that. They have PhD’s on the matter, after all. www.beautyredefined.net
In order to write this piece I re-watched Iron Man 2, even though I didn’t particularly like that film, just to make sure my assessment of Black Widow is correct. I maintain this stance: Black Widow is nothing but professional, brilliant, and exceptional in all her depictions on film. In Iron Man 2, it was Tony Stark who had the dirty or inappropriate things to say. Even during what could be the most innuendo-filled line delivered by Black Widow in Iron Man 2 is devoid of any innuendo because of her almost bored-sounding delivery.
Black Widow is totally amazing. And to saddle her with the degrading stereotypes often reserved for women that her character rejects completely… Well, it’s simply ridiculous to put it nicely.