How Black Widow Depicts themes of dehumAnization and human trafficking

By Jillian Chilingerian

When Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) first appeared on the screen in “Iron Man 2”(2010), Tony Stark referred to her as “I want one” and that is how she was characterized throughout her entire 10-year run.

Dressed in her skintight catsuit and every shade of red hair, her onscreen role was to have sexual tension with every member of the Avengers whom she aimlessly followed around and fought in battle.

The news of a solo film starring the former Russian spy was a shock especially after she was killed off in the latest Avengers. The film would take place between “Captain America Civil War”(2016) and “Avengers Infinity War”(2018). It seemed like her story was all wrapped up, but “Black Widow”(2021) gives the audience the closure that was absent in her final appearance.

“Black Widow” is a female story told through a much-needed female gaze that breaks up the Marvel Cinematic Universe boy’s club. Black Widow has been continuously objectified by her creators so that her sense of humanity was long gone and that stopped her from capturing an audience. She is finally getting the justice she deserves. This film further proves how female directors emphasize the woman instead of objectifying her.

From the first five minutes of “Black Widow”, it was evident that this was not your typical Marvel film.

Set to a slowed-down cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Malia J, images of kidnapped girls being tortured and trained to target world leaders splattered across the screen in a dark montage. A young Natasha and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) are removed from their Ohio suburb life and taken to the Red Room by their fake parents where they are experimented on and brainwashed into assassins. The most heartbreaking part of this is the reality that human trafficking victims are often trafficked by someone close to them. It becomes a vicious cycle of abuse that runs in families and since their adoptive mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) was a product of the Red Room it was inevitable.

Director Cate Shortland tapped into the reality of human trafficking, reproductive rights, and the dehumanization of women. The women handle their trauma with comedic relief to show that they are trying to come up and face it versus letting it leave them in a victim mindset.

Marvel’s previous attempt to tap into Natasha’s backstory was used as a device to move along a romantic relationship versus explain her as a character. In a scene from “Age of Ultron” (2015), while talking to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), she lets him know that she cannot have children because of sterilization in the Red Room.

“Black Widow” corrects this attempt in a sequence where the sisters break Alexei (David Harbour) out of Russian prison, and she explains that her uterus was taken out at the Red Room after he makes a sexist comment directed at the sisters’ aggression.

Throughout history, forced sterilization has been used to control large groups of people and victims of human trafficking. The women of the Red Room have no control over their own bodies.

The movie is catching heat because the advertised villain of the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) was drastically changed to fit the story. But they are not the villain; the patriarchy is the villain, and the Taskmaster is a product of this vile system. The system did this to them. It saw them as weak and an abundance resource that no one wanted.

These abducted women have no control over their choices. They are programmed to follow orders. Yelena points out that the vest she wears in the movie is the first piece of clothing she has ever bought for herself. Something as simple as being able to buy a vest hits deeply when you think about how women are constantly controlled in the choices they are allowed to make. The happiness on Yelena’s face when talking about how many pockets the vest had sparked an emotional response from audience members.

What works with the film that we do not see in many females led films is that they let her be a woman. They discard the idea of the “cool girl” and emphasize all the beautiful aspects of womanhood, most specifically vulnerability. We see a side of Natasha that was teased in “Endgame” as being emotional and she is not punished for feeling empathy or having a heart.

While Natasha faces off against the leader of the Red Room, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), she breaks her nose to symbolize she is no longer going to be controlled by this man. She ends Dreykov’s control over her and frees herself for good. She has taken her right to choose back. Real-life victims of human trafficking are subjected to forced drug usage for their abusers to exploit them. When he reveals how many women he has abducted and controlled all over the world it hits deep because the reality is that this happens everywhere.

The line that broke all our hearts is when Dreykov says “using the only natural resource that the world has too much of…girls.” Natasha’s face falls when she sees the innocent faces of the Widows he has collected over the years displayed on the screen. Instead of being seen as humans, these women are just objects to aid in this man’s plan to hold power. They are just another body in the operation.

The “Black Widow” director revealed that all the Widows were purposefully cast with actors from across the globe. She wanted to address how young girls all over the globe are subjected to abuse of power. This establishes the far-reaching impact of the Red Room and its global operations. It is not just limited to women that look like Scarlett Johansson but affects all women. The diversity in casting makes this narrative legitimate.

Natasha and Yelena’s journey is one of the strengths and resilience that human trafficking survivors endure. Cate Shortland was able to beautifully convey the horrors of this real-world issue that viewers can understand. She drops the fantasy aspect Marvel utilizes and tells a real story of a killer superhero fighting against real-world horrors and coming out the other side a victor.


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