Guest post by Lacy Baugher.
The Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has distinguished itself for many reasons – gritty storytelling, layered characterization, and realistic settings just to name a few. But possibly the best thing about the Netflix series to date – and a major way in which they clearly set themselves apart from the Marvel films – is the interesting, thoughtful way they handle women. This is, of course, largely because they actually make an attempt to simply include enough women of consequence to allow for actual narrative variety, and no one figure ends up stuck in the unenviable position of having to serve as a representative for all women everywhere.
Jessica Jones, of course, deserves all the critical acclaim that has been heaped upon it for its embrace of female stories and perspectives, and then some. It’s truly groundbreaking in this regard. However, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a female lead, Daredevil is also one of the MCU’s most progressive properties when it comes to its depiction and treatment of women, and it should probably get a little more praise on that subject than it does. Though the show’s central story may be Matt Murdock’s, it still features a diverse array of female characters who are all important to the plot in different ways. And, as with Jessica Jones, Daredevil should also be applauded for making it a priority to populate Hell’s Kitchen with different types of women – fully realized characters who all have their own motivations, interests and agendas. The MCU Exchange has already featured several pieces on why Karen Page and Claire Temple are interesting, flawed, complicated, interesting characters who also just happen to be female and, truth be told, you could write something similar (after all, I’m about to!) about on any woman in the show.
For me, however, the most fascinating woman in Hell’s Kitchen isn’t Karen or Claire. It’s Vanessa Marianna, the somewhat mysterious art dealer turned girlfriend of the villainous Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. Because Vanessa is straight up awesome, in so many ways. This is a pretty refreshing change, given that this sort of female character is almost always a minefield of potential misogyny and disappointment in superhero properties – she’s not only a love interest, but the “bad guy’s girlfriend” to boot, and that road pretty much never leads anywhere good. Yet, Daredevil completely surprised me by doing something completely different with Vanessa – creating a strong, capable woman with agency and purpose, who’s allowed to make her own choices and isn’t judged for them by the narrative itself. While Vanessa’s screen-time is limited in Season 1, the deft way that Daredevil treats her character is not only (hopefully) representative of how the MCU is evolving when it comes to portraying women, but a great sign of things to come as the show continues to add complicated, morally grey ladies to its roster (coughElektracough).
Vanessa is remarkable for a woman in a comic book adaptation generally, and “the bad guy’s girlfriend”, in particular, precisely because she still has so much real agency within her own story. She’s a great example of the power of female choice to shape a narrative in natural, realistic ways – after all, her decisions affect not only her own life and relationships, but set larger plot elements in motion that drive the final arc of the season itself.
And while we don’t have to agree with or like all of Vanessa’s decisions, we should certainly celebrate that she gets to make them all on her own terms. That kind of agency – of self – is a luxury that isn’t necessarily always afforded to women in stories like this, particularly the women who are even vaguely connected to or involved with villains.
Her entire presence in the story is her own choice. She’s romantically involved with Fisk simply because she wants to be – she’s not coerced, or threatened, or kidnapped or brainwashed. (In fact, she’s given multiple opportunities to leave, and chooses not to.) She doesn’t need his protection, she isn’t interested in his money, and, if her own stories about her dating life are to be believed, she certainly seems to have plenty of other options. She just falls in love with a man, like people do. And Vanessa’s feelings aren’t framed as a tragedy or a mistake – in fact, there’s really no narrative judgment passed on the Fisk/Vanessa relationship at all – it’s just something that’s a fact of her life. Girl meets boy, boy happens to be a crime lord, girl loves him anyway. You know, that old story.
Equally important is that, Vanessa, as a character, manages to circumvent nearly every stupid trope about women in superhero shows at one point or another, and certainly every single one that’s usually applied to a designated “love interest”.
Sometimes I feel as though I exist in a state of sustained, low-key irritation with superhero properties, because they so often force their female characters to live in a state of narrative-enforced stupidity, usually due to the fact that one or all of the men in their lives insist on keeping them in the dark about one thing or other. It’s also highly likely one of those same men will trot out the “it’s for her own good” canard at some point, as though these same supposedly “smart” and “capable” women are somehow actually not intelligent enough to understand their own best interest or make fully reasoned decisions. (Can you tell I watch a lot of CW shows? Probably.) That idiocy ranks only slightly higher than the “I only completely took away your agency because I was wanted to protect you” trope, which can at least be generally argued to stem from a good emotional place, even if it’s irritating as hell and often relegates women to the sidelines in their own stories.
But, yet, somehow none of this happens to Vanessa. And that is deeply amazing.
She’s not a trophy or an object. She doesn’t get fridged to provide Fisk with emotional angst or to facilitate his emergence as a “true villain”. The fact that many viewers were probably surprised when that didn’t occur says something in and of itself – let’s be real, we pretty much all assumed Vanessa was a dead woman walking the minute she got poisoned in Episode 10. Because it’s almost always the girlfriend that dies.
She doesn’t become a boring representation of “conscience”, waiting around for and/or nagging Fisk to change or constantly extolling the virtues of a life outside of crime. Best of all – we, the audience, are not waiting stuck waiting for the other shoe to drop once she “learns the truth” about Fisk’s activities, mostly because she’s smart enough to figure it out on her own, ask him about it, and demand that he be honest with her. (And, amazingly enough, he actually listens to her!)
Vanessa even specifically rejects that “I need to keep you safe” crap the one time Fisk tries it, when he plans to send her out of the country after she’s poisoned. Vanessa calmly points out that 1.) as a statement about their relationship, it’s a false one, and 2.) she knew what she was getting into when she chose to be with him, and insists that he respect that choice. And, let’s be real, her determination to stay by his side even when her own safety is threatened would probably be commended if she were the hero’s girlfriend.
