Everyone has a favourite Disney Princess. As a child, Mulan was mine. Mulan is a favourite of many, with good reason. Before her the princesses who graced our screen at best reacted to the narrative as it happened around them. At worst they were completely passive as other characters, mainly their princes solved the conflict. Then Mulan came along and our heroine was the one pushing the narrative forward. She chooses to steal her father’s armour and sword to protect him. She sets out to save her father and ends up saving all of China. But Mulan does so much more than tell a story of a girl who saved China. Mulan contests gender conventions, pushing against having to exist at the extreme ends of the gender spectrum.
Even by modern standards, Mulan challenges gender roles, let alone in 1998 when it premiered. Mulan has to disguise herself as a man to take her father’s place as a soldier. Just by doing this she’s committed a crime punishable by death. At the same time, Mulan’s internal conflict comes from lacking all the graces valued in women. Quiet, demure, graceful, delicate, refined, poised, punctual. All words said by Mulan herself to describe an ideal woman, according to her society. All words she’s shown to be the opposite of.
Feminine and Masculine portrayals of gender are contrasted time and time again in the movie, particularly early on. The first song spells out the gender expectations of Mulan’s society. Men serve by ‘bearing arms’ and women by ‘bearing sons’.
“A girl can bring her family
Great honor in one way
By striking a good match,”
Mulan then spends the rest of the movie turning this on its head. Even before the word of the war reaches Mulan’s village, Mulan’s core motivation is to bring honour to her family. If that means putting on a dress and makeup she’s not completely comfortable with that’s what she’ll do. When she takes her father’s place as a soldier, she sees a new opportunity to bring her family honour in a way she never could as a ‘daughter’.
It’s notable that whether her gender performance has to be extremely feminine or extremely masculine it’s in the moments of those extremes she’s shown to be the most uncomfortable. Dressed up as either the ‘perfect porcelain doll’ or as the gruff soldier with the manly urge to kill something, these are when she’s most awkward. Her personality is most natural when allowed to temper her gender performance. Be it in her family’s garden when she can jump on the railings of a small bridge in her dress, or in the army after she’s found friendships and her deception really only extends to changing her voice, not her personality.
The movie gives a message about the importance of finding a balance between the feminine and masculine. The army is introduced to Mulan and audience through a very masculine act, a fistfