Female Performance and White Privilege in Marvel’s The Avengers

Inspired by the popular films that grace the silver screen and our recent lecture, this post will focus on the female performance of militarized masculinity along with the concept of white privilege in the movie The Avengers. The comic-inspired adventure movie is based upon the super-humans who form the group The Avengers, and their quest to help save the earth from alien armies that threaten to takeover. The character of my interest however is the only female in the group, Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson), who is a spy and trained in combat.


Romanoff demonstrates the inherent warrior mentality to fight with this group of specialized forces, and is depicted as a powerful, key member of The Avengers. Never a liability, she has achieved high respect from important military figures. Although her hyper sexualized nature and stereotypical heroin appearance is impossible to ignore, overall I feel Scarlett Johansson’s character provides an example of female empowerment and breaks binary social constructions.

Similar to the female role of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty as expressed in class, Natasha Romanoff has a firm belonging in the group and has respect of the people around her. One of the first scenes of the film opens with an agent calling her while she is in the field undercover. She proceeds to easily manipulate and beat up three men while on the telephone after the agent informs her she must come in because they “need her” and The Avengers group would not be complete without her. (YouTube link of the scene described: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wOE8cPWTMc). There is no issue of performance to see as a result of her femininity; she has the strength, skill, and abilities to help protect the entire planet. One improvement in comparison to Maya’s character I found though was that Johansson’s character did not have to work throughout the movie to gain her place. Rather, immediately from the start The Black Widow was a fierce and powerful super-human and the world required her assistance.

This respect for her abilities, and a man’s confidence in her attributes is not only refreshing, but also how it should be. However, it is a sad reality that these qualities are rare to find in many adventure storylines such as this one. Taking another one of the films discussed in class for example, Happy Feet, the female penguin is turned down by Mumble to join him on his adventure. He is convinced that she would not be “happy” to go out exploring; she would regret not having a home and children. Thus, the stereotypical female traits attached to her femininity mark her as unsuitable for this adventure. It’s a sad realization that all over media sources we see female characters only acceptable at a certain time and place.

Happy Feet Ship

Although Scarlett Johansson’s character is can be looked at with a sense of female empowerment, it is crucial her appearance is not ignored. While she does in fact reinforce all the stereotypical characteristics of a heroin by being beautiful and hyper sexualized, the fact that she is a young, white woman is also interesting. Could perhaps some of her success be credited to the inherit white privilege that she has? What’s more, all members of the avengers are white, upper-class individuals. Do you think we should overlook this undeniable fact that this elite white male-dominated group only has one woman in it that happens to be of white skin color? Is this a message to viewers about race in general? Those only white upper class individuals have the ability to make a difference in the world? Thoughts?

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About crazyforcats9

GNDS student taking on the world of race, class, and popular culture one blog at a time.
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4 Responses to Female Performance and White Privilege in Marvel’s The Avengers

  1. chairmanmeeeow says:

    Although I haven’t seen The Avengers or Zero Dark Thirty, your descriptions of The Black Widow and Maya’s characters seem to epitomize the female performance of militarized masculinity, involving an emphasis on dominant personality traits rather than displaying any sort of femininity. Using both of these examples within a post on this topic was a great choice!

    I found the last question you posted (regarding if only white, upper class people have the ability to make a difference) to be refreshing. We often think about white privilege in society, and also the advantages that come along with being of a certain gender, class, or level of ‘attractiveness’. However, I do not tend to consider if these individuals are the only ones able to make a difference within the world. This does seem to be the message portrayed by this movie though, and is also evident generally in society. How many wealthy, white celebrities do you hear about “making a difference” as opposed to your neighbour at the end of the street? This of course may have to do with the fact that these individuals lead more publicized lives, but is nonetheless important to think about.

    Just one question- militarized masculinity is often perpetuated by rewarding the individual for being aggressive, violent, and upholding a ‘warrior mentality’. Do The Black Widow or Maya experience this their respective film? You stated that The Black Widow achieves “respect” from important military figures, but is she decorated with any medals or other measurable awards?

  2. crazyforcats9 says:

    Thats an interesting question chairmanmeow… The character of Black Widow in The Avengers is not depicted as receiving any specific award for her actions. It should be noted that after the group of super humans saves the Earth there is no follow up scene – the film leaves the audience with the message that they will all go their separate ways until the world needs them again. Does anyone feel that this lack of specific recognition of her actions downplay her militarized masculinity? I think I would argue that this lack of recognition is what adds to her militarized masculinity – she’s not individually rewarded with a medal because her aggressive ‘warrior mentality’ is what was expected of her, as well as the other super humans, when they agreed to take on this mission. Thoughts?

    • chairmanmeeeow says:

      I do think that honouring her with some sort of reward would further emphasize the militarized masculinity that her character puts forward, but I also believe that the story was written this way to have a hanging ending in order to support the sequel that is coming out in 2015. A common theme throughout super hero movies is being around when they are needed and disappearing when they aren’t (maybe to keep an air of mystery?), so I think ending the movie this way was much more fitting than having a big closing awards ceremony (or something of that nature)!!! Great point though about not NEEDING an award to display militarized masculinity, as the violent, aggressive nature is often what is expected of individuals in these roles.

  3. pinkpanther2287 says:

    I think it is an interesting comparison between Scarlett Johansson’s character, The Black Widow, and the female penguin in the movie Happy Feet. Although I haven’t seen The Avenger’s, based on your description, she seems like a powerful and dangerous character. On the other hand, the female penguin in Happy Feet is portrayed as submissive and “stuck” in stereotypical female roles. I agree with chairmanmeow, it IS refreshing to see an empowering female protagonist in The Black Widow character.

    Despite the positive recognition her character has received, I believe the name chosen for her character is a little telling. A female black widow spider is deadly and known to eat her male partner. Similar to the depiction of Scarlett Johansson’s character, she hold power over others (men included). Though she is seen as a character of strength, there is a theme among powerful women in media and film. These women are hypersexualized and use their sexuality to manipulate others. They are perceived as being a femme fatale. It is discouraging to think that in order to be deemed a powerful woman in society, one’s sexuality is the “reasoning” or “excuse” influencing this power.

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