Marvel moves toward female empowerment with ‘Black Widow’

Ivy Secrest

Red themed photo depicting female heroes in different empowering poses
(Graphic Illustration by Falyn Sebastian | The Collegian)

When women ask for strong and relatable female leads, they are often met with hyper-sexualized characters who demean feminine qualities and mainly exist to benefit the male gaze. This lack of genuine representation often creates a void where diverse and strong female communities should exist in media. 

The character of Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson, was treated more as an accessory than a person in Marvel prior to her most recent movie. While inarguably powerful, Romanoff is a woman who has been written for a man’s world. Her aloof coolness fits in without being a threat to the main Avengers, such as Captain America or Iron Man. 


The 2021 film “Black Widow” gave Romanoff the depth that female viewers have craved since first seeing her on-screen. Opening with Romanoff on the run after the split of the Avengers, this film shows viewers the communities women can build and shines a light on modern women’s issues such as human trafficking and bodily autonomy.

The leads lacked romantic interests to lean on for plot points and personality traits. Their goals revolve around family and a desire for justice. The bond between women is highlighted in almost every action that Romanoff and her sister Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh, take.

Fans were introduced to the separation of Romanoff and Belova for the sake of the Black Widow Ops Program. As the two reconnect in their adult lives, it is revealed that the Red Room that produces “Widows” is still running under the radar and Belova has only just escaped its infamous control.

With their intimate knowledge of the program, the women decide to put an end to its abuses. They plan to kill the overseer of the Red Room, Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone, and reunite the family the Red Room provided them.

Johansson and Pugh play to the sisterly dynamic perfectly. Nearly any pair of sisters could relate to the quick-witted and quippy dialect the two engage in. Their spats seem to perfectly fit into the give-and-take of female relationships. 

Their chemistry adds to the narrative of a strained but strong sisterly bond. The writers allow for little teasing moments around Belova’s fashion sense and Romanoff’s fighting style, which build that sisterly bond. It’s easy to tease your siblings and still aim to protect them. The writers understood this aspect of having siblings and made effort to include it in the plot. 

Pugh’s take on Belova’s dry sense of humor makes it easier for audiences to be receptive to points made through the character. This style allows for women’s issues to be represented throughout the film.

When their father Alexei Shostakov, played by David Harbour, makes a comment about the girls being on their periods, Belova starts to explain in detail how the Red Room had forcibly removed their uteruses until Shostakov insists she stop. 

While this is a humorous scene, the discomfort around female reproductive issues mimics a discomfort that exists even in the Marvel writing team. Joss Whedon, one of the Marvel writers, has faced heat in the past for writing scenes that indicate that Romanoff is a “monster” simply because she can’t procreate. 

The way that procreation is so deeply tied to one’s ability to be a woman harms everyone, both in fiction and reality. This time around, Romanoff’s sterilization is treated as a loss of choice, not a flaw in character. 


Belova’s character is used to make several points about topics like forced sterilization and trafficking. Women often deal with issues of bodily autonomy and human trafficking every day, and while it may seem like a stretch to connect such issues to a superhero movie, the connection is clearly there. 

The diction chosen for most of this film mimics key phrases in social justice movements. Romanoff repeatedly states that the Red Room took away her choices and forced her to be of service rather than her own person. 

Phrases like “the right to choose” or “loss of choice” are heavily associated with reproductive rights, which the movie makes clear that the two women are very familiar with. 

By creating a superhero movie with female leads who discuss female issues, Marvel has deepened representation in the media.

Not only does the phrasing give way to feminist ideals, but so do the relationships between the three Widows. Romanoff manages to create trust between her and Belova and rebuild a bond with their mother, Melina Vostokova, played by Rachel Weisz.

Though this family is not related biologically, the bond they create is just as strong. These women are able to raise each other up through their shared trauma in the Red Room and resolve to help other Widows who don’t have the same freedoms. 

These conversations about abuse and conditioning in the Red Room feel so real and close to our hearts because it’s applicable to many women’s realities. Breaking through societal barriers and sharing trauma with one another has been how women have survived in even the most oppressive of circumstances. 

Vostokova, who is still immersed in the Red Room upon her introduction, represents women who have given up on change because they see no way out. Romanoff and Belova represent hope, and they show Vostokova enough of that to bring her back into the fight. 

This kind of generational turnover is so moving — the pain these women have endured is unbelievable, yet they persist. As Vostokova puts it, “Your pain only makes you stronger.”

By creating a superhero movie with female leads who discuss female issues, Marvel has deepened representation in the media. While this isn’t the first time they’ve done this, it is the first time it’s been done without leaning on classic tropes that turn characters two-dimensional. 

It is refreshing to see women portrayed as more than just a means to an end. Marvel has finally given its audience a woman-centric movie without the unnecessary insertion of a male savior.

Ivy Secrest can be reached at or on Twitter @IvySecrest.