Title: Marvel’s Black Widow: From Spy to Superhero
Editor: Sherry Ginn
Authors: Malgorzata Drewniok, Heather M. Porter, Samira Nadkarni, Valerie Estelle Frankel, Jillian Coleman Benjamin, Sherry Ginn, Lewis Call, David Kociemba, and Tanya R. Cochran
Rating: Yeah, No Thanks
Genre/Category: Nonfiction, Superheroes, Feminism, Popular Culture, Comic Books
Release Date: March 1, 2017
Publisher: McFarland and Company
Order Here: AMAZON
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review. All of the views in review are my own.
This collection of essays first came to my attention last semester when I looking for sources I could use in a paper for my Cold War literature class about the position the Black Widow held when it came to Anti-Cold War propaganda in comic books. This essay collection is both a celebration of Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) and a criticism of the cultural environments that led to her creation and subsequent (frequent) reimaginings/reinventions as a second-string to male heroes in Marvel’s various universes.
Out of the volume’s nine essays, I thought maybe three or four had serious worth and didn’t make me want to pitch my kindle.
A “Very Specific Skill Set”: Black Widow’s Use of Language in The Avengers
Malgorzata Drewniok opens the essays with a look at linguistics and how while Natasha is a character whose appearance causes other (male) characters to underestimate her because of looks, clues in her language show her true power.
Drewniok uses five specific scenes from The Avengers for her analysis (1: Natasha’s “capture” at the start of the film’; 2: Natasha’s conversation with Bruce Banner; 3: Natasha’s conversation with Bruce and Steve Rogers on the Helecarrier; 4: Natasha interrogating Loki; and 5: Natasha and Hawkeye’s moment after his brainwashing is broken), placing them against Whedon’s established body of work and looking at the clues in order to decipher what these scenes say about Natasha’s role and power. I think that there’s way more weight and faith placed on Whedon’s writing than he necessarily warrants though and it doesn’t “call out” any of the problematic issues inherent in the fact that Joss Whedon is basically only capable of writing one type of woman from the dialogue on down.
(Also, I still can’t see anything empowering about Whedon using Loki/Hiddleston as a mouthpiece by which to call ScarJo’s Black Widow a “mewling quim” because really, it wasn’t about empowering her. It was about Whedon getting a kick out of putting a really nasty archaic insult into what was essentially a Disney movie…)
In Search of the Complete Female Character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe
Next, Heather M. Porter, rejects the term “strong female character” in favor of a new title: “Complete Female Character”. Using female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she defines her new title and then argues that these characters are consistently complex and complete but lack the focus and merchandise that male fans with lesser complexity would have.
I’m going to admit here that the second you list Darcy “I have seventeen minutes of screentime but twelve thousand stories on AO3” Lewis as a “complete female character” I start judging.
The idea of the “Complete Female Character” is super interesting, don’t get me wrong, but this entire essay started to lose me the very moment that I saw Darcy Lewis listed as a character that is “just as fleshed out as any male character”. Because um… she’s not in the slightest.
We know nothing about Darcy. Nothing about her family, her identity, or her actual goals. Fandom has done this thing where she gets fleshed out in fanworks (while other female characters – especially female characters of color – get not even a percentage of her same visibility in fanworks) but the MCU has not followed suit and, with Earth being left behind for Thor: Ragnarok, chances are that it never will.
If you can stand the fact that this essay definitely gives certain characters (and in essence, the MCU) more credit than they deserve and calls infrequently shown and one-dimensional female characters “complex”, this might work for you. It didn’t for me.
Front and Center: Examining Black Widow Fanvids
In her essay, Samira Nadkarni looks at how fans have made their own when it comes to getting a Black Widow solo film. This essay is actually really interesting because I’ve never thought of fanvids in this context before. Actually, I’ve never really thought of fanvids very much at all. Nadkarni’s essay has a ton of nuance and got me kind of excited to think critically about the environment that makes fanvideos possible and even necessary in some cases.
Nadkarni’s essay won me over by her pointing out that, “despite the claims of feminism that have begun to be associated with the calls for female- led superhero franchises, many of the fanvids that focus on Black widow repeat the same pitfalls that concern feminist discourse regarding the depiction of “strong women” in film.” I love that she actually critiques the idea of the “strong woman character” as a faux-feminist framework and that she doesn’t pull a single punch over this.
“Eyes Front, Ivan!” The Comic Books’ Journey through Fashions and Men
Valerie Estelle Frankel’s essay would have been the perfect essay to have on hand when I was writing my own paper on Black Widow because she does a great job looking through Black Widow’s history and talking/thinking critically about how the character was presented via her looks and the men those looks attracted. Frankel brings up how Natasha’s early appearances place her as someone who is linked to romance and men, but she also looks at how the character’s fashion tells its own story about the misogyny behind her creation. (Frankel’s observations on Natasha’s style in the Seventies and how she was framed more as a seductress than a superheroine on her own rights even as empowerment was supposed to be a huge aspect of her identity were pretty awesome.)
Seriously, I think that if I had access to a time machine, I’d at least send my kindle back to last semester so I could use Frankel’s well-written and well-researched essay as a source in my paper because it’s basically the ideal.
