From my seat on teh Interwebs, I’ve been hearing that Natasha is both a major stride forward for women in film and yet at the same time some sort of failure of feminism, because she has no powers and gets scared and runs errands. Or something. (You can guess where I fall in this spectrum.)
And this isn’t all from men! A large portion of this second viewpoint comes to me from outspokenly feminist sources, people who care about gender roles and social justice in general. Some of them are disenchanted with Whedon’s record regarding POCs, which is completely valid but I feel is irrelevant to this discussion aside from saying this:
If you expect any female character — or any character who belongs to a group chronically under-represented in mainstream media — to perfectly represent your ideal of that group, she has already fallen victim to tokenism.
We see this all the time with characters who are POC. If they have flaws, they’re caricatures; if they don’t, they’re unrealistic, or worse, unsympathetic. No white male character is subjected to this level of scrutiny because he is automatically assumed to be an individual, not a representative. We’ve been trained by seeing white male characters everywhere to think this way, and until women and POC become commonplace we have to do the heavy lifting ourselves.
So bend from the knees, people, not from the waist.
Natasha is a person. She’s a remarkable person, because more than possibly any superhero in Marvel or DC, she knows one essential truth:
The Black Widow uses everything she has at her disposal: her brains, her body, her past, and all the things that people will assume about her. That last one especially.
Whedon does a great job of demonstrating this simply through her introduction in the film. We see a beautiful woman tied to a chair being interrogated by smug, thuggish-looking men, and we assume we’re looking at a plan gone awry. Natasha’s nonchalant replies to their threats turn out to be more than mere bravado when she’s forced to drop the ruse and we discover that this was the plan, and she is far from helpless. (I think it says a lot to have Agent Coulson waiting calmly on the line; he knows she’ll be back in just a moment.)
This is why I think she is fantastic.
But if you’re looking for an empathetic character, a outwardly kind character, an expressive and affectionate and warm and honest and open character, do not look to Natasha. That is not what she does. That is not who she is. She’s a spy, and spies sneak and steal and cheat and lie. Love her for that or hate her for it, just don’t expect her to fulfill some romantic notion of what a feminist heroine should be.