Red on the Ledger: The Avengers and Sexual Violence

How Whedon/Johanssens’s Black Widow advances heroic symbolism and political discourse around survivors of sexual violence.

(Spoilers for The Avengers. So go see it already.)

You’re going to lose. It’s in your nature… You lack conviction.”

— Agent Phil Coulson

Heroes as iconic as The Avengers always participate in discourses of power. They model, and therefore advocate, notions of strength, value, money, power, good, bad, right, wrong, identity and behavior, and the way we look at heroes affects and reflects our politics. In The Avengers, this discourse is all about the heroes finding what drives them forward despite  what holds them back, and making a case for the former.

Agent Phil Coulson hands us that key to the movie shortly before he dies. He says to Loki, “You’re going to lose. It’s in your nature… You lack conviction.” Each Avenger and the Avengers as a group resonate with convictions — attitudes that resist dissuasion and compel action. Some of these attitudes are based in abstract concepts, some in psychological or physiological states, some in archetypes, some in life experiences.

Today, rather than pick apart each Avenger, I want to focus on Black Widow, whom I see as an attempt by Whedon (and of course Scarlett Johansson and all the other major collaborators on the project as well as its collective body of readership – the author is dead and all that) to advance heroic symbolism and political discourse around survivors of sexual violence.

Take my love, take my land…

While there is plenty of nostalgia and a surprising amount of sincere conservatism in the film, the core conversations in The Avengers are as progressive as would be expected from the auteur of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. We all know Joss Whedon subverts his teenage-boy-friendly fantasies with strong female characters; type-cracking men; and explorations of the warlock queerscape. Doing that while keeping things light enough to lift, energetic and faithful to the spirit of the genre is kind of his thing, even more than banter. And the man loves banter.

Black Widow in her pre-Whedonesque days.

In this regard Black Widow is as Whedonesque as River Tam on prom night. Just as Buffy makes the horror genre about her experiences as a high school teenager, Black Widow makes being a superspy working among volatile superhumans about the invisible life of the global rape crisis. I would normally default to saying “American,” as it seems wise to apply one’s inevitably reductive judgements to a slightly smaller absurdly large subset of humanity when possible, but Black Widow is a transnational character and The Avengers is a worldwide movie, and it’s certainly a worldwide problem, so might as well go global with it.

I won’t waste time in this article making the case for the statistics or engaging in the various endless arguments that are among the unhappiest things on the Internet (after this we can all go to reddit and argue about it, then we can hit each other in the face with bricks — the two are equally fun and affirming of humanity). Suffice it to say that at Scarlett Johansson’s own age of 27, it’s a relatively fair guess that a third to a half of Black Widow’s female peers have been victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives — and the overwhelming majority of them haven’t told too many people about it or seen meaningful redress. It’s present in Black Widow’s life as a looming threat and cultural norm — invisible in plain sight — just as it is in the lives of most women.

Joss Whedon knows this crisis exists; it’s all over Buffy. And Scalett Johansson almost certainly knows it exists because, well, she’s on the knowing side of the social information asymmetry (sorry boys), which is pretty much the euphemisticalliest euphemism I’ve ever euphemed. Oh, and because she talks about it in Ghost World 11 years ago, and, um, it hasn’t been fixed or anything.

Aaanyway, even if we drop the reality of the crisis in the real world and just look at The Avengers, sexual assault is a constant presence in Black Widow’s world. Heck, it comes after her several times during the movie. At the beginning, we find her tied to a chair in a low-cut cocktail dress, no doubt about to be raped and murdered by Russian mobsters — Or so they think! Spinning Sumo Chair Attack!

Sure, Black Widow is never in any actual danger, and sure, there is no actual sexual contact, but the mobsters don’t know that’s in the cards. They have every intention of exploiting, dominating and abusing her, and every reason to believe it will work and won’t be traced back to them. The representation here is pretty clear — Black Widow knows what the bad guys intend to do, and she knows the bad guys think they will get away with it, so she takes advantage of that knowledge and arrogance to extract information from them. She stays unscathed, because she has the power to take care of herself better than they think she can.

Yes, this character's arc is about sexuality. You might even say it's "tied" to it.

While her strength and agility are useful, her main weapon is that she knows what is happening, and she knows who the bad guys are — and thus can anticipate dealing with them. In her case, it’s literal — she has dossiers on them and is targeting them for intelligence gathering. In her real-world analogue — the metaphorical tenor for which she is the vehicle, the correspondent reality that she symbolizes — she knows assault is the fault of those who assault, and fights to resist the societal pressure to blame herself or her trauma or her shame for the things that people have done or are trying to do to her.

This is the big interaction with the broader discourse of powerthe true weakness of rapists and those who commit sexual assault is that people will figure out they are the bad guys. If that happens, they can’t hide among their peers anymore. In practical terms, the vast majority of them are protected by societal, political or discursive barriers, as well as the circles they run in — that guilt or shame their victims from identifying them, protect them from public accusation with social support, and prompt society to look the other way.

But Black Widow is a superspy who looks past these shrouds and finds out the truth, which if you ask me is a very cool way to turn a very bad experience into a superpower. The way in which her own guilt and shame over past experience compels her to do this her Agent Coulson-style “conviction” — a conviction shared by many people who have been victimized by sexual violence, who dedicate themselves to spreading intelligence on it, exposing it and deconstructing and disarming the social constructs that allow it to continue on such a large scale in obscurity.

This is not an accidental insight, based off one scene, and it is only half the ledger, so to speak. Black Widow encounters situations that map onto this experience a bunch of times through The Avengers. The few key instances that draw it out clearly for me:

  • The two “Hulk Trigger Warning” scenes
  • Her prison interrogation of Loki
  • Her relationship with Hawkeye and the Budapest incident

63 Comments on “Red on the Ledger: The Avengers and Sexual Violence”

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    A moment that rubbed me the wrong way was after Thor narrowly rescues Black Widow from being smashed by the Hulk, and she spends the next 10 minutes weeping on the floor while everyone else fights. Understandable? Maybe. But it’s every negative stereotype about female soldiers, and its unthinkable that any of the male heroes would act that way. Imagine If it was Hawkeye, who also has no powers and would have had to flee. He wouldn’t have fallen apart like that. Isn’t this classic sexism?

    Reply

    • Gab #

      If you consider Fenzel’s point about past violence, then no. Being around remotely similar situations can trigger all kinds of emotional responses, and current emotions compound and combine with past ones and vice-versa. That’s part of why the “shame” victims internalize is constant- it is something they relive and experience daily. Being in situations that can remotely recall what brought that shamed feeling leads to emotional and mental re-livings and re-experiences. So even though she wasn’t being raped or overtly sexually assaulted, just being in the situation could be enough for any past trauma to resurface and manifest itself in causing her to cower as she was.

