Race and Romance in Daredevil Season Two
Netflix’s Daredevil is, on the surface, a pretty progressive show when it comes to romance: Matt Murdock is romantically linked to two women of color, Claire Temple and Elektra Natchios, during the course of two seasons, which is definitely more than can be said about any of the MCU films so far. But a deeper read shows that the portrayals of these women, especially in comparison to Karen Page, are often problematic and fraught with racial stereotypes.
Race, unfortunately, matters a great deal in deciding who we consider most worthy of love in our society, and that in turn may subconsciously affect how women like Claire or Elektra are written. We know from data aggregated from dating websites that race plays a huge factor in desirability. Black women, for example, reply back the most, but get messaged the least. White women and Asian women are the most popular races, but the messages that Asian women receive are often a garbage dump of “yellow fever” fetishization.
I’m sure we’d all like to think of this as a completely separate phenomenon from the fiction we consume, but sadly the data and the way women of color are portrayed in media align pretty neatly. Black women are seen as less desirable in real life, so on screen we often get black female characters who are a strong black woman who don’t need no man. Asian women are often fetishized in real life, so on screen we see female characters who are the sexual dragon lady. These two character types rarely get their own fully realized romance plot-lines, because they’re often too busy kicking ass, taking names, and/or being the trusty, but strictly platonic, sidekicks of the white male protagonist.
Meanwhile, white female characters like Karen, while generally not confined to a single archetype, will often take on the role of damsel in distress if they are the potential love interest of a white male hero. To be a damsel is a very specific niche, according to Eugene Robinson, as she is often a woman who is white, petite/slender, young, and attractive.
Mamta Motwani Accapadi correlates the idea that white women are most often the ones viewed as needing the most protection in his essay “When White Women Cry:”
“While White women have been depicted to be the foundation of purity, chastity, and virtue, Women of Color have historically been caricaturized by the negative stereotypes and the historical lower status position associated with their racial communities in American society.”
You can start to see how these racial dynamics likely, however unwittingly or not, seeped into the writing of the second season of Daredevil. In Daredevil, we see Matt/Karen versus Matt/Claire versus Matt/Elektra playing out much along the lines as I detailed above, with Matt/Karen being heavily emphasized throughout as the ideal romance. Claire and Elektra, meanwhile, are treated roughly and then ultimately discarded.
And I’m sure somebody out there is doth protesting too much: saying this has less to do with race and everything to do with Karen being the most prominent character, that Elektra was white in the comics so dragon lady doesn’t really apply, or that Claire Temple is probably meant for Luke Cage, so obviously the romance with Matt was meant to be a throwaway.
Time to pull out the receipts.
Karen Page is the damsel of Daredevil. No, she’s not a stereotypical princess who sits in an ivory tower, but she is certainly coded in a myriad of ways as being the woman who deserves to be loved and protected on the show.
Karen is introduced to us in season one shortly after a conversation between Matt and Foggy. Foggy, complaining about their lack of clients, says, “We’ll never keep the lights on if we wait for a horde of innocent souls to stumble into our loving arms,” to which Matt replies with, “At this point, I’d settle for just one.” The next scene immediately cuts to a trembling Karen holding a bloody knife, and the implication is clear—this is Matt’s one innocent soul, needing his protection.
Karen gets back on her feet thanks to Nelson and Murdock, and shortly after she becomes their assistant. In this position Karen is modern femininity embodied. She has long, flowing blonde hair, always tastefully curled, and wears subtle makeup. She’s only ever seen in professional heels, airy blouses, and dresses—a conscious choice for her character, as the costume designer names classic beauties Katherine Hepburn and Loren Bacall as Karen’s idols. Karen is also sweetly domestic at turns: she cooks for the boys in season one, keeps the office clean and well-lit, and mediates disputes between the two.
Season two arguably increases the intensity of the male gaze, seen especially in how it idolizes Karen’s form. We are treated to lingering shots of Karen’s hand sliding up Matt’s arm during pool. We see a raindrop fall in slow motion and kiss Karen’s skin. We listen to her heartbeat, hear her breath tremble. We watch in extreme close up as Matt swipes away rain from Karen’s soft inner elbow. Even when Karen is doing something serious and plot relevant, like looking at pictures of Frank’s victims, she is still posed in a visually appealing way.
