Evolution of a Spy: The Psychology of Black Widow

Drea Letamendi
Movies Comics
Movies Comics Streaming Marvel MCU

After a long, pandemic-caused delay, the much-anticipated?Black Widow is finally debuting this month. But even before those specific delays, it had been quite a wait for the character to finally get her own solo movie, given Natasha Romanoff was first introduced in 2010’s Iron Man 2. And though we saw Natasha’s death in Avengers: Endgame,?there is still much to explore about what defines her and motivates her. With her feature film — set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War and debuting both in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access — upon us, Fandom asked?Clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi to analyze the assassin-spy turned superhero Avenger.

Read on for Dr. Drea’s findings…

Meet Natasha

Many know Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow,?as a stoic, strong-willed, and self-confident assassin. Trained at a young age by the KGB, Natasha rose through the ranks to become a highly skilled, proficient secret agent. She succeeded in a merciless and cutthroat organization by being thoughtful, perceptive, and clever; mental dexterity was just as important as physical dexterity. Because of her rigorous training and unwavering convictions, Natasha tended to be overly militant and boldly procedural with her violence¡ªwhich made her a dangerous weapon, and therefore noticed by S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha could easily best half a dozen fighters in combat; she could process multiple observations in seconds and be steps ahead of her assailants. Given the way she was ¡°re-wired¡± by the intelligence agency, Natasha approached life with pursuit of calculated risk and excitement, and with a sharp, short-term tactical focus. Natasha saw the obvious and immediate thrill in achieving victory; but for the majority of her life, she had not considered the larger picture, the long-term consequences of her actions, and the pull toward a more purposeful meaning behind a lethal punch.

It might seem counterintuitive, but a loner like Natasha was a genius when it came to relationships. Reading micro-expressions, detecting social cues, and harnessing precise emotional reactions were some of her most imperative skills. As a world-class spy, Natasha knew that striking the perfect balance of charm and intimidation were key to manipulating her target and achieving her mission¡¯s goals. She held a great sense of self-awareness, and knew that, despite her brilliance, she must remain approachable, if not convince others to underestimate her. She also knew that women are often undervalued as fighters and thus dialed up her feminine charm when needed.

With fellow Avengers like Clint Barton, Steve Rogers, and Bruce Banner, Natasha was not afraid to grow close to them and form real connections, even reveal some of her vulnerabilities. Though she was a killer by definition, she was not untender. She did not lack compassion. Unlike typical spy operatives, Natasha was comfortable achieving closeness and showed an openness to authentic allyships¡ªto a degree. She sought no attachments, romantic or otherwise, and did not chase the approval of others. She pursued another quest altogether. The events that take place during the?Battle of New York and the Infinity War lead Natasha to personal reflections about her past. She became convinced that giving up her life to undo the horrors of ¡°the Snap¡± and the destruction of billions of civilians would be the moral equivalent of erasing the terrible deeds of her past. ?Natasha¡¯s role in undoing one of the most morally destructive acts burdening the Avengers was essential. As it turns out, the qualities necessary to operate as an assassin — impulsiveness, an absence of instinctive fear, a bold sense of self-aggrandizement, and a willingness to serve as an instrument in a larger system ¨C happen to be the perfect psychological ingredients needed in a superhero, if they¡¯re to truly save the universe.

The Psychological Drivers
of Espionage

Is there something inside of us that seeks escapism, adventure, and maybe a little danger? Some of us happen to be wired for action. Risk-taking is one of many features necessary in careers of reconnaissance. In her recently de-classified reports about the psychology of espionage, Dr. Ursula Wilder, a real clinical psychologist at the CIA, uses profiles of actual operatives to explain how some people are comfortable with professions that involve remorselessness and duplicity. According to these reports, one CIA agent confesses why spyhood became alluring to him: ¡°There was a part of me, a small part of me, that wanted something that was a bit abandoned, a bit uncontrolled, almost suicidal.¡± His admission, like many others interviewed, reveals that there are some individual prerequisites associated with spy work. According to Dr. Wilder, the three essential elements that set ¡°successful¡± conditions for a person¡¯s entry into espionage include: (1) a dysfunctional personality, (2) a personal crisis, and (3) the ease of opportunity.

