Representation of women in media: Black Widow

Representation of women in media is still poor. Black Widow is a strong woman who has been subject to all types of comments, including what might seem like ‘a simple sexist comment’ on the Avengers tour. Jeremy Renner recently tried to explain on CONAN the real meaning of calling Black Widow a ‘slut.’ He states:

I was asked the question like, so Black Widow’s been linked to Hawkeye, Iron Man, Bruce Banner, and Captain America, so what do you think about that. Well, I said, ‘It sounds like she’s a slut.’ Now, mind you, I was talking about a fictional character and fictional behavior, but Conan if you slept with four of the six Avengers, no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut.

Even if he points out that calling ‘slut’ to a fictional character, there are problems in that statement. People do see themselves mirrored in fictional characters, and degrading the portrayal of such fictional character can have very negative results, specially for those who see themselves represented by Black Widow.

Representation of diversity in comics and movies is key for youngsters and adults to see themselves on paper or on screens. However, when representation of a percentage of the population is thin, shaming the character who represents that small percentage shows up what’s wrong with society nowadays. The primary team of the Avengers is composed by one woman Black Widow, recently joined by Scarlet Witch in the Avengers 2. Men get represented by Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, War Machine, Quicksilver… Even if we add Maria Hill to the equation, we can certainly find a minority of female characters represented in the movie. Black Widow in the MCU is the oldest female member of the Avengers, and she has been working for S. H. I. E. L. D. for quite a while before joining the team.

Representation of Women in the Avengers is thin: Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Maria Hill. The one who has got more time on the screen, Black Widow, has been recently been called ‘slut’ because of her behavior in the movies. But why? Is it because boys hate this character or is there something deeper in that statement, that was shaped as a joke by two cast members of the Avengers? Why are we so eager to call Iron Man a “playboy” and Black Widow a “slut”? Is Black Widow’s behavior challenging anything in particular?

What makes it okay to see the claim of Tony Stark to be a “playboy” not-so-bad, or even good; and the same behavior or similar behavior of a female character as being a “slut”? If we take a look at the roots of our patriarchal society, we might find the answer.

We like it or not, we are still living into a patriarchy, a social system in which male hold the primary power: they have better representations in media, held the political leadership, have social privilege and tend to control property. As such, it is not a surprise to find out that most of what comes out from Hollywood is tainted by the male gaze, the gaze of those who held the power.

However, we are living in an age of change, in which patriarchy is contested by an emerging economic group: women. Women are working and are now demanding more and better portrayal of themselves in media. Since fictional characters define and explain roles and help even explain diversity and identities, the fact that part of the cast of a movie belonging to the privileged group shames a fictional character of the non-privileged group shows up where we stand socially right now.

The clash between the privileged group against the emerging still non-privileged group is founded in rooted shared beliefs that have been existing within the community for a long time.

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Women are blamed if they have many lovers. Men aren’t.

While Iron Man can be forgiven, Black Widow certainly not. Not only that, Stark will use the word “playboy” with ease while Black Widow wouldn’t dare to use the word “playgirl,”
since by itself can be equal to the word “slut.” To qualify Black Widow as a “slut” means that we agree that her behavior of having more than one sexual partner or relationships, makes of her a lesser, or even tainted, member of society. Her behavior puts her away from the shared cultural construct of a woman arriving to her wedding night as a virgin and pure. She hasn’t been touched by other men, she is pure, and now she will be owned by her husband and husband alone.

Let’s stop for a moment onto the shared cultural construct of a pure woman that gives her purity to the husband, and the ideas of purity and ownership. According to this vision, women are but objects owned by men. The only way to know that they are “new” and out of the brand new box it’s by demonstrating their purity. It might sound rude, but opening your brand new Mac from the box, unpacking it, smelling the new scent and being sure to be the first one to posses it, sounds quite the same as the ideal of a woman.

Hyper sexualization not only appears in visual representation but also in speech. How we describe others, real people or fictional people, give us clues about which social constructs are rooted into our brains. Women as objects are subject to degradation if their behaviors do not comply with “tradition,” in this case, the shared social construct found within our society.

