Ode to Black Widow: We Need More Trickster Heroines
If all the "trickster" characters in literature and comic books met for an annual convention, it would be a total sausage fest. But somewhere in the crowd of silver-tongued enigmas, Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, would be duping a lower god into giving her a free Pegasus. She is one of the only female tricksters in either the comic book pantheon or the mythological pantheon. Why is that?
First of all, what do we mean by "trickster?" We all know them and love them. I don't mean just us dweebs at MindHut, but human beings in general. Most mythological pantheons have evolved at least one charismatic charlatan, if only so people had someone to blame for all that pesky plague and pestilence. But many characters of this archetype have broken out of their role as two-bit villains to become the most feared and revered deities of all time. Their talent for mind games is their fundamental superpower, and it frequently trumps more glamourous skills, like flight, super-strength, or badass weaponry. Think of characters like the African Anansi, the Navajo Coyote, the French Reynard, the Biblical serpent, and the Norse Loki. They don't need to flex their muscles to intimidate their fellow gods. They just need to talk.
The comic book pantheon is a modern riff on mythological themes, so it's not surprising that trickster figures are just as abundant in these newer, cape-lovin' groups of mega-beings. The Joker, for example, reigns as the resplendent trickster figure in Gotham City, while a somewhat defanged version of the god Loki has become the most notorious bad guy of the Marvel cinematic universe. There is even a supervillain literally named "Trickster," who enjoys messing with the Flash. Like their mythological predecessors, comic book tricksters rarely work with a team. If they do, they are as liable to work with the bad guys as the good. Sometimes they manipulate people for their own benefit; sometimes, they chuck a bunch of gas on a dispute just to see how it plays out. Alfred Pennyworth sums up the latter variety with the famous line: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
The operative word being "men."
Because for some reason, bright superwomen tend to come in two static varieties. You have the benevolent brainiacs, a group that includes goddesses of wisdom like the Greek Athena or the Hindu Saraswati, as well as modern day super-heroines like Buffy Summers and Wonder Woman. These women are mentally sharp, but they are also unfailingly honest. They are so confident in the righteousness of their perspective that rarely resort to trickster tactics. Way on the other end of the spectrum, you have femme fatales and honeytraps. These women are also intellectually nimble, and they use mind games to get their way. But unlike male tricksters, they depend at least as much on their sexuality as on their brain. The examples of this archetype are endless; everyone from the crazy sirens of The Odyssey to Catwoman falls into it. It's a lot of fun, don't get us wrong, but it's also overplayed and predictable.
That's why Black Widow is such a refreshing tornado of fresh air. Despite the fact that Scarlett Johansson is a metric tonne of beauty shoved into a human, Black Widow does not consider sexuality to be part of her "very specific skill set." When she is introduced in The Avengers, it looks like she is being brutally interrogated. But there are clues from the beginning that she's the one in control. When she is slapped and turns her face away from her attacker, for example, she's not hurt or fearful — she's bored! When she takes Phil Coulson's call, it becomes clear that the shackles her "captors" think are restraining her are actually empowering her. The chair they've tied her to will become her weapon in two seconds flat. She uses the lazy assumptions they make about her to hack directly into their brains. Even her fighting style is a mind game in which she uses the expectations of her opponents against them.
Indeed, Romanoff is such a resplendent trickster figure that she manages to outfox the very epitome of the archetype. She confronts Loki nominally about Hawkeye, and from there, she deftly manipulates his assumptions about her until he accidentally reveals the information she needs. She does not use a "come hither" voice or pose provocatively — she stands neutrally, even a little awkwardly, as she leads him into a mental trap of his own making. Imagine how creeped out he must have felt once he realized she'd spent the whole conversation in his brain. Watching her out-Loki Loki was beyond satisfying.
The only character Romanoff seems genuinely intimidated by is Bruce Banner. This makes sense: he is, after all, "an enormous green rage monster." However, we don't think his god-thrashing strength is what wigs her out about him. A woman who hangs around Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America all day is clearly not unsettled by superhuman strength. No, what freaks her out about the Hulk is that words do not work against an insensate giant. Her weapon of choice is language, and the Hulk is hardly a talker. If she ran afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., she could talk any one of the other Avengers out of bringing her to justice, but she'd never get the upper hand against the Hulk. Not to mention, Banner is one of the only characters who is somewhat immune to her tactics even when he's not fury incarnate (or was that his secret? I forget). On the Helicarrier, Romanoff warns him of Loki's intentions, saying, "Loki's been manipulating you." He spits back, "and you've been doing what exactly?"
Perhaps Joss Whedon will play up that tense relationship in The Avengers 2. It would be amazing to see Black Widow be challenged at her own game after defeating so many amateurs. We love a good brain battle!
But above all, we hope that Black Widow inspires more writers to cast ladies as trickster figures. This archetype is simply too much fun to be hogged by dudes all the time. It doesn't matter if the characters are villains, heroes, or somewhere in between. We're just asking for more characters as as brain-bustingly deceptive as Black Widow. Your move, world.
Can you think of another female trickster?