Is Scarlett Johansson's Lawsuit a Feminist Issue?

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

Scarlett Johansson's legal and PR battle with Disney over her Black Widow earnings is shaking the entertainment world. It is unusually public and hostile for a relationship between an actor and a studio who have done nine movies together. The star claims Disney breached her contract by releasing Black Widow on Disney+ at the same time as its theatrical run, thereby depriving her of millions in bonuses tied to box office milestones.

Whilst it feels hard to root for either party in this debate, it is undeniable that the emotional intensity encompassing this lawsuit reveals a bigger power struggle that is gearing up between stars and studios, as both anxiously eye a future where blockbusters increasingly live on streaming platforms.

To some Johansson is guilty of hypocrisy, positioning her argument in the shadow of feminist reasoning. Her choice to frame her lawsuit as a ‘girl power’ move is questionable given the actor’s history of choices that are tone deaf, if not indifferent, to the well-being of other women or minorities. Johansson has been active in movements like Times Up and criticised many men, but she has also defended Woody Allen. Moreover, she drew criticism for playing the lead, originally Japanese character, in 2017’s whitewashed Ghost in the Shell.

On the other hand, all this is exactly what Disney wants us to be thinking about. Establishing this as the latest in her series of upsetting controversies is part of the company’s calculated strategy to make her actions appear frivolous and greedy. Meanwhile, in addition to Johansson’s history of cringe comments, her gender undoubtedly shapes the way Disney feels they can attack her. Disney’s public reveal of her $20 million salary indicates their intention of weaponizing her success as an artist and businesswoman.

The feminist dimension comes not from Johansson but from Disney itself. Their response to the lawsuit was personalised and vicious. The corporation’s portrait of Johansson as a “callous” woman seems tailored to incite misogyny as a distraction from the apparent hypocrisy of suggesting she need not get paid during a pandemic - despite Disney's stock being on the healthy up-and-up.

Disney’s language of Johansson not caring about the suffering caused by the pandemic is emotionally loaded, playing into social assumptions that it is unnatural for a woman, specifically, to be uncaring. Arguing that Johansson should not profit during a pandemic is not very compelling when Disney’s fortunes rose over 2020 and 2021, with the number of Disney+ subscriptions increasing. People have already labelled this rhetoric  sanctimonious from a company that is still operating Disney World Florida in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

Disney attempts to characterise Johansson as insensitive and selfish for defending her contractual business rights. As such, though misogyny is one of their tactics, Disney’s motives for hitting back at Johansson are not primarily about her being a woman, but more about the emerging struggle over how movie stars fit into and earn in a streaming-centric future.

Johansson’s lawsuit argues that the streaming release earned value for Disney+ which is not quantified in the movie’s box office figures. For Johansson, Disney used Black Widow to highlight their subscription service, attracting new members and maintaining existing ones. Complicating this issue is that Disney+ did charge an on-demand fee for Black Widow which weakens Johansson’s case, since those sales were likely factored into the formula for her compensation.

But the contracts of today’s movie-stars are built around box office returns. This is where such a lawsuit becomes so important to Disney: its outcome sets a precedent for how other actors will negotiate their contractual rights as more big releases are created from streaming platforms.

As the whole media landscape shifts, the leverage of the movie star is declining. Franchises are driven by intellectual property more than star power. This trend can be overstated - after all, Marvel films are replete with stars who come with hefty price tags. Yet, a number of those names were created or launched into a much higher stratosphere of stardom by MCU movies. Since her Marvel work is now done, and it looks increasingly likely that her relationship with Disney could come to an end, Johansson is in a unique position to bring this lawsuit.

This whole mess is a strangely fitting end to the trajectory of Black Widow, a character created and defined by men. As the only leading female character in the MCU’s early movies, she was introduced in Iron Man 2 as an objectified version of the sexy spy archetype. Being sexualised from her first appearance, the franchise struggled with her character in notorious missteps, like the highly sexualised interrogation scene in Avengers, having her call herself a monster because she had been sterilised and generally making her feel like an unrealistically sexy, cool-girl type. On top of all that, Johansson herself has been subject to numerous sexist questions in press junkets that received no condemnation from Disney.

Despite some progress in her character’s evolution over nine films, when Black Widow got her standalone movie it came with the limitations of being the prequel for a dead character making its impact on the overall MCU feel a little slight.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the Black Widow movie attempts to be a take on feminist empowerment. The movie is about how men moulded the character into a hyperfeminine superhero employed for hypermasculine purposes, taking issue with a male-defined version of female superheroism. And yet, this message never seems like a form of self-criticism on behalf of Marvel and by extension Disney.

There is a long history of men defining female strength on screen, thereby creating a masculine criteria of feminism. The fact that Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean in’ feminism and Sophia Amoruso’s ‘girl boss’ version are constructed largely on women partaking in a male conception of success suggests the absence of a truly feminine one. Arguably this is the problem with Johansson’s own doctrine of feminism because it is determined by her trying to compete for a spot in a male-defined world.

Still, we are all shaped and limited by our experiences and the environments we came up in, and Black Widow was that lone female character carrying the pressure of transitioning the MCU toward a female future.

The truth of this story is that Johansson's lawsuit is not primarily a feminist one, but Disney's response has certainly been fuelled by sexist sentiment and rhetoric. Ultimately, their tactics echo larger trends to make the human presence and creator’s agency ever less important to movie making. The real danger is Disney's ambition to remove the feeling that the artist matters to the art; in doing so, everything risks becoming one long advertisement for the brand.