Black Widow and Power

I’ve been thinking more about Avengers, particularly about Black Widow. I liked her character, but something wasn’t sitting quite right. It wasn’t until I read cleolinda’s post on LJ that things started to click into place for me.

There be minor spoilers ahead…

When we first see Black Widow’s character, she’s captured, tied up, and being interrogated by nameless Russians. We see the Standard Villain Torture Kit waiting on a nearby tray. But when SHIELD calls, Black Widow goes from helpless prisoner to fully in control in an eyeblink. By allowing her captors to see her as weak and vulnerable, she got them to tell her what she needed to know. It’s set up as a reversal of expectations: the men expect the woman to be powerless, and she does a masterful job of turning that against them. She was in control the whole time, and you know it.

So far, so good. I liked the scene. I also liked the way it set up Black Widow’s later confrontation with Loki on the Helicarrier. Once again, Black Widow allows a man to play on her apparent vulnerabilities and weakness, and in doing so, tricks him into admitting his plan.

But this time, as she turns away, you realize the vulnerability wasn’t faked. She wasn’t in control the same way she was in that earlier scene. Loki got to her. You see it in her expression, and you see it again later.

Some of what bugs me is the intersection of Black Widow being both the only female Avenger and the only one to use her vulnerability as a weapon like that. In a way, it feels like a subversion of sexism, since she’s using her targets’ expectations against them. But it also feels seductive in a way that disturbs me — in the case of Loki, “I’m going to let you paw all over my very real pain so I can get the answers I need.”

And look at the way Loki treats her. He rips into her more viciously than he does anyone else in the film, including his own brother. That level of scorn and loathing is reserved for Black Widow alone — for the woman who dares to be as powerful as the men. He also — and I missed this in the theater — calls her a “mewling quim.”

I wasn’t familiar with that particular verbal assault. I believe the modern U.S. equivalent would be “whining c**t,” making it the most hateful and sexist insult in the entire film.

All right, so Loki is an asshole. But then I thought back to when Black Widow went to recruit Bruce Banner. Banner was calm and cool, except for one moment when he slammed the table and shouted something like, “Stop lying!”

Black Widow jumped back, visibly shaken. Banner immediately calmed down, saying it was just a test to see how she’d respond. He was fully in control, of himself, and of the situation. He learned she didn’t come alone, and that he’s completely surrounded by SHIELD agents. I.e., he learned what he wanted to know.

Yet the way he did it resonates with Loki’s treatment of Black Widow later on. He lashed out in a way we never see directed at men, and in that moment, everyone knew exactly who had the power and who didn’t.

I’m certain some people will read this and say I’m overthinking, or that I’m reading too much into it. To be clear, I loved this movie. And I liked Black Widow’s character a lot. She’s capable, competent, and kicks plenty of bad guy ass. However…

  • The only female Avenger is sent in to use her vulnerability as a weapon of interrogation.
  • There are at least two scenes that feel like she’s being “put in her place” by a more powerful man.
  • The phase “mewling quim” was utterly unnecessary and not at all in keeping with the rest of the dialogue, so why it used?

I find this problematic.

Comments and discussion are welcome, as always.