Photo by Brigita Przybylski
Marvel’s highly anticipated July 2021 movie Black Widow directed by Cate Shortland is a solo story about Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Leading up to its premiere, movie posters and trailer scenes showed Natasha and her sister Yelena Bolova (Florence Pugh) wearing a ponytail or braid in multiple scenes. And it’s a big deal.
Black Widow is now the main character of a movie, in contrast to her roles in Iron Man 2 (2010) and the various Avenger movies (2012-2019), where the male superheroes have the most speaking lines and screen time. Black Widow was the first female superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the differences between her character portrayal and all her male counterparts are drastic, especially in regards to her costume and appearance. Throughout these films, Natasha wears her hair down the majority of the time, even while fighting, which is impractical, unrealistic, sexist, and an appeal to the male gaze.
The male gaze, which is prominent in superhero films, sexualizes women and portrays them as objects of desire. Through this gaze, women are represented with society’s ideal beauty standards, as seen with Black Widow’s tight and low-cut suit, heels, and long hair across the Avenger movies. The hair in particular baffles me because of how unrealistic it is for combat. Hair that isn’t pulled back creates a disadvantage from either getting in the character’s eyes, which obstructs their vision, or creating vulnerability from the potential of getting pulled by an opponent. When you think about it, real-life female athletes wear ponytails, braids, or buns (or have short hair cuts, etc.). So it’s empowering that Natasha is finally wearing a ponytail or braid for the majority of Black Widow, where having her hair down before made her an object by depicting her in a way that’s most attractive to men. Natasha Romanoff is a strong fighter with a real backstory, not just a pretty face and body to look at.
But it’s not just Black Widow’s character that has worn her hair down the majority of the time on screen. Other Marvel female characters that appeal to the male gaze by wearing their hair down include Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, 2017), Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who first appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) from Antman and The Wasp (2018). Women can wear their hair down, but it’s a problem when it’s impractical and due to the male gaze.
Some female characters that don’t appeal to conventional beauty standards with their hairstyles include Nebula (Karen Gillan), a part humanoid alien and part robot, from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, 2017), the Dora Milaje from Black Panther (2018) whose costume design highlighted African culture, and Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) who wore a short bob in Antman (2015) and a ponytail in Antman and The Wasp (2018). However, it’s not just Marvel, as seen in D.C. with Wonder Woman, for example.
Furthermore, D.C.’s Birds of Prey (2020) starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn aimed to emphasize the female gaze with its director Cathy Yan, in contrast to Suicide Squad (2016) which heavily sexualized and objectified Harley Quinn. Personally, I didn’t like Birds of Prey, but I appreciated a moment during the final fight scene when Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett) asks for a hair tie to pull back her hair. To me, pulling back hair into a ponytail shows power and confidence, especially during a fight scene where a female character isn’t upholding looks above saving lives.
Black Widow is the second female main character solo Marvel movie, following Captain Marvel (2019) which starred Brie Larson as Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was met with a lot of criticism stemming from misogyny and sexism, mainly from male viewers, upset with Danvers’ strength and confidence as a woman, characteristics that ironically parallel those of Marvel’s male characters. The movie’s trailer was also criticized specifically for Danvers’ lack of smiling, which no one would have said about a male character. Carol Danvers steers away from the male gaze, depicting a woman as powerful on her own accord.
With Black Widow’s female-led cast, showing Natasha and Yelena wearing ponytails and braids, Marvel is further shifting from its male gaze to bring realism and power to their female characters. This change also highlights women beyond solely their physical aspects where the main goal isn’t to please the male viewer. Although Marvel isn’t perfect yet with their portrayal of women, they’re making promising progress, especially with the help of the female directors behind the scenes of Marvel’s recent TV shows and movies.