My only complaint is these restraints. I’d like them a little tighter, please.
In 1999, Gail Simone, with the help of a few other fans, compiled a list of female characters who had been raped, killed, tortured, depowered as a plot device within superhero comics. She called it, “women in refrigerators.” You see: violence against women is far more likely to have a sexual context than the gobs and gobs of violence against men in superhero comics. Sometimes it’s even drawn to titillate— I’m reminded of Ultimate Wasp’s cannibalized corpse, her still-perky breasts.
Women in refrigerators is a memification of the superheroic glass ceiling. With one obvious exception, the most a superheroine can hope for, thanks to factors of history, is the upper B-list. Any reader will tell you: that’s where comic book characters go to die. Characters who are well-liked but don’t sell comics on a regular basis are the perfect crossover-fodder, see also the curse of the Giffen League. That’s why, when it comes to summer blockbuster finale deaths, Steve Rogers became a saint and Janet Van Dyne (my personal top Avengers leader) became an afterthought. Basically, Women in Refrigerators is a memetic way of saying that women will be harmed in service to a male-driven narrative far more often than a female-driven narrative will throw dudes under the bus.
I repeat what you probably already know because Marjorie Liu decided to put Natasha in a refrigerator. And she didn’t go halfsies: she put Natasha naked tied-up in the hands of the enemy. Inside a refrigerator.
Evil Bald Dude: I must admit to having a somewhat inappropriate desire to discover whether or not Imus’ robot avatar is fully functional.
Natasha: Why, you dirty little bird. Hear that, Imus? Someone has a crush on you.
While the art is remarkably restrained in its depiction of a lady tied up and naked, the characters aren’t. (I really do love the art in this run. Not only did Acuña give Natasha a sense of glamor, not only did he give the book a dark-but-not-gritty tone, but when the time came for it he drew bone crushing action that let Natasha be unpretty. He drew a woman whose face broke before her composure.) This mostly-unvieled rape threat is the worst of the bunch, but when Natasha finally trolls Evil Bald Dude into knocking her over (and thus escaping) what he says is you whore. The Imus that appears in this scene is a robot surrogate: the real Imus has surrounded himself with red-headed prostitutes. His next-to last words are: just do it, you bitch.
So, even if the art isn’t, these dudes are sexually fascinated with Natasha. In Imus’ case, his refusal to see women as anything more than vessels for his penis or his violence is indicative of the refusal to love and be loved (it’s not a coincidence he wears himself in robots) that will play a key part in his inevitable defeat. Bald Dude is just a petty misogynist who has wormed his way into government power. And though this is nothing Natasha has cultivated— she hasn’t once tried to flirt or seduce them— it’s something that she can use, and does. Leering sexism translates into homophobia, and like being called a girl, implying that someone is gay is only an insult to those begging to be insulted.
And this guy is profoundly threatened by a woman he can’t shame into silence. A woman with a reputation that he can’t wave away. “I’m the Black Widow. I could eat you for lunch.” So it’s inevitable that he breaks composure and strikes her, and it’s inevitable, too, that that only weakens them enough for Natasha to set herself free. Turning the tables that were already turned.
What? You let yourself be captured?
Readers of issue #4 could probably guess that this kidnapping went just according to keikaku (ed note: keikaku means plan). But it’s an important reaffirmation of Natasha’s agency. It’s not that the villains haven’t hurt her, but there’s nothing they can do to destroy her self-confidence, which comes from places they can’t hope to understand or touch. Bald Dude doesn’t have the imagination to look outside of his own sexist narrative: there’s no way he could’ve seen this coming. Perhaps then, it’s significant, that when Natasha leaves him in his own refrigerator-prison, tied up, wearing his clothes, a perfect inversion of where we first laid our scene, his final cries is a simple “You can’t do this.”
“Don’t be silly,” Natasha responds. “It’s the least I can do.”
At the end of the sequence Natasha strolls on out of the refrigerator, where Wolverine and her boyfriend, Captain America, (i.e. guys who sell more comics than she does) are waiting. “I thought I told you boys to wait in the parking lot,” she says, demonstrating the awesomeness of the men in her life who let her save herself before trying to save her. It’s also the final Liu’s final, important, inversion— so often women are thrown into refrigerators to motivate and deepen the men they’re associated with.
When I started writing these “Memorable Moments of Black Widow” things up, it was partially in response to a list of Memorable Moments of Marvel Women, nominated and voted on by fans, that totally excluded Natasha. (Partially it was just because I love talking about how awesome Natasha is.) I think the only Black Widow moment mentioned in the preliminary polling was one having mostly to do with Rikki Barnes. The blogger’s comments: “I was interested to see the variety on the list and some of the minor characters that got a mention. Equally as surprising were characters that got almost no mention!”
This was the moment I was most surprised to not see mentioned. There’s probably more historically important moments for Natasha, that I’m gonna write about in the future: her 1970s self-fashioning, becoming the first Marvel superheroine to go solo, becoming the first Marvel superheroine to lead a team, her continued mentorship of other female heroes throughout the last decade, figuring out the Thunderbolts secret before anyone else did, leading the Thunderbolts while in disguise. There’s a wealth of awesome moments because I think this character is awesome, and if I had been around to nominate things maybe they’d have shown up. See, I know Bronze Age Daredevil is a weird canon to be fluent in and I don’t expect anyone else to share my unabashed love of continuity. I don’t post much from the recent Black Widow runs because I figure most people who follow me have already read them. They’ve been tumbled before, and I’m in the position to post stuff that hasn’t, so that’s what I try to do.
But maybe I’m wrong. I mean, this scene as fine a metapanel middle-finger to the way women are treated in superhero comics as you’re ever going to see. On top of that, it is just a kick-ass scene of a hero kicking ass, which is the real go-to for spandex comics. And it was written last year. But in a book that failed to crack the top 100, a comic people didn’t buy, in spite of (or maybe because of) a big movie appearance. I refuse to believe there isn’t a market out there for this kind of awesome, and I’ll never give up, never surrender, so don’t even start trying to convince me otherwise. Obviously, though, there’s a problem connecting the books with the audiences. I mentioned, initially, the superhero glass-ceiling, that incidentally, doesn’t just apply to women, but to LGBTQ characters, to characters of color. The question is, remains, always be: how do you make an A-lister? And the answer there is some heady mix of history, relevance, and luck, something unpredictable and impossible to channel because if they could Marvel and DC would have channeled it over and over.
Incidentally, Natasha isn’t on the original list of refrigerated women. Not because there’s no part of her vast continuity that qualifies, but because we don’t really talk about it, it’s stuff that’s mostly been forgotten. Those moments aren’t the things I feel like enshrining, though. I’m gonna see this, whenever I think about Black Widow and refrigerators. Cancelled, unread, whatever, I bought three copies, and I am going to remember.
From Black Widow #5, by Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuña.