Is the Black Widow Feminist Enough?

Reading the news this morning, I was surprised to see an opinion piece on CNN, written by Jeff Yang, on the lack of feminist strength displayed by the Black Widow.  You can read his article here.

Poster via Disney/Marvel

Poster via Disney/Marvel

I’ve seen the movie twice, and it didn’t occur to me at all that she was anything other than a strong character.  I want to counter some of Mr. Yang’s points by offering some of my own.

First thing first, though, I want to point out that Joss Whedon may have created the other characters listed in the article, but NOT the Black Widow.  She was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck.  I assume the author is referring to him as creator of this particular incarnation of the character, but I felt that her original creators need to be credited.

I do agree with Yang on one thing about the character in this movie: She does have more weak moments.  But that’s not a negative. We see Natasha’s vulnerable side as she attempts to stave off tears while remembering the trials of her past and interacting with her best friend’s family, whom she cares about a great deal.  We see her pain when Bruce leaves her behind. These weaknesses show her strength in overcoming her past and her emotional distress, which gives her a greater importance in the movie. The CNN article asserts that the Black Widow is a “subordinate presence, there to retrieve Captain America’s shield and serve as Hulk Whisperer.”  I disagree entirely. The presence of new insights into Natasha’s, Clint’s, and Bruce’s weaknesses and emotional sides makes them the more important characters.  In this view, Captain America is actually much more subordinate, as the only weakness we see in him is one that is already well established and his major role in the movie is to coordinate the fighting and serve as the butt of the movie’s longest running joke. We really learn nothing new about him, but we see Natasha in a new light.

While the Widow does retrieve Cap’s shield once, it is far from a primary function of the character. She also uses it twice to cause enemy damage. (Hawkeye also retrieves it once.) She tosses it to Captain America to use, and he also tosses it to her to use, all in keeping with the fast-paced teamwork consistently displayed amongst the group. There is no lessening of her physical presence here – she continues to work her way through enemies with strength and agility that makes it look as easy as popping balloons. What we see is added ability – a resourcefulness that means that she is every bit as valuable in fighting the enhanced enemies as Thor or Tony Stark, despite her lack of super-strength.  This is really the larger theme of the movie – giving us insight into the heroes that played secondary parts in the last movie and showing us why they are just as important to the group as their godly teammates, even if they don’t have superhuman strength and survivability.  They may even be more important because these characters hold the team together, since apparently superpowers come with strong wills and, on occasion, certain diva-like tendencies.

Yang also sees Natasha’s capture as making her a damsel in distress.  I argue that simply being a woman who is captured does not make one a damsel in distress.  The Widow does not sit idly and wait for her handsome green prince to save her; she finds a way to alert her team to the location of the enemy lair where she is held, then proceeds to push her rescuer off a cliff, forcing him to help her rejoin the fight rather than agreeing to leave with him. In fact, she is taken captive in the first place because she is doing the dangerous job of dropping out of a moving plane, securing an important asset, then attempting to jump back into the plane midair.  She is captured not because she is a woman to be possessed or to be held as ransom, but because she is a fighter doing a very good job of angering the villain. She then uses her captivity to the advantage of her team and, in doing so, facilitates her own rescue.

As for her role as “Hulk Whisperer,” I’m amazed that there is anyone who doesn’t see the power there.  She is the only person who can easily subdue the Hulk.  Thor tried in the first Avengers movie and failed.  Ironman managed it in this one, eventually, but not without serious damage to a major city and likely a large number of civilian casualties. The Black Widow knows she can’t physically stop a rampaging Hulk, so she doesn’t try.  She finds another way and builds a bond with Bruce, allowing her to calm him quickly and safely even when the situation around him is far from ideal.  She is subsequently able to push him off a ledge without being attacked for it and still persuade him to take her to the ongoing battle.  No other Avenger has any control over the angry giant. Most of the stronger members of the team, as much as they want peace, rely exclusively on their physical strength and see no alternative to fighting, even physically fighting amongst themselves when there are disagreements.  Natasha joins Clint in showing that strength doesn’t always have to be physical, and this is what she sees in Bruce as well – the man who chose to shoot the cell door rather than just go green and smash it.

Yang’s strongest objection, though, is one of the Widow’s lines: “’You’re not the only monster on the team,’ she tells Banner, with the implication that a woman unable to give birth is somehow as grotesque as a man whose unstable temper turns him into a mindless, unstoppable force for destruction.” In this, I think Yang entirely misses the point.  Natasha is telling Bruce that she, too, had a parts of her humanity taken from her: her ability to choose to have a family, a loss that was obviously painful for her; her ability to feel sympathy for her victims or remorse for killing; and, her instructors hoped, the ability to place a person before the job. She thinks of herself as a monster not because she had to give up the ability to create life, but because she had to give up that ability in order to become very good at creating death and not feeling guilty about it. She is trying to relate to him and show him he wasn’t alone using both their shared inability to have children and the mutual feeling that they aren’t people who belong to a world where families live.  Being upset because she sometimes feels that she has nothing to give the world but death does not make her weak. It makes her human. Having found a way to use her deadly skills to redeem herself in her own mind and become part of a team that saves lives, however, makes her strong.  Allowing herself to feel pain now and then does not take away that strength.

Humans are multi-faceted, and good characters are, too. I see many of the article’s arguments boiling down to the idea that physical strength is the only strength that matters and that if a character, particularly a woman, isn’t displaying it, she isn’t strong. Furthermore, even when she IS displaying physical strength the vast majority of the time, any display of weakness or softness negates all of it. I don’t want critics to limit our entertainment media with the assertion that only men can be captured and find a way out, because a woman getting captured and finding a way out isn’t feminist enough. And I don’t want to live in a world where being a strong woman means you can’t have a softer side, or one where a woman can be strong provided she only acts strong.  I’m not sure what that is, but it’s not feminism.

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