A while back, Kylie already wrote an article called “My fave is problematic: Agents Of SHIELD” in which she took apart “Closure”, the first part of Agents of SHIELD’s two – parter season finale, giving all the sexist tropes used in it the long – deserved call out. Let’s remember some of what happened in it: Rosalind, Coulson’s sort-of-girlfriend was shot by Ward out of a need for revenge and so that Coulson would start doing things. Later in the same episode, Jemma Simmons, who essentially just returned from an alien planet, gets tortured by HYDRA members on Ward’s orders, but not because they actually hope that it will lead to her giving them information, but because her pain will lead to Fitz giving them the information they want. Two cases of classic fridging in just one episode.
Of course, this should not have been as surprising as it was, because hurting or killing of female characters because it will affect male characters they matter to is a pretty well – known pattern with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Just think back to the multi-episode-finale of season 2, where we lost three female characters in the span of just one episode: Raina was murdered by Jiaying so Daisy could see how evil she truly was, Kara Palamas got shot by Ward while wearing May’s face so he could finally become the villain he was always meant to be and Jiaying, Daisy’s mother, gets murdered by Daisy’s father, in a move that both saves Daisy’s life and conveniently also makes him deserving of redemption for all the terrible crimes – like murder – that Jiaying somehow manipulated him into committing.
Taking a quick look at these three characters should reveal something else apart from being fridged that they have in common: All three of them are women of colour. That brings the tally of named, recurring characters of color that died in season two alone up to a whopping six, a list that does not include Mike Peterson who almost dies multiple times but who gets saved and then simply disappears without further explanation to recover, and named characters of color that only appear in one episode, like the Sheikh, a head of HYDRA, or Noelle Walters, a S.H.I.E.L.D agent which would make the tally go up some more.
Of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is not the only Marvel show where characters of color are quick to die – every single Marvel TV show that is currently airing can provide at least one dead person of color, most of them black and some of them the only ones to appear in their respective shows. Both Jessica Jones and Daredevil feature one elderly black male character that gets killed off, while Jessica Jones only black female character also dies. Agent Carter, a show that has repeatedly been criticized for its lack of characters of color in both its main and recurring cast, even managed to kill of the two only black characters that appeared in it, despite both of them being unnamed background characters with very little screen time.
It’s a concerning pattern, especially considering that it’s not the only kind of worrisome treatment that characters of color are given. By now, we have had two seemingly normal, everyday men turn into super–powered killing machines – Deathlok and Lash – and both of them just happen to black men. Considering all the wide–spread racist ideas about black men, their alleged penchant for violence, hyper-masculinity and their inherent status as a threat, ideas used by police officers and national media to justify murders of unarmed black men and boys, this is gross already but then these story lines are also often wrapped up in profound violations and denials of black men’s agency, essentially turning them into other people’s tools.
Sadly enough, Mike Peterson/Deathlok and Andrew Garner/Lash are not the only cases where black people’s agency is treated rather shittily: The very first case of a character being controlled by someone else, forced to their bidding or die, shown on the show is the case of Akela Amador, a S.H.I.E.L.D agent who was captured and had a mechanical eye implanted that would blow up in her head if she did not do as told by her handler and who just happens to be a black woman. In the mid-season finale of season two, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D enter the Inhuman underground city where Daisy’s superhuman abilities are essentially activated, and agent Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie gets possessed by an unknown alien force and starts attacking his teammates, essentially turning another black man into another super-powered killing machine. And Raina, who apparently sacrifices herself to reveal Jiaying’s evilness to Daisy, knows that this is what she has to do if she has to prevent a war between the Inhumans and S.H.I.E.L.D because this is what she saw through her newly-gained clairvoyance, making her choice not really a choice at all.
But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D can’t be all bad, right? It can’t treat all of its characters of color badly, especially not because it has so comparably many of them and because some of them are essentially main characters, right?
And while it is correct that three of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s main characters are people of color, taking a closer look at their treatment still manages to reveal worrying tendencies.
Mack, who already got the “mindless killer” – portrayal, also happens to be the only member of Coulson’s team who, despite having been around for one and half seasons by now, has no romantic story line and no love interest. No really, I triple checked:
Coulson has/had Rosalind, Melinda May has Andrew Garner, Daisy has Lincoln Campbell, Fitz has Jemma Simmons who also had Will in season three and kind-of had Trip in season one and two and Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter have each other. All of these “couples” had multiple scenes over the course of multiple seasons that showed them falling in love with each other, spending time with each other and having and solving conflicts. The only character who is not paired up with anyone is Mack.
However, Melinda May and Daisy Johnson still remain. Both of them are women of color, both of them have been around since season one, both of them are core members of the team and both of them are absolutely remarkable and unique characters. Melinda May is an older woman of Asian descent who is the unarguably best at kicking ass and taking names, but who is also allowed to have a rich inner life, to feel conflicted about her role within S.H.I.E.L.D, to struggle with her own past and to develop and grow. Daisy Johnson is a kindhearted, optimistic, funny, clever and strong girl of half – Chinese descent to whose struggle with identity, belonging and ultimately her superpowers a big part of the first two seasons are devoted.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Melinda and Daisy took noted backseats to other characters of the show, especially Phil Coulson, Fitz and Lance Hunter. While Phil Coulson was given two episodes to deal with the grief of losing Rosalind, scenes in which May does not react with a stone cold expression and/or a focus on “the mission” to Andrew essentially changing more and more into a killer are a rare and valuable gift, despite the fact that so far, Andrew was shown as her emotional anchor. I mean, she was willing to leave S.H.I.E.L.D to have a normal life with him and when he disappeared from her life, she seemingly vanished of the face of the earth for multiple episodes at the beginning of the season.
And Daisy’s story line in the first half of season three so far mostly revolved around Lincoln, her white boyfriend, and her trying to get him to trust S.H.I.E.L.D and become a member of her very, very slowly growing team of Inhuman superheroes despite the fact that there was so so so many other things that her story line could have focused upon: her decision to take on the name her parents had given her, for example, and her feelings about her parents in general or the conflict that might arise from her need to protect people in general and the Inhumans, her people specifically or her finding, recruiting and training other Inhumans or even her relationship with May after the rather hostile encounters they had at the end of season two. Let’s not forget that according to Jed Whedon and Maurisse Tancharoen, the showrunners, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is supposed to be telling Daisy Johnson’s superhero origin story at this point, so why do we see so little of her?
Ultimately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D continues a long – running streak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe treating its characters of color in rather disappointing ways. If they aren’t killed off or simply written out of the show for (occasionally) unexplained reasons, their agency is violated in numerous ways and/or they are given far less screen time, development and general attention than white (often male) characters whose story lines they are often propped up by them. They are almost never the actual focus.
Maybe that’s done intentionally, because people still believe that stories focusing on people of color don’t sell as well as stories about white people and that especially with superhero stories, focusing on characters who aren’t white could drive away groups that are considered a core demographic. Let’s not forget the racist backlash – tantrum that nerd guys have thrown every time a black man became a main character in one of the stories they generally consider “theirs”. Maybe it isn’t done intentionally, maybe subconscious racist biases lead the writes and makers of these shows to simply not pay the same attention to characters of color. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter why though – what matters is that it is a shitty and racist way of treating awesome characters like Trip, Andrew, May, Mack, Raina and Daisy and that it needs to stop.