This article contains major spoilers for the Netflix Daredevil series.
As a comic series, Daredevil is known for not being … great at how the writers portray women. They often suffer from women-in-refrigerators-syndrome, or they are just there for Matt to learn more about himself. So with the show, I was hoping for so much more than what we got. There are excellent moments for our female heroines, to be sure: Karen shooting Wesley at point blank range, Claire not taking any of Matt’s shit, Vanessa being incredible in general, and so on. That doesn’t change the fact that this show, in thirteen episodes, manages to not pass the Bechdel Test more than a handful of times (and they are all Karen Page talking to Mrs. Cardenas). That combined with Foggy’s constant assertion that Matt gets all “hot women” as if that’s the most important thing a girl can be (it comes up at several separate times over the course of the series) and throw away lines about girly mags and looking up a girly’s skirt from the grizzled old men (Ben Urich and Stick, respectfully, because old men are just inherently sexist dontchaknow), I thought we should run down how the most prominent women are treated in this series.
Also, I liked this show. A lot. And the women do have their strong points. But that doesn’t mean the show is perfect or shouldn’t be criticized for where it falls short.
We meet Karen in a truly excellent way, she’s got dripping blood off her fingers and a knife in hand, kneeling next to a dead body, screaming “I didn’t do this.” We know she’s important, and to pay attention. That initial introduction quickly soured for me in the way Matt and Foggy speak to her. In their first meeting, she’s explaining to Matt that she’d asked the dead lawyer to meet her for a drink and he says,
“You asked him?” Implying that as a woman, how could she be so forward as to ask a man out. It was an inauspicious beginning. “Like I said,” she says, in tears, “He was a nice guy.”
Then there’s the scene in Matt’s apartment when she asks for a shirt. Now, at the time, we weren’t entirely sure how Matt’s powers worked. But we see it later with Claire, he can “see.” So when she changes right in front him, and he doesn’t look away, he’s just violated her privacy. I’m not sure what the writers thought they were accomplishing by writing that scene. Matt comes off as sleazy and unlikeable after the fact.
Later, when Daredevil shows up to take care of the a hired thug who has come after her, Karen is left standing to the side like a damsel in distress. I understand that as someone being attacked she would be terrified and maybe shocked to immobility. But how many times do we need to watch while a man fights for a woman, and she stands idly by crying and wringing her hands. She doesn’t throw anything, she doesn’t grab any sort of weapon to help. She just stands. And cries.
She’s also almost murdered by a man whose daughter is being threatened by Fisk’s lackey, Wesley. They’ve had a man infiltrate this college student’s life who, at Wesley’s word, will not hesitate to kill her. How hard would it have been to switch those genders. Have a son be endangered by a female assassin.
But I digress. So Karen has gone through several traumatic experiences in the first episode alone. Framed for murder, and two attempts made on her life.
Foggy Nelson’s reaction to this is to hit on her as soon as she becomes his employee and then belittle her for being afraid. He takes her to the bar Josie’s, and Karen says, “I look around the room, and all I see are threats.”
This is so often how women actually feel. I’m not saying that every woman walks into a room and thinks every man is there to murder her, but feeling uncomfortable or threatened while walking down the street, or being alone in a bar or the subway is a common occurrence in our daily lives.
Which makes Foggy’s reaction all the more insulting. He teases her and goes on to point out that he knows everyone in the bar, and while they look mean, they’re all harmless! Karen’s so silly, why would she be scared? (Even though every other patron, barring the bartender, is a man.)
I would have liked to see Foggy acknowledge her fear as legitimate and then walk her through how to combat it.
Karen does get very, very awesome as the series goes on. She takes initiative, she is smart, she’s brave, and she gets to kill Wesley. But this is our introduction to her and to the two men whom she considers family by the end of the show. One violates her privacy and the other invalidates her feelings.
I loved Claire from the beginning. She takes no nonsense from anyone. She’s there to put Matt back together of her own volition. She tells Matt how to stab a guy in the brain to give him the most pain and get him talking. She has the greatest reaction to my least favorite superhero trope of all time.
She’s found Matt, he’s lying on her couch bleeding and broken, and she asks him who he is, and he says, “The less you know about me the better” and her exasperated shrug is the best thing I’ve ever seen.
I’m so, so tired of male superheroes taking the agency away from the women in their lives. “I can’t be around you because I have to protect you and worrying about you will be too hard for me so I am deciding that this is over and that you cannot know anything about who I really am.” (Ahem Oliver Queen and Barry Allen).
