Part 2: Just Because There's a Female Character, Doesn't Mean We Have to Sexualize Her
Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Marvel/Walt Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock
Young girls have long been depicted as sexual creatures, like in the novel Lolita, even when they are still children. Ask any woman when she first experienced street harassment and it was most likely before she’d even finished puberty — I know for me I was 8 years old and in the second grade. That is the age the world decided that I was a sexual creature, whether I was ready for that expectation or not. Depictions of young girls as sexual creatures have been far too common for far too long. Anyone complicit in this kind of depiction needs to take a good long look at themselves and the detrimental impact these kinds of depictions have had on our society and its treatment of girls and women.
Another area where this trope is all too common is in comic book adaptations. This breaks my heart as a female comic book fan, but it’s sadly not surprising when you look at the overall treatment of women by the comic book world. If you just look at the way the female body is depicted in your average comic book, the problems are fairly obvious. Let’s start by looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thankfully, we now have more female inclusion and heroes in the MCU. But when the MCU was first building, the only real female main character was Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff.
It’s not enough that she is a great fighter who saves the day. Because she is a woman, she has to look sexy at all times while doing it.
I don’t have the time to dive into the fact that fans had to campaign for years to get a solo Black Widow movie, but that definitely contributes to the poor treatment of female characters by the MCU. Natasha is depicted as a great fighter and a strong, intelligent woman, to be sure. However, she is also constantly sexualized by the men around her. When she is first introduced in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark comments, “I want one.” While the remark is played for laughs, it also serves to reduce a very capable character down to an object — an object of desire at that. Even when Natasha has a fight scene in the movie, where she deftly defeats her enemies, she does so in a skintight outfit, with the camera lingering on her curves. It’s not enough that she is a great fighter who saves the day. Because she is a woman, she has to look sexy at all times while doing it.
Sure, the MCU has since tried to even the score a bit by objectifying its male characters when it can (see: Chris Evans’ arms). But we’re not exactly getting close-ups of “America’s ass” during his fight scenes on the same level that we do with Black Widow. That, my friend, is a perfect demonstration of the male gaze. Evans’ attractiveness is acknowledged and exploited, but it is not the typical way that he is depicted or filmed. His depiction gets to be varied, and overall, more respectful.
Let’s add into the mix the highly problematic turn Black Widow’s story takes. There’s her overly sexualized entrance in Iron Man 2. Then, we see her kissing Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At that moment, the kiss is presented by Romanoff as a way for the two to avoid detection by their enemies. But, to a tired female fan like me, all I see is another example of a female character being unable to escape the fact that she is female, and therefore a sexual object. You must be aware of her sexuality; otherwise, you may forget that she’s a sexual object for the male characters to pursue. Of course, a man would think that Natasha using her sexuality combined with her smarts would be empowering for women. But we as women have been solely praised and prized for our attractiveness and sexuality for so long that it’s refreshing when we get to see a female character display her skill in a way that isn’t reliant on her sexuality or sexual attractiveness.
To a tired female fan like me, all I see is another example of a female character being unable to escape the fact that she is female, and therefore a sexual object.
Finally, when it comes to Black Widow, we have to address her extraordinarily problematic storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Of course, Joss “Thank You for Buffy But Now Please Go Away” Whedon has since become a rather controversial figure when it comes to allegations surrounding how he treats those he works with as well as how he has depicted women in his more recent forays (see: his leaked, unmade Wonder Woman script.) So it’s not exactly punching up to deride Natasha’s depiction in this movie, but it’s important to her character analysis. I’m not going to be focusing on her highly problematic monologue about her forced sterilization and subsequent reaction to it that occurs later in the movie, though it is deeply troubling. However, I am choosing to focus more on the sexualization her character suffers. Early on in Ultron, we see Natasha flirt with Bruce Banner, one of the only members of the Avengers we haven’t seen her flirt with yet. After she exchanges charged banter with Bruce, Bruce discusses Natasha with Steve Rogers. “Natasha, she likes to flirt,” Bruce offers. “I’ve seen her flirt — up close,” Steve responds about his friend and colleague.
This exchange is problematic for a few reasons. 1.) Because Natasha is an attractive woman, the men feel they can and even must discuss their colleague in relation to her sexuality and sexual desires, as well as their own in relation to her. Never mind showing her the respect a colleague deserves, especially after the reckoning of workplace sexual harassment we have just lived through. 2.) Steve drops in the fact that Natasha has flirted with him before to a male colleague. He takes control of her narrative and reveals information that could alter her relationship and interactions with another male colleague. Plus, way to drop a locker room brag in there about the hot girl you both know flirting with you, Steve. 3.) The age difference between Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) and Mark Ruffalo (b.1967).
That nearly two-decade age difference is incredibly apparent when you watch the two flirt throughout the movie. I, for one, am so tired of seeing older men only depicted opposite much younger women. As a female viewer, I can’t help but wonder why the young and beautiful Natasha would be so attracted to a man who is almost old enough to be her father — and looks it. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Additionally, no real justification is given to her attraction to Bruce beyond a couple of flirtatious lines and the barely touched-upon concept that she has become instrumental in helping him control the Hulk.
Yet throughout the movie, Natasha hungrily pursues Bruce, with him being the one who is reluctant to move forward with the romance. This is yet another example of a woman’s agency over her sexuality being corrupted as it is portrayed through the lens of the male gaze. She makes herself wholly sexually available to him, but we as the audience don’t really know why.