Listen Up Marvel #WeWantWidow
This past weekend, under the #WeWantWidow hashtag, fans of Marvel’s Black Widow took to the streets, parks, Twitter, and Facebook to demand more of Natasha Romanova in Disney/Marvel merchandise. For anyone who has managed to miss the latest Marvel box office hits, Natasha Romanova, code name Black Widow, is an accomplished assassin seeking redemption as a member of the hero team, The Avengers. Through both Avengers movies and Captain America: Winter Solider, Black Widow is an integral part of the team, the plot, and the action. She’s efficient, accomplished, and complicated—and omitted from nearly all Avengers: Age of Ultron merchandise.
Along with the absence of Gamora from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie merchandise, fans are seeking answers from Marvel and Disney about this trend of leaving female characters out of these merchandising plans. Even the stars of Marvel’s own movies are noticing the exclusion of Black Widow. And, truly, everyone should listen to Dr. Bruce Banner—we all know what happens when he gets angry.
Marvel’s been lauded for moving toward a more diverse line-up in its comics: Thor is now female, Spider-Man is Latino, Captain America is Black, and Ms. Marvel is Pakistani and Muslim. Agents of SHIELD has been cited for its gender equality in the ensemble cast (however, it doesn’t score as well on the stats for race and ethnic diversity). So why is this same movement toward representation on the page or TV not present in merchandise for Marvel’s most successful movie franchises? “I think that comics and television are less financially high-stakes than movies, and so it’s less risky for Disney/Marvel to move beyond the image of the straight, white, male hero in those particular media,” says Jen K. Stuller author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology and city captain of the Seattle #WeWantWidow flash mob. “I want to praise the diversity we are seeing, but I want more.”
Stuller continued, “What the company is getting wrong with Black Widow and Gamora specifically is that these two characters are almost completely absent from merchandising – suggesting that their contributions to their respective teams is irrelevant. It’s one thing to read about backpacks, lunch boxes, and toy store shelves featuring the entire teams from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy—except for Nat and Gamora—and it’s another to stand there in shock realizing that there really aren’t ANY items that include them. In fact, Disney/Marvel haven’t just forgotten them, they’ve been actively removed and thus made invisible, irrelevant, inconsequential. It’s not a hard leap to recognize that this means that children of all genders are being taught that femininity is unimportant.”
Erasing female characters from merchandising sends a message—one many fans of the MCU aren’t standing for. Nor are fans accepting that female characters and characters of color are still relegated to the sidekicks or supporting cast, despite being very capable in their own stories. “So yes, while we have Agent Peggy Carter, Melinda May, Falcon, Sif, Heimdall, Gamora, Black Widow, Nicky Fury, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Miles Morales, (SPOILER ALERT) as Thor, they are supporting characters in films where the title character, and main hero, is still predominantly white, able-bodied, and heteronormative,” says Stuller.
Stuller quotes Comics Alliance from 2014, “If Marvel makes Thor 3 before it makes Black Panther, it will have made ten movies headlined by blond white men named Chris before it makes one movie headlined by someone who isn’t even white”—or a woman, or a character who is canonically not straight, she also points out.
#WeWantWidow is receiving attention. You can read about it in the The Guardian, EW.com, and see a photo round-up at The Mary Sue. The fans who came together on June 6, 2015 in flash mobs, tweeted, changed Facebook profile pics acted in concert to show their love for a character they love and connect with and believe deserves representation in merchandise. We’d buy it. For Disney/Marvel, it seems like a terrible idea to not capitalize on an opportunity to take our money, right? “#WeWantWidow has done their market research for them, and made a clear statement that they are willing to speak not just through hashtag activism, but with their dollars,” says Stuller.
These fans supporting #WeWantWidow spend money on all kinds of merch. They would also turn out at the box office for a long awaited female-character led comic book flick. Stuller says the merchandise is only one aspect of what #WeWantWidow wishes to convey to Disney/Marvel, “I would hope that Disney/Marvel take to heart that they are telling great stories—about men—and that we want great stories about women too. #WeWantWidow isn’t just about merchandise. Though, the importance of totems and other paraphernalia to geeks and fans can’t be overstated. This is about asking Marvel to make a sincere commitment to representing diversity both behind and in front of the camera. It’s about them recognizing that they are sending sexist messages by excluding women and people of color from their stories and their franchising.”
Mad Max: Fury Road has blown up the idea that a movie can’t balance male and female roles is an epic tale and depict a range of characters’ abilities and skills that is exciting, fun to watch, and appeals to a wide audience. (You can see what WPR movie reviewers Jasen, Kaitlyn, and Kyle had to say about MM:FR in their recent reviews.)
“And while these corporations might not care about the cultural messaging they send, they should, because good business would mean currying favor with the market—a market that’s comprised of almost 50% women,” Stuller notes. Many women don’t buy into to the princess culture Disney is mired in and so reluctant to let go of because it makes money hand over fist. Not every girl or woman fits into this princess box. I’ve not seen Frozen and I don’t plan to. I’ll not be buying any Disney princess swag, ever. But I’d really like a licensed Avengers shirt with Black Widow shown as a member of the team—or a Gamora and Nebula hoodie. Those I would buy in a heartbeat.