The sexist Black Widow joke salvaged by Nicole Holofcener

A creaky joke from the original script turned into a heated exchange about the female reproductive system.


Charles Bramesco


The superhero tentpole du jour Black Widow is a film about many things: espionage; large CGI objects exploding in the sky; but above all else, the bond between two women. Scarlett Johansson’s assassin/spy Natasha and her younger counterpart in Florence Pugh’s Yelena find common ground in their shared traumas and forge a way forward, while surviving in a world that would use their womanhood against them.

One eyebrow-raising moment in the film addresses that much head-on, when Yelena provides a cutting reply to an offhanded remark about her ill-tempered mood being due to her time of the month. She throws the compulsory hysterectomy all Black Widows-in-training are forced to endure back in the man’s face, disarming him with the grim truth behind his patronising joke.

Director Cate Shortland stopped by the Truth & Movies podcast this week to discuss her new film, a conversation that eventually touched on that very exchange. Shortland confessed that the line was the result of an early draft of the script that she and her stars both thought was “so dumb”, in which the offending joke appeared but went uncommented on.

It was altered by Nicole Holofcener, the wit behind Lovely and Amazing, Please Give and Enough Said, who was brought in to polish up the dialogue. As Shortland recalls, “[Holofcener] said, ‘We don’t take it out – we’ll get the girls to answer it.’ She was punching things up by not diminishing the politically incorrect stuff, but saying, ‘Let’s get the women in there and get their hands dirty, too.’ That was fun, and made the film more robust, and made the girls tough. They didn’t back down or squirm. If you want to talk about this, let’s talk about it.”

You can listen to the full exchange here.

Successfully working any stand of principle into a multi-hundred-million-dollar studio project represents a creative victory for the writers, and in this instance, it’s also in keeping with Natasha and Yelena’s no-BS spirit. Their greatest power isn’t strength or agility, but the ability to shut down a chauvinist smartass.

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Published 9 Jul 2021

Tags: Black Widow Cate Shortland Florence Pugh Nicole Holofcener Scarlett Johansson

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