One of the most frequent critiques I see of Scarlett Johannson’s performance in Iron Man 2 is: but she didn’t do the accent. I’m not sure what the accent is, exactly, but my mind travels to Rocky and Bullwinkle-esque dimensions and I wonder, is that what people think Natasha sounds like? Take it away, Adam Hughes.
That is what (some) people think Natasha sounds like.
Comic canon, in its fractured way, begs to differ. Natasha having little-to-no accent is a matter of record going back to 1970, with Amazing Adventures #5:
Runaway: You both got Russian names, but he sounds like Breshnev tryin’ to do a Bogey— and you got almost no accent.
Natasha: In my case, the result of long, expensive hours at Berlitz.
While the idea of Natasha Romanov, Esq. attending corperate language lessons for business travelers is humorous, the idea of her putting in long hours to perfect her English isn’t. In a medium unafraid to visually render accents as uncomfortable pigdin— did you know that in the South, the first-person singular pronoun is “Ah”?— Natasha’s English has always been very standard. Overly formal with the occasional robotic lack of contractions, perhaps, but by-the-book correct. Her Silver Age English was “better” than Hawkeye’s.
I am, of course, hesitant to link proficiency with the vagaries of English grammar to intelligence or level of education, especially for someone as manifestly foreign as Natasha. But that’s the thing: she can’t afford to be manifestly foreign. She’s a deep-cover style secret agent, she has to be from everywhere. In Iron Man 2, she isn’t introduced as Black Widow, ex-Russian SHIELD superagent, she’s Natalie Rushman, from legal. And Natalie Rushman wouldn’t have an accent, else Stark’s question of “where are you from?” takes on a distintcly less enigmatic meaning. Early issues of Iron Man v3 had her saunter into a dinner party and breathe flawless, unaccented German. Why would her English be any different?
Russian. He knew me for a Russian. This is not good. I must try harder to eradicate my accent. I cannot be an effective SHIELD agent if my past is so easily uncovered.
In addition to common sense, there’s a fair bit of canon noting Natasha’s single person struggle to destroy her accent. The above panel is a flashback to early days under Uncle Nick. In Thunderbolts #135, Natasha is thankful she doesn’t have to play Yelena anymore, specifically because she found it exhausting and uncomfortable to put on a heavy Russian accent.
But adaptations to other media almost always go full-tilt Moose and Squirrel. Likewise, some comics are fond of peppering her speech with dosvedanyas bozhe mois and sundry other Russian-isms, which I don’t really mind if used sparingly. Too often, though, it sails off into lazy writing territory. Why demonstrate her background in the content of what she says, the ways she thinks and acts, when you can cover it with a simple by Lenin’s beard? People think, I suspect, that she must speak with a Russian accent by condition of her Russian-ness, and to hack that away removes a key limb of her character. But in truth, Natasha’s attempts to disguise herself and her past say more profound things about her character than stuffing her speech with googled foreign phrases.
I think it’s worth noting that Natasha’s best/most recognizable writers of recent years— Rucka, Grayson, Liu, Swiercyznski, even Morgan— none of them have relied on any verbal hint of Russian-ness to get her character across.
But inconsistency, thy name is comics, and there have been plenty of accent detours over the years, each fraught with their own implications. The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon went half-in on the accent. Natasha speaks clean American when heroic and classic Bond villain when evil, a remarkable gesture to casual xenophobia. It’s even more obvious when you look at the other top officers in the HYDRA crew, all with accents of their own, and compare them to that mightiest band of heroes, who are, with two exceptions, American. (“Earth’s” heroes, indeed.) A:EMH is the sort of show to embrace fractured comic book continuity in all its goofiness unironically, but it’s still remarkable that 60 years after World War II, to speak with a German accent is still to speak Nazi.
While comics aren’t above slapping hyperbolic accents onto foreign bad guy types, with Natasha they tend to head a different direction.
Matt: Whoa! You sure you want to go another round? I’ll take that as a yes.
Yelena: Poshol k chortu! (Go to hell!)
Matt: Now, you know what it does to me when you speak Russian.
In this sequence Grayson and Rucka are deliberately having Matt play the cad. He’s supposed to come off as a jerk, here, the type of dude who will casually ignore the meaning of what a woman is saying to tell her how much how she says it gets him off. But some play into the trope with less knowing subversion:
Go on, say “decadent” again. In your accent, it turns me on.
It doesn’t stop there, really. Bendis, in his early attempts at writing her, gave her a sort of breathless semi-fluency, having her saunter into Nelson and Murdock, remove her clothes, and speak in how-do-you says? (He did this less and less the more he wrote her, a sign of improvement or a sign that all his character voices started to bleed together as time wore on, you pick.) But I think you’ll find those outlier appearances that give her an accent adhere to this rule: the more Moose-and-Squirrel speak, the more Natasha’s being written as fetish fuel.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Paul Jenkin’s terrible mutilation of Natasha’s character. In his Unusual Suspects story, Black Widow plays sidekick to Foggy Nelson, and uses any spy competencies to minimal effect. What she does do is make an Olympic sport out of single-entendre, and constantly mispronounce words so that we can laugh at her. “As you Americans say, bongo!” she declares, in a moment of self-satisfied triumph.
There’s a lot wrong here: our first response shouldn’t be point and laughter when someone screws up the English idiom. To learn English is a tricky thing even for those of us who grew up speaking it, it doesn’t really reflect well on us to turn someone struggling to learn into a joke. Second: as a hypercompetent superspy Natasha probably shouldn’t be flubbing up her idioms. (Not that hypercompetent people don’t, but most non-native speakers of English aren’t trained as deep cover agents. If anyone besides Doug Ramsey is going to be ridiculously fluent in a ridiculous number of languages, it is going to be the International Woman of Mystery.) Third: Natasha’s Russian-ness should never be emphasized as a component of her sexuality.
You are frostbitten, Foggy? In Russia, we have learned that shared boditly warmth is the key to surviving the treacheries of winter. If your extremities are cold, they should be rubbed vigorously. Perhaps later I will show you how this is done.
Look, I don’t want to go too far into critiquing what gets people off, but the way we read accents is tied a bunch to the ethnic and national stereotypes they represent. That Russian accents are typed as sexy is because Russian women are typed as sexy. It’s got a lot to do with the James Bond genre of fantasy, of Cold War pop culture that hails the conquering Western hero by having him defeat evil foreign agents and bed exotic foreign women. There’s no doubt to me that former Soviet bloc women continue to be commodified for Western consumption, sometimes in terrifyingly literal ways. The name Natasha is sometimes used as a synonym for whore, precisely for this reason.
But you know, I mees de Cold Var. Eet made me hot.
Panels from Amazing Adventures #5, Black Widow and the Marvel Girls #3, Black Widow: Breakdown #1, Black Widow: Deadly Origin #3, and Spider-man/Daredevil: Unusual Suspects #3.