First, personality. Everyone carries a fairly consistent set of traits, attitudes, and values that remain relatively stable throughout their lifetime. Spies, in general, tend to have dysfunctional or pathological personality features that facilitate a life of espionage. Being a bit ¡°unhinged¡± is a part of the job requirement, one would say. This could include risk- or thrill-seeking (loving the sensation of adrenaline, essentially), a heightened sense of entitlement or importance (feeling like they can avoid the negative consequences or feeling invincible), and a desire for an irrational amount of power and control (being profoundly interested in manipulating other people¡¯s lives, for instance). The term psychopath is reserved for extreme examples; but, theoretically, tends to be the descriptor that captures this specific profile. A psychopath is someone who lacks shame and remorse, provokes authority, ignores laws and rules, dupes others for their own pleasure and gain, and gleefully inflicts pain on others.

Spies can¡¯t be sloppy. It isn¡¯t about the reckless breaking of rules and bones. Some healthy, organizing features are needed to balance out the chaos of psychopathy. That is, positive characteristics can counteract negative ones. Psychologists call these characteristics ¡°countervailing traits.¡± A calm temperament and a strong sense of responsibility, for instance, are needed to a small degree for successful espionage. Natasha, it seems, shows a more balanced and full-bodied personality of both positive and negative traits, a rarer profile among most spies. True, she has the physical and mental tenacity needed for spyhood. She carries many anti-social traits consistent with the personality profile of a spy: An interest in thrill and excitement that put others in danger, the use of aggression and control over her assailants in an irrational and narcissistic manner, and an initial belief that her behaviors would have few negative, bothersome, or long-lasting consequences on her moral personhood.

However, Natasha also has a fair amount of healthy personality features, which only began to emerge and gain constancy after the Battle of New York. For instance, she experienced, expressed, and accepted a wide range of emotions within herself. Loyalty to friends eclipsed loyalty to a system. Natasha was quite adept at de-escalating and calming an unnerved Hulk back into Bruce Banner, not through manipulation, but through a method of mirroring calmness and comfort back to him. This isn¡¯t easy¡ªshe must first authentically connect to Hulk¡¯s pain and anguish, in order to actualize a sense of real understanding and care (this is the mechanism of empathy). Clearly, Natasha does not revel in the pain of others; in fact, she became instrumental in the healing of her friends. And they need her for more than her lies and games; they need her to help them build a shared purpose.

How about the second condition? Did young Natasha undergo a state of crisis? Psychologists like Dr. Wilder warn that ¡°personality alone is not sufficient to provoke espionage.¡± She explains that a career in reconnaissance is often seen as an outlet, escape, or solution following a precipitating crisis. It serves a psychological purpose. The option to engage in subterfuge becomes an available escape from a desperate or painful situation.

Furthermore, well-trained recruiters specifically target and exploit the vulnerable (ease in opportunity, the third condition). Was Natasha an easy target? Agent Romanoff was recruited as an adolescent and trained in Russia¡¯s covert espionage facility, where she endured both an education and indoctrination into the world of spycraft. Natasha immediately excelled in various areas: hand-to-hand combat, interrogation, disguise, computer hacking, and infiltration; demonstrating she had at least some pre-existing acuities along the spectrum of deceit and doggedness. She was a prodigy.

Natasha¡¯s young age, her strong sense of self-conviction, and her innate aptitudes across multiple competencies made her an ideal target for conditioning.

Little is yet known about her motivations prior to her training; and it¡¯s likely that ¡°being programmed by the KGB¡± represented some of her most formative years, as far as emotional, personal, social development. Her handlers deployed sophisticated psychological control techniques that would apply the right amount of pressure; such as enhancing her pre-existing doubts and fostering additional traumas and crises in the form of verbal and physical abuse. They made her feel unique and superior among the other pupils in her cohort. They eroded her sense of an independent self. They harnessed her search for retribution. When so much mental and physical pain is inflicted on a victim, they seek an outlet. And a concrete target.

Natasha fixates on a couple of pivotal moments experienced in the?Red Room, the place she was trained to become an assassin. Though they¡¯re fuzzy, her memories give her familiar images of young girls, robotic and uniform, unable to speak or break from their drills. In one flashback, Natasha finds herself walking down the stairs where she came across?Madame B., her former trainer, who comments that agents who are ¡°breakable¡± will not make it to graduation. In this agonizing vision, Natasha sees herself aim and shoot her weapon at several targets, the last being a conscious person who she ultimately executes. Shortly after, at her ¡°graduation ceremony,¡± Natasha is sterilized to ensure that ¡°life wouldn¡¯t interfere¡± with her professional goals.

Natasha¡¯s matriculation as an agent moves beyond indoctrination. It was brainwashing. It was trauma.

