Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Iron Man 2. MERRICK MORTON/©PARAMOUNT/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION Via Hollywood Reporter
Oversexualization of female superheroes has been a problem for years, one that is heated and ongoing. Right now, with social media constantly in the headlines, much attention has been paid to how various social networks impact body image. But the way role models like superheroes are portrayed on the big screen is equally as important.
How are such representations affecting young minds today? The release of the Black Widow movie in summer 2021 renewed the urgency of this question.
Since Black Widow became the first female superhero to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first female Avenger, her character has been a flashpoint of oversexualization. From her first appearance in Iron Man 2, her character was criticized by none other than Scarlett Johansson, the actor who plays her. “While [Iron Man 2] was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualised, you know?” Johansson said while referring to Black Widow in an interview with Collider. “[She is] really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever.”
Seeing that kind of portrayal affects young people negatively. “I thought of them [superheroes] like you would think of celebrities. A lot of people idolize Marvel and DC heroes,” Isabelle Wang, a young fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, wrote in a text message. “Those heroes telling [people] something will have a greater impact,” coming from their mouths than coming from someone less looked up to, specifically when that statement sends a problematic message.
“There’s a great deal of sexual innuendo in Stark’s dialogue, particularly when he talks to or about Natalie [Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow],” Common Sense Media wrote in a review of Iron Man 2. “I want one,” is the dialogue from Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) in reference to Black Widow in that film.
“Iron Man reduces Black Widow to nothing more than a sexual goal,” said Erica Lurie Hurvitz upon hearing this quote. Lurie Hurvitz is the mother of a middle school girl, and has no prior familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Young people should have role models who are portrayed as complete and competent individuals, not just as sexualized objects.”
Scarlet Johansson would agree. “As a woman, I’m in a different place in my life, you know? And I felt more forgiving of myself, as a woman, and not — sometimes probably not enough,” she remarked in the Collider interview. “I’m more accepting of myself, I think. All of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualization of this character [Black Widow].”