One of the most important risk factors for body dissatisfaction is media exposure. Because of the way that female bodies are portrayed in films and television, it is common for real-life women to feel as though their own bodies are inadequate. This is because for an actress to be considered beautiful, she often has to be unhealthily thin because of the widespread idea that that is the “ideal” body to have. In Iron Man 2 (2010), the character of Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a perfect example of a stigmatized female body ideal.
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The viewer’s first look at Natasha Romanoff immediately sets the standard for how she is viewed in the rest of the film. She enters the room through a door at the top of a short flight of stairs and pauses there, centered in the camera’s view, not unlike a model on the runway. She is wearing a very tight shirt that emphasizes her thin body, wide hips, and breasts. This immediately attracts the attention of Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, and his boxing instructor and assistant, Happy. When Tony speaks to her, he tells her to come “front and center,” so that he can see her better. She bends down to step into the boxing ring and looks up into the camera, a very sexually-intended pose. Tony instructs Happy to “give her a lesson,” so that he can speak to his new CEO Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. He searches the internet for her name, and finds that she has impeccably impressive results- she speaks Latin, has very high references, and has been a lingerie model. He and Pepper are interrupted by Natasha responding to an attack by Happy by flipping him over her shoulder and holding him on the ground. When she leaves the room, Tony tells Pepper, “I want one.”
The entirety of this scene is based around establishing Natasha as an object of sexual desire. The camera angles, movements that Natasha makes, and the other character’s reactions to her make this clear. The effect of this is that the viewer receives the message that Scarlett Johansson’s thin figure and body shape is what makes her incredibly desirable. In addition, Tony’s discovery through the internet that she is highly intelligent makes her even more desirable to him. This conveys the idea that in order to be wanted, a woman must be both beautiful and smart- in effect, completely perfect.
Later in the film, Natasha reveals her alter ego when robot drones attack New York City and she must try to stop the man controlling them. Happy drives her to the compound where they originated from, and she changes from her tight and restrictive dress into a catsuit equipped with weapons in the backseat of the car. Happy gets distracted by Natasha’s body and almost crashes, further solidifying her role as a sexual object. Natasha’s outfit is incredibly skintight, accentuating the thin-but-curviness of her body. It covers most of her skin, but zips down just low enough to expose part of her breasts. As soon as they enter the compound, Natasha attacks multiple guards using the weapons she has and by performing impressive acrobatics and martial arts moves against the guards. Spaced throughout this fight scene are camera shots in which she pauses in poses that create drama and show off her body, as well as still impeccable hair and makeup. Her fighting prowess shows the viewer that even though she is incredibly thin, she is still very powerful. The viewer gets the message that they should be fit, strong, and thin, but should still look perfect even when being active.
In addition to Natasha, Pepper Potts, the newly promoted CEO of Stark Industries and Tony’s love interest, is another character with a highly idealized body type. Like Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow is an extremely thin actress, which is emphasized by the clothes that she wears in the movie. Although she does not perform any acrobatic feats in the film, she is still a very powerful woman in that she is the leader of a major corporation. She easily commands the people working under her, as well as Tony, the security at the Stark Expo, and the police department. She conveys the message that in order to be a powerful woman, you must be thin and beautiful.
Both women are constantly shown wearing clothing that show their thin figures. They often wear dresses that are tight and low-cut in order to show their thin but curvy bodies. Even in a professional setting, such as Pepper Potts’s office, where Natasha is undercover as her assistant, both women wear tight dresses that show their thin waists and legs. In addition, when in Monaco for the Grand Prix, Pepper wears a dress that shows her shoulders, displaying her clearly visible collarbones. Although this is a sign of being underweight, it is considered beautiful, which is clear from the effort that she puts into looking good for an occasion such as that.
A female audience watching this film would want to be more like Natasha and Pepper. Because of this, they would most likely feel as though to be more like them, they would have to look like them. Because neither woman is shown eating in the film, they might think that they would have to eat less; however, this is not likely, because rarely are they in a situation where other people are eating around them. The more likely effect of the film on a woman’s body image is that she would want to exercise more. Natasha is clearly shown to be not only very thin, but very strong and athletic when she fights the guards. Because of this, the viewer believes that being so thin but strong is possible and would wish to achieve that type of body. To gain that type of body would require an impossible amount of training over a very long period of time, making it a near unreachable goal.
The people who would most likely be affected by watching this film are those with high body dissatisfaction, because they want to look more like the women in the movie. However, there are other factors which would interact with this mindset. The group of people who would most identify with Johannson and Paltrow would be those that are of the same culture: white women in Western cultures. This is because people identify more with celebrities who look like them. For this reason, younger women will also be more susceptible to the unhealthy body images portrayed in this film. A risk factor for anorexia nervosa is perfectionism, and this would also play into the viewer’s reaction to this movie: because Natasha is especially portrayed as a perfect woman in body and mind, people who wish to be perfect themselves are even more likely to want to be like her.
Unlike this film, the movie Trainwreck (2015), starring Amy Schumer, portrays a completely different, much healthier view on the female body. Schumer’s character, also named Amy, is not thin, unlike most stars in romantic comedies. However, also unlike most comedic films, Amy’s weight is not made a central part of her character. In fact, her weight is not mentioned a single time throughout the entire movie. She wears tight-fitting clothing and outfits that show off her body, despite being a heavier woman, displaying her confidence in how she looks.
There are a few instances in which weight is indirectly referred to by Amy or other characters, but these scenes do not portray being overweight in a negative light. For example, when Amy breaks up with her casual boyfriend, played by John Cena, he says that he had wanted to marry her and make her his “CrossFit queen.” Amy shows disgust at this idea, indicating that she has no intention of exercising to lose weight, because she does not find that important. She similarly shows disdain for one of her sister’s friends at a baby shower, who shares a secret that she sometimes sneaks downstairs in the middle of the night to eat Skinny Cow ice cream bars. While the other women find this scandalous, even though Skinny Cow is considered a diet or healthy ice cream alternative, Amy does not think that it is anything worth getting worked up over. The only time that Amy ever says something negative about her body is in the very end of the film, when she performs a dance to win back the man that she loves. Afterwards, when she is very tired from it, she tells him, “I am in terrible physical shape,” but he assures her that that does not matter to him. This is important because it makes it clear that even though she is not incredibly thin, that does not mean she is a worse person. Amy’s confidence in her body promotes the idea that weight is not the most important thing about a person, which is a much healthier body image than that shown in Iron Man 2.
Although neither of these two movies ever directly mention the characters’ weights, they give a clear position on the accepted body ideal. While Iron Man 2 idolizes the unhealthily thin body type, Trainwreck sends the message that weight is not important to a person’s character and all body types should be celebrated. Trainwreck creates a much healthier image for the viewer to look up to, and this is the sort of message that should be portrayed by celebrities in movies, not the ideal shown by Natasha Romanoff.
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