      Reply

    • fenzel #

      Yeah, that scene really nail down for me that Black widow is supposed to be symbolic. If the superspy soldier assassin is just a superspy solider assassin, there’s no way she reacts like that.

      Reply

      • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

        I agree with you that male aggression may be a trigger for Black Widow, and that it’s perfectly understandable that being menaced by the Hulk would shake her in a way that run-of-the-mill danger would not. But I STILL don’t like her basically checking out while SHIELD is being attacked. I’m imagining what it’s like to be a little girl, looking for a female superhero to root for. Black Widow is generally great in this regard, but I don’t like seeing her crying in the corner while all the men fight. Remember Rick Santorum’s comments about how women shouldn’t be soldiers because they are too emotional?
        http://theweek.com/article/index/224344/rick-santorums-sexist-gaffe-women-are-too-emotional-for-combat
        He later clarified he was ACTUALLY referring to men putting themselves in danger to protect the women, but the idea that women are too emotional for the frontlines is a very old and common stereotype.

        What would I have preferred? I would have liked to have seen Black Widow look shaken for just a few seconds, then pull herself together and run off to find Nick Fury. Show that she has emotions, but she’s also a professional with a job to do. This is pretty much what happens in the great Loki interrogation scene. At first it seems like Black Widow might be completely faking her emotional reaction to goad Loki along. But later, with Hawkeye, she admits that Loki actually DID get to her… but she certainly wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her mission.

        But really, this is a minor quibble. You could even argue that maybe she really only DOES spend a few seconds crying before she runs off to fight Hawkeye – I’d have to see it again. But my impression the first time was that she’s completely incapacitated by her emotions when her friends needed her, and I didn’t care for it.

        Reply

        • Rora #

          I agree to an extent. I don’t think it sullies the movie, but that particular part could have been done better. I would have loved to see tears streaming down her face *while* she executed the job exactly as she needed to. That’s powerful imagery, for one thing.

          Reply

    • Hooloovoo #

      I don’t think it’s unthinkable that any of the male characters would act that way. It seems entirely plausible that Bruce Banner would, particularly earlier in the movie. And Thor has a fairly similar moment where he’s staring at his hammer, and then quite a while later we cut back and he picks it up.

      Reply

      • fenzel #

        This is a good point. Hawkeye also shows quite a bit of emotional vulnerability later in the movie.

        Reply

    • dj #

      I was thinking about your comment “Is it sexist to see BW weeping after the Hulk attack.” I could be wrong but doesn’t all well written superheroes have a breaking moment before they get back up. Superman 1 had him crying over Lois being buried alive, so he reversed time. Blade had a soft spot for any Black female he felt was a victim because it reminded him of his mother. Peter Parker cried when Mary Jane dumped him in the park in spiderman 3. Batman cried when Ra’s Al Ghul burned his mansion. He also cried when Rachel was blown up, and He will cry again after Bane does God knows what to him. In truth we know why all the other Heros I mentioned broke down. We don’t know why BW broke down, but with Joss writing I bet we will find out in a later movie. Also true heros always fall down. Remember what Alfred said to Bruce. “Why must we fall down? To learn how to pick our selfs up.”

      Reply

      • sam #

        I think having Black Widow crying after a close encounter with Hulk is emotionally and psychologically jarring to her self image. As the article mentioned, she knows what to do — how to defeat the bad guys even tied up to a chair. She is not powerless against them. But not with the Hulk. She has no power over him, no strength, agility, super spy martial arts moves can save her from the giant green monster exponentially bigger and stronger than her which is also something she has never really faced before. If the ability to save herself is central to her identity, then everything she has defined herself by is gone in an instant… and I don’t know about anyone else, but that would make me cry like a little girl (which I actually am: small and female)

        Reply

  2. Gab #

    ::clap:: Very well-thought-out article about a difficult topic.

    A few mild spoilers, mayhap.

    I particularly like the point about information disparity. It’s true to the “spy” aspect of Black Widow, certainly, that all of the times where she’s most successful, she has extra information to help her remain firm in her mission/ conviction. Knowing those idiots (morons?) are just some silly, self-important mobsters; knowing there are soldiers surrounding the house; having an idea where Loki is going with his manipulation and embracing it; I’d even count her collaboration with the god doctor at the end, since she’s the only one with access to him and thus any information he may have. And yeah, the scenes where she’s not in the know are the ones where she gets hurt and demonstrates recollections of those past experiences.

    The reason that resonated with me is that a big theme with a lot of social justice movements is calls for information to the masses. Demonstrations that simultaneously speak truth to power and raise awareness have always accompanied the most successful movements. Civil society (in the academic sense*, meaning non-government organizations and groups of citizens that are at least semi-organized into bodies that “do stuff”) and social movements have played key roles in snowballing the amount of unrest about issues, and they do that by making the issues they champion known, putting them out in the public sphere as much as possible.

    So here, we can think of Slut Walks, for example. The participants are speaking what they see as truth to the dominant discourse- most commonly: They believe a woman should be able to dress in whatever she wants and not fear any repercussions as a result; assault happens to women of all shapes and sizes, not just “hot chicks” or whatever; “No” really does mean “NO,” a somewhat redundant and yet SO OFTEN qualified reality; and most assault victims are in “regular” clothes anyway, like jeans and t-shirts. I’d also add that doing these demonstrations in areas usually deemed “safe” (for example, starting and stopping at the danger/distress light boxes on college campuses) points both to how most incidents happen with perpetrators the victim knew, as well as how a victim shouldn’t be chastized for being in the AREA or SITUATION (meaning, say, going to that neighborhood or being in the car with the perp, etc.). The point of Slut Walks is to inform potential victim-blamers of the moral implications of their way of processing the same information, i.e. what a victim was wearing and/or doing at the time of her assault. The subjective reality of the people participating in the walks is entirely counter to that of the dominant discourse, and while it seems absurd in that contrast, it actually points out the absurdity of what it’s against.

    Anyway, I think I’ve gone off-track (circumlocution ftw). My point, though, is that knowledge is, indeed, power, and it is what is needed to speak truth to power. And I’ve already said on another comment thread that Black Widow is pretty smart. So, then, she’s one of the most powerful characters in the movie, if not the most. The type of knowledge she has is different from the men around her. And while yes, they all get advantages because of their knowledge, hers leads to resolution of the whole crisis (going back to the ending where she’s the one putting Loki’s staff into the energy thing to stop the portal- sorry, I only saw it the one time, please excuse the lack of specificity).

