Black Widow – “That’s Not My Story”

Spoilers for Black Widow, Avengers: EndgameWandaVision, Loki and Captain Marvel

I’ve just started the Hawkeye series, which I am quite enjoying, and remembered I never published this lil’ take on the Black Widow movie, which came out last summer (which in the world of the MCU might as well be a decade ago). Anyways, after years and years of playing second fiddle to male leads Black Widow finally got her own movie and it was…fine. I mean, this is the MCU so don’t expect too much from their efforts at ‘diversifying’ their portfolio. Nevertheless, it’s popcorn guzzling fun with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh knocking it out the park as lolsome kinda-sisters and the villain has a secret floating base hidden in a cloud and blah blah, let’s get to the analysis.

The MCU actively avoided producing a film with a female protagonist for years because leaked emails in 2015 revealed CEO Ike Perlmutter didn’t think it would sell (which reminds me of the time a ‘friend’ told me a gay Captain Kirk wouldn’t sell). Yup, women aren’t profitable. This is just one example of the sexism Scarlet Johansson would have experienced during her many, many years playing a secondary character, not to mention the objectification, having to kill people with her thighs (I mean, does Thor ever do that?), her love-interest plot-device status, and a briefly mentioned backstory including an enforced hysterectomy in the Red Room – a grim Russian spy-making facility. Oh, and in her final movie appearance in Avengers: Endgame she dies. She throws herself off a cliff to save a guy (and the universe) and doesn’t even get a big funeral at the end, unlike Tony Stark. She also doesn’t come back to life, unlike Loki and Vision. That’s not to mention the countless sexist questions Johansson had to field in interviews for the films, rarely receiving allyship from the male actors, who didn’t get questions about clothes and underwear (apart from this one).

After all this she finally got her own movie. Trouble is, it’s not really her movie but an introduction to her replacement (because, she’s dead, remember), aka Yelena Belova, played brilliantly by Florence Pugh. They’ve got a long backstory involving being fake sisters with fake parents, brainwashing and the Red Room. But Natasha escaped all that and joined the Avengers, leaving Yelena stuck for years (until someone blows special red powder at her which undoes her chemical brainwashing, yup, that happens in the film). It’s when the pair meet that we get the best acting in the film. They are such believable siblings – squabbling, mocking, loving and trying to make sense of their superhero super trauma. Most MCU films and series are dependent on the chemistry between the two leads – usually a straight white man and either a black, straight male sidekick or a white, straight female sidekick/love interest. Captain Marvel saw a white, cisfemale get the lead and her own straight, black cisfemale sidekick – any potential romance between them 100% denied by the MCU rules even though it wouldn’t haven’t been had Monica Rambeau been a guy. Anyways, Johansson and Pugh are great.

Yelena mocks Natasha for selling out to the Avengers, for flicking her hair back, for always doing a certain fighting pose because, apparently, she loved posing and being looked at. I laughed at the sibling rivalry and banter but once I left the cinema I realised it wasn’t funny at all. Black Widow flicked her hair and posed because that’s what the script and directors had her do. They objectified her because that’s how they profited from a female actor and character. Yelena also criticises her for selling out to the Avengers but she never had the chance to buy into anything else. Her character was never written to have significant agency. It kinda hurts, then, that in her own film she is mocked by another female character for having been objectified and for lacking agency. Black Widow is a victim of sexist storytelling and the lack of imagination of predominantly male teams to imagine well-rounded female characters. But as far as the MCU is concerned it’s all a joke. Talk about rubbing sexist salt in the sexist wound.

Another joke concerns the enforced hysterectomies that Natasha and Yelena were subjected to by the Red Room. After busting out their fake-Dad from a Russian prison (it’s a long story involving an avalanche) Yelena criticises him for never having really cared about her. He mocks her, asking if it’s “that time of the month”, to which she replies she cannot have a period. She then vividly describes what the hysterectomy was like. On the one hand it’s great to have a female character school a male one in periods (and the lack of them) and the nature of a hysterectomy. But the trouble is, it’s played for laughs. Yup, their torture and mutilation is a joke. Black Widow even smirks when Yelena threatens to talk about “fallopian tubes”. This is often the case with the comedy of the MCU. So many moments that could be serious or played for emotion, are played for laughs. Although can you imagine Tony Stark and Captain America bantering about enforced vasectomies? Even Yelena putting flowers on Natasha’s grave in the post-credit scene is interrupted by Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine (played hilariously by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) blowing her nose. So that’s Black Widow’s death and Yelena’s grief getting a punchline.

Another hurdle the film falls at is racial diversity. The two leads are white as are the actors who play their fake-parents. Nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of white leads but it’s how the other characters are treated that’s important. There’s Oksana, another Black Widow, played by Michelle Lee, a Chinese American martial artist, stuntwoman and actress. She doesn’t last long as, having fled the Red Room, she’s stabbed by a pre-Red Powder Yelena. Oksana then bleeds to death, it’s a tough watch. Later on, the Black Widow assassin Ingrid chases Natasha but ends up falling from a roof and hurting her back. Dreykov, the super (white) villain and head of the Red Room, then commands Ingrid to blast herself in the head as she’s failed her mission. It’s another hard watch especially as Ingrid is played by Nanna Blondell, a Swedish actor of Ghanaian decent. The trouble here is that the film couldn’t commit to a more racially diverse group of leads but it did diversify the secondary cast, which results in a lot of non-white* characters dying at the hands of white ones. We’ve seen this before in Thor and Age of Ultron. Unfortunately, art appears to be imitating life by normalising the deaths of non-white people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse casts (100%) but I want diverse leads as well and I want race to be successfully integrated into the DNA of a story just as it was, in many ways, in Black Panther, when a predominantly black team were put in charge. Where was the predominantly female team for Black Widow? And what about a predominantly queer team for the queer lead hero that the MCU ain’t even promising us?

There was a lot to enjoy in the film and I, for one, am loving Phase 4 of the MCU as a lot of the white, male leads take a step back to allow for a host of new characters. But the MCU needs to diversity how it creates and tells its stories, not just diversity who gets a leading role. As Natasha says to Yelena in the trailer below, “That’s not my story”, and I reckon she could be talking about the very film that is meant to be telling her story. Tbh, if I were Black Widow I wouldn’t just flee the Red Room, I’d flee the MCU.

*

P.s. I’m using the term non-white* not to reduce people to something that they are not (i.e. white) but in an effort to try and show that whiteness is going on here and not something that can be taken for granted and considered normal (or not even seen). I appreciate it’s a clunky term and one I may jettison as I continue to educate myself.

P.p.s. as another little post-credits comment, in terms of the MCU and it’s abysmal history of female representation can I just complain that having slogged my way through six sometimes inventive, sometimes dull episodes of Loki I was disappointed (but not surprised) that the person who causes all the bad that’s going to happen for Phase 4 is…..drum roll…..a woman. Yup, female Loki, played by Sophia di Martino, is the one who might just be responsible for the next multiversal war.

Stranger In The Village by James Baldwin

Stranger in the Village is James Baldwin’s final essay in his collection Notes of a Native Son published in 1955 when he was 31. The essay details his time in a small Swiss village around four hours from Milan. It soon became clear that many, if not all, the white villagers had never met a black man before. Their reactions ranged from fascination to suspicion and he describes how some of the children would try to touch his skin and hair. He found the behaviour shocking and writes that while “there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.” Unlike his experiences of racism in the US that sought to dehumanise him through violence and debasement, the racism of the Swiss villagers dehumanised him through ignorance.

Their ignorance stemmed from their ability to live their lives totally unaware of black people as real people and of the legacies of European colonialism. Yet it was precisely from Europe that colonialists and empire builders went forth, inflicting genocide, slavery and conquest over so many of the world’s countries. Baldwin notes that inherent to this colonisation was the idea of white supremacy, “that white men are the creators of civilisations…and are therefore civilisation’s guardians and defenders.” Crucial to Baldwin’s essay is the reminder (or lesson) that white supremacy is a European idea.

