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OPINION: Black Widow – movie milestone for women or post-MeToo marketing ploy?

The new Marvel film, Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson, Rachel Weisz and Florence Pugh.
The new Marvel film, Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson, Rachel Weisz and Florence Pugh.

As the mother of a teenage boy, the arrival of Black Widow in movie theatres might not have made much of an impact.

I’m a weary veteran of action superhero films featuring muscle-bound and gadget-laden hunks – Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, and the rest of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – saving the universe.

But the first Marvel Avengers film to focus on three action heroines, who join forces to stick it to the patriarchy and stand up for the sisterhood, has caught my attention.

Maggie Ritchie wonders what Black Widow is really about.

Black Widow, which stars Scarlett Johannsson as the eponymous superhero, opens on Friday in cinemas.

Co-starring Rachel Weisz and Britain’s Florence Pugh, it is also the first in the Marvel Avengers franchise to be directed by a woman, Cate Shortland.

The action movie, also streaming on Disney+, is being hailed as a milestone for women in the Avengers series, which is usually aimed squarely at teenage boys.

Sexual exploitation and sisterhood

While there have been Avengers’ movies centred on a female lead before – Captain Marvel and two Wonder Woman films – Black Widow purports to be different.

The film tackles feminist themes such as sexual exploitation and forced sterilisation.

It’s also a story about sisterhood, with Weisz describing it as a “female buddy movie.”.

The plot involves a secret Russian programme that abducts, brainwashes and sterilises young women and turns them into lethal undercover operatives.

Set after Captain America: Civil War, the film sees Natasha Romanoff AKA the Black Widow, on the run and forced to confront her past.

The ruthless villain Dreykov, is played by Ray Winstone, a misogynist who sneers “girls are the only natural resource the world has too much of”.

Rachel Weisz as Melina in Black Widow.

The film has already received positive reviews from critics who welcome Shortland’s ‘gritty tone’.

But with its kick-action and kinetic combat between women in sleek leather, is it really that much of a departure from the comic book world, and its less-than-enlightened depiction of women?

Traditionally, they are either shrieking victims waiting to be rescued or impossibly well-endowed Amazons in skimpy costumes or skin-tight cat suits, zip enticingly lowered.

Even Supergirl wore a boob tube and mini skirt, and who can forget Lynda Carter’s birdcage bra in the Wonder Woman 1970s TV series?

Lynda Carter at the LA premier of the film Wonder Woman in 2017.

When Scarlett Johansson first appeared in the franchise in 2010 as the high-kicking lethal Russian assassin, she was the object of much ogling from Robert Downey Jr’s character, Tony Stark AKA Iron Man.

Johansson, a talented actress praised for her serious roles in Lost in Translation, and The Girl in the Pearl Earring, complained her Avengers character had been over-sexualised and that the script had treated Black Widow “like a piece of meat”.

Since then, and after Romanoff sacrificed herself to save Hawkeye in Avengers: Endgame, Black Widow’s character has “come a long way, baby,” as the 1970s and 1980s Virginia Slims advertisements had it.

Back then, the Philip Morris company was accused of cashing in on the Women’s Lib movement, even using an image of a female superhero in one of their ads for cigarettes, the first to be marketed directly at women.

I suspect that Hollywood is doing the same with this movie, cynically exploiting the #Me Too movement to attract a lucrative new audience of teenage girls.

After all, nothing has really changed when it comes to the costumes of the three heroines of Black Widow.

This movie is paying lip service to the women’s movement by touching superficially on sexual exploitation

All are, clad in the obligatory skin-tight catsuits, hailed as one of the sexiest things a woman can wear, if you believe one tabloid last week.

The catsuit is the real star of Black Widow, readers were assured, and a costume can “turn any woman into a foxy feline”.

Call me cynical, but I think this movie is paying lip service to the women’s movement by touching superficially on sexual exploitation.

Black Widow fans Grace McClung and Lexi Ginn strike poses at a screening in LA.

In real life it’s a shocking trade that sees countless vulnerable and desperate women and girls trafficked and sold as modern slaves.

The real victims are not glamorous kick-ass spies but are everywhere, unseen and under the radar.

They are working in nail salons, scrubbing toilets in rich people’s homes, or working in brothels.

Black widow glosses over dark truths

They are enticed from their homes under false pretences of a new life, their passports confiscated, and families back home threatened.

Maybe we need to lighten up.

Maybe there is something to celebrate  in a film with strong women standing up to exploiters, as the Black Widow and her female buddies do.

Maybe it’s just an action movie, an entertaining fantasy.

Still, it makes me queasy to think of the beliefs of young girls being being manipulated to boost the profits of a $10 billion industry – one with its own shameful history of exploiting and abusing actresses.

Maggie Ritchie is an award-winning author and journalist whose third book Daisy Chain is inspired by the eventful lives of the pioneering women artists, the Glasgow Girls.

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