CIA psychologists emphasize that ¡°states of crisis often result in patterns of thinking that degrade judgment and behavior.¡± Forcing her into ¡°tunnel vision,¡± to endure hours of physical training to the brink of collapse, and to kill mercilessly, are techniques that kept Natasha in emotional shock, in constant helplessness, and in an uninterrupted awareness of immediate threat. Enacting violence and ending lives simply amplified feelings of dependency on authority figures. These experiences kept Natasha in a constant state of crisis; thereby making it possible to adjust her personality in the direction of those negative traits needed to create the perfect spy.

Spy Game

Espionage requires a good amount of emotional detachment and a willingness to do harm at the individual level for a higher purpose¡ªsometimes even with little knowledge of the bigger mission. Can this kind of predatory behavior be acquired? Can remorselessness be learned? Can moral flexibility be taught?

Persons with psychopathic profiles are natural-born predators, in that, they chase the excitement of vice, but feel little remorse. The psychopathic personality type is defined by two components: the emotional and the behavioral; and both seem necessary in the work of espionage. Emotionally, the psychopathic person lacks remorse and empathy. Superficiality and chronic indifference are also marked features; the psychopath isn¡¯t emotionally deep, or seething with personal rage. On the surface, they¡¯re charming and likable. Behaviorally, you¡¯ll notice a parasitic lifestyle, a consistent callousness, and criminal versatility.

Clinical interviews with spies who got caught reveal that ¡°there is an emptiness where pain or shame should be.¡± It is likely that the ¡°double life¡± comes with a price; when a second, or multiple, identities are maintained, an emotional division takes place. The splitting of the self results in a shallowing of the person, one who has little awareness nor the self-kindness to be able to reflect on their brutal actions. Finally, exposures to different stressful life events in childhood (i.e., victimization, extreme abuse, witnessing torture) have been shown to increase the risk for psychopathy.

To be fair, not all spies are psychopaths. But think of the term not as a diagnosis (which isn¡¯t usually helpful anyway), but more of a spectrum. Spy work necessitates a great deal of concealment, compartmentalization, and deception that can separate a person from their sense of self. Natasha Romanoff does display this collection of attributes, which she acquired, primarily, through rigid techniques and constant abuse by the KGB. Even Loki, who knows how to manipulate people based on their insecurities, miscalculates Natasha¡¯s weakness. She¡¯s able to mimic the right kind of vulnerable and submissive emotion to invoke a confession from Loki¡ªhe tried to attack her moral sense, but Natasha isn¡¯t morally anchored.

In a way, Natasha was ¡°taught¡± to consider herself an instrument or weapon; not a human. She was taught to throw away any urges or wishes of a life of normalcy: falling in love, starting a family, or having children. As Natasha explains to Bruce Banner, a family is the one thing that might get in the way of a mission. In referring to her biological inability to have children, she comments, ¡°It makes everything easier. Even killing.¡± At the edge of this declaration is Natasha¡¯s belief that she is an oddity. When she turns inward to reflect on the person she¡¯s become, she meets her own profound shame, guilt, and the intractable reality of her destructive past. She knows that she can be numb at times; but wonders if she has been engineered to be a monster.

Natasha showed a clear deviation from features common among psychopathic spies. Surely, her charm and likeability were put to the test when she is first introduced as a legal official representing?Stark Industries. Her initiation assignment required her to be both a diversion and a triviality. ?She¡¯s later revealed as a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. assigned to assess Tony Stark¡¯s fitness for duty in the Avengers Initiative. Over time, Natasha will prove to be pivotal for S.H.I.E.L.D., because she¡¯s responsible for the recruitment and harmonizing of the Avengers. She becomes good at finding their aligning purpose, at noticing the eroding compassion in others. Using her expert tactics, she coerces members back to the team if they go astray.

She reminds fellow Avengers of the importance of allyship, togetherness, and a shared focus. In return, there¡¯s an unexpected side effect: Natasha begins to experience a sense of family.

In Tokyo, five years after the Snap, Natasha attempts to retrieve Clint Barton, who has relegated himself to a life of a guilt-ridden assassin. ¡°Killing all these people is not going to bring your family back¡± she asserts.? ¡°And we found something. A chance.¡± Whereas in the past Natasha mimicked emotional pleas or created mind games, here, she accesses an authentic sense of dependency on Barton. It¡¯s one of her most vulnerable moments: healing won¡¯t come from duplicity or lawlessness. It won¡¯t come from lies. Healing will come from facing the tragedies of their past head on. She appeals to Barton¡¯s unmistakable grief, and, ultimately, succeeds in bringing him home so that they can save the universe together.

