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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

Women in Speculative Fiction: Black Widow

Women in Speculative Fiction: Black Widow
The character of Black Widow first appeared in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense number 52, published in 1964. Created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck, she started off as one of Iron Man’s foes before defecting to the USA. Black Widow got her own series in the 1970’s, and has since worked with the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D, the Champions, and many other of the Marvel heroes.

What do we know about Natasha Romanoff’s background?

She’s an ex-Russain super spy, who uses plenty of high tech gadgets for her weapons – like those wristbands that shoot out spider threads. She knows her martial arts, is an excellent spy, and is a sniper/marksman. As an orphan, she was raised by the USSR’s Black Widow Ops program (including the Red Room), where she was “biotechnologically and psycho-technologically enhanced” (Source). This is also where she was brainwashed, and had many false memories planted (including the memories of being a ballerina that we see in the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron movie).

She does eventually break free of the brainwashing, and defects to the US to become a member of the Avengers.

What was our world like when Black Widow was created?

It’s not surprising that the femme fatale created to fight against Iron Man was a Russian spy. The year Natasha Romanoff first appeared was two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, right in the middle of both the Space Race and the Cold War. The USA and the USSR were bitter enemies. It only makes sense that a new femme fatale would be Russian.

This isn’t the only time in popular culture where we see a beautiful and deadly Russian spy defect to the USA – Tatiana Romanova from Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel From Russia With Love also is a deadly secret agent who wants to defect to a western country.

How does the Earth-616 Black Widow differ from the MCU Black Widow?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) isn’t the same universe as the main Marvel one (which is called Earth-616). As with any adaptation from books of any sort, there are going to be differences – some more important than others, but hopefully all of which still maintain the overall feeling and meaning of the original source material, just making it more accessible to a different medium.

When Black Widow was first introduced to us in the MCU in Iron Man 2, I was highly disappointed that she was already working with S.H.I.E.L.D. – in the comics, we first meet Natasha Romanoff when she is a Russian spy and is one of Iron Man’s antagonists. The lack of backstory felt very much like I was being robbed of character development.

There’s also the fact that what happened in the Red Room seems to have differed greatly depending on which universe Black Widow is in. In the MCU, as a graduation, Natasha was “sterilized.” In the Earth-616 universe, I’ve heard/read conflicting things… one is that she cannot have children due to the Super Soldier serum that has “enhanced” her to be resistant to aging and disease. On the other hand, in Marjorie Liu’s Black Widow comics, Natasha was pregnant in one flashback, though it never went into exactly what happened to the baby, other than the fact that it died.

What are Black Widow’s perceived weaknesses?

SO. The biggest thing that people seem to consider a flaw with the MCU Black Widow is the fact that she can’t have children. This apparently makes her less feminine, though I am not entirely sure why. (Seriously, there are real women alive on our earth who cannot have children for some reason – are you saying that they aren’t feminine?)

SO. Let’s just pretend that this is a real weakness in her character… from what I’ve seen of Black Widow, this would be more likely to infuriate her and motivate her to take down those who had done this to her and her body.

For me, what I see as Black Widow’s weakness is that she has these memories that she knows are false but… she still remembers doing them. Memories can be a strong thing that can influence anything we do, and how we react to other things. If a person has to go with what his/her gut tells him/her in a situation where a decision need to be made immediately, based on previous experiences and not on rational thought, wouldn’t that person run into the risk of basing a decision on previous experience, even if that memory is false but has a strong emotional resonance? I think most of us would… It’s got to be pretty gosh darn difficult for Natasha to navigate her own memories, even those that she knows are false, to come to a decision based on past experiences. This could very easily be manipulated and used against her.

Is Black Widow still a strong female character with her major flaws?

Is this really a question that needs answering? This is a woman who has overcome brainwashing (at least once, depending on what universe you are paying attention to), who has defected to another country, and who can hold her own alongside those who are considered “superheroes.” She’s independent, and has courageously overcome odds that have been thrown at her way. The flaws/weaknesses in her character only go to show what she had/has to overcome to be where she is today, and makes her a much more realistic and relatable character.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on Black Widow? What do you think her weaknesses are, and would you still consider her a strong female character with these weaknesses?

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 8:32 am May 20, 2015.
Category: Women in Speculative Fiction

  • Jessica

    Honestly, I think that flaws make for a stronger character; a character without flaws is two dimensional at best. I would have liked to see more character development, and more delving into the psychological reasons she felt she was a “monster” than the fact that she’s been sterilized (which really, not a “flaw”), some expansion on all the “red in [her] ledger”. The sterilization has become the whole focus of discussions of her character instead of the fact that she kicks some serious ass, which is sad.

  • Lesley Donaldson

    Her major flaw is that she hangs around with the Avengers (Marvel/movies). I love kick-ass women, but I feel that all of her participation is a hint above, “Go fetch us a cup of tea, dear.” And this latest romantic story line… bah, really?? The people (read: men) who write reduce women to their uterus have uterus envy. They should stick with their own half of the equation.