But then she gets kidnapped. And beaten very badly. Which is terrible, but she gets the last blow by beaning Sergei with a baseball bat. And then Matt brings her home and Matt kisses her. And her response isn’t, “Oh hey, my face really hurts,” it’s, “I was wondering if you were ever gonna do that.” And from that point on, Claire loses her fire. She becomes a stress case, and all she gets from Matt are cryptic phone calls where he consistently hangs up on her even though she is helping him. She essentially disappears from the series, only showing up in two or three more episodes. The best thing she does after that is leave Matt to get her life back together. And to tell him no.
Madam Gao is excellent. For being an evil old Chinese woman. She uses blind Chinese people as factory workers in her heroine den, sends them in as suicide bombers, and in general causes a lot of awful things to happen to people. But! But Madam Gao is shrewd, and she is intelligent, and she has no time for your Orientalism or exoticizing.
She surprises Fisk with the fact that she speaks English (among several other languages!), but still requires that he speak with her in Chinese. She is not going to make you comfortable. And she will take you to task if you are not holding up your end of the bargain. Gao is not afraid of Fisk. She is not erased by him. She is the only one of the major crime players left alive by the end of the series for a reason.
And Matt’s interaction with her? Sure he shuts her down in New York, but he doesn’t even touch her because he doesn’t get the chance. She hits him one time and he goes flying and she takes the hell off, because it’s not about a petty fight for her.
When Fisk is no longer working for her as a partner, she moves against him. But only Leland pays the price.
Madame Gao is a survivor.
I am in awe of Vanessa and her relationship with Wilson Fisk. She has control. She has agency. And honestly, she gets the most respect of any woman on the show from the most evil man in Daredevil’s world. After asking her on a second date, he says to her, “If you don’t feel the same, even a little bit… just tell me, and I promise you won’t see me again.” He does not pressure her, he does not “wear her down.” He gives her a choice, and says that he will respect it. She requires he be honest with her, and he is. She still brings a gun to their second date because she is not an idiot.
During dinner, she says to him, “I slept with a Prince.” She owns her sexuality and will not let a man make her feel bad. She asks him if that shocks him, she challenges Fisk.
He treats her as his equal and that it is important. The only time in their relationship that he oversteps his role is when he’s thinking of sending her away without her consent. But she takes care of that as soon as she wakes up and is able.
She becomes a loving Lady Macbeth. When Wilson is finally caught by the Feds, he first tells her what she needs to do for her and their survival and then he brings out the ring, because the information was more important than his feelings. (And what feelings! “You are my heart, you’re everything!” he screams.)
When Matt stops Wilson from joining her at the helicopter, she waits a moment, squares her shoulders, reasserts her love for him by putting on the ring, and then gets on the helicopter.
Oh, poor, poor short-changed, Marci. I think Marci gets the worst of it out of every woman on this show. We meet her and she’s a capital-B-i-t-c-h. Karen puts her down, Foggy puts her down. “You dated that?” Karen asks as they walk away.
And when Foggy finds out that Matt is Daredevil and gets upset, he goes to Marci. Despite having spent the entire series building a relationship with Karen. Despite having nothing positive to say about her. It’s as if Marci and Karen, blond, pretty, skinny, are interchangeable. I will say this is when I became fully Team Marci. She asks about Foggy and Matt, but then immediately says, “I don’t care, I’m not going to get sucked into the drama.” It’s little lines like this that are meant to make us dislike her, or when she meets Foggy at Josie’s and can’t get the bartender to make her a Cosmo and says, “I pay nice, that should be enough.” I agree! I’m with you, Marci!
And then, Marci risks her livelihood and her life by stealing intel from her employers, and this is how Foggy and Karen talk about her as they’re congratulating themselves on a job well done in getting Fisk caught. Matt reminds them of her contribution, and they say:
“And Marci, God bless her designer pumps.” – Foggy
“Oh, maybe she’s not that bad after all.” – Karen
“Woman does have a way of growing on you.” – Foggy
She did not have to help. She actually risked more than both Foggy and Karen by walking into the enemy’s den and taking right from under their noses by choice. She could have said no. But because she’s strong and a big shot lawyer and knows what she wants and how she wants it and is vocal about it, she’s painted as a shitty person.
Shout out to the Marlene Fisk:
“Get me the saw.” is probably one of the best lines said in the entire series.
This is not everything, and this isn’t supposed to be a take down of Daredevil as a show. But I think it’s telling, the way they write their women. And that the “evil” women have more control and respect from their male peers is an important note to make. Foggy and Matt are the good guys, there’s no doubt, but maybe Fisk can give them a course on how to treat a woman like a person.
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