Black Widow: Underestimating and Hypersexualizing Women in the Marvel Universe
Hypersexualization and exoticizing marginalized (by race and/or gender) characters are standard practices in superhero comics.
As a teen I had two experiences that have shaped my entire life, being diagnosed with scoliosis (resulting in wearing a full-body brace throughout high school) and subsequently falling in love with comic books and science fiction.
As a comic book collector and fan of superhero comics, I was drawn to Spider-Man (of course), but I also developed an affinity for so-called second-tier characters and sidekicks.
In the MCU era, Black Widow is associated with the Avengers, but for me, the connection is Daredevil.
Also, in the MCU, Black Widow has suffered a double death — her character killed off (and then given an after-the-fact solo film), and the high-profile actor playing the role, Scarlett Johansson, breaking ties with Disney and Marvel.
The end of the Johansson/Black Widow run in the MCU often contrasts with the jumbled ways Marvel has handled Black Widow in the comic books (see below where Black Widow has had 8 volumes, often running only 3 issues, with a total of 50 issues and running) beginning with her introduction in 1964.
But there is one significant similarity, identified by Johansson in an article for Salon:
All of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualization of this character and, I mean, you look back at ‘Iron Man 2’ and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know? Really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really. And Tony even refers to her as something like that at one point.
Consider as one extreme case, the MAX series from 2002:
But this reductive hypersexualization goes back to the 1960s and 1970s as well, with the artwork of Gene Colon:
Brown confronts that hypersexualization and exoticizing marginalized (by race and/or gender) characters are standard practices in superhero comics:
Black women in the media, especially within the superhero genre, are still constructed as exotic sexual spectacles, as erotic racial “Others.”… Female superheroines…are primarily depicted as scantily clad and erotically posed fetish objects. (pp. 134, 135)
Black Widow, although white, fits into the pattern of hypersexuality and othering as exotic (her Russian and mysterious as well as isolated background). Brown’s recognition that female superheroes are often reduced to “purely symbolic images,” especially noting “the way that superheroines are portrayed as sexual objects on comic book covers” (p. 144):
“[T]he superhero genre of comic books continues to reply heavily on stereotypes of all kinds,” Brown concludes — and throughout her solo career in Marvel comics, Black Widow represents the irony found directly in a central motif of her characterization:
“But like most men, in the end,” Natalia Romanova observes, “he underestimates me.”
Throughout her years in the print Marvel Universe, Black Widow has far too often been underestimated by the (mostly) men who write her story and draw her life into action — men hypersexualizing and Othering her along the way.
There is another layer to these problems, however, since there have been and currently are powerful and far less problematic versions of Black Widow along the way; regardless of the quality, it seems, of how creative teams deal with Black Widow, the Men (the Industry) continue to underestimate, and fail the character.
The current run, volume 8, has been a stellar and beautiful rendering of Black Widow, not surprisingly in the hands of women — Kelly Thompson (writer), Elena Casagrande (artist), and others:
There remains a noir quality to this version of Black Widow, and certainly, Black Widow continues to be sexual and physically compelling. But the rich humanity and complexity of being Black Widow / Natalie Grey (Natasha Romanoff) is more fully realized in this volume, often to critical acclaim.
With the track record behind the character of Black Widow, time will ultimately tell if Marvel and superhero comics can finally stop underestimating this character, can allow the full and complex humanity to exist beyond the reductive hypersexualizing.
Black Widow represents that too many have failed superhero comics even though comic book universes allow a nearly endless opportunity to imagine and reimagine again and again.
Doing it right, I believe in that too.
Jeffrey A. Brown, “Panthers and Vixens: Black Superheroines, Sexuality, and Stereotypes in Contemporary Comic Books,” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, ed. Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Appendix: Black Widow Comics, an Overview
Vol. 1 (1999) — Grayson, Jones “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”
Vol. 2 (2001) — Grayson, Rucka, Hampton
Graphic Novels V1–2:
- Black Widow: The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
- Marvel Knights Black Widow by Grayson & Rucka: The Complete Collection
Black Widow MAX (2002) — Rucka
Vol. 3 (2004–2005) — Morgan, Sienkiewicz, Parlov
Graphic Novel V3:
Vol. 4 (2010–2011) — Liu, Acuna, Swierczynski, Garcia
Graphic Novel V4:
Vol. 5 (2014–2015) — Edmondson, Noto
Graphic Novel V5:
- Black Widow Volume 1: The Finely Woven Thread
- Black Widow Volume 2: The Tightly Tangled Web
- Black Widow Vol. 3: Last Days
Vol. 6 (2016–2017) — Waid, Samnee
Graphic Novel V6:
Vol. 7 (2019) — Soska, Armentaro
Graphic Novel V7:
Web of Black Widow (2019–2020) — Houser, Mooney
Vol. 8 (2020- ) — Thompson, Casagrande, De Latorre
Graphic Novel V8: