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Why Black Widow can't have it all

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This article deals with major spoilers from Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Jeremy Renner isn't sorry. It was only two weeks ago that he and Avengers: Age of Ultron co-star Chris Evans called Black Widow — a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff — a slut, and quickly apologized after. On Monday night, Renner made clear that he wasn't really sorry when he appeared on Conan and tried to clarify that he isn't wrong when it comes to slut taxonomy.

"Mind you, we are talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, Conan," he said. "But if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut. Just saying. I’d be a slut. Just saying."

Renner's buffoonish bit of crassness was part of Avengers: Age of Ultron's big opening week, and one that centered on the depiction of Black Widow's character. On top of Renner's stinkery was the complaint from fans who felt the film reduced Black Widow to a damsel in distress. Meanwhile, some people interpreted Black Widow's line "I'm a monster" as a troublesome view of womanhood.

However, slut-shaming a female Avenger 11 movies into the Marvel timeline is only surprising to those who haven't read the comic books that serve as the source material for the films. In that world, the battle to put female superheroes like Black Widow on equal ground with Iron Man and Captain America has been just as tough, and just as ugly.

In the Avengers movies, Black Widow is actually a pretty sexless character

Avengers: Age of Ultron and its predecessor, The Avengers, are pretty chaste as far as action movies go. There are no big romances. The Avengers' uniforms don't show much skin. And there's no sultry lovemaking — or sultry not lovemaking, or un-sultry lovemaking — either.

That's why Renner's comments don't really make sense. The Avengers may be a group of superheroes who are saving the world, but they aren't having any sex. You'd think there might be a wayward groupie or two, but all they've got is celebratory shawarma.

So where does Renner's assertion of "four of the six Avengers" come from?

Renner is probably not implying that the Avengers are having copious amounts of gay superhero sex. What he's insinuating is that Natasha slept with four of the six Avengers.

Since Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is committed to Jane Foster from the moment he appears on Earth, Renner's assumption is that Natasha has slept with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Clint Barton (Renner), and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).

In Age of Ultron, there is a romance between Bruce and Natasha, but it's never consummated. In The Avengers, we understand that Clint and Natasha have a connection, but the way Natasha refers to their kinship sounds more like a function of Clint helping her become a "good guy" than something romantic. And though Black Widow appears in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 2, there are never any sparks between her and her fellow Avengers (though Tony Stark would very much like for that to happen).

Saying Natasha is a slut is a disingenuous read of her character. But it also shouldn't matter whether Natasha has slept with one, four, or none of the Avengers, just like it doesn't matter that Tony Stark was sleeping with all of Los Angeles during his pre–Iron Man days. In Marvel movies, there are many more lines and jokes written (though often not shown) about Tony's sexual conquests than Natasha's.

What makes Renner's "observation" so cutting is that he's part of the team. He isn't some random fraternity brother making small talk at a party. There's a lot of weight to his words, since he's part of the project. And there's seemingly a disconnect between the movies he's making and the movies he thinks he's making.

How Black Widow was portrayed in the comic books

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't just the latest Marvel movie; it's also a culmination of 50 or so years of Marvel comic books. From the colors of Iron Man's suit to Thor's long-winded speeches, these decisions were made long ago by men like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Steve Ditko, John Byrne, and many more. And their creations have lived on and inspired the creators and artists — the majority of whom are men — who've come after them.

During the Comics Code fallout of 1954, a time in American history when comic books had their content censored, publishers strategized and began marketing their books to teenage boys, their largest market. And that's part of the reason female heroes like Black Widow, as well as villains, were often sex objects, damsels in distress, or sexualized damsels in distress. They were women written and created by grown men — many of whom were good guys, but who were also raised in a culture rife with sexism — for consumption by teenage boys. This would get worse in the hypersexualized '90 era of comic books.

The way women were portrayed in comic books in the '60s is embarrassing. Some were marginalized, like the Invisible Girl (now the Invisible Woman), spending most of their time swooning, fainting, or being held prisoner. Others, like Carol Danvers — a.k.a. Captain Marvel — were ogled as if they were expensive cars.

And then there was Natasha, a beautiful woman who was a danger to men.