Let’s think about the use of adjectives within the language. Men and women can be qualified as old, fat, ugly and “used.” Think about why for a woman these adjectives have a stronger negative impact than for a man. If we think of women as objects, their value is eroded further than that of human beings. Whereas an old woman can be seen as useless once surpassing a certain age, and old man has experience and can always give back to society. Women become a burden, men gain respect and experience. Why is that? Because men are the privileged group and held power within society. Even though in recent times objectification of men is happening as well, reality is that women have been so subjected to objectification that society relates the ideal of woman with the ideal of a brand new car. As objects, when used by too many people, their value goes down. In this sense, men are users and women products or objects to be used by men. Those in society who are similar to women, like gay men, are degraded as well, since they become objects that can be used.

In this scene of Pepper Potts talking to the journalist Christine Everhart, we find the same idea stated by Mr. Renner in the interview.

Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: [after Stark’s one night stand with Christine] I have your clothes here; they’ve been dry cleaned and pressed. And there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.
Christine Everheart: You must be the famous Pepper Potts.
Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: [smiles and nods] Indeed I am.
Christine Everheart: After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning.
Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: I do anything and everything Mr. Stark requires. Including occasionally taking out the trash. Will that be all?

Socially, Christine’s behavior is seen as immoral, and is reminded by Pepper about her bad behavior. But when we confront her with Stark, we can see that he is forbidden for his behavior. In fact, this scene can be seen as a quarrel between two “gadgets owned” by Stark, to see which one is his favorite, if we stick to the shared social construct.

So, if women as the non-privileged group are seen as objects, and men as the privileged group are seen as human, what about morality?


Western cultures seem to see Casanova and the Playboy as men of low morals, or men who have lack of them. However, socially, these men are committing a sin that can be forgiven, and even having lots of women can be seen as funny. Stark is an example of hypocritical morality. Even though socially many can point him with the finger, reality is that many would like to be like him. This is why his romances, alcoholism and parties are all forbidden. But when we are confronted with Black Widow we see no forgiveness at all.

She has a similar behavior, and while Stark is forbidden, she is openly condemned. Men can have weaknesses, but women are ill-intentioned. Men fall into temptation, and women are those who always tempt men. Men loose their senses to women, the poor ones. Women are like Machiavelli, cold and manipulative.

This sets the privileged group as powerful and a victim when confronted with morality. When morality is broken, the privileged group is automatically seen as a victim, and hence, they cannot be blamed by their actions. Instead, the non-privileged group gets all the blame for the exact same behavior.

Reality is that both men and women, Stark and Black Widow, can do what they please with their bodies. As adults, they can decide to have as many relationships as they want, being all consenting parties. Nor men nor women can be qualified as “sluts” for deciding to have several relationships, with their same sex or different sex as they see fit.

It is time to erase that ideal image of women that belongs to the Middle Ages, times where the means to ensure property and lineage where key to determine who would keep on carrying the name and take care of all properties of the house.

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So, what happens when a co-star of a blockbuster movie states publicly that one of the few female characters in the film is a “slut”? What is this man stating really?

He is stating that he believes that men and women are not equal. That men are the privileged group that can use the non-privileged group as their property. That he has the power at the moment and can present himself as the guardian of morality. He is stating that women who are active and decide to have roles similar or equal to men are immoral. He is stating that powerful women are immoral.

Celebrities like Mr. Renner should be aware of the impact they can have as role models within our society. People not only find mirrors in fictional characters but also see themselves reflected on the actors themselves. The public, as consumers, will consume images of their role models, fictional or real, and use them to explain their identities to themselves and other members of society. Celebrities have prestige and authority within society to become “objects of imitation.” As such, what they state is crucial, not only to see or grasp how society thinks or how culture is unfolding in media, but also when influencing others or helping change within society.

In a medium where most of represented characters are male characters and where a minority is represented by few female characters, what role models, celebrities with charisma and authority, state is paramount. To affirm publicly that one of the few strong female characters in the film is a “slut” explain volumes, not only about the celebrity who said those words, but also about part of our own society.


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Copyright: Images on this post (C) Marvel

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A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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