Through Matt’s fumbling, we know Karen is somebody Matt must strive to be worthy of. She’s the kind of girl who deserves a proper date, who you feel you need to impress with wine pairings. The narrative tells us she’s a great catch, that she’s ridiculously likeable, and that she can both heal Matt and make him happy. When Karen asks how Matt is after Grotto’s death, he simply says, “I’m recovering now … with you.” After seeing Matt and Karen together, Foggy tells him, “Careful Matt. Keep going like this and you just might end up happy.”
All of this feeds back into Karen’s position as a damsel. And yes, I’d be remiss to not point out that Karen is more than just some dandelion in the sun, and she does a hell of a lot more than just cook, look pretty, and make Matt feel better. But even when she is subverting the damsel archetype in some ways, in other ways the narrative works to reinforce it.
In the pilot episode Karen is subjected to physical violence — an experience that sadly seems to be a commonality among all the women in Daredevil’s world. Karen is nearly choked to death and later knocked hard against a wall before Daredevil saves her. In the first episode Karen certainly suffers from physical harm, and yet the writing itself seems to gloss over this. The filming for both scenes is quick and difficult to see. Karen does not have any bruising on her neck after being choked; despite bleeding from her head after being thrown against the wall, in the next immediate scene she’s completely fine and cooking for Foggy and Matt in a dress and makeup. It’s an unusual disconnect between what’s happening between the characters and what the writers are actually choosing to show — an important distinction when we look at how much is done to Claire and Elektra, and how much we see of their battered bodies.
Karen isn’t safe, per se, in Hell’s Kitchen, but she is protected more so than Claire or Elektra, who often only have Matt or really, just themselves watching their own backs. In comparison, Karen has quite a few men who end up shielding her in one way or another: when Karen drags the unwilling Ben Urich into her investigation of Fisk’s mom and Fisk finds out, it’s Ben who dies for Karen’s hastiness. When Karen is kidnapped by the Hand and convinces Turk to turn on his ankle tracker, it’s Turk, not Karen, who nearly has his leg sawed off. In season two, Frank Castle is practically her personal guard dog, and even when he rams into her car at the end to save her from the Blacksmith, she only has a minuscule trickle of blood and is seen as perfectly fine by the beginning of the next episode.
I’m not at all arguing that violence should befall Karen, but the treatment of Karen stands in stark contrast with the treatment of Elektra and Claire. If Karen is the princess, protected from the brunt of Hell’s Kitchen by the men around her, then Elektra and Claire are the warriors on the front line.
In many ways, Claire embodies the strong black woman archetype, in that she’s expected to be much tougher and much faster than Karen was ever asked to be. (To be clear, Rosario Dawson is multiracial Afro-Latina, but Claire the character is monoracially black in the comics.) Their meet-cute is not exactly the stuff of fairy tales: Claire has to haul Matt’s bloody body out of a dumpster and carry him up several flights of stairs with her neighbor. It’s grimey, unromantic, and requires a considerable amount of arm strength—which sounds like a ridiculous thing to point out, but in terms of sheer physicality, it stands in sharp contrast with Karen’s overall dainty femininity.
We also know Claire falls into this trope because Matt is overall rougher with her and routinely imposes on her in a one-sided relationship, but this is not viewed as anything unusual, and we get the sense that Claire can take it, anyway. When Claire attempts to call the hospital after hauling him from the dumpster, Matt startles awake and grabs her wrist, hard, enough to knock her phone out of her hand. He’s brusque with her, refuses to go to the hospital, and instead tells her she needs to stitch him up herself. “This is supposed to be my night off,” she sighs, but shoulders the work anyway because that’s exactly what a strong black woman does.
Ridiculously, Matt then expects Claire to help him string up a gangster on the roof. Mind you, at this point Matt has only known her for a few hours—most of which he was probably passed out for —and she is clearly shown as being uncomfortable with the whole situation. But again, Matt ignores her obvious distress and plows on.
To scare the guy, Matt literally throws a shirt with two holes cut out of it over Claire’s face to make her look like a ghastly apparition. She then actively participates in torturing a confession out of the guy.
Can you imagine Matt ever asking either of those of Karen, much less hours after meeting her? Or compare this to how Frank, the dude who literally hangs people on meat hooks, doesn’t even ask Karen to participate in his bloodshed, and instead tells her to hide in the diner’s kitchen. (Yet another example of how even the Punisher will take the time to protect Karen from any harm.)
And it gets worse for Claire. She’s constantly in danger for knowing his identity from the get-go. While a major plot point in season two is Matt protecting Karen by keeping his identity a secret, the same courtesy is not at all extended to Claire. Four episodes into season one, Claire is kidnapped and questioned about Daredevil. She is then punched until bloody, choked, dragged, and nearly struck with a baseball bat before Matt can even get to her.
After the pilot episode, Karen routinely and willingly throws herself in danger and yet is never subjected to a beating like Claire’s across two seasons. Claire, who was unwillingly dragged into Daredevil’s mess, is beaten bloody after just four episodes. Compare to how Karen’s scenes in episode one were darkly filmed and partially obscured, to how Claire’s scene is brightly lit by floodlights, outlining every detail of her bloody face.
After the beating, Matt patches Claire up and they share their first kiss. What Karen receives so easily, so sweetly in season two, Claire needs to be bodily assaulted and brought down for. The next episode then opens with Claire examining her black eye and the bruises on her forehead and cheek — again, a sharp contrast to Karen’s lack of bruising even within the same episode just moments after she’s assaulted. The writers, it seems, have qualms about showing Karen’s skin mottled with bruises, but not so for Claire.
In a final insult, Matt later asks Claire to help him actually stabilize the life of the man, Vladimir, who ordered her beating—an inhumanly cruel thing to ask of anyone, but one that the show condones as necessary and never takes Matt to task for. Claire is asked to shoulder all of this for the greater good, and the show never once really asks how she feels about her experiences and emotions being thoroughly and repeatedly disregarded. We are supposed to accept that Matt places more value on a gangster he doesn’t even know than on the feelings of the woman he just kissed and cared for episodes before. (In comparison, Matt never asks Karen to help either of the men who hurt her in episode one.)
Unsurprisingly, Claire leaves his ass for her own emotional well-being. They don’t come into contact again until episode ten in season two, and still, the narrative expects Claire to lay it all on the line for Matt, who seemingly hasn’t even contacted her in months. Claire helps him, of course, and that act costs her the life of her friend (another woman of color, no less) as well as her job. (Yes, she walked out of her own volition, but the circumstances that forced her to do so were of Matt’s doing.) As far as we can tell, Matt is unaware of both outcomes. And really, he never bothers to check—in the end, Claire is not acknowledged by Matt as having feelings, as being someone with needs, or really, as being a woman at all.
And then we have Elektra Natchios, the dragon lady. She slinks around in burgundy and red, sexuality and violence personified. If Karen is happiness, Elektra is bloodlust. She brings out all of Matt’s ugliest impulses and desires, and is herself the embodiment of some of the worst human characteristics: sadistic, arrogant, demanding, manipulative, spoilt, petulant, and gluttonous.
Elektra is allowed to be more feminine than Claire—who honestly wasn’t even seen in anything but hospital scrubs for all of season two—but her femininity is not gentle and sweet like Karen’s; it’s serpentine and poisonous, full of red-lipsticked smirks and gowns with a slit all the way up the thigh.
It’s not wrong to say these elements were a part of her character even when she was white. But we can’t ignore the fact that this iteration of Elektra is played by a French-Cambodian actress, and we need to engage with her with this new overlay of gender plus race, especially when she’s contrasted so strongly with a white woman, and falls in line so neatly into several Asian stereotypes. She is, after all, literally a ninja who is an (unwilling) member of an ancient and evil Asian clan.
If Karen is the story’s pale damsel and the woman the audience feels inclined to protect, then Elektra is coded as the tawny jezebel, undercutting her at every turn. Matt’s good mood after his first kiss with Karen is ruined by Elektra’s appearance. The date with Matt that Karen is anxiously looking forward to is cut short by a call from Elektra. Matt misses the opening statement to Frank’s trial, a case that Foggy and Karen worked hard on, because he spent the night with Elektra. Karen spends hours researching for Frank’s case; Elektra detonates the whole thing when she tampers with the doctor. Karen rushes over to Matt’s place to give him the update on the trial; she stumbles across Elektra in his bed, who just stares at Karen and says not a word as Karen panics over what it means.
The narrative is clear: Matt wants so badly to be worthy of Karen and could be so much more than he is—have a successful career, friends, and a girlfriend who loves him—if not for the Asian seductress in red who he can’t seem to resist.
