This Black Widow is the female action hero I've been waiting for

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a skin tight shirt to accentuate her curves and little dialogue to encourage us to, well, simply look at her.

After observing the character for less than two minutes in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) says, ‘I want one.’ 

It was an incredibly sexualised introduction to the Russian-American spy, letting all the female viewers know that this was a film made with the male gaze in mind and thus Black Widow was relegated to the ‘token’ female Avenger. 

As a huge Marvel fan age 15, I was disappointed to see such a limited view of a female action hero. 

While I loved Black Widow’s inclusion in the Avengers movies, I wanted more from the character. In some ways, I related more to the male action heroes, they could be funny and heartbroken, then strong all in the same scene.

Their existence didn’t revolve around their appearance. Also as an insecure teenager, I didn’t see myself in the sexy female character and I felt that I needed to change (especially my weight) in order to be worthy of being seen both on and off screens.

Scarlet Johannsson herself criticised this recently. Ahead of the release of her standalone film, Black Widow, Johannsson said of her 2010 role: ‘…the character is so sexualised. [She is] really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever – like a piece of ass, really.’

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For decades, Hollywood has churned out male-dominated action movies with a thin, yet curvaceous, beautiful woman on the main character’s arm. 

Sequels to the biggest action franchises are not only lucrative at the box office, but they thrive off this outdated formula. This year alone sees the return of male-led action flicks Top Gun: Maverick, Fast & Furious 9 and No Time to Die. 

Johannsson isn’t the only female lead to have been stereotyped in the genre. The Transformers franchise degraded Megan Fox under Michael Bay’s direction to an object, often wearing skimpy outfits or revealing low-cut tops.

Films such as Mr and Mrs Smith offered Angelina Jolie the role of an assassin but only as part of a male and female team and the violence was overtly sexual – a passionate expression of their love for each other. She even uses her looks to distract her male opponent on more than one occasion – similar to several scenes in Charlie’s Angels.

As all of these films have male directors – clearly made predominantly with a masculine audience in mind – the inequality between the sexes abounds on screen. Unnecessary female nudity, provocative clothing and lady characters whose sole purpose is to develop the male’s narrative. 

As a female viewer – and as a feminist – it’s incredibly frustrating to watch as the dialogue, outfits and reactions of the women characters feel inauthentic.

As a result of the misogynistic formula, the potential of female-led action has been seriously overlooked, that is until the quite frankly astounding, Black Widow.

A decade on, Johansson stars in her own solo movie and the Black Widows are given the grit, practical hairstyles (who would ever enter combat with their hair down?) and epic fight sequences they deserve. 

The highly-anticipated movie was long overdue even before the pandemic, with most of the male Avengers now having their own trilogy of films.

This refreshing new depiction of Black Widow is down to Australian Cate Shortland’s direction – she is best known for her Nazi drama Lore and she is the first female solo director in Marvel’s history. 

For Shortland, this was an opportunity to shine a light on Natasha Romanoff’s strength and skill. Shortland said that she wanted to ‘expose the character and get under her skin’ to uncover the multi-faceted layers beneath the heroine fans know and love.

Critics have described Black Widow (both the movie and the character herself) as ‘bad-ass’ and I agree – since its release I’ve already watched it twice at the cinema and once on Disney+.

It is the Marvel film I’ve been waiting for since I was 15. As soon as the film started, I was in tears from the poignant opening exploring human trafficking with Malia J’s chilling rendition of Smells like Teen Spirit.

It was so empowering to see women fighting for each other’s freedom in such a physical way, even simply watching a film where most of the main characters are women made me emotional as I realised how rare that is in films.

While women account for 50% of movie goers, out of the 100 top grossing films in 2019, only 10% had female directors

The female cast dominate the narrative bringing incredible depth, realism and emotion to their roles. Shortland ensures it is realistically violent – Natasha breaks her own nose at one point, which is as ruthless and as impactful as any male action sequence.

Yet the fight scenes are not sexualised: women enter into combat in functional suits and hairstyles to show off their skills, not their bodies. That doesn’t mean they don’t look incredible.

Female fans are adopting the aesthetic of the Widows (especially the braids and extensive ear candy) on TikTok due to how powerful and, to use Black Widow’s sister Yelena’s words, ‘really cool’ they appear.

It seems that without a male director (previously Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Joe and Anthony Russo) controlling the gaze, women are able to become nuanced heroes. 

In the film, all the Widows fight with relentless power and force, while showing the full emotional spectrum of what their characters are capable of. 

Natasha is humanised. In an early scene in the film, she removes her shirt but faces the wall to reveal deep bruises across her back, as opposed to in Iron Man 2 when she removes her shirt and Happy (Jon Favreau) is distracted by Natasha’s chest. 

It’s these small changes that let the audience know she’s a person with a backstory, as opposed to an object to look at. 

Often women in action films exist only to be saved, to offer support to the hero (such as Hope Van Dyne in Ant Man) or as a serious or fleeting romantic interest.

The women might participate in a battle, but their efforts are typically overshadowed by the male hero’s fight sequences. 

Yet, when Marvel breaks this mould the movies have proved a success. For instance, their first female standalone film, Captain Marvel, in 2019 made over a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. The writers and directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, crafted Carol Denvers (Brie Larson) as a strong, funny, loving woman with (at the time) unparalleled power by any other Avenger. 

It seems that finally women can adopt the kick-ass action hero role they have historically been denied. All it takes is bringing more women into the development, production and direction.

While women account for 50% of movie goers, out of the 100 top grossing films in 2019, only 10% had female directors. 

To get equal representation on screen, more off-screen space must be allowed for diverse new talent to shine. 

While Black Widow could be the beginning of a shift to more female-led action movies, I hope this trend will move beyond superhero movies into all genres.

I don’t mean recreating beloved classics such as the Ghostbusters 2016 reboot or Oceans 8 (both of which are great), but Hollywood and beyond must focus on creating gritty, realistic leading roles for women.

There should be no such thing as ‘boy films’ and ‘girl films’ – it’s time to step away from the sexual stereotypes. That way, every audience member benefits from rich, varied stories with a fascinating leading character, no matter what their gender.

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