To be honest, I thought this was pretty cut and dry. In fact, I gave up on the show 20 minutes in because the sexist cliches were as overpowering and nauseating as a teenager using Axe body spray.
But time and distance cool heads. With the second season launched, I decided to give it another go, to see if I had judged a bit too early. Mostly, because I’d seen very little discussion of this subject online. People wax lyrically about female-led shows being this or that, but I think we assume too quickly that a show with a male protagonist will be sexist by default, and that lets a lot shows get away with a lot of short cuts that shouldn’t be acceptable in this day and age.
So – four days and two full seasons later, here is an analysis of the show with a feminist lens.
DISCLAIMER: There will be some very minor spoilers. Also, this isn’t about whether the show is GOOD or BAD, that topic has been covered thoroughly elsewhere.
- Fails the Bechtel test spectacularly.
In two full seasons I counted a single scene that even partially passed the Bechtel test. One! In fact, there was virtually no conversation, about any subject, that included two female participants, named or not. It’s fails this so bad that it almost seems intentional that their few female characters are isolated from one another. There isn’t even anything more to add to this, because that’s how little interaction there was between any two women.
- White knight syndrome is alive and well.
The major story arc of the first season is Daredevil’s war against a human trafficking ring. We’re introduced to them in the first episode of the series when Daredevil highhandedly saves a bunch of scared women about to be put into a shipping crate and sold off to prostitution abroad. They express their gratitude, sort of, and then scatter like pigeons, never to be seen again. This sets the stage for male characters constantly telling female characters to stay behind, go home, let things go, and so on, for their safety throughout the series.
This is especially prevalent with Karen Page, who we meet immediately after Daredevil has finished saving a bunch of nameless women. When we meet her, she has been wrongfully accused of murder and Daredevil (in this case, his alter ego) is the only person who can help her. Then she takes off her shirt. Because of course. In the second season, Daredevil is lured into a trap by a villain who knew that he had a weakness for “women, children, and the elderly.” Because why wouldn’t women fit into a category more easily labeled as “those unable to care for themselves.”
- Every woman is defined by her relationship to men.
The women on Daredevil can be easily put into one of three categories: love interest, plot device, victim.
As an example, the first season spends a lot of time building up its major villain played beautifully by Vincent D’Onofrio. He is by far the most enjoyable villain I’ve seen in a long time. We learn about his past relationships with his mother and father, the fear and anger that drives him, his gentle nature and love of art, his desire to be loved.
In contrast, season two doesn’t have a single villain to fight against, but the season explored Matt Murdock’s relationship with the law and why he has to go outside of it to get results. The personification of the issues of the justice system is DA Samantha Reyes, a corrupt government lawyer who does terrible things to get ahead. What do we know about her? Well, she’s corrupt. That’s it. She is literally nothing more than a two dimensional plot device and disappears unceremoniously as soon as she becomes inconvenient.
We also know nothing of Madam Gao, the other female antagonist of the show, though I really hope to see more of her in the next season. Literally every other woman on the show is a love interest or a victim.
There is actually an excellent article over on VOX that explores Elektra’s character that talks about the way women are presented.
- The glorious growth of Karen Page.
Karen is why I didn’t stop watching the show. In some ways it feels like the Karen Page show, which happens to also feature a bunch of vigilantes when it is relevant to her. When we meet Karen, she is a Pretty Girl that Needs the Protagonist. She’s soft and sweet and weak. She looks at the men on the show like they’re gods and does everything in her limited power to please them. She works for free in their office as a secretary to thank them for saving her from a murder charge (since our gentle girl could never harm another living being!). She isn’t presented as physically capable, intelligent, funny. She’s not even a good cook.
The men in her life treat her like an expensive vase, fragile and decorative. She takes calls, makes terrible coffee, and lets her new boss fawn over her like it’s the 1950’s. But there’s more to Karen. She is a truth seeker. She needs to find out why someone would want to ruin her life and the lives of countless others. Even against the discouragement of the men in her life, she persists. She evolves from plot device to plot driver. She refuses to accept that evil can win – not as long as she’s on the case. She learns that she is an exceptional researcher, a devoted friend, and a person all her own.
Over the two seasons, she calls out sexism, saves her own life more than once, and the lives of others. One character she works with in the second season asks her how she’s so put together after a hail of bullets came down on them (during which she saved the male character and herself). She said she was terrified. She has become a strong, intelligent woman who knows her value, but she isn’t ashamed to admit to feeling fear. Fear didn’t stop her from doing the right thing and that’s what really makes a hero.
Also, she wears flats! Almost like you can be a beautiful, capable human being without causing permanent damage to your ankles and knees.
So is Daredevil sexist? I want to say yes, because really, most signs point that way. Something about Karen and to a lesser extent Elektra make me hold that final judgement though. So often the show has felt like a study of how women must fight for their place, fight against what society told them should be their priorities, against their own insecurities. A show that, sadly, realistically portrays the obstacles, big and small, modern women have to overcome, even from friendly faces and people they love, to make their mark on the world.
How Karen’s story unfolds, in my opinion, will be the litmus test for women in Hell’s Kitchen.