    *The connotations of “civil” and “society” and “civil society” are rampant with liberal western self-congratulation and hegemony, but that’s another, not-so-pop-culture discussion.

    Reply

  3. Skab #

    At first the “Hulk rape” scene really spoke to me, having no trace of sexual abuse in my past it is very hard for me to relate to any invoked feelings on the part of abused victims.
    That scene threw me out of the movie theatre, sat me down and said “Hey, this is the level of fear that women (And sometimes even men) go through”.

    But then I looked back at the Loki interrogation scene, and it was shown that she is a very calculating individual when it comes to display of emotions, now was the rape scene an honest showing of fear? Or perhaps a ploy to try and appeal to the Bruce banner inside of us all?
    (Or to try and literally stop the neigh-unstoppable rage machine)

    I know I sound like an asshat right now but I believe at some point Whedon was not only trying to show that she can trick (Demi)-gods but trick the elder beings known only in their native tongue as the “Audience”.

    Either way, Black Widow showed that as a character she can hold her own in Macho land, and I loved every scene with her in it.

    Reply

    • Steve #

      The Hulk transforming scene isn’t about rape. It’s about the fact that the Hulk is a giant monster that can punch things to death. She wasn’t afraid of being raped, she was afraid of being smashed into goop. Not only that, but she was afraid that he’d cause the entire helicarrier to crash by breaking it apart.

      Why do people have to see rape in everything?

      Reply

      • Skab #

        I’ve spent years on 4chan, its hard not too.

        Reply

      • fenzel #

        There are many times in the movie where Black Widow is in equal or greater danger, but this is the only time when she gets quite this upset.

        From this we can extrapolate that the risk of her and everyone else being killed is not why she gets distraught in the scene. For her, that’s a fairly common occurance.

        Reply

        • Steve #

          …and the first thing you think of is rape?

          Reply

          • Natasha #

            Agreed. It think it’s more about the fact that it’s The Hulk rather than it’s a male aggressor.

            Black Widow doesn’t have powers or an ultra-hightech bow. She has her wits and her brains.

            But you can’t out-psyche the Hulk. Her greatest power, the one thing that keeps her alive, is essentially useless. It might cause her to flash back to a time where she couldn’t destroy everyone, but jumping to rape is a bit far and just a bit sexist.

            Also, Bruce is her friend. Cuddly, disarming, downtrodden but essentially harmless, Bruce has suddenly transformed in a raging green monster and tried to kill her. I think I would be upset too.

  4. Dave P #

    Well written and some good points, but I find it a mild stretch to put rape at the top of Black Widow’s fear list at every turn. The Hulk is a menacing behemoth, as easily able to smash that hovercraft/carrier out of the sky as able to smash her skull. At 250 pounds, I’m closer to menacing behemoth than shrinking violet, and I’m pretty sure I’d have crapped my pants and need a few moments (read: eternity) to gather myself before rejoining the fight.

    That said, being ticonderoga sized most of my adult life, I don’t really understand what it’s like to be a much smaller female. When I’m out for a run, and women don’t hear me coming up behind them on the path (because of their ipods, not my ninja skills) and suddenly I pass them, their fear/surprise is tangible. They only come up to my shoulders and I outweigh them by over 100 pounds. Women do have legit fears of physical, sexual, and social violence that mean can’t possibly appreciate.

    But the Hulk just doesn’t seem rapey. Theon, on the other hand…

    Reply

  5. Jois #

    Since the “Ultimates” comic was a major insipiration for the movie I think the whole “Hulk and Black Widow” scene is a clear nod to the almost same scene in the comics.

    In the first Ultimates run Hulk is a savage beast created and driven by Banner’s sexual frustration: his rampage through Manhattan got only one goal: to reach Betty Ross and show her that Banner/Hulk is a real man. Crass, rude, violent, dangerous and rapey, Hulk is the perfect incarnation of the deranged male that seek empowerment using violence on women.

    The fact that, in the end, he is defeated by Wasp: another female character with an hystory of sexual violence is only strengthening the scene.

    Whedon did an excellent job on the movie letting everything on the surface be “supers and standard” as fans would like, but adding multiple layers of meanings just below. A very clever movie in good par with “X-Men: First class” which is driven entirely by a female character choice: Mystica divided between “brotherly” Xavier and “romance” Magneto.

    Reply

    • Steve #

      Ultimate Marvel sucks because it tries to hard to be edgey. The movies seem to only take the good parts of it (notice how Cap wasn’t a grouchy codger complaining about the good old days

      Reply

  6. AlexBref #

    The way it seemed to me in the movie theater – and especially after a second screening – was that Black Widow is shown to be absolutely terrified of Bruce Banner, while her previous scene showed her being an exceptionally badass spy and fighter.
    As such, the discrepancy seemed like a way to up the ante with respect to the Hulk, to put him back in the place he should be: a very, very threatening unstoppable force of rage, and as far as possible from “HULK SMASH” comedy. The audience needed to know, right from the start, that much like the Wu-Tang, Hulk Ain’t Nuthin’ to F*** With. Which also, by extension, made every scene with Banner tense and foreboding.

    This interpretation, however, probably doesn’t add up with BW’s mini-breakdown on the hovercraft/air carrier/plot juggernaut thing…so the victim-of-past-violence makes a lot of sense.

    I wish I had something as well thought-out as this article to contribute, but I’m out of my depth in gender politics so I’ll just end on the fact that “which is pretty much the euphemisticalliest euphemism I’ve ever euphemed” is now probably my favorite sentence, about anything, ever.

    Reply

    • Lee OTI Staff #

      “The audience needed to know, right from the start, that much like the Wu-Tang, Hulk Ain’t Nuthin’ to F*** With.”

      REPRESENT CAPTAIN AMERICA! IRON MAN! BLACK WIDOW! HAWKEYE! NICK FURY! THOR! AGENT COULSON! INTRODUCING THE INCREDIBLE HUUUUUUULK!

      Reply

      • AlexBref #

        THERE’S NO PLACE TO HIDE ONCE I STEP INSIDE THE ROOM
        DR HULK, PREPARE FOR THE BOOM
        BAM, AW, MAN, I SMASH
        LOKI YO GONNA CRASH

        (…this sounded a lot better before it was, er, written)

        Reply

  7. James #

    Hmmm.

    This to me felt, well, overthought.

    As others have mentioned, the Hulk is a rampaging force of nature and I’d be scared of him. Anyone with any sense would. Being around Banner will always have that undertone of fear, being around the Hulk elevates the subtext way beyond text and into supertext.

    I’m not arguing that violence by a man against a woman can be sexual, of course I’m not. I am arguing though that violence by the Hulk is not sexual. There is literally noone less likely to rape you (I’m talking here about the movie Hulk). If Black Widow was feeling that then she was objectively wrong to do so and frankly it diminishes her a little in my eyes (in that this fantastic spy ninja person can’t look at the situation objectively as we saw her do in her intro scene.)

    Not being blind to the danger Hulk possesses isn’t character development. As you mention elsewhere she has files. She’s not blind to the danger the Hulk represents because she’s familiar with him and has more points of IQ than fingers.

    She’s in a traumatic situation and takes a few moments to recover. She’s been in them before and knows that those few moments are essential in preventing PTSD. So what that she cries during them? That’s better than I’d manage – at least she doesn’t need to change her trousers.

    At the risk of dumbing down (yeah, yeah, why do I even read a site called “Overthinking It”) I think its possible to read to much into the genders here. I think its, as mentioned, about Worf-Effecting a character to show what a terror the Hulk is.

    Reply

    • Matthew Belinkie #

      The part that convinced me that Pete is onto something is when Loki tells Black Widow he’s going to make Hawkeye hurt her “in all the ways that you fear.” Maybe this is just MY issues, but I sort of read that as a threat of sexual violence.

      Reply

      • Gab #

        Me too.

        Reply

      • Nick #

        I agree. Loki explicitly sexualises his threats to Black Widow with his “mewling quim” insult, and however much she is playing him for information she’s still rattled by it.

        The Hulk (this version anyway) might be non-sexual, but he’s also the embodiment of masculine rage and that is going to provoke a response in most people. For a violent abuse survivor, potentially even more so.

        Reply

    • Gab #

      I’m arguing though that violence by the Hulk is not sexual. If Black Widow was feeling that then she was objectively wrong to do so.

      Implicit there is that any recollection of violence when not of the exact same nature of whatever is being experienced is “wrong.” Emotion is not a “wrong” or “right” thing, though. If recollections of Black Widow’s past experiences of sexual violence are triggered by violence in general, that is not an “objectively wrong” occurrence, but rather an occurrence in its own right. It may not make sense to someone else, perhaps even to BW herself-but emotions don’t always make sense. In fact, often quite the opposite. Just because Hulk may not intend for his violence to be sexual in nature doesn’t mean BW is in the wrong for feeling sexually threatened. Past trauma doesn’t always get triggered just by easily parallel situations. PTSD on the part of veterans, for example, can be brought on by colors and sounds, let alone dangerous situations.

      I guess my point is that dismissing BW’s reaction as “wrong” because the type of violence recollected differs from the intent of that which she was under threat from is dismissing a lot of the human experience. We make connections in places we never intend to and don’t even realize until we’re in the moment. And yeah, sure, she’s a character in a movie, but let’s not forget these characters are all, in some ways, commentaries on what happens to real people.

      And also, given Joss Whedon’s history of tackling issues like that, I find it more plausible that Fenzel’s reading of the Hulk scene(s) (and the rest of BW’s history) is spot-on and exactly as intended.

      POSSIBLE FIREFLY SPOILERS

      In the episode Objects in Space, the last episode, Kaylee is cornered in the engine room by the bounty hunter, Jubal Early. He ties her up and never explicitly says he intends sexual violence, nor does he make any direct references to it- but Whedon makes it very clear in his commentary that the scene is meant to portray sexual violence and intimidation. While sure, that scene is indeed more overt than the Hulk-BW scene, the behavior of Jubal Early could easily be “read” almost exactly the same as Hulk’s- so I find a similar intent on Whedon’s part extremely likely.

      Reply

      • James #

        This might be a semantic issue caused by my bad word choice. Can I get a do-over and say “BW is objectively incorrect in her belief that this violence is sexual” You’re right that “wrong” is judgemental.

        BW’s intro scene is, at least to me, set up to show how in control she is of situations. She knows how this interrogation (of the russians) will go, and is in control at each stage. Sure the russians dont know that, but its clear she is. Thats the BW that is established.

        Fast forward to the Hulk’s attempted smashing. If she is making connections from that, on whatever level, to sexual violence and particularly if this is a trigger issue for her then its pretty clear she’s not in control of the situation. (Incidentally, Belinkie, thats what I got from Loki’s threat – a loss of control. Again, this may be simply my issues).

        Of course if all the characters were flawless then the film would be pretty dull but the other flaws are side issues. The one Fenzel proposes strikes to the core of what I saw as BW’s character. She’s a super ninja assassin spy thing in a world where superheroes exist. If she’s going to be traumatised and react inappropriately to situations then it makes her less effective. Thor and the norse gods are real and, lets be honest, Thor probably has a far amount of raping in his past. Can she be around him succesfully? Tony Stark has a touch of the sex pest to him.

        If Fenzel’s reading is correct then she’s less efficient than she could be. Fury needs to either take her off the team or get her some counselling. Or, you know, both. (whoops)

        I dunno.

        Reply

        • Gab #

          Okay, but “inappropriately” is still a judgment, too. It’s not that she’s perceiving the violence as sexual per se in that moment; some violence, even when not sexual, strikes a chord and digs up old emotions and feelings. And yeah, I agree, that’s her flaw. And the tricky thing about it is one can’t be sure what violent situations trigger that reaction or not (because you’re right, she didn’t cower in her opening scene, nor a single time during the big climax at the end) (although her, “I don’t see how that’s a party,” line was golden, amirite???), which makes it interesting and somewhat “volatile,” one of the words used to describe Stark as not being a good recruit for the Avengers at the end of Iron Man 2. So is kicking her off really fair, if Fury keeps Stark and all the other guys, after all? I’m not saying this isn’t a potential problem for missions, of course. But each character has some sort of flaw that can make their powers (in her case, the super ninja assassin spy-ness that makes her normally such a badass) somewhat useless- but the other characters had theirs shown in their own movies, while BW didn’t get one yet. So hers was much more evident, while the other guys’ were hinted at (Stark’s drinking; Thor’s self doubt; Captain America’s disillusionment with modern American society/culture) (although Hawkeye didn’t get a chance for this, which I’d attribute to how he was a baddy for half the movie). So perhaps one unfortunate thing for BW was that her flaw got more showcased. Still, Fury keeps all of them, flaws included, so Fury kicking her and her alone off the team wouldn’t really make sense with what Fury has going on.

