Giving ‘The Avengers’ a Leg Up on Black Widow’s Fight Cred
The Avengers is just around the corner, and with it will come–as expected–a barrage of adrenaline-pumped set pieces sure to win audiences over worldwide. The trailers have already hinted at the different styles of physicality each Avengers member will bring to the table: the skybound-swashbuckling of Iron Man, the overbearing brutality of the Hulk, the Olympic lunges and leaps of Captain America, etc. But the fighting style most likely to invite an eye-roll is Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson), due to the burden of overt sexuality placed on beautiful women in action movies, and awkwardly enough, during action scenes.
For example, in 1995′s Goldeneye, Famke Janssen played the groan-inducing Xenia Onatopp, who fights James Bond…with her thighs. Instead of seducing Bond and assaulting him with, say, a weapon, Xenia’s legs turn out to be her weapons, becoming the tools she uses to pinch his lungs as he struggles to free himself. Despite the well-known reputation of Bond films to caricature and objectify women (a factor strangely mistaken for excusing the deed), Goldeneye’s Xenia pushes the rule to strange and silly limits.
But even outside of the “acceptable” world of James Bond, female characters in action films are still tasked with fighting men in ways that would be decried as “too sexual” for male heroes. Men are hardly ever written into situations in which they need to scissor adversaries to overpower them; instead, they’re more often granted the privilege of fighting for their lives without subjection to sexual overtones. But female heroes like Mallory Kane in Haywire, for instance, are put matter-of-factly into positions of thigh-squeezing in order to get the job done:
In the case of the Haywire clip above, the male assailant has no intention of forced intimacy before the kill; he simply wants Kane dead–yet he somehow ends up between femurs. It’s hard to imagine action heroes like Indiana Jones or Jason Bourne being attacked in the same way. Even if either of those characters were gay, an injection of sexual imagery into their struggles to thwart their own violent murders would be incredibly inappropriate. Why the standard is different for straight women fighting members of the opposite sex remains a mystery.
But predictably, that separate standard was embraced during Black Widow’s debut film, Iron Man 2. Johansson, or her stunt double, played the Widow as breathtakingly quick and creative in her fighting style, revealing a seasoned pro with an arsenal of athletic abilities and options at her disposal for combat. The fact that her tactics were reduced to hugging baddies between her hips to assault them feels forced when imagining superheroes like Batman or Daredevil doing the same thing. If more moviemakers performed that kind of Litmus test in their heads every once in a while–imagining the same physicality imposed on men as are imposed on a women to smoke out biases–then maybe scenes like this simply wouldn’t happen:
(Somehow, having one of the male heroes of Mortal Kombat make a leg-grab in short shorts–and letting the victim’s head rest between his thighs for a few–just doesn’t feel “right.”)
That’s not to say that sex and violence should never overlap in entertainment, because in real life, they often do. But we should probably take care to notice when that overlap seems to affect one group more than another on screen–and whether that’s fair. In the case of the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle clip below, it’s perfectly reasonable that Dylan’s old sexual partner–and new nemesis–would force her into a sexual position, uncomfortable as that is for us. It’s unreasonable that Dylan welcomes his kiss and moans with pleasure at being molested. Most likely, no woman fighting for her life, no matter how attractive her assailant, would hope to get an orgasm out of it.
In The Avengers, the Black Widow will be the only female field operative on her team. If she’s going to be seen as an equal by audiences–and she damn well should be–then the film can help by showing us a woman who fights just as brutally, honestly, and authentically as her male teammates. And until the day we see Captain America spread-eagling his enemies to death, maybe it’s better not to make Black Widow straddle the line between hitting and humping.
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