Feminism in American Cinema: The Many Incarnations of Black Widow
Like Frankel, Jillian Coleman Benjamin also looks at the entirety of Black Widow’s history, but also comes at it from a point of view that places Joss Whedon as someone that somehow destroyed “sexist archetypal roles” with his version of the character. At first, the essay works for me with its commentary on how characters who exist outside of established and rigid gender roles tend to be punished for it.
But then, Benjamin says that Whedon “uses stereotypically masculine traits in his female characters and feminine traits in his male characters, challenging gender roles and raising the status of his female characters to that of people,” and I honestly couldn’t disagree more with that. I understand the instinctive urge to want to reward Whedon for doing more than the average action director/writer but he’s not even close to doing the most. I think really, Benjamin is trying to look at how misogyny, sexualization, and violence against women inform Black Widow’s various narratives, but then becaue Whedon and the rest of the MCU men in charge haven’t done truly terrible things to her, she decides that Whedon is somehow changing the face of action/superhero films despite basically just reusing the same tropes (including ones based on violence against women and dehumanizing them) in more subtle ways.
(Also this essay also SERIOUSLY drops the ball on analyzing Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s marriage, framing it not as the mutual and positive relationship they’ve had for basically the past almost thirty years, but as something that has her “assuming a role of extreme submission”. Look, if you’re going use modern examples for Marvel with Black Widow, at the very least you need to update your Superman knowledge beyond the incredibly and consistently misogynistic Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane comics from the Seventies…)
Red Rooms, Conditioning Chairs and Needles in the Brain: Brainwashing and Mind Control in the Whedon and Marvel Universes
In this essay, volume editor Sherry Ginn looks at brainwashing as it relates to the Black Widow and analyses the way that mind-control techniques are used in not only the MCU but in writer-director Joss Whedon’s many works. Ginn’s essay makes the history behind brain-washing and conditioning largely accessible to readers that don’t have a background in psychology. What I liked best about this essay was that it had a message about reinventing yourself even after trauma that I really felt worked well to bring hope to the subject.
Joss Whedon’s Radical Icon of Third Wave Feminism
In this essay, writer Lewis Call uses “third wave feminism” to analyze the character and essentially takes a slightly different view of the character as she’s portrayed in the MCU than I’m used to seeing. I mean… the first strike against this issue is where Call says that Natasha embodies intersectionality and “brings intersectional diversity to the Avengers”.
Call completely misrepresents what intersectionality is about. He congratulates Johansson for being “a Russophone actress of Belarusian descent, convincingly convey[ing] Romanoff ’s Slavic ethnicity” and then brings up D/s as an “alternative sexuality”, positioning the relationship she has with Bruce Banner as a consensual one. (Also, when we talk about intersectionality and sexuality, we mean like queerness… not what you literally get off to. Geez and cheese.)
Basically folks, this essay one big “Bitch, where?” as Call’s commentary basically makes no sense and spends more time propping up this idea of Whedon as a feminist filmmaker than actually taking time to analyze what Black Widow and her “happy to white wash” actress actually mean for intersectionality.
Athena’s Daughter: Black Widow’s Impact Aesthetic
David Kociemba uses his essay to talk about the aesthetics of Black Widow and how that works with her status as an action hero in her own right, referencing a “tradition of just female warriors that speak to gender-integrated audiences about power and responsibility”. The essay is well… a bit clunky and while I get where Kociemba is going, it’s difficult to care. Blocks of text (page long paragraphs, natch) and this desire to constantly frame ScarJo’s Black Widow as this fantastic feminist figure who can do no wrong kind of get in the way of what had the actual potential to be an amazing essay about fighting style, gender identity.
I do like that Kociemba draws attention to the way that Age of Ultron was a serious lowpoint for the character because Age of Ultron was terrible for basically all the characters in the film.
The Elusive Black Widow Film: Fan-Made Texts as Social Desire Paths
In the final essay, writer Tanya R. Cochran looks at how social desire – here fans’ desperate desire for a solo Black Widow film where Scarlett Johansson is centered as the star. While I am invested in what Cochran has to say about fandom’s desire for the Black Widow film that we’re unlikely to ever get, I’m more invested in what Cochran as to say about fandom as a whole. Her work on “fans’ needs and wants” makes me, someone that is incredibly critical about desire in fandom, makes me think about the spaces that fans inhabit and the relationships that they have with one another as well as with the Text.
Overall, this book had way more “misses” than I was expecting and it had a very “white feminist” slant both to how the authors looked at Black Widow’s evolution and to Scarlett Johansson’s reception and performance in the role.
Not enough of the essays seem interested in doing anything other than fawning over Joss Whedon’s brilliance and I think that they do the character a disservice by not being more critical of the content Whedon created. Older creators – the ones who created Natasha – aren’t removed from criticism but Whedon largely is despite the way that his writing Natasha is rife with the same tired tropes about women and this gender-essentialist idea of womanhood that he nurtured back in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has continued to carry on in his work to this day.
(And okay, Lewis Call’s essay was just actual garbage fawning over Joss Whedon and stomping all over what intersectional feminism is in order to paint his poor portrayal of Black Widow (and other women in the films) as this super feminist move that has saved the MCU, I guess.)
While I gladly recommend some of the contributors to this book, I don’t recommend this book as a whole.