          Also, I think part of why Hulk triggered it and Stark and Thor wouldn’t for her is because Hulk is a different extreme of volatile than Iron Man and Thor. The latter two would never be violent toward her so they’re no threat in any way, sexual or violent or sexually violent. But Hulk, who the eff knows? So she can totally go on missions with Iron Man and Thor, but she (and anybody else, at least before Banner demonstrates he can control himself as Hulk) would be uncertain as to whether she’s safe or not with Hulk. In other words, the safety is on her emotional trigger with respect to the other guys, but it’s off with the Hulk; so her going on missions with Hulk is the only time it would be at risk of being pulled.

          WHICH, actually, makes Fury’s overhead decision to have her get Banner come across as interesting and scheme-like, since he’s presented as all-knowing and would thus, I presume know about this characteristic of hers. But Fury’s desire to get sh*t done trumps concern for BW’s emotional health. So he sent her into a situation that he knew would be fraught with sexual tension of a nature she would be less in control over because of Banner/Hulk’s own unpredictability. And that relates to some other comments here about Hulk being not-sexual. As Fenzel argues, no, not remotely. Even without knowledge of other Marvel lore, it’s pretty obvious there was a sexual component to every scene between Banner/Hulk and BW.

          I was kind of thinking out loud, so to speak, for much of that, so I apologize that it’s not all a direct response, but yeah. Just more things to (over)think about.

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          • James #

            Valid points, but I think you’re missing a crucial one. BW is a full time SHIELD agent (at least thats the impression I was left with). SHIELD clearly do some sort of psychiatric test before recruitment – as you mention Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and didn’t make the cut.

            It wasn’t until there was a clear and present danger that concerns of “we need someone right now” overcame his suitability. Without Loki, Stark wouldn’t be in SHIELD, BW would. So, to my mind at least, Stark’s volatility is in a different category to BW’s (theorised) issues.

            Clearly BW passed the test to become a SHIELD agent (I agree about Hawkeye, btw – hardly showcased and imho cut easily have been cut). Thus, clearly Fury thought she could cut it. If this issue is present then why was it never picked up?

          • Gab #

            @James: I actually think that difference in their volatility is precisely why she was accepted and he wasn’t. Tony, as you said, doesn’t play well with others, when BW clearly does. Sure, she can go solo, but she never demonstrates an inability to admit when she needs help, and is in fact quite good at adapting her skillset to compliment those of others. Further, she also takes orders more unquestioningly than even Captain America- recall how she was defending SHIELD in the scene where the guys call Fury/SHIELD out for developing WMDs. Fury knows that from BW, he has utmost loyalty, and he can’t be certain about that with Stark. He wouldn’t have to worry about her sneaking into his files, etc. And I think that’s probably the main reason he’s cool with keeping her around. She was willing to do some deplorable things before (what caused the red ledger), unquestioningly, since she was just following orders; he has her under his control now, so she’d do the same for him.

            And I suppose that wasn’t hammered home because it’s so heavily implied. After all, what would make BW stick with an organization that puts her at risk so often unless she was getting something out of it? She wants the ledger cleaned, so she’ll do whatever must be done in order to work toward that. That point is made abundantly clear, so all it takes is to extend that to involve Fury knowing that about her, and bam, there you go- he’d have her desperate to clean her conscious, so he could put her in all sorts of crazy situations. . And to speculate a bit further, perhaps she and Fury struck a deal- he’d let her live and even earn some good karma by working for him, or he’d have someone else (Since Hawkeye didn’t) kill her. That would make for a really cool scene, actually- one that would bear a striking resemblance to the scenes in Dollhouse, also by Whedon, that show how the “dolls” get recruited… Whoa…

            Or, perhaps it didn’t come up simply because by the time BW and Fury show up in Iron Man 2, they are already well-established together as members of SHIELD, Fury as the Head Honcho, her as one of his finest underlings. We don’t see her initial recruitment, it took place long before the events of that movie. So there was no chance to show the original screening etc.

            But anyhoo, to reiterate, I think since she’s trustworthy for Fury, he’s okay with the potential emotional meltdown. Stark won’t start crying, no, but he’s much more likely to give Fury the birdy.

          • James #

            Ha, this conversation’s getting a little narrow to easily read and I’m gonna throw that up as a smokescreen for bowing out because my ego is a fragile thing and admitting that you’ve convinced me may cause irreperable damage. So, remember, not admitting I was wrong – just too narrow. :)

            Seriously – it’s a really good point about BW’s loyalty and not one I’d considered at all. Colour me corrected.

      • Adam #

        Sorry to be pedantic, but in [i]Objects in Space[/i], Jubal asks Kaylee in his out-of-the-blue way; “ever been raped?” and later in the same exchange instructs her to not try and escape her restraints or “your body will be forfeit…I’ll take no joy in it, mind, but it’s just a body to me.” Pretty blatant stuff.

        Reply

        • Gab #

          ZING! I guess it having been roughly a year since last I watched has made me rusty… Shame on me, my bad. Alas, I guess this just means I’ll have to bust out the DVDs again. Oh darn. ;)

          Reply

  8. Rob #

    The problem I have is, even if everything you argue is true, the avenger of sexual assault is still Scarlett Johannsen in a skin-tight leather suit that’s constantly half done-up. Her whole schtick is letting herself be victimized in order to get information, something that you would probably never see a male superhero doing.

    I guess this is my problem with a lot of Whedon’s work. Can Black Widow still fight for feminist goals while being relentlessly sexualized? Is there a fair comparison between the victimization she suffers by characters and the victimization she suffers from the camera? I dunno, but I think it’s more complicated than this article expresses.

    (On a more cynical note, is it even possible for Whedon to write a movie or TV show that people don’t analyze as feminist?)

    Reply

    • Gab #

      Well, he’s a self-proclaimed feminist, so he probably prefers his work to be analyzed as such.

      A quote he gave at a feminist award dinner thing a few years ago:

      “Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.”

