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‘Badass’ To ‘Damsel In Distress’: The Over Sexualisation Of Black Widow In Avengers

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By Gayle Sequeira:

The much anticipated, immensely successful ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ released on 24th April to rave reviews, earning a whopping $187.6 million in box office collections in the opening weekend.

In the midst of such acclaim however, a social media backlash from dissenting members of the Marvel fandom critiquing Whedon’s treatment of Natasha Romanoff as merely a love interest, rather than an important member of the Avengers in her own right, was slowly becoming more and more prominent. This, coupled with Jeremy Renner’s and Chris Evans’ remarks during the recent Avengers press tour branding Romanoff as a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’, causing the event to erupt into a PR firestorm, and the news of Black Widow being left off official Avengers merchandise, raises important questions about representation of female superheroes in movies and popular culture.

Photo Credit: allstarsuperman
Photo Credit: allstarsuperman

The over-sexualization of Natasha Romanoff became apparent in the very first movie her character made an appearance in – ‘Iron Man 2‘. Applying for a post as Tony Stark’s personal assistant, Tony takes this as an opportunity to look up pictures of her in lingerie rather than check up on her credentials. Condescended by Stark’s chauffer Happy who doesn’t believe that she could be proficient at boxing, the tables turn as Natasha out-manoeuvres him, and is ultimately instrumental in saving the day at the end of the film. Her skills at martial arts and covert espionage once again take center stage in 2014’s ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘, but are sadly lacking in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron‘ where majority of her character revolves around an unlikely romance.

In the comics canon, Natasha has had relationships with Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Bucky Barnes and Matt Murdock (Daredevil). The first Avengers movie seemed to lean heavily towards the first of these relationships, portraying Clint and Natasha as kindred spirits, spies who had waded into a war much bigger than anything they had encountered before, reliant on each other for support. Despite Hawkeye being absent in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘, his invaluable presence in Natasha’s life was made prominent by the arrow necklace worn by her as a homage to him.

The fact that the movies went from an established ‘Clintasha’ pairing to a forced and awkward ‘Brucenat’ romance, from Natasha’s declaration that “love is for children” to her wanting to ride off into the sunset with Bruce Banner, left fans reeling. Moments such as Natasha prioritizing taking a shower with Bruce in the midst of a global crisis, and Bruce falling face-first onto Natasha at the party crashed by Ultron, rounded out the cringe worthiness of the film.

Despite her rich and complex back-story, references to Natasha’s horrific training in the Red Room were much too brief and her reaction to her forced sterilization was interpreted by many as an indictment of women unable to bear children. Natasha calls herself a ‘monster’ because she has been rendered infertile, angering members of the fandom unable to bear children themselves.

Criticism about Natasha being ‘out of character’ are made even sadder when one realizes that the man in charge of writing the movie, Joss Whedon is a self-proclaimed feminist. The second Avengers movie feels like a complete erasure of Black Widow’s badassery from the first, a regression from her being brave enough to fly an alien vehicle despite being unfamiliar with the technology, being responsible for the reversal of Clint’s brainwashed state via ‘cognitive re-calibration’, and ultimately being the one to shut down the portal, to her being used as a plot device for romance and being heartbroken at the end when Bruce leaves in order to protect her, even though it’s been made clear on multiple occasions that she can hold her own and doesn’t need to be coddled. Natasha’s one epic moment of bravery is when she retrieves the cradle from Ultron and his lackeys, flying through the air spectacularly as she’s poised to land on the Avengers’ Quinjet. However, that too backfires and Natasha finds herself captured, locked in a cage, and needing the male Avengers to rescue her – a pattern viewers are all too familiar with. It is reminiscent of ‘Thor 2‘ where brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster was reduced to a pining love interest, needing Thor’s help to survive the Aether infecting her body.

Coming back to a lack of Black Widow representation in official merchandise, vlogger Alex Day points out that despite having the third-largest amount of screen time in the movie, Black Widow has the least amount of Avengers-branded merchandise. Fans have taken to Tumblr to speak about how even companies like Johnson and Johnson’s and Kinder contribute to this under-representation. Both Johnson & Johnson’s line of band-aids and Kinder’s Kinder Surprise eggs feature all the male avengers, but noticeably leave out Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. This dissent isn’t just limited to the fandom- Mark Ruffalo himself tweeted asking for more Black Widow merchandise for his daughters and nieces.

With no plans for a Black Widow solo movie anytime soon, her next appearance in the Marvel Comic Universe will be in next year’s ‘Civil War’. With the Russo brothers on board, fans are hopeful for a complete overhaul of Black Widow, a return to the character fans have loved and idolized for years.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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