Originally published on NerdsUnchained.
Disclaimer: This post will primarily focus on the version of the character from Iron Man 2 & The Avengers.
Black Widow’s characterization in The Avengers gets a lot of praise from movie-goers and critics alike for the strength with which she’s portrayed. The crowd cheers during the first scene she appears in when she does a somersault while strapped to a chair on top of the guy who “captured” her.
Her twin pistols-toting and acrobatic fighting style espouse an aura of capability that just makes people go, “Holy shit, she knows what she’s doing!”. The character is a total badass and there is just no denying.
The thing is I don’t think we are praising Black Widow enough and I don’t think that we are praising her for the right things. With all honesty, it’s not revolutionary to have a female comic book character kick ass, shoot guns and fight off an alien invasion. You see it in nearly every female superhero – that amazing ability to be such a badass – but when we only talk about Black Widow’s ability to kick ass, we forget other equally important aspects to her character and why her portrayal in The Avengers was in fact, revolutionary.
I like elephants, so first I’ll talk about the big elephant in the room; her sexuality. For years, women in comic book films have had their sexualities commoditized much in the same way they are in comic books – usually, this is in spite of their badass-itude.
Compare Black Widow’s portrayal with Halle Berry’s Catwoman and the differences start to become clear.
Black Widow on the other hand, owns her sexuality and has agency over it. In one of her first appearances in Iron Man 2, Happy Hogan belittles her because he’s thinking “Oh, this is a cute and sexy legal secretary, she wouldn’t know anything about boxing” but Black Widow doesn’t allow him to because she shows him that he can’t think of her as just a pretty face.
In fact, she doesn’t let anyone speak to her that way and no one gets to disrespect her because of it. She wears a spy cat suit and a push-up bra because she feels comfortable in her own body and comfortable with her sexuality. In fact, she may even be proud of her physical beauty. She knows how she wants to dress like and how she wants to present herself and doesn’t allow what other people think get in the way of that.
Furthermore, on her choice of clothing – it’s practical. Sure, it’s still a tightfitting garb but when have we seen a spy suit that isn’t tight-fitting? In this case, tight clothing is good. The other thing is her choice of shoe-wear. She is wearing flat boots. Not high heels. Flat boots! Tell me that I’m not the only one who thought this was the coolest part?*
The value of Black Widow’s contribution shouldn’t be about how sexy or unsexy she was, though, that just places value on sex which defeats the point. What we should be placing value on is whether she is a complete character with her own agency and her own individuality over all aspects of her person.
To go along with this, her character is completed by her possessing emotions, compassion and a sense of humanity. She is allowed to be human because when the Hulk starts rampaging all over the place and beats up Thor, she gets terrified! Who wouldn’t be when they almost lost their life? But what’s even better is that when she’s called up to handle another job, she doesn’t hesitate. She overcomes her fear and doubt to get the job done. That takes courage and strength of character and Black Widow certainly had that.
In fact, even when she went to fight a mind-controlled Hawkeye, she wasn’t trying to kick his butt or kill him; she was trying to save him. Then after their fight, she sits by his bedside until he wakes up. She could have gone to do a million other things, like, I don’t know, stop an alien invasion? But she doesn’t. Instead, she chooses to stay with her injured best friend. And that’s just awesome! Not only is she a badass spy who is excellent at her job, she also has compassion for the people she works with.
Black Widow can be sexy, she can be unsexy, she can fight, she can be a good friend, she can be vulnerable, she can be amazing at her job, she can have feelings and all of these qualities exist in the same person. She shows us that we can a badass with emotions, or a good friend with a very demanding career and everything else in between.
Why do I love Black Widow? Because she’s real.
* The flat boots appeared in Iron Man 2, the heels for the boots she wore in The Avengers were slightly raised.