      Reply

  9. Dimwit #

    I agree with GAB that it’s a power thing with BlackWidow but I don’t agree that it’s sexual on The Hulk’s part. He, especially in the movie universe, is the most non-sexual of the heroes. The Tinman has more sexual appeal than The Hulk ever would have. Remember The Hulk is *never* naked. Banner, every damn time, but never The Hulk.
    That said, the BlackWidow’s power resides in her feminine “wiles”, her intelligence, her looks, her gymnastic ability and her perceived vulnerability. She also tips the scales by knowing more than her opponent(s). None of this means a damn against The Hulk. She’s not a “super” against him, just ordinary and that would scare the crap out of anyone.
    It’s telling that Coulson and by extension Fury don’t want to brace Banner or “the big guy” and send a mere woman to do the job. I can see Fury, the master manipulator, figuring her to be something that wouldn’t trigger Banner versus a testosterone fest if he went with any male members of his team. That said, you notice how uneasy she is bracing him in India. And also notice how unconcerned and unimpressed Banner is to her. He thinks it’s a joke. His only concern is to keep the big guy caged, nothing more.
    Fury doesn’t understand that nor most of the rest of the superheroes.

    Reply

    • fenzel #

      > He, especially in the movie universe, is the most non-sexual of the heroes.

      Strongly disagree with this. One of the most basic and common Hulk tropes is that the most sure-fire way for him to de-Hulk is to find Betty Ross. The Hulk’s most persistent, enduring foe is Betty’s father.

      Any time that Hulk is searching for his “binary other” to alleviate his rage, that has a sexual component. Any time he is running from or fighting Betty’s father and Betty is a physical or suggested presence, that has has a sexual component. Whenever Hulk does something in Hulk form that ruins something nice that he had planned for Betty or otherwise comes back to hurt her, that has a sexual component.

      Another one of Hulk’s allies/enemies is Doc Sampson, a name that is deeply embroiled in the sexual history of literature. Doc Sampson is the son of a psychiatrist who sexually took advantage of his patients, and he gets his nickname from his father. He hates his father’s philandering and his main aim in the stories is he is a psychiatrist trying to de-Hulk the Hulk who gets hulk-like powers when his hair grows (remember in the story of Sampson that Sampson’s hair is shortened by a woman, and staying away from women is how it grows back). This whole story is hugely homoerotic and sexual, neck-deep in Freud and God knows what else.

      Heck, when Hulk injects his blood into his cousin and creates She-Hulk, and she becomes a women’s lib-style feminist superhero as a result, reveling in the freedom and power she was not able to get before she got some Hulk into her, there’s a huge (and creepy) gender/sexuality resonance.

      Also, he has semi-involuntary responses to arousal that cause his body to enlarge and his emotions to rile up and motivate his aggression. It’s not like he uses that time to hit on ladies, but it’s definitely got a sexual component.

      Reply

      • fenzel #

        Oh, and this doesn’t even have to all be by design – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has a lot to do with Victorian social norms, in Scotland specifically and in the U.K. in general, which diametically oppose logic, reason and self-restraint with aggression and sexuality. It’s hard to get away from sexuality in Victorian morality tales – the whole culture was sex-obsessed. And of course Hulk is modeled somewhat on that, so even if it isn’t meant to be about that stuff (even though I think it is, to a varying degree), it comes through from the source materials.

        Perhaps the reason why the Hulk/Bruce Banner himself is so solitary so much of the time and seems to be pretty disinterested in sexuality is that the character is such a hugely loaded sexual symbol that if you made his in-story personality too sexual it would no longer feel suitable for children.

        Banner doth protest too much, etc.

        Reply

        • Gab #

          Stephen Moffat wrote/produced his own modern take on Jekyll/Hyde for BBC a while back, aptly titled Jekyll. It’s on Netflix. If you have the time, I’d recommend it. I was actually thinking of it quite a bit when watching The Avengers (and reading your article, heh).

          Reply

      • Matthew Belinkie #

        Very interesting point! Although what does it mean that Betty is always a SOOTHING influence on him? I think you’re right about the Hulk thing being sexual, but it’s not as simple as the Hulk representing out-of-control male lust. It’s more like the Hulk is that part of us we can’t control, and Betty, as the woman, is always the person who is most hurt and disappointed by that. Often when Betty is sort of talking the Hulk down, it seems like he’s more ASHAMED than anything else. But there’s nothing contradictory about the Hulk being about aggression and it also being sexual in nature. Men are obviously way more prone to rage and violence than women.

        This article and the comments focus on specifically sexual violence, but doesn’t Pete’s thesis apply just as well to domestic abuse? You think you can trust a guy, but suddenly he smacks you, shoves you, or grips your arm hard enough to bruise. The question is: is that just “the other guy,” or can you accept that’s a part of who is really is?

        Reply

      • Dimwit #

        I think that we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.
        I don’t see those examples of sexuality, actually the opposite. The Hulk is a testosterone addled 5 year old. He is absolutely tone deaf when it comes to sexual matters. That’s why he’s always trampling over Banner’s sexual advances towards women, especially Ross. Bull in the china shop and all that. Doesn’t recognise a thing. Ross can calm him down, reduce the rage because of Banner’s emotional commitment to Ross but he would never advance or do anything but protect her from unwanted advances. The savage beast and all that cliche.

        As for the other hulk-like characters in the Marvel Universe, they’re their own characters. They are not the Hulk. The reason that Te Hulk has lasted so long as a character is the fact of his sheer innocence. He doesn’t mean to break things, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Shit happens.

        Consider this scenario… The Hulk is on the run as usual and runs into a building. It’s a stripjoint. All the patrons scatter but the stripper is trapped. She starts doing a striptease. What would Hulk do?
        I can tell you he would watch. Not aroused but just watch. She could gyrate to her heart’s content and, because she is the only thing moving he will watch. If she disrobes completely and sidles up to him… nothing. Feeling brave, she reaches up and tenderly pinches his cheek and smiles. He looks at her and punches her through the wall.

        Tell me that’s not true to the character. He might not even recognise male/female. His world is enemy/not enemy/other. The other is anyone that Banner’s emotionally tied up with, whether good or bad.

        Remember, he’s going after BW because he perceived that she lied to him, nothing more.

        It would be intersting to see where Whedon intended the BW/Hulk intreractions to go. As he showed, The Hulk doesn’t forget vis a vis Thor, so will he still get after BW or can Banner short circuit it? Just how much control can Banner exert?

        OTOH Fenzel, you brought up some very cool points. Damn!

        Reply

  10. Jimmy #

    I have to admit I didn’t pick up on many references to sexual violence, but it felt like some of the attempts to link certain scenes to it were forced. It is almost as if you wish to believe that every act against Black Widow is made on the basis of her sex. Is it not rather unfair to assume that, arguably a perpetuation of the misandry that feminists are often accused of?

    Reading some of the comments this may be a legitimate interpretation of BW’s paranoia, but given the negative implications of such prejudice (whether or not it is something she has control of), does it not also deserve to be denounced? An attitude that an entire gender is out to get you (whether conscious or subconscious) cannot be considered healthy.