Best of all, Vanessa is obviously a very intelligent woman – and is consistently treated that way within the narrative. Her behavior isn’t suddenly or inexplicably dumbed down to explain away her choices and those around her – Fisk, especially – don’t infantilize her, dismiss her or otherwise treat her as though her perspective isn’t a valid or a valued one. There’s demonstrable evidence that Fisk would tell her anything she wanted to know about his past or his criminal empire, and while we don’t know for certain how much she’s decided to ask him about, it seems fair to assume that she’s the one who’s in control of how much she knows. In short: Vanessa actually gets to decide what “for her own good” means! Unlike so many women in stories of this kind, Vanessa has agency over her own situation, for the simple reason that she knows what her situation actually is. She has all the information (or at least access to it) that she needs to make informed choices about her life, which means the decisions she makes are really her own and not influenced or coerced by outside factors.
Are Vanessa’s choices all great ones? Of course not. But no one’s are – that’s part of being a fully realized human being. There’s definitely a worthwhile discussion to be had about the hows and whys behind the reason that a successful, intelligent woman would knowingly (and repeatedly) choose to be with a man like Fisk. Not even just “be with,” but actively encourage – after all, Vanessa is not only Fisk’s emotional support structure, but the catalyst behind his decision to out himself publicly before Matt and Ben can do it for him. She even tells him to basically go out and torture someone – and probably murder them, to be honest – at one point, and doesn’t seem to feel particularly badly about it. Granted someone had just tried to kill her – but the point is, you can’t exactly call Vanessa innocent. But that’s because she’s chosen not to be.
I’ve seen Vanessa referred to as Lady Macbeth or as a femme fatale type more than once, both of which are comparisons that aren’t entirely apt in my opinion. Fisk’s power is clearly something she finds attractive, but it’s not something she seeks for herself. Her presence helps Fisk in several different ways – she basically crafts his public image for him – but it’s not like he was completely incapable before he met her, either. If anything, Vanessa is looking for a partner, not a puppet. And she’s not sorry about it.
It’s strange, the rush that so many have to put female characters in these easily quantifiable boxes, whether they’re truly applicable or not. Vanessa is involved with the story’s main villain, therefore she has to fit an obvious “evil woman” stereotype in some way: a bitch, a temptress, an ambitious Lady Macbeth driving her husband to ruin. But, in truth, Vanessa isn’t any of those things. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman quite like her on a superhero show before.
When she deliberately puts on the engagement ring and gets in the waiting helicopter, she’s making another very deliberate choice. She’s not only choosing Fisk yet again – knowing that, despite his insistence otherwise, she may very well never see him again – she’s also making a permanent declaration about where her loyalties lie in the world of Hell’s Kitchen. In that way, it’s her origin story too. (In a broader sense, I love the idea that Season 1 is everyone’s origin story, come to that.)
My not-so-secret dream for Season 2 is that turns out that Vanessa is the person now running the Kingpin empire while Fisk is in jail – the MCU could use some female villains generally, and Daredevil in particular could probably do with giving a female character dramatic narrative weight that’s equal to a man. Plus, there’s something rather satisfying about the idea of the woman that everyone wrote off as Fisk’s “distraction” suddenly taking over Hell’s Kitchen in his name.
Although it’s a bit unfortunate that Vanessa’s primary motivation for vengeance would likely have to be centered almost exclusively around the fact that she’s pretty pissed off at the people who are responsible for getting her boyfriend arrested, that doesn’t mean the story has to be predictable. And, if the way that the Daredevil writers have handled Vanessa to this point is any, there’s no reason to believe it will be. After all, there’s plenty we don’t know about Vanessa yet, and since Fisk himself is effectively sidelined for the moment, it’s an easy opportunity to explore how she became the kind of woman who goes to a dinner date with a gun in her purse. (And besides, given the ease with which she orchestrated that whole press conference situation, I have no doubt that she’d be a crazy efficient crime lord.)
In fact, I’d love to see a sort of parallel story-line for both Fisk and Vanessa in Season 2, where even as they are kept apart, they’re both working towards the same end, with one handling the rebuilding of the organization from the outside, while the other puts together a new inner circle in prison. Fisk already treats Vanessa as his equal in virtually every way anyway, having the show explicitly write the two of them as such would be fantastic. It’s also an easy way to handle the fact that if the two of them appear at all in Season 2, they’ll probably have fairly limited screen-time – after all, we’ve got to deal with Elektra and Punisher and a bunch of other new stuff next year as well. (Secret ultimate dream? It’s Vanessa that hires Elektra to take out the man in the mask. I would die.)
Can you imagine? How fantastic would it be for a show like Daredevil which is a great story in and of itself, but also very much an old-school, male-centric sort of property, to predominantly feature a female villain in that way? One that’s already been established to be just as complex, layered and sympathetic as any of the male protagonists? Sign me up for that immediately.
Hopefully new show-runner Doug Petrie (alongside Marco Ramirez), who spent much of his time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer writing for complicated female villain Faith, can help make that happen. The women of Daredevil are already a big step forward for the MCU as far as its presentation of female characters is concerned – but there is certainly room for improvement, and the universe of Hell’s Kitchen could still be more female-friendly. But, there’s significant progress here, and all these ladies represent different facets of that improvement. That’s something worth celebrating. Bring on Season 2!
Lacy Baugher is a digital media strategist by day, and a big geek pretty much all of the time. Her main passions these days are British period dramas, medieval literature and ladies in superhero stories, so if you have thoughts to share on any or all of those topics, stop by and say hello on Twitter at @LacyMB.