Red in the Ledger:
Survivor¡¯s Guilt and Finding Closure

The Need for Closure is a fallacious, but widespread belief that unresolved problems or sentiments left unexpressed are ¡°bad¡± for our psyche. When we seek closure, we¡¯re looking for answers to unresolved, lingering questions. Painful, unexpected, or abrupt endings often leave us so rattled or devastated that we¡¯re convinced we¡¯ll be comforted by an explanation. Social psychologists coined the term ¡°need for closure¡± in reference to these unsolved mysteries and our unrelenting quest for an answer that will alleviate confusion, ambiguity, or emotional pain. It¡¯s much like missing a piece of a large puzzle, and feeling that we cannot be ¡°whole¡± or satisfied with the bigger picture unless that piece is secured in its rightful place. Focusing solely on the missing piece and neglecting the bigger picture, however, can lead us to question or be critical of ourselves, to engage in disproportionate self-blaming and self-punishing. What could I have done differently??Just like that puzzle missing a piece, it can eventually feel like we¡¯re lost or unsure of ourselves. In fact, the more stressed we feel about it, the more emotionally dependent we get on closure. When a concrete and clear resolution isn¡¯t achievable, we can get ¡°stuck,¡± maybe even overly fixated, with finding closure; which isn¡¯t healthy

As it turns out, psychological closure isn¡¯t always necessary to achieve a sense of peace, wholeness, or healing. In many cases, there are things we can do to ease our distress. To gain autonomy, we can begin building a tolerance about uncertainty, imperfection, or the unknown. Some tragedies, for instance, cannot be undone. The Snap was a cultural, global trauma that introduced endless questions about the nature of its cause. Those that did well, relatively speaking, found ways to make some meaning of the immeasurable loss without needing to secure a personal explanation behind mass execution to move on (think: Rocket Raccoon, who sees hardship as a part of life and shifts into cognitive flexibility and self-discipline). On the other side of the spectrum is the experience of survivor¡¯s guilt, which is when a person¡¯s grief is tied to the fact that others died and they did not. Often, they feel confused or angry that they did not die; and, sometimes, they feel responsible for the death of others (think:?Thor, who descends into traumatic grief, self-hatred, and depression).

Another way to mitigate an unhealthy fixation on closure is to reclaim our narrative. A person¡¯s narrative (or assumptive world) refers to the core beliefs and ideas that center the person in their universe. Natasha may feel the burden of several unresolved and unexplored tragedies from her past, dating back to childhood abuse. ?After Infinity War, Natasha survives Thanos¡¯s global act of genocide. True to form, Steve Rogers manages to find the bright side in every tragedy, and his toxic positivity frustrates Natasha. When they¡¯re alone, Steve breaks his optimism. ¡°I keep telling everybody to move on and grow,¡± he says to Natasha, solemnly.? ¡°Some do. But not us.¡± In this moment, Natasha shares that her new leadership role gives her a sense of purpose: ¡°I used to have nothing, and now I got this.¡± This job. This family. A reason to not give up. Natasha reignites her purpose and demonstrates slight shifting of her beliefs in her quest for post-traumatic organization and control. Her sense of leadership is in service to the remaining allies¡ªto be reliable, comforting, forward-moving. Also, being on the ¡°right¡± side, gives Natasha a sense of self-betterment. She is recovering from more than the trauma introduced by The Snap.

The Myth that Single Women are Self-Centered, Lonely, or Broken

Our society consistently rewards coupledom and attachment, and tends to punish singledom and separation. Our media also treats being single as a transitional experience, or something that ¡°needs to be fixed.¡± A phase. A setback. A deficit. The idea that a spouse and children will improve one¡¯s life satisfaction is a persistent myth. The prevailing narrative that single people¡ªand, especially, single women¡ª are flawed psychologically has been challenged and debunked scientifically. The biggest predictor of overall life satisfaction is not marriage and kids. Modern research demonstrates that achieving self-actualization, not raising a family, is related to markers of success such as financial stability, independence, education, and full-time employment. Certain experiences are essential to living a fulfilling life (and having kids and being married are, as it turns out, potential enhancements to quality of life but are simply not the drivers of satisfaction).? Straight married people also enjoy a vast array of social, cultural, economic, and political privileges simply because they are married. These added privileges should inevitably catapult them far above singles in their psychological well-being. But even this extra boost of cultural privilege does not make marriage the key to happiness.

