By Elsa Ying (’23) | October 11, 2021
Black Widow (2021) is only the second female-led movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after Captain Marvel’s release in 2019. Despite the fact that its heroine, Natasha Romanoff, was established as early as the second movie of the twenty-four film franchise, it wasn’t until over a decade after her first introduction that she finally got her own solo film. The delay of the movie, as well as the costumes and characterization of Natasha, reeks of misogyny in the male-dominated superhero film industry. However, with its arrival, as well as the gradual introduction of more female heroes in later MCU films, it seems like Marvel is finally opening its doors to women.
Black Widow’s unique storyline and unconventional character arc begs the question, what makes a movie feminist? Is it enough to simply have women in practical, non-sexualized wardrobe and hairstyles? Director Cate Shortland certainly fulfills this brief, with the deliberate depiction of the Widows as children and victims first rather than sexy assassins for the (straight male) audience to enjoy.
Along those lines, a common argument is that female representation must be present within most departments necessary to build a movie. While Black Widow certainly has a female director and an abundance of female stars—including lead actress and executive producer Scarlett Johansson—only one of the four credited screenwriters is female.
On the other hand, some might argue that a feminist story must empower women, though technically Captain Marvel (2019) already empowers its leading female figure, Carol Danvers. Also, Romanoff certainly isn’t the most morally upright character for young girls to idolize; in fact, the film centers on how her messy past contributes to an underlying guilt present for nearly all of her MCU appearances.
However, Black Widow forgoes all these definitions and argues that it is not enough for women to be unsexualized heroines and good role models. Instead, Shortland and Johansson work together to create a film that seeks to portray women as women: messy and tortured, optimistic and cynical, selfish and self-sacrificing, heroes and victims and perpetrators of abuse, and above all, human.
Side character Melina serves as, in my opinion, the most feminist character of the film, purely because of her unique arc. Melina is a brilliant scientist and former Widow who was largely complicit and integral to the violence of the Red Room. The film first introduces her as Natasha and Yelena’s false mother and portrays her in a traditionally feminine, motherly role in stark contrast to her true role as a perpetrator of violence against her fellow Widows.
Though it is revealed later that her betrayal at a pivotal point of the story was part of a greater plan, the fact that her decision is believable proves Black Widow’s success at creating a truly morally gray female character without succumbing to sexist stereotypes. Melina is allowed to be an intelligent but ruthless scientist, a caring mother, and even a victim of the Red Room’s abuse all at once, a rarity for female characters in action movies who are all too often reduced to a single sexist stereotype.
By no means is Black Widow a perfect movie, nor is it wholly feminist; the way it handles the Widows’ forced hysterectomy, as well as the lack of main female characters of color are two of the most popular criticisms. Still, Black Widow fills an important space in Marvel’s franchise by portraying women who aren’t strictly heroes or villains, but rather people who can occupy the vast gray space in between.One thing’s for certain: these two narratives, along with the many stories of women of color and queer women and disabled women, can and should coexist within a franchise as big as the MCU. There is not only space for so many more women but a real need, and, as Black Widow proved, a real demand.