    Reply

    • fenzel #

      This is a legit problem, but the solution is not simple or easy.

      I’m not a fan of the “anti-misandry” position as a dialectical counterpoint to cultural agendas that look to identify and diminish rape culture, because it takes actual legitimate problems (the 1/4 of American men who at some point in their lives are victims of sexual violence, the problems in America with legal frameworks around child support, most notably the economic problems men face who are in industries that are being de-emphasized or facing downward wage pressure in the U.S. economy) and sets up people like rape victims and rape crisis hotlines as the causes/opponents/villains/”other” of this problem.

      These people are not the problem. Getting mad at people trying to spread awareness of rape is not going to help men with the problems they face as a self-identifying group in America right now.

      It is politically stupid and inept (for example, it will never win over any women, so it can’t ever win a political majority), it is insensitive to the actual problem of rape (which everybody should be interested in solving or at least ameliorating), and it draws its cultural momentum from a reactionary framework that causes many of the problems men face in America anyway.

      There are definitely political dialectics in play, and men should be more savvy about how we align our interests around them. For example, men can truly claim that most of us are not rapists. However, we cannot truly claim that there are not tons of rapists (one of the big problems men have in all this is we insufficiently educate ourselves about the reality of the situation).

      If this is truly a war on men (and to an extent it is — although only in the sense that war is politics by other means, and gender identity politics and creative destruction of gender identity are always happening), and you want to save the idea of men, you should pick positions that are tenable and resonate not just among yourselves but among everybody.

      So, the first thing men should do as a group is commit to rooting out the rapists. Make it clear that no place is safe for them. Make it clear that if you sexually assult a drunk girl the other men will not let you get away with it. Looking the other way on this, which men, especially young ones, have been doing as part of our culture in America for quite a while, is now a politically untenable position.

      We need to get rid of the nice guy / asshole dichotomy, we need to get rid of stuff like ladder theory that insures we will never have allies in other gender political groups, and we need to find an alternative discourse to “white knighting,” where we do not just leap to the defense of others, but offensively fill a role ourselves that includes a purpose for why we exist as a “gender brand.”

      Right now in America, if you want to be political about it, men don’t have much of a mission statement. We are too divided among ourselves, too wounded by deindustrialization, the housing crises, and the wars, and too content to point to the success of a spare few exemplars — examplars, mind you, whom we cannot hope to emultate meaningfully.

      American men have betrayed each other and ourselves too much. We protect the interests of ratty, scummy criminals, propagandists and other filth without keeping our own houses in order.

      And a lot of our ability to come together has been badly damaged by the polarization around religion that has worsened over the last 15 years.

      For me, it is not misandry to say that we men need to stop advocating for rapists and shaming their victims… it is disappointment. Because I do think that, as a gender construction, we have a lot going for us. We could do a lot to broaden our own tent, appeal to other gender and sexual identity political groups, build bridges across ethnic groups, and advance the gender political discourse in ways that benefit us without making such unfortunate choices as to whom we should oppose and why.

      But the first thing we need to do more of is listen to more of what is going on outside our group — because a lot of important stuff has been happening, and our gender political identity has been in a bit of an echo chamber for a while that isn’t doing us any favors.

      Perhaps I’ll write an article about Whedon’s interpretation of Captain America, which I think has a lot to say about men as a gender construction that steps outside this feminist/misandric dialectic into something we can feel a bit better about.

      Reply

  11. Steve #

    People love to see rape wherever they can. These people need to chill out

    Reply

    • fenzel #

      1/5 of women in America are raped at some point in their lives. 1/2 are sexually assaulted.

      1/4 of men in America are sexually assaulted in their lives.

      It is a big deal and a huge part of our culture. Chilling out is the opposite of the appropriate response.

      Reply

      • AlexBref #

        Hey Fenz’, where do you get these statistics from? They kinda triggered a “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” feeling.

        Reply

  12. Stefano #

    Everyone,

    there is nothing in the whole film that suggests a secret sexual past, and the only sexual reference is BW-tied-up-by-dumb-Russians. (Even BW’s costume is no more revealing than Thor’s…)

    All the Red on Ledger can be explained by BW killing good and bad people for money, and that’s what she has in common with Hawkeye. Maybe they had an affair in Budapest, maybe they didn’t, but what probably happened to them there was a contract. As easy as that.

    As for how she deals with Bruce Banner, AlexBref got it spot on. She’s terried of what he could become, just like every person without massive super powers would, regardless of their sexual past. The tears when she runs away from him are simply the realization of how, despite her skills, she’s out of her depth when it comes to fighting superhumans. A male counterpart may not have cried, but again that has more to do with what we accept from men and women on screen than with any sexual history. And in this case the screen prejudice is against men: it’s OK to cry when you barely escaped the Hulk, and we should accept men to do it, too.

    So, let’s reverse the question: what actual element of the film can substantiate your theory?

    Reply

    • fenzel #

      RTFA. I explained it in detail.

      Reply

      • fenzel #

        But to be more constructive, and to TL;DR. The point of the article is that she is serving as a symbol — that her emotions are analogous and representative of cultural and literary tropes — not that the character herself is going through this.

        Joss Whedon loves to use genre-driven scenarios to metaphorically and symbolically discuss real-world situations.

        – The red stain is a common literary symbol of female sexual shame.

        – The sober, intimate conversation between Black Widow and Hawkeye about the betrayals and issues in their past is representational and symbolic of the effect sexual violence and trauma have on people’s ability to form intimate connections within heterosexual relationships.

        It accomplishes very little else in the story, and it feels familiar despite the actual specific subject matter being totally foreign to the audience. So it is clearly symbolizing something.

        – The time she spends being tied up or pinned down.

        – The way Loki tries to shame her for her traumas just to make her upset and doubt herself, which most closely matches up in our culture with victim-blaming around sexual violence (again, this is not a situation real people get into, negotiating with demigods in helicarrier Hulk cages, but it feels familiar because it is modeled on and symbolic of one. If it were not, it would not feel familiar.)

        There are also a bunch of specific lines – Blinks mentioned the one above where Loki appears to threaten Hawkeye with raping Black Widow. But to comb through it all again I’d need a copy of the film or a script, which I don’t have available in the moment.

