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Black Widow (2021): Villainy and fear through the female gaze.


Marvel’s Black Widow starring Scarlett Johanson was never not going to be a success. The long awaited stand-alone film of the titular character was met with fanfare and excitement so palpable it was almost infallible. Almost. While there were raving reviews for the performances of the likes of Johansson and Pugh, the villain of the story was met with considerable backlash from the public and critics alike. Taskmaster, a seemingly lethal nemesis and who everyone had assumed would be the main villain, is revealed to be Antonia Dreykov the daughter of Dreykov, who has been controlled by a chip to assassinate her father’s foes. According to the onslaught of criticism, this made for a disappointing, boring and apparently “sexist” villain. I’m not sure what else to say other than if you thought that Taskmaster was the actual villain of the film; critical thinking is not your forte. To spell it out clearly, Dreykov was the main villain. You know, because he was controlling her and countless other women. That’s very bad. True villain behaviour. Although, the distinction makes no difference as Dreykov was met with much of the same backlash boring, overdone, ill-motivated and ultimately not scary enough. This is where I remind you that Black Widow was a female-centric project, meant to mimic the female gaze and so the villain Dreykov is the perfect amalgamation of real female fear. I’m inclined to say that therefore this means the backlash against Dreykov’s characterisation is male-dominated, but I really don’t know, so I’ll settle for concluding that we’ve been so encompassed by male fantasies, male ambitions, male insecurities, male fears, the male gaze, that we’ve forgotten that to women, men like Dreykov are all too very real and all too terrifying.

Here’s a little background on Dreykov if you haven’t watched the film. He presides over the ‘Red Room’ where he essentially trafficks young girls, training them to become elite assassins, of which only one in twenty are deemed competent, and the rest are killed. The ones who survive are stripped of any remaining shred of free will through involuntary hysterectomies and the implantation of mind control chips to force complete obedience. It’s the perfect picture of the commodification and objectification of females to the highest of degrees — extreme in a sense but a very real reality.

Men like Dreykov stand out from the history of Marvel villains because he may very well likely embody himself in the form of a politician, a director, a teacher, a coworker (the list really does go on) in our world. Men like Dreykov, who have no extreme cartoonish motive, who get off on power and control, manifest themselves in all corners of our existence, terrorising women across the globe. It’s the reason women are all too familiar with installing three different locks on their door, sharing their locations with their friends everywhere they go, carrying keys between their knuckles when they walk home, clutching their drinks close to them at all times the fear Dreykov personifies is all too overwhelming and all too close to the truth. It forces us to live a life of compromise and caution, taking away opportunities and potential when we have to choose between staying to enjoy the night or leaving at a safe hour when we remain passive in the face of ridicule so as not to rock the boat.

The mere existence of men who are diseased with consuming power brings reprehensible consequences. With laws, institutions and the very fabric of society across the globe defaulted for the male assumption of power, even existing as a woman is a feat in and of itself. In fact, the trafficking of children is projected to worsen into the new decade, with trafficking in women and girls accounting for the majority of sex trafficking victims. Similarly, trends in domestic violence and sexual assault against women has gone up, whether this is because of the pandemic or an increased number of reporting, it really doesn’t matter because the fact remains the same women are tormented at an alarming rate, and there is no sign of it stopping soon. It is impossible to explain that being disproportionately exposed to these issues comes with a frustrating, blinding anger at the sheer ugliness of the situation. We cannot change the discourse in our lifetime, and we cannot help with an all remedying cure, we cannot eradicate the reality we can only hope that it does not happen to us or anyone we love or any other woman for that matter. But that too, for the most part, is completely out of our hands. That’s where the fear manifests itself from. Ultimately, the parallels between Dreykov’s Red Room and the oppression of females in our world are frighteningly similar.

Dreykov is no Thanos, he doesn’t have an otherworldly agenda threatening the entire universe, but he does instil genuine fear and paranoia in his realism. So to those who found Dreykov an inadequate villain, who didn’t present a problem scary enough for an A-list Avenger to get involved in, I think women would agree that we could only wish we had an Avenger out there taking the real world Dreykov’s down.


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