I was never taught this lesson, in fact, I was schooled in white supremacy. I grew up in an almost exclusively white village, went to almost exclusively white private schools and studied at a predominantly white university (Oxford). Throughout my life I have been taught racism: in the colonial propaganda that passed as history, the privilege to never have to think of the colour of my skin and the prejudice I was encouraged to show towards people with darker skin. I was told the world was my oyster. As Baldwin wrote of the Swiss villagers, “these people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.” I have never been made to feel like a stranger because I am a child of empire. I have inherited white supremacy and, as I re-educate myself, so I learn of the history of European colonialism, upon which so much of the ‘modern’ world was founded. Whether we learn our lessons or not is one of the crucial questions facing white people. Whether we choose to defend the legacies of oppression and its statues, or whether we stand with Black people and make space for the healing of traumas inflicted by white supremacy. Fortunately, as statues fall, syllabi are changed, police are defunded, we know that change is possible. Here’s to a world in which no one is a stranger.

This post only deals with a fraction of Baldwin’s essay and I recommend you read it for yourself along with his other great works.

Dear White People, This is What We Want You to Do

“…this reconditioning is a necessary lifelong endeavor.”

Dear fellow white people, unlearning our racism and learning anti-racism is a necessity. Start now if you haven’t already, keep going if you have.

Inside The Kandi Dish

I don’t want to hear “I can’t believe this.”

I want you to read upon the history you’ve had the privilege to ignore.

I don’t want your opinions or thoughts.

I want you to listen to the Black experiences you’ve chosen to forget.

I don’t want your #BLM Instagram story reposts.

I want screenshots of your bail out money donations and patronage of Black labor/art/knowledge.

I don’t want your passive Twitter likes.

I want you to follow Black tragedies as much as you follow Black trends.

I don’t want to vindicate your white guilt. It’s yours to reconcile.

I want you to check your racist parents and call out your apathetic white friends (especially when there are no people of color there) without expecting a pat on the back.

I don’t want your tears. I have plenty of those.

I want you to check in…

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Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

How To Be Less White This Christmas

Really!? What a silly idea, that a white person can be less white, it doesn’t even make sense. I mean, if I’m white, I’m white, it’s just the colour of my skin. But in my 199th post on this blog I want to contend that there is so much more to my whiteness than my skin. Whiteness is power. It’s the ability to avoid everyday microaggressions based on my perceived race, it’s being able to cash in on my white privilege over and over again, and avoid being on the receiving end of systemically racist social structures. It’s the privilege to never have to think about my skin colour. I don’t even have to know I’m white because in the society I live in whiteness is so ‘normal’ that it’s almost invisible.

But I do see race, including my own. I see whiteness in so many of the TV shows and films I watch. I see it in the books I read, the communities I spend time in and the culture in which I live. I see the everyday things I get to take for granted because I am part of the oppressor race. I see the effort, often tacit, that goes into maintaining the normativity of whiteness. The scientific justifications that claim whites are inherently better than any other race. The everyday assumptions that are made about people with different skin colours to my own. The ease with which I can enter spaces that others can’t. The violence I won’t be on the receiving end of because I’m white. I see this and I want it to change because it’s ruining lives and killing people.

So, to be less white I have to first acknowledge that I am white and begin the process of discovering what that really means. Because it’s not just about skin, it’s about history, colonialism, slavery, Empire, racism, eugenics, prisons, schools, culture and so much more. It’s about the power my race has abused and continues to abuse. But seeing and acknowledging this is only the beginning and the true work begins when white people begin to redistribute that power. Of course, how we redistribute that power is vital because there are an awful lot of initiatives that serve only to replicate the colonial mindset and exacerbate the problem. The response must be personal and systemic, as we unpick our whiteness for ourselves and do so for the systems in which we live and work – whether that’s challenging our own prejudices, calling out those around us and trying to build communities that both see and see beyond race. Thus, we begin to remove the power woven into our very skin and, by doing so, become less white.