        Reply

        • Stefano #

          If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

          To be more constructive, let me show you how preposterous your line of reasoning is by formulating an alternative explanation that holds the same in-film substantiation:

          – BW is a symbol for the how the West overcame the Soviet Union and Asia in the past century

          – In her first scene, she’s tied to a chair by russian mobsters, a social class that has emerged following the Western-pursued dismantling of the Soviet Union

          – She has a Red Ledger and feels pressured to clean it. Red is a symbol of communism, and this represents communist societies (Russia and China) feeling pressured to dismantle their form of government. In the end, she embraces her Red Ledge and learns to live with it, like some former Soviet republics and Asian countries do.

          – She’s chased and beaten by the Hulk: this is a blatant symbol of the US, even more so because of the nuclear element. Asia is the only continent ever to be hit by an atomic weapon by the US, and nuclear was the symbol of cold was between West and East.

          – Her relationship with Hawkeye may as well be one of ideological and geographical minorities that have fought together, and it uncoincidentally centers in Budapest, a capital of Eastern Europe where the first struggles for autonomy from Moscow started.

          – And finally, Loki shames her for all the crimes she committed in the past and tries to put behind her, just like the West has shamed numerous Eastern countries, from Russia to China, for their past crimes. As for how she manipulates him, this is a clear (and somewhat racist) reference to the Asian art of deception and double cross, and of circling around the issues instead of taking them head on.

          Now, do I really believe that that’s what BW stands for? No, but it has as much justification as your theory, and that says a lot about it.

          The point is that when alleged symbolism is so vague, we can read what we want into it.

          Reply

          • James #

            Brilliant – you put my objections better than I ever could.

            New game – what else could BW represent?

          • Matthew Belinkie #

            That doesn’t sound like a very fun game at all! Pete laid out his case. You don’t have to agree with it, but you also don’t have to mock it. I happen to feel that, given that this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about here, his theory is a lot more likely than the whole post-Communism thing.

            HOWEVER… Black Widow clearly represents The Amazing Spider-Man, the summer’s other big Marvel movie. Her name, and the fact that she continually refers to the color red, is a dead giveaway. Her getting chased by the Hulk, who reduces her to a catatonic ball of fear, is symbolic of how The Avengers will easily eclipse Sony’s reboot no one asked for.

            Okay, the game IS kind of fun. Still, please be respectful of the arguments being made here.

          • James #

            I’m sorry, Fenzel (and you as well Belinkie) if that came across as mocking. That genuinely wasn’t the intent and I’m really sorry for any offence I gave.

            All I was trying to say (and evidently failed miserably in) was that I think it could be kinda fun to take a single character in a single film – BW has been presented – and see how many readings of them could be collected without straining reason too far.

            Again, very sorry that I put that badly.

          • Matthew Belinkie #

            I’m sorry if I overreacted too. Like Fenzel always says, if people aren’t arguing with you on the internet, you’re doing it wrong. This was an interesting topic, and I appreciate that not everyone will buy the thesis. So my bad if I was too quick to jump on an honest disagreement.

            Seriously, how great is this site? We have the most polite comments section ever.

  13. Mark #

    I’ll go with the feminine intuition (and fenzel-ine intuition, too) on this. I didn’t notice the sexual violence theme during the movie but it struck my wife really hard (no puns intended). She totally interpreted the Hulk/Black Widow scenes in this way, and it’s actually made her re-think the Hulk’s whole deal as a metaphor for male sexuality: id vs. superego, flaccid vs. engorged, smart and wimpy vs. mindless and smashy, etc. And I have to believe her in that interpretation because I can’t really understand that anxiety on a visceral level based on my own experience regarding the threat of sexual violence, the same way I can’t, through my experience as a white male in the U.S., really understand what it’s like to be the target of racism.

    Reply

  14. dj #

    first off, I love the many thoughts on the subject that was presented here. My own thoughts are: Black Widow has a scared Past. She learned to become stronger from it using Combat skills and female manipulation tactics. This keeps her in control of the situation no matter who the foe is. In the case of the Hulk, he is stronger then her, and has no reasoning. So she can’t beat him or manipulate him. There fore she reverts back to her child self that couldn’t defend herself against the atrocities done to her at a young age. Her tears was the fact that she had no control over the situation. Throughout the movie Black Widow makes comments that they are dealing with Gods and monsters and things far beyond human reach. She feels powerless in a world full of Demi god like creatures. Especially ones that destroys everything in it’s path and has no time for sexual gratification. I.e. – her way to emotionally manipulate her way out of harm. At that moment she was truly a defenseless victim.

    Reply

  15. Adam #

    Long time lurker, first time commenter (I think). Very cool article; definitely a lot to chew on. A brief critique does come to mind, though.

    1) Regarding Black Widow’s introductory scene with the Russians: the sexual dynamics really are on display, but in a very subverted way. It’s not just that BW is able to “interrogate” the men through understanding of their misogynistic and domineering traits — it’s that, through a type of emotional/psychological aikido, she is able to access, magnify, and then clinically dissect those weaknesses/faults to her own advantage. Her targets are misogynist, so she wears a skimpy cocktail dress. Her targets are brutes, thugs, and obsessed with power, so she puts herself in a weakened position. The use of the active verbs “wears” and “puts” are intentional — I submit that the way in which she handles Fury’s phone call demonstrates that she has been in control of (possibly even actively furthering) the situation. Could she have gotten the “morons” to tell her their secrets if she was wearing a badass, unsexualized super-spy outfit and holding a gun to their heads? Maybe, but that’s not the point of her character, which is that she takes those same qualities which usually denote female subordination, and parlays them into power over thick-skulled and unwitting men. In this scene, at least, she’s not just performing an example of sexual dynamics and averting the usual result with awesome hero-skills, she’s doing something even more subversive; taking the very qualities that are taken advantage of within the normal narrative of sexual aggression/submission and flipping them on their head. Though tied up, she’s the aggressor. Though scantily clad, it’s her would-be rapists bearing their innermost selves to her. Spooky.

    Reply

    • Gab #

      Spooky-AWESOME!

      Reply

  16. Stefano #

    @Matthew Belinkie

    (For some reason I can’t reply up there, so I’ll do it here…)

    I respected Fenzel’s argument so much that I scrutizined it, and that’s the ultimate form of respect in intellectual speculation and debate.
    Unfortunately I found it lacking and under-thought, and explained why. The best way to do it was to submit an alternative reading with the same in-film justification. If you find that alternative reading “mocking” you imply that it’s ridiculous, and that definition extends to Fenzel’s original theory, because they’re equally (poorly) rooted in what the film gives away.

    Reply

  17. CK #

    This whole idea is a huge stretch. Red ink is simply blood, as in the people she killed.

    Your ideas are an interesting interpretation, but Black Widow was doing the manipulating in most of the scene.

    Reply

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