Being single is associated with all sorts of negative stereotypes¡ªpeople assume that single women are selfish and uncaring toward others (called the attribution error), that they must have done something to deserve being alone (the just-world fallacy), or that they must suffer from some kind of mental problem that makes them unbearable to be around (stigma-related fallacies). Psychological research, however, shows us that single people are more gregarious; they¡¯re more likely than married people to help friends, neighbors and co-workers with rides, errands, shopping, and chores¡ªand they¡¯re also likely to offer emotional support. ?They tend to have more friends and wider social networks¡ªand they do more to cultivate their interpersonal relationships. Single people are shown to be just as involved in guiding the next generation compared to married people.

Years after the Snap, Natasha¡¯s choices to not only assist her friends but to urge them back toward a shared purpose shows her interest in bettering more lives than simply her own.

Despite the stereotype that unmarried women must have attachment problems, there is little evidence to support this claim. Single women are no more likely than coupled women to reject or abandon others, to avoid intimacy, or to be closed off with their space. Research shows that women who are married, cohabiting, dating, or single and unpartnered all have the same statistical chances of experiencing depression, stress, or loneliness. Though fans are uncomfortable with centering on her reproductive value, Natasha¡¯s full story allows us to understand her childless singledom not as a prison or a mental deficit, but as a manifestation of her choices.

From Spy to Soldier:
Sacrifice, not Suicide

As social beings, we have a fundamental need to belong¡ªand in the absence of acceptance and inclusion, a person can suffer adverse outcomes. Suicide is one of those outcomes. Psychologists have identified three predictors of fatal suicidal behavior: thwarted belongingness (feeling profoundly lonely and unloved), perceived burdensomeness (believing that one is expendable), and capability for suicide (having a lower threshold of self-preservation due to repeated exposure to violence, abuse, combat, and other provocative events that can dampen one¡¯s pain tolerance, as well as their fear of death). Though suicide is the act of self-killing in order to vanquish emotional turmoil, hopelessness, or physical pain, benevolent or altruistic suicide is categorically differently and refers to the intentional self-sacrifice of one¡¯s life to benefit or preserve the community¡ªfor the sake of the greater good. Acts of heroism through death can be found among emergency and crisis personnel, first responders, and soldiers, who are often are at higher risk of death or injury due to the nature of the job.

On the cliffs of Vormir, Natasha ends her own life. Natasha does not willfully die to relinquish her inner turmoil; she does it to prevent turmoil in others. She does it to restore harmony in the universe.

It was on Vormir that Thanos sacrificed his favorite daughter,?Gamora, in order to gain possession of the soul stone. The only way to obtain that Infinity Stone is by giving away the life of a beloved one. A soul-for-soul trade. During the Avengers’ Time Heist, Natasha and Clint travel from 2023 to 2014, and arrive at Vormir to collect the Soul Stone. Both are determined to sacrifice themselves so the other can complete their mission of undoing the terror caused by Thanos. In their fight over who should stay alive and return with the stone, Natasha and Clint assess the value of one another¡¯s lives, inevitably reflecting on their own histories of mistakes, exploits, and destruction. One who could potentially return to a wife and family should the mission succeed; the other with a renewed sense of purpose for good. Both have taken countless lives.

Vormir is a solemn but provocative scene. Natasha has earned her leadership in the Avengers¡ªnot only has she tried to rectify all the terrible things she¡¯s done, but she has taken on a great deal of the emotional labor needed for community recovery (often undertaken by women during times of crisis). While she was trying to make the world better, Clint was on a killing spree. After a tense, physical struggle, Natasha finds herself on the edge of the cliff, hanging by Clint¡¯s hand. ¡°Let me go¡± she instructs, determined. She then kicks off the wall and plummets to the ground.

Natasha once confessed to Loki, ¡°I have a very specific skill set; I didn¡¯t care what I used it for.¡± For Natasha, killing herself to ensure the Avengers get the Soul Stone is a direct confrontation to the belief that haunted her conscious: ¡°I have no place in this world.¡±

Sending herself into the abyss is a brutal fulfillment of the parts of herself she knows to be true. Fearlessness. Confidence. Conviction. Even audacity.

But aside from these emotional strengths that lead Natasha to her death, she sees in it a formidable, yet empowering path to freedom. She gets to own one thing, one thing that is hers and hers alone, finally. After a lifetime of being controlled, her body being weaponized, her brain being commandeered, Natasha sees that she has agency. She has decision of life. Her body was engineered not to birth her own children or propagate a family, but to bring life back to billions of deserving souls.

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.