The latest installment of Marvel’s superhero Avengers movies released this past weekend, and with it, the latest round of the ‘is this movie a feminist movie?’ debate started up. It’s a common, albeit maddening, debate where everything from the director’s political leanings to camera angles are used to demonstrate finally once and for all why any given character or movie/series is indeed (or maybe not) ‘feminist.’
This debate is ridiculous on many levels, simply because there appears to be next to no operating definition of what equals a ‘feminist’ character. Some articles point to the relationship a character has to male love interest (Elsa from Frozen is feminist because her ‘love’ relationship is with her sister), others point to character’s choice to work (or not) (Agent Carter is a feminist because she is a working woman dealing with sexism in the work place). Some are affirmed as feminist because they’re ‘strong’ or ‘bad ass’ (see: Black Widow) and others are acceptable feminist fare because they’re NOT ‘strong bad ass’ (see: Black Widow).
The problem with these ‘debates’ is that with very few exceptions, most of them are relentlessly white. They center on white characters written by white people, are meant for white audiences and are on predominantly white shows/movies. This, of course, means that it is white women who are understood as needing more complicated storylines, or storylines that don’t center around men. It is white women who are bad ass, or feminine or working class heroines. It is white women who are ‘feminists,’ and it is also white women who are heroic.
Which is what makes Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of Claire Temple on Netflix’s also recently released series, Daredevil, so thrilling. Claire Temple is a mix of two characters in the Marvel Universe, Claire Temple and Night Nurse—a nurse that helps out superheroes when they are injured. Netflix’s Claire is squarely working class, bilingual, and AfroLatina. And if that isn’t great enough, she looks like the people in her neighborhood and most importantly, has a critique of what is going on around her.
Although Claire has no superhero abilities, her introduction centers her squarely in the center of Daredevil’s moral conflicts: what is he willing to do to help the people, and how much does he like it what often amounts to beatings and violent threats. Daredevil struggles with these questions throughout the series, and in a refreshing turn of events, Claire (the damsel in distress) doesn’t act as the moral compass that Daredevil (the hero) either willfully defies, tries but fails to live up to, or finally embraces. In fact, Claire may have a few questionable morals of her own.
See the scene towards the end of “Cut Man”, the episode that introduces Claire. After saving Daredevil from a dumpster after he is brutally beaten and left for dead by Russian gangs, Claire is convinced by Daredevil to help him deal with an errant Russian gang member who has tracked him down and now is threatening to tell the Russians where he is holed up. The Russian also knows where a young boy is being held to lure Daredevil into a confrontation. After knocking the Russian out, Daredevil asks for help carrying him to the roof of Claire’s building. When Claire asks why the roof, Daredevil responds with the ominous, ‘less chance of someone in the building hearing him scream.’
And yet, even as Claire is very aware that Daredevil intends to use violence to get what he needs out of the Russian, she helps Daredevil, and continues to help him even after Daredevil turns violent. In a moment of masterful acting by Dawson, you see Claire, covered from the head down in white, her heavy breathing sucking the cloth covering her face in around her mouth, her body rigid with tension as Daredevil beats and threatens the incapacitated Russian. Claire clearly is terrified, but she also voluntarily assists Daredevil in perhaps the most morally objectionable way in the entire series.
But it is through Claire’s questionable morals that far more valuable questions to feminism than ‘is she feminist or not’ are cracked open. Claire Temple invites viewers to examine her morality through a feminist lens–she is assisting Daredevil because she’s seen and talked to women who were saved by him. She wants to protect children who are her neighbors and community members, from being trafficked by gangs. She sees the violence her community lives with, not as a ‘disease’ or as something that just happens as a part of living in big cities–but as an injustice specifically enacted on the bodies of marginalized and vulnerable people. And so when Claire uses her medical knowledge as a nurse to help Daredevil interrogate the Russian, it makes sense. But is it ethical? Is it moral?
Is medical assistance in committing physical violence against an incapacitated victim ‘feminist’ if it leads to outcomes that protect women and children from violence? Could physical violence ever be feminist violence? Thrilling questions, to be sure. Ones that certainly don’t come up often in discussions surrounding other onscreen versions of Marvel women.
And yet, even as Claire Temple is one of the most exciting women in the Marvel Universe, leading to some of the most exciting reflections, next to nobody is talking about her. Even the breathless ‘is she a feminist or not’ debate never seems to apply to Claire. While twitter screamed with outrage (in many cases, rightfully so) over the treatment of Black Widow in the latest Avengers movie, there is next to no pressure being put on Marvel to demand Claire Temple’s storyline doesn’t get eaten up or completely written out in the second season by producers catering to the whim of over eager fanboys. Tellingly, while Claire’s story started with a chewy thick story line that challenged everything about how women are written in superhero series–her story nearly evaporated throughout the rest of the series, with Claire largely restricted to nursing Daredevil or the men he beats back to health.
Many have written in the past few days about Marvel’s ‘woman problem.’ Marvel doesn’t know what to do with women characters, and has admitted as much. But if Marvel doesn’t know what to do with women, white feminists don’t know what to do with women of color and the ways that women of color redefine, challenge, expand, and open up the definition of feminism.
Claire is one of the most intriguing, ambiguous, dynamic women characters on screen in the entire Marvel Universe. She’s not Black Widow’s femme fatale with a heart of gold, nor is she Agent Carter, where there’s a right and a wrong and she’s always going to try her best to wind up on the right side. Claire Temple only knows that she’s on the side of the people, risking her job and her safety to help out however she can. Little girls of all colors deserve to know and enjoy stories about Claire Temple. And little girls of color deserve to know that they can be heroic too.
Photo by JD Hancock, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license