If Elektra’s meddling wasn’t enough to turn the audience on her, the story takes it one step further to cement Elektra’s position as the worst romantic option for Matt. As the Black Sky, Elektra is not just a corrupting influence but the corrupting influence—a literal demonic presence in Matt’s life. There are even fan theories that Elektra is going to come back as a vessel for The Beast, an actual ancient demon.
You can see how starkly this imagery contrasts with Karen, how Elektra’s framed as a completely toxic love interest for Matt. Even when Matt confesses his love for Elektra, it’s on terms that the audience can’t possibly accept: he’s willing to quit being Daredevil and leave Hell’s Kitchen for her. The man who routinely talks about how the city is a part of him, who admits to having never been past a certain block of NYC, is willing to leave the city for good—an unthinkable proposition on a show that’s literally titled after his New York-based superhero persona. He’s willing to change the fundamental core of who he is for Elektra, and it’s unacceptable. Everyone wants their season three after all, not a repeat of the end of The Dark Knight Rises.
As with Claire, the narrative also works to dehumanize Elektra in the way her body is treated. We believe that she can sustain a ridiculous amount of injuries and keep fighting. We accept it when Matt snaps at her, kicks her out of his apartment, and grips her wrist hard at the diner (hard enough that she’s rubbing it for moments afterwards), because she’s an unruly person and she kind of deserves it, right? Elektra is such a morally corrupt individual that we rationalize that it’s okay for Matt to take his frustrations out on her, even when he treats her in ways he maybe wouldn’t treat another woman, and most especially not Karen. As a woman of color like Claire, Elektra is expected to withstand more abuse.
And as with Claire, Matt also expects her to help Stick, a man who harms and nearly succeeds in killing her. “He tried to kill me,” she implores, but again her feelings are disregarded. The narrative treats her as a petulant child, and we are again expected to accept that Matt is in the right for choosing to save a white man—who he seems to like about as much as the gangster Vladimir—at the expense of the woman he supposedly cares deeply for.
The narrative does try to make Elektra more three-dimensional, and we do get scenes where Elektra vocalizes her grief and pain. But those moments where she appears to be changing for the better are all for naught considering she dies. Yes, the final insult upon Elektra’s body is that she sacrifices her life for Matt’s sake, just as Claire was expected to sacrifice her time, safety, friends, and job.
And then there’s the distinct sense that Elektra’s death is just used as a vehicle for Matt/Karen to be renewed. After attending her funeral—where Matt admits he has nothing to say, which is frankly a ridiculous statement about a woman he was willing to run away with—Matt immediately goes back to Karen with nary a tear shed. If the show runners meant for Elektra to be the most important woman in Matt’s life, the one he was truly willing to risk it all for, then the writing utterly failed her.
Karen is treated with respect and love by Matt, and their relationship is a give-and-take where their happiness feeds back into each other. Claire and Elektra, the women of color, are both expected to sacrifice themselves for Matt, to be able to take a punch, and to be okay with ultimately being seen as less desirable than the white woman in his life. Worse, they’re seen as worth even less than men like Stick and Vladimir, who Matt prioritizes over the feelings and experiences of both women of color.
Karen is taken on dates and is formally courted by Matt. Claire and Elektra are the women he’s with only under the cover of darkness, where he’s rougher, less considerate, and embodies more masculine aggression. I can’t emphasize enough what kind of message this sends about what the writers and Matt think of women of color, and how harmful it is for WoC to see themselves as the girls who a white man will come to at night, but never take out during the light of day. We know that stories have a marked effect on self esteem, and the less a WoC sees herself portrayed positively in media, the less likely she is to feel like the society she’s in values her as a human being.
And these portrayals aren’t just hurtful for women of color; these images have repercussions for society at large. One study found that when we hear a story, we often use it to reinforce something we already believe. Meaning, for example, that if a guy who demeans Asian women in real life watches the way Elektra is treated, that is going to reinforce and feed back into his own view of Asian women in a sort of terrible ouroboros effect. If someone sees Claire getting wailed on and she appears fine shortly after, it may reinforce to them that police brutality is not a big deal because black women can withstand it.
So the stories we tell matter. Women of color matter. Well-written women of color who are allowed to have their own stories and not just be used as foils for white women matter. And for all of the women of color out there, being able to watch a show where we see ourselves depicted as worthy of love, where we’re treated as precious and beautiful, is everything. It’s the world.