With thanks to workerbee73 with her wonderful meta and discussions, surreallis who asked questions and got me thinking, and everyone who joined in the discussion on the Alphabet wars thread on be_compromised. Meta referred to is from here and here by workerbee73, here by gyzym, and here by marinarusalka. Fics that deal with Natasha being remade and have influenced these thinky thoughts include RED by waldorph and Chrysalis by sugar_fey.
surreallis asked me: I’ve seen more than one fan of Black Widow talk about how she’s been ‘remade so many times’ that she either has identity problems or maybe doesn’t even know her real name. And I just…where are people getting this from? Is it actually canon somewhere? Are people mixing movie and comic canon? Is it in the movie and I missed it? Or is just making a big assumption from the exchange of: “Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?” “You know I do.” And I should clarify that of course we KNOW she’s been remade once, by her own words. But do we really know she’s been remade multiple times? So much so that she’s lost all identity? (Not that her childhood isn’t PLENTY of reason for identity issues by itself, so it’s a little head-tilting to me to see it complete blamed on brain-washing.)
The easy answer is that we really don’t know anything for sure and we’re still waiting for the Black Widow origins film (please and thank you). The fun answer is that we know so little in film canon that we can play with what we do know and make it into anything we like. However, there does seem to be a lot of talk about remaking and reclaiming when it comes to Natasha Romanoff and I’m guilty of it myself, which is why surreallis asked me, because almost without really thinking about it I commented on her fic saying that I don’t believe that any of the names that we’re given for Natasha are real and that she’s been remade many times. I attempted to put my money where my words went and explain. Then I went away, thought some more, and hopefully this attempt will be more coherent.
gyzym in this meta says that Natasha knows what it is to be unmade and that this is a clear acknowledgement of Black Widow’s comic-canonical extensive history of brainwashing. There is more than one comics origins and backstory for Natasha, but a feature that most of us fans of the film seem to have picked up on is the Red Room where she was given false memories, such as parents that were not hers, friends that never existed, a career as a ballerina that never happened, patriotism for her county enhanced by brainwashing and chemicals, all to manipulate her. (Manipulation is a key theme for Natasha both in the comics and in the films. Case in point: the scene with Loki.)
Whilst I think that whether or not Natasha actually undergoes ‘brainwashing’ in the film verse is open to debate, I’d like to go down the road of saying that, brainwashing or not, Natasha has been ‘remade’ more than once, in different ways, and to take a look at the themes of identity and names.
In the films we get Natasha saying that she knows what it’s like to be unmade. She also says, when talking with Loki, that she used to be Russian, got on SHIELD’s radar in a bad way, and that Clint was sent to take her out. It suggests that she defected or went over to SHIELD, either from being a solo operative or working for someone in Russia, be it the Red Room or otherwise. I think it’s safe to say that such a transition is a form of ‘remaking’, going to new country, becoming a SHIELD Agent, a different life than what she had before.
Let me also direct your attention to this exchange from Iron Man 2:
Natalie Rushman: I’m surprised you can keep your mouth shut.
Tony Stark: God, you’re good. You are mind-blowingly close to this. How do you do it? You’re a triple imposter. I’ve never seen anything like it. Is there anything real about you? Do you even speak Latin?
Natalie Rushman: Fallaces sunt rerum species. (Translation: the appearances of things are deceptive)
Tony Stark: Which means? Wait, what did you just say?
Natalie Rushman: It means you can either drive yourself home or I can have you collected.
We know that she is a spy – Clint even says so – and has a talent for impersonations and deceit, for being other people (see: Iron Man 2, see her first scene in the Avengers). She’s walked in a lot of shoes. She also gets seemingly annoyed when she responds in that Iron Man 2 exchange and practically storms out when accused of there being nothing ‘real’ about her.
It is important to note when things phase Natasha Romanoff. It is a rare occurrence. If you want an idea of how bad things need to get to phase her, remember that in the Avengers she looks up at a huge alien thing coming towards them and says calmly, “I don’t see how that’s a party.” It’s interesting then that being accused of not being real irritates her and that her reply is that that is an appearance, the fact that she is many layers and apparently nothing in and of herself is a deception itself. And that she feels that she can’t just come out and say that, in English, so that Tony will understand it. Why? Analyse it however you like, but I think at the root of it Natasha has issues with identity.
I find gyzym’s meta particularly interesting because whilst it says that Natasha being brainwashed comes from the comics all of the examples used to point to Natasha having been brainwashed, or at least remade, come from the films. It explains how we know that Natasha is afraid of the Hulk and that the reason why is because Natasha’s story is one of control. I’ve read thoughts on Natasha being afraid of the Hulk because she can’t kill him, can’t manipulate him, can’t control him, in short can’t use any of her weapons or skills against him. gyzym points out that she’s not scared of physical pain though. See: “I don’t see how that’s a party” as one of many examples. In addition, what gyzym says that Natasha is afraid of is the Hulk being a literal embodiment of her worst fear. Bruce Banner is always angry, because he’s always on the edge of being taken over by another consciousness, and that fate—that constant not knowing, that constant doubt, that repeat of waking up not knowing what you’ve done or why you did it or who you are—is what Natasha has been running from since that fateful day when she and Clint refrained from killing one another. So the Hulk cannot be controlled and is not in control.
gyzym also says that the only time in Iron Man 2 where we see her wrong-footed, even for a second, is when Tony shoves his sorry, self-destructive ass into that race car. Pepper demands to know if Natasha knew about this, and Natasha’s response—in one of her more emotional moments of that film, given that she’s visibly uncomfortable to admit it—is, “This is the first that I’ve known of it.” She says it like she wishes she didn’t have to; it’s both almost apologetic and almost furious, indicating that Natasha hates surprises and goes out of her way to avoid dealing with them most of the time. And that the root of any brainwashing narrative is a complete loss of control—to be brainwashed, by definition, means that someone else wormed their way into your head and altered your thoughts and actions according to their desires, not your own. There is emphasis on Natasha being familiar with brainwashing from her past as in the comics, but if you leave the comics to one side, gyzym makes a very good case for Natasha being afraid of not being in control, both of a situation and of herself, of having control taken away from her, and since very little phases Natasha Romanoff this is a very big thing for her.
Let us take a moment here to acknowledge that Natasha has feelings and fears and that this is okay. I’ve said things about the women in the Avengers here before, but it bears repeating that Natasha is strong and kick-ass, but also more than that. She’s human, she gets scared, and she has a past. She owns her job. See: the ‘kidnap’ scene at the beginning. See: Natasha playing Loki to get the information she wants. And, perhaps most absolutely, see: Natasha at the end. Natasha is the one who decides, ‘sod this, I am switching your shit off.’ Sure, Cap gives her a lift and Selvig offers his help, but they are helping her and she’s the one that gets the job done. This woman has no superpowers, says that she doesn’t care about right and wrong, but when she decides to do something it damn well gets done. For anyone questioning Natasha I would say take a look at this vid that owns my soul: In the Bullpen by genusshrike.
marinarusalka says in meta here that the characterisation of Natasha is ‘actually quite consistent with the comics’ and, in reference to people calling Natasha weak and vulnerable at points during the film, that Natasha is well aware of being one of the few women in a world overrun with macho manly men with superpowers, and she has never shown any inclination to alter herself in order to play by their rules. Natasha can have these moments of emotional vulnerability not because she's weak, but precisely because she doesn't see her emotions as a weakness, and therefore doesn't see them as something she needs to repress or get rid of. They're a part of her, and she puts them to use just like any other part of her. She has a physical body, and has learned to use it for combat. She has an intellect, and she has learned to use it for plotting and scheming and figuring things out. She has emotions, and she has learned to use them to manipulate people. She doesn't try to eliminate her emotions any more than she tries to eliminate her mind or her body. So, emotions for Natasha are, as with her body and intellect, weapons. You want evidence of this in the films? Again, see: the conversation with Loki.
workerbee73 has some fascinating meta where she uses the concepts of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity (as in masculine and feminine archetypes writ large for the purpose of telling a bigger story) in looking at Natasha and Clint in the Avengers. To summarise on Natasha (go and read it): you can only know the truth of Natasha by experiencing her, because words lie, she deceives, and as she says in Iron Man 2 appearances are deceptive. Also workerbee73 describes Natasha as playing the traditional feminine concepts of mystery and emotion and softness like a fiddle in order to get close. Think about it. Even her weapons are designed with this in mind. Knives and pistols are the ultimate short-range weapons, and hand-to-hand combat is her milieu. All of her violence is predicated on the idea that she will be able to get close, that you will let her get close – because you will underestimate her. I would like to add to that the spider’s bite and garrote that we see in Iron Man 2 and that, again, look how everything that Natasha is is a weapon. Manipulate, deceive, get close, kill. And she’s good at it, SHIELD Agent level good. The kind of good that you’d need a lot of practice at. She tells Bruce that she started young, as young as that girl that leads Bruce into that abandoned house. Now, tell me that a child of that age has a choice. Tell me that, regardless of whether the Red Room or anyone else does it, that making a child that age into the kind of weapon that Natasha is is anything but making and that going from that kind of background to a position in SHIELD would be anything other than being remade.
workerbee73 adds to her comments on Natasha as her being an embodiment of experience that re-making is by its very nature experiential. The only way to escape, the only way to change this is to become something else. When Natasha is seen as hyper-feminine and experiential then re-making fits with her character. That, though is one remaking and I did say that I saw Natasha as having been remade many times. Well, I’d say that for her to so afraid of the loss of control arguably it’s something that’s happened to her more than once and that she’s uncomfortable at the idea that there’s nothing real about her, which speaks to her having worn many layers, which we know she has in her role as a spy at least. I have some more thoughts for you though.
Tell me that, regardless of whether the Red Room or anyone else does it, that making a child that age into the kind of weapon that Natasha is is anything but making and that going from that kind of background to a position in SHIELD would be anything other than being remade. Or reclaiming herself, if it is her that does it for herself and not SHIELD doing it or her doing it for SHIELD. It depends what age Natasha was when she was recruited to SHIELD and under what circumstances. In the Avengers she goes with Steve and Clint, takes a plane, leaves the hellicarrier without permission. That is not a person who is completely SHIELD’s, she is her own person. If she went straight from being what she was before SHIELD to being what she is now, fine, but I think there’s space for Natasha being young enough to have been remade by SHIELD first before she reclaims herself or having been recruited to SHIELD in such a way that they make her fit into their mold first.
Let’s have some more thoughts about her age. A few of us (myself, workerbee73, sugar_fey) see Clint as 10-13 years older than Natasha. Partly because of the actor’s ages and workerbee73 said because Clint’s a hardened hired gun type which works well for him being a little older, and Natasha is a very old soul to being with – she’s seen way more in her life than most people could ever imagine. And so in my mind Clint needs to be older than se is just to have a world-weary experience that could possibly hope to relate to hers. We know Natasha has seen a lot. She is, after all, a spy and started at a young age. In the comics Natasha seems to be a lot older than she actually looks, due comics voodoo (see: Steve Rodgers on ice, genetic manipulation, the brainteaser that is comics timelines). For me Clint seems to have the experienced solider thing going on and if there’s no comics voodoo over Natasha’s age then Natasha being made and remade over and over, kind of forever and always beginning again, fits with Natasha being constantly young in some ways whilst Clint is the hurry up and wait soldier. Natasha being constantly remade then could, arguably, be the film version of the comics voodoo in a more ‘realistic’ manner: she would, in a way, be forever young.
Let’s look at Natasha and names (not just thinking about remaking and reclaiming, I have a thing about her names). Marvel wiki lists Natalia ‘Natasha’ Alianova Romanova as her real name and her aliases as Natasha Romanoff, Nadine Roman, ‘Nat’, Tsarina, Oktober, Laura Matthers, Nancy Rushman, Black Pearl, Natalia Shostakova, Natuska, Czarina, others not including impersonations. In the films we get Natasha Romanoff/Romanov, Natalie Rushman, Tasha, and Nat. The Black Widow is a woman of many names.
In Avengers she introduces herself to Dr Banner as Natasha Ramanov or Romanoff - the jury seems to be out on the spelling. Natasha is a nickname version or diminutive of Natalia or an Americanised or Anglicised version of Natalia depending on your source. Romanova would be the correct spelling since she’s female. However, the ‘a’ at the end tends to be dropped because in English surnames don’t change according to gender. Also, it’s been speculated that she is Romanov or Romanoff because Americans don’t understand Russian or that because she choses the male form of her name for various reasons, such as to mock people who don’t understand Russian names or to say ‘I am as good as any male’ as a few examples.
Historically the Romanov family was the last ruling family of Russia, executed by the Bolsheviks and from which comes the story/myth of Anastasia. Again, many interpretations of this are knocking around: that she is Anastasia, that she’s a member of that family taken and turned into a weapon because it amused those who took her or made a political point, that they gave her that family name for the same reasons, and so on. Interestingly Tsarina and Czarina both mean empress or empress of Russia and we could draw parallels with the fact that all of Anastasia’s family are killed, that she was left behind, that she is a lost child. Also, a myth and a story. Someone who came from a higher, or at least better, place?
In The Avengers she is referred to as Agent Romanoff by Fury when he asks her to show Banner to his lab and by Tony when he arrives in Germany. At the start of the film, however, we get Coulson on the phone saying, “Tasha, Barton’s compromised.” The other time we get Tasha is when she’s whacking Clint hard enough on the hard to knock Loki out of him. We have one Natasha from him during the infirmary scene and then during the big fight Clint calls her Nat.
I think Natasha having so many names speaks to the flexibility of the character, of constantly being ‘remade’ into other people, be it by choice or not. It speaks to Natasha being disturbed by the thought that she could be seen as a composite of different people (see: that Iron Man 2 exchange with Tony).
Now, heading off in a bit of a speculative direction (from a Clint/Natasha perspective): Clint calls her Nat when it’s mission time, when they’re with other people, because everyone else calls her Agent or by whatever alias she’s going by, but Clint has earned the familiarity of Nat. (I also, thanks to Lifelines by sarea_okelani like to think that when she was younger and he wanted to tease her Clint called her Gnat. Now it’s Nat, except for the times when it isn’t and everyone else is hearing Nat but she knows that he means Gnat, she just knows.) Clint and Coulson call her Tasha when it counts, when it’s important, when they need to get her attention, when they need her to listen. I think this is a kind of team thing. That the three of them worked together so closely, shared a safehouse or space lived inside each others pockets, and there are some things that you can’t share without becoming on first name terms. But Tasha isn’t her actual name, right? It’s a nickname, friendly, inclusive. Telling her that’s more than Natasha, that she’s one of them.
Then we have the one Natasha in the infirmary scene. This is one of the things that makes me think that she chose Natasha Romanoff herself and not just because it fits in with the reclaiming theme. I think, maybe, when Clint uses Natasha it’s rare and it means you, it means the person that you chose to be, it means serious and just them, no teasing, no one else around, not even Coulson, no team, just and only Natasha.
I think the attraction of the idea of Natasha being constantly remade is the idea that at some point she reclaimed herself, became the woman who is not what she was before SHIELD, a child made into a weapon, and not an Agent of SHIELD, but someone who walks away with Captain America and Clint into a war. Sure, she tells Loki that regimes fall every day and that doesn’t sound like someone wedded to an organisation, but if she was ‘bargaining for one man’, well, she has Clint back, and she’s the one that wants to go after Loki. She makes a choice. Curiously Clint says that she doesn’t sound like herself and Natasha tells him that it’s because she’s been compromised. The last person who was compromised? Clint, turned into something he is not. So, Natasha once again being something new? Not brainwashing, I’m saying that she has the capacity, always, to be something new.
Natasha has been made into a weapon, came to SHIELD for whatever reason, under circumstances that we don’t know, has been many people, and yet we know that she’s a strong character. She says to Clint that she knows what it’s like to be unmade, so she knows what it’s like to come back from that, at least once. workerbee73 explained how Natasha has to be experienced and says that she thinks it was not only Clint’s observation of Natasha but his experience of her that leads to him not killing her when he is sent to take her out. It is absolutely my headcanon that Clint doesn’t kill her because he sees in her some small thing that is her, some capacity for self, however small. That it is his experience of Natasha being different to the Black Widow that he is told or expects her to be, that she has been made, that she shows to the world. Appearances are deceptive.
In addition a thing that I know I’m guilty of is taking into account that this is a Joss Whedon film. If you watch any of his shows – Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse – there is an on-going theme of girls/women being made into weapons, treated as if they are nothing else, and then reclaiming themselves, owning themselves. A lot of people have explained this better than me. Try this vid: The Girl Who Falls Down Stairs by kaydeefalls. I picked up on Natasha as fitting with this theme.
workerbee73 also points out that Natasha’s choice in clothing speaks to the theme of reclaiming since when she is on her own time or in her SHIELD uniform she has a minimal amount of skin showing, even though she is a woman who uses her sex and her gender to manipulate (see: Iron Man 2 when making Tony Stark want to hire her, see conversation with Loki). You can only see what she allows you to see says workerbee73. I think there’s a practical element to Natasha’s clothes – in a fight you want to be covered up as much as possible, to prevent injuries from flying glass and what have you, and knowing SHIELD their uniforms probably protect more than standard clothing as well. I can see an argument for Clint having no sleeves for his archery, but there’s really no excuse for Agents not to be as protected as possible (which I’m pleased the film reflects, rather than just putting Natasha forward as eye-candy). I can get behind it being skin tight for flexibility and lack of friction when running (and diving through the air onto an alien flying vehicle and we said Natasha was kick-ass, right). That said, take a look at the clothes Natasha wears in the closing scene when they send Loki and Thor off. It’s something to think about.
SO, no, we don’t know that Natasha has been remade multiple times in film canon, but what film canon there is does link back to Natasha being brainwashed in the past and there is evidence in the films for Natasha having been remade and having reclaimed herself. I think that her fear of not being in control, particularly in light of how she’s so seldom phased by anything, and her reaction to being accused of not having anything ‘real’ about her, the age at which she started learning to be what she is, her role and competence as a spy, her many names, and the themes that Joss Whedon tends to bring out in his work speak to Natasha having been remade more than once, or remade at least twice and then reclaimed herself, or at least walked in many shoes. I believe that issues of identity and self are, if not a problem, something she thinks and cares about.
(And I still believe that we have never heard Natasha Romanoff’s real name, because someone that smart and that strong, that child who was in a position to be used and made into a weapon, that kid wouldn’t have given her real name. Do you think the kid who took money to lure Bruce into an abandoned house gave Natasha her real name? I think not. Perhaps, when Natasha started out and she was asked her name she gave the person asking a look, rather like she gave that Russian in her first scene in the Avengers, and she said, “Anastasia.”)