Black Widow makes her first appearance in 1964's Tales of Suspense No. 52. Comic book legend Jack Kirby drew the cover of that book, and in big, bold letters Natasha was introduced as Iron Man's "gorgeous new menace":


Natasha looked a lot different back then. In that issue of Tales, Kirby drew her with delicate features, and she only wore dresses and gowns. Each time she appeared in a panel, plenty of attention was paid to her looks:


There's a stark difference between this Natasha and the one we know today. In her initial appearance, she didn't fight. She stayed out of the fray, manipulating Tony Stark with her looks and double-crossing him. She embodied the femme fatale trope, with a dash of the anti-Russian paranoia sweeping the US at the time. All Natasha really had going for her was her looks.

"Historically, women were expected to use manipulation and subterfuge to express themselves and get their needs met," comic book writer and creator Kelly Sue DeConnick told me in March, as we discussed the portrayal of women in comic books and pop culture at large. DeConnick's observation certainly fits Natasha.

"And then, because history is hilarious, they were punished for it," DeConnick said.

We'd later learn that in the comic book industry, mending the damage from these punishments is a difficult task.

Black Widow's evolution from femme fatale to badass

You can still see traces of Natasha's earliest incarnation in the Avenger we see on screen today; she's a good liar, and she can't be trusted. These qualities make her a pretty annoying villain, but they're valuable when she's a spy on your side. Her change of heart from an agent of Mother Russia began in Amazing Spider-Man No. 86 (1970):

Amazing Spider-Man No. 86. (Marvel)

John Romita, the artist of that issue, had a background in romance comic books. His heroes looked like movie stars. And Romita gave Natasha a Brigitte Bardot makeover — her lips were plumped up and poutier, her hair was longer, and her cheekbones could cut diamonds:

Amazing Spider-Man No. 86. (Marvel)

Romita also gave her a new costume, a black catsuit:

Amazing Spider-Man No. 86. (Marvel)

It's a sexy outfit, but it's neither obscene nor gratuitous in the way that a lot of overtly sexualized women in the comic books of the '90s were. It's also sensible and streamlined for battle, unlike the skin-baring armor bikinis and spandex worn by other female heroes like the character Angela or Power Girl.

Costumes are an integral part of the superhero mythos. Iron Man's costume is where his powers come from — it's how he saves the world. Superman and Batman's costumes and logos are symbols of hope and heroism. Female characters' costumes define whether the characters are anything other than sex objects.

Is a high-cut leotard practical when it comes to flying through space? Do chest cutouts serve any real purpose? Is a bikini bottom really the best choice for a ninja? To understand the way women in comic books have been depicted throughout history, particularly the '90s, we must look at Natasha's peers:

Gen 13 No. 1. (Image)

The fact that Stan Lee wrote Natasha as designing and creating her black catsuit costume for herself was a big move for female comic book superheroes at the time. It showed that Natasha was in control of her image, and her choice to wear a bodysuit seemed logical. She had a lot of agency relative to other female characters, and she was miles ahead of those who just arrived on the scene in their revealing costumes without any real explanation. While Natasha wasn't immune to being sexualized, she was, in ways (again, relatively), more independent than her peers.

How Black Widow has grown up

Since its initial modifications, Natasha's visual portrayal has remained largely the same. But her personal story has been anything but static. The character's history is full of espionage, ballet, false memories about ballet, genetic engineering, a husband whom she helped kill, unrequited love with Daredevil, a romance with Clint Barton/Hawkeye (their relationship was much more explicitly a romance in the comic books than in the movies), a protégé whom she terrorized, the KGB, and biotechnology. Her only constants have been a sense of identity, the search for "truth," atonement, and a haunting loneliness.

In 2014, Natasha was given her own solo comic, written by Nathan Edmonson and drawn by Phil Noto. It's as fantastic as it is beautiful. And what Edmonson and Noto do so well is really explore the idea of Natasha's worldview — that she wants to find peace for the things she did in the past:

Black Widow No. 1. (Marvel)

And the possibility that this may never happen:

Black Widow No. 1. (Marvel)

Black Widow's solo comic is part of Marvel's bigger push to tell stories featuring its female and minority characters. With characters like Widow, Captain Marvel, and Ms. Marvel leading the way, and after long stretches during the '80s and '90s when female characters were objectified by their writers and creators, women in the Marvel universe have finally become part of meatier, fuller stories — the kind of stories their male counterparts have received for years.

These characters have the arduous task of digging themselves out of a hole their previous writers have put them in. And that's a large part of why people are protective of these female and minority characters and expect more from Natasha's writers as well as from Marvel.

Is Black Widow's role in Avengers: Age of Ultron a step back?

Black Widow and other female Marvel characters' recent progress is what makes Renner's "joke" frustrating. It's also why some fans are irritated that Natasha's role in Age of Ultron can be read, at least by some, as that of a damsel in distress.

"But isn’t it weird that, by the final action sequence, Black Widow’s main role is the same role as Pepper Potts' in Iron Man, or Jane Foster in Thor: The lady who helps her man become a hero? " Darren Franich wrote in Entertainment Weekly. "He also saves her life, and then makes the executive decision to disappear — to protect her, I guess?"

I'm not sure I entirely buy Franich's argument. Natasha gets the Vision body to the team. She also saves Hawkeye in the opening sequence. While she does turn the Hulk into a hero, it's a savvy move, because there's no way the movie's final battle could be won without Hulk. And when Ultron captures her, she saves herself and alerts the team to Ultron's location by MacGyvering a code so the rest of the Avengers can find her. It's a much bigger role than just cleaning up after the boys.

The real failure of Natasha's character happens when Natasha and the rest of the Avengers are at Hawkeye's secret farmhouse. It's a scene where Bruce Banner, Natasha's sudden love interest, is getting out of the shower and, for some reason, the spirit moves him and Natasha to spill their guts about love. She tells him that as part of the Black Widow program, she was sterilized on her 18th birthday. And then she utters the line, "I'm a monster."

That's been interpreted as Natasha saying that women should have babies, or that having a baby is something all women want. Or the idea that female sterility is somehow "monstrous."

io9 wrote:

She can’t just be the coolest aunt, or have made the valid choice that, as an assassin and spy, maybe kids are not in the cards for her. Or even the more radical choice that she just doesn’t want them. No, she can’t ever have babies, so her life is ruined. She is an incomplete woman. Of course, only Hawkeye has kids — although he has to have them on a secret farm.

That's totally valid. The way that scene was structured — with the focus on Hawkeye's children and secret life — Natasha's feelings could be construed in that way. But I think there's a point to be made that Natasha's feelings of "monstrosity" also stem from being experimented on and taught how to kill. The writing in that specific scene simply wasn't tight enough to convey that idea.

How we write about Black Widow

It would be easy to sweep away Renner's idea as one man's opinion, but there's evidence that it's not just Renner who sees Natasha as a character defined by her looks and what goes on in her bedroom.

The Daily Dot's Gavia Baker-Whitelaw did a roundup of reviews of Captain America: Winter Soldier in 2014, and found a number of critics who defined Scarlett Johansson's performance by what she was wearing.

Baker-Whitelaw wrote:

Bear in mind that most of these quotes are the only description of Scarlett Johansson’s performance in the entire review.

In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, "not to be left out, Black Widow repels invading aliens through the sheer force of her corsetry," while the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer-winning Joe Morgenstern complained, "Black Widow spends lots of time looking puzzled or confused." New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott referenced the 1960s British spy series The Avengers (no relation), writing, "those poor souls who cherish old daydreams of Diana Rigg in leather will have to console themselves with images of Scarlett Johansson in a black bodysuit."

This attitude is disappointing, because Black Widow carried that movie as much as Captain America but was still reduced to what she looked like and what she wore. It's not that different from Renner defining her by whom he thinks she's sleeping with.

What's also spirit-breaking is that Black Widow's role in Winter Soldier is the closest thing Marvel has gotten to a female-led movie. The first solo movie from Marvel Studios featuring a female superhero won't come until 2018, when Captain Marvel hits theaters. To put that in perspective, male superheroes and male-dominated teams like the Avengers will have 19 films before a female superhero has one.

Marvel's dearth of female superheroes — superheroes that can go toe to toe with the men on the Avengers — is why Black Widow and now the Scarlet Witch matter. It's why when someone calls Black Widow a slut, it matters. The comic book stories these characters are based off of are just now beginning to unravel the years of sexism woven into their creation. And their movie counterparts are, unfortunately, stuck fighting the same battle.

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