Daredevil‘s in the Details: A Superhero Show Replete with Ethnic and Gender Stereotypes

Two weekends ago, having caught up on all the shows I follow, I decided to try out Daredevil, the superhero series that jumpstarted a successful partnership between Netflix and Marvel. Since Jessica Jones was so well-written, with unexpectedly fleshed-out characters for a mainstream superhero story—especially the female characters—I figured Daredevil had to be at least decent, and since Season 2 was just released that Friday, I could binge on both seasons.

How wrong I was to envisage that this show would be as well-sculpted and entertaining as Jessica Jones. Perhaps I’m misremembering and giving Jessica Jones too much credit because I remember not being able to stop binge watching (and finished it in a weekend), but I can hardly pay attention to one full fifty-minute episode of Daredevil.

The show’s main character is Matthew Murdock (played by British actor Charlie Cox), a lawyer for the common people by day and vigilante protector of a post-Avengers New York City by night. He’s also blind as a result of a chemical accident in childhood—which gives him heightened senses so that he can hear peoples’ heartbeats (and determine their presence or when they are lying) and do more than most people with 20/20 vision. In this universe, New York City is portrayed as a gritty, grimy Gotham or something akin to Sin City—full of violence, corruption, crime syndicates, and all other manner of moral evils.

As depicted through conversations with his priest, Murdock struggles with Catholicism and moral relativism through his two identities:  (1) righteous upholder of everyday citizens’ civil rights against giant nameless political and corporate machines and (2) his nighttime persona who uses violent and coercive methods to counter such enemies who don’t play fair. Romantic to some—but insulting to those who would have liked to see the show move past scriptural ideals of good and evil to more real and complex shades of human behavior. Barring the religious element, Daredevil is pretty standard for the superhero genre. And while I’m not a huge fan of deriving ethics from religion (I get a visceral response to the feeling that one’s been brainwashed), Daredevil does exist in a fantastical comic world where I easily accept other nondescript untruths and falsehoods as just creative imaginings of a make-believe version of the world and not as reality. In fact, Murdock/Daredevil’s ethical dilemmas are relatable for many, and that’s one of the show’s strengths.

I posted a critique on Facebook last week and was met with a completely different perspective from a much more comic world-literate friend. I wrote:

Does anyone else find Daredevil’s representation of certain groups and crime syndicates as non-American and thus, nonhuman—for example, the Asians with the orientalist tropes (Chinese obedience, Japanese discipline)—troubling?

Not to mention the weak female character development and implication that the “good girl” gets the guy because she’s soooooo compassionate and caring (maybe a symptom of the show as a whole).

Or the heavy-handed Catholicism—implying that moral judgment is held in the hands of God.

My friend responded by analyzing the relationship between Murdock’s faith and the juxtaposition of his Daredevil persona with the ambiguous villain of Season 2—US military veteran Frank Castle, known as the Punisher for killing numerous organized crime members. She wrote:

At least the Catholicism is relevant to the show—Matt was born and raised a “good Catholic boy” and having to put those morals and ideals aside to physically beat the shit out of dudes (as bad as they are and as much as they deserve it) is huge and extremely difficult. Catholic guilt is like no other force in the world, in my opinion. I’m probably never going to fully unlearn everything that was drilled into me as a child. I can only imagine what it would be like for an actively practicing Catholic like Matt.

…I like that they made Frank Castle the Punisher, now that I’m thinking about it. They’re such different sides of the same coin that they might as well be different people!

The Punisher is a violent, brutal psychopath who’s just trying to “do the right thing,” even if it’s unorthodox and morally wrong. No personal relationships, except the grudging one with Daredevil, if only because he feels they’re more similar than Daredevil would like to admit. In his former life as Frank, he did the “morally correct” thing by fighting for his country in the military, but didn’t feel like he made a difference. He had a stereotypically wonderful life—respected for his service, a beloved family man, loves dogs…

I do take issue with the way Daredevil depicts female and Asian characters. As Takeo Rivera writes for the Nerds of Color blog, all characters of Asian descent in Season 1e (and in Season 2) are one-dimensional villains or of questionable moral character: “All of these characters are portrayed as single-minded threats without any interiority, redeemability, or depth beyond their own menacing desire to spread their own form of evil.” And though I disagree with Rivera’s lauding of this show as having a “stellar cast,” “tight writing,” and “elevating superherodom to an unequivocal status of high art,” his critique of Asian characters and how their lives don’t factor into Murdock’s entire dilemma about being judge, juror, and executioner is spot on:

During the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland infamously stated, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Such a statement, of course, served to justify the Westerner’s devaluing of the Oriental’s life; why value their lives when they themselves don’t value them? The world of Daredevil is a world in which Asians are willing to gouge out their eyes, and suicide bomb, to better serve their masters; these are not lives worth a second thought.

To make it worse, Season 2 introduces Murdock’s ex-girlfriend,  femme fatale Elektra, whose purpose in the plot is to tempt him towards committing more morally questionable acts and lure him away from his day job and love interest—the upright, pure, and brave Karen Page. (Sadly, the Internet tells me that this shallow female characterization is typical of Frank Miller, the comic book writer and artist who first conceptualized Elektra in the 1980s.)

The Madonna-whore complex could not be more obvious, even with attempts to suggest Page has a “darker side.” In fact, women in general in the series are only depicted as extensions of the male. In Season 1, main villain Wilson Fisk was humanized by his love for a beautiful art dealer with no known motivations of her own. Murdock meets a nurse who treats his vigilante injuries and is immediately enamored by him but unable to deal with the drama such a relationship would bring (such an unnecessary addition to the plot). Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s charming but less physically attractive partner in law often describes how Murdock seems to get all the beautiful women to fall for him (euphemism for have sex with) even though he is blind.

So while I understand that part of the appeal of the superhero genre has been in their simplistic construct of reality and their use of a fantasy world to reveal dark truths about economic inequality for the blue-collar white man, I’m surprised that there aren’t more reviews critiquing Daredevil’s less-than-perspicacious depiction of race and gender. This may have gone less noticed a decade ago, but certainly not today. Some argue that comics just aren’t written for adults and their morally simplistic and shallow worlds are poor source material for the newfangled, visually aesthetic movies and TV shows. This doesn’t have to be the case. Thankfully, the comic world has expanded and continues to try and push the boundaries of progress with more intersectional material and diverse authors writing more complex characters, so we are moving beyond all-white and mostly male superheroes—and getting better, more interesting stories in the process. Let’s hope Netflix decides to pick up some of these worlds as well.