“Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.”
“Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.”
As a teen I had two experiences that have shaped my entire life, being diagnosed with scoliosis (resulting in wearing a full-body brace throughout high school) and subsequently falling in love with comic books and science fiction.
As a comic book collector and fan of superhero comics, I was drawn to Spider-Man (of course), but I also developed an affinity for so-called second-tier characters and sidekicks.
In the MCU era, Black Widow is associated with the Avengers, but for me, the connection is Daredevil.
Also, in the MCU, Black Widow has suffered a double death—her character killed off (and then given an after-the-fact solo film), and the high-profile actor playing the role, Scarlett Johansson, breaking ties with Disney and Marvel.
The end of the Johansson/Black Widow run in the MCU often contrasts with the jumbled ways Marvel has handled Black Widow in the comic books (see below where Black Widow has had 8 volumes, often running only 3 issues, with a total of 50 issues and running) beginning with her introduction in 1964.
But there is one significant similarity, identified by Johansson in an article for Salon:
All of that is related to that move away from the kind of hyper-sexualization of this character and, I mean, you look back at ‘Iron Man 2’ and while it was really fun and had a lot of great moments in it, the character is so sexualized, you know? Really talked about like she’s a piece of something, like a possession or a thing or whatever — like a piece of ass, really. And Tony even refers to her as something like that at one point.Scarlett Johansson says Black Widow was hypersexualized when first entering the MCU
Consider as one extreme case, the MAX series from 2002:
But this reductive hypersexualization goes back to the 1960s and 1970s as well, with the artwork of Gene Colon:
Brown confronts that hypersexualization and exoticizing marginalized (by race and/or gender) characters are standard practices in superhero comics:
Black women in the media, especially within the superhero genre, are still constructed as exotic sexual spectacles, as erotic racial “Others.”… Female superheroines…are primarily depicted as scantily clad and erotically posed fetish objects. (pp. 134, 135)Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation
Black Widow, although white, fits into the pattern of hypersexuality and othering as exotic (her Russian and mysterious as well as isolated background). Brown’s recognition that female superheroes are often reduced to “purely symbolic images,” especially noting “the way that superheroines are portrayed as sexual objects on comic book covers” (p. 144):
“[T]he superhero genre of comic books continues to reply heavily on stereotypes of all kinds,” Brown concludes—and throughout her solo career in Marvel comics, Black Widow represents the irony found directly in a central motif of her characterization:
“But like most men, in the end,” Natalia Romanova observes, “he underestimates me.”
Throughout her years in the print Marvel Universe, Black Widow has far too often been underestimated by the (mostly) men who write her story and draw her life into action—men hypersexualizing and Othering her along the way.
There is another layer to these problems, however, since there have been and currently are powerful and far less problematic versions of Black Widow along the way; regardless of the quality, it seems, of how creative teams deal with Black Widow, the Men (the Industry) continue to underestimate, and fail the character.
The current run, volume 8, has been a stellar and beautiful rendering of Black Widow, not surprisingly in the hands of women—Kelly Thompson (writer), Elena Casagrande (artist), and others:
There remains a noir quality to this version of Black Widow, and certainly, Black Widow continues to be sexual and physically compelling. But the rich humanity and complexity of being Black Widow / Natalie Grey (Natasha Romanoff) is more fully realized in this volume, often to critical acclaim.
With the track record behind the character of Black Widow, time will ultimately tell if Marvel and superhero comics can finally stop underestimating this character, can allow the full and complex humanity to exist beyond the reductive hypersexualizing.
Black Widow represents that too many have failed superhero comics even though comic book universes allow a nearly endless opportunity to imagine and reimagine again and again.
Doing it right, I believe in that too.
Jeffrey A. Brown, “Panthers and Vixens: Black Superheroines, Sexuality, and Stereotypes in Contemporary Comic Books,” in Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, ed. Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Appendix: Black Widow Comics, an Overview
Vol. 1 (1999) – Grayson, Jones “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”
Vol. 2 (2001) – Grayson, Rucka, Hampton
Graphic Novels V1-2:
Black Widow MAX (2002) – Rucka
Vol. 3 (2004-2005) – Morgan, Sienkiewicz, Parlov
Graphic Novel V3:
Vol. 4 (2010-2011) – Liu, Acuna, Swierczynski, Garcia
Graphic Novel V4:
Vol. 5 (2014-2015) – Edmondson, Noto
Graphic Novel V5:
Vol. 6 (2016-2017) – Waid, Samnee
Graphic Novel V6:
Vol. 7 (2019) – Soska, Armentaro
Graphic Novel V7:
Web of Black Widow (2019-2020) – Houser, Mooney
Vol. 8 (2020- ) – Thompson, Casagrande, De Latorre
Graphic Novel V8:
If you focus too intently on Aaron Hernandez in the new Netflix documentary, you will miss the larger complicated story. And you will have done exactly what the major players involved in Hernandez’s life wanted all along.
For example, one of the most disturbing and damning moments in the documentary involves Hernandez’s high-profile college coach, then at Florida, Urban Meyer. Here is what Meyers wants everyone to believe:
“We knew that every time he went home — every time he would go to Connecticut, I’d have players on my team say, ‘Watch this guy,’” said Meyer on an old episode of HBO’s Real Sports. “So we would try not to let him go back to Connecticut.”
Yet, as the documentary details:
Hernandez quickly made an impact at the University of Florida, but he struggled off the field. The talented 17-year-old, who began acquiring an impressive array of tattoos, didn’t quite fit in with clean-cut quarterback Tim Tebow or coach Urban Meyer, and he began to rely on painkillers to bypass injuries. “For real, weed and Toradol. That’s all you need, baby!” Hernandez said on one recorded phone call with former teammate Mike Pouncey.
Hernandez’s behavior started to become increasingly erratic. One night, he allegedly punched out a bar manager who asked him to pay for his drinks. Episode 2 also references “an open case in Gainesville” from 2007, in which a man matching Hernandez’s description fired a gun into another car. The men in the car were shot, but survived.
Despite warning signs, the New England Patriots drafted and played Hernandez after his career at Florida. Coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft offer similar explanations around Hernandez, blaming his home community and “bad” friends for Hernandez’s dual life and violent behavior.
Big Time Football loved Hernandez; in fact, Big Time Football used Hernandez, looked the other way over and over, and was quick to blame Hernandez himself or his CTE for his murderous self-destruction despite his enormous talent and stunning NFL contract for $40 million.
What Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez exposes is both the tragic dual life of Hernandez and the veneer that protects Big Time Football, embodied in this story by Florida/Meyer and New England/Belichick.
Meyer plays the Christian card, and Belichick plays the no-fun, all-professional card as the veneers for the realities of Big Time Football—toxic masculinity, homophobia, and inexcusable violence.
One of the most significant moments in the documentary that addresses that veneer is from a former NFL teammate of Hernandez’s:
Hernandez was drafted to play as a tight end for the Patriots in 2010; in Killer Inside, one of the more compelling insights about that (somewhat rocky) transition into the NFL comes from former Patriots player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out as gay in 2017. He points out that football is an almost perfect hiding place for many gay men. “My beard was football,” he says. “I relied on all the stereotypes of a football player — a lot of testosterone and the aggressiveness, hitting each other, things you assume middle America wouldn’t think of as gay men.”
Playing for the Patriots “was the best possible situation I could have ended up in,” says O’Callaghan, because “there’s no distraction. There’s just an extreme focus on winning and nothing else really flies there — and for a closeted guy, that’s great.”
This documentary’s version of the Hernandez tragedy explores the role his sexuality may have played in his behavior—his paranoia, his violent outbursts, his dual lives—while never stooping to stereotypes or simply explanations.
It is very disturbing to watch the footage of Hernandez playing football; he is a large and incredibly nimble man who seems uniquely skilled on the football field—until the footage turns to a series of brutal hits, Hernandez often barely able to move, stunned, weak-kneed.
There seems to be almost no way now to justify the brutality that is Big Time Football, except that it is incredibly popular and extremely lucrative.
Viewing the documentary reminds me that blame is very complicated. I can’t excuse Hernandez for his violent outbursts even as I am certain he is not solely responsible for the man he became. I also find the CTE explanation alone overly simplistic, possibly convenient, or at least incomplete.
If, like Junior Seau, Hernandez fell victim to a damaged brain, we cannot ignore how that brain damage occurred—Big Time Football, and the many people who used him, the many people who looked the other way over and over like Meyer and Belichick.
Bigger-than-life coaches such as Meyer and Belichick build reputations on their ability to shape and lead men, their attention to detail, and what we call leadership skills. The Hernandez situation, however, exposes both men as either deeply incompetent, grossly deluded by their laser focus on Big Time Football, or hugely dishonest; I lean toward the latter.
Big Time Football exists with a sliding scale that balances talent and winning with the so-called off-the-field qualities; the more you can contribute to winning, the lower the bar for the person you are or the things that you do.
The stuff about character, Bible study, and circling up for prayer are all just rhetoric, theater for a gullible public, an eager fan base. We should be quite skeptical even of the Golden Boys, Tim Tebow and Tom Brady.
The dual life of Hernandez, because of Big Time Football, shows that neither was absent violence, but the so-called hidden life was grossly violent outside the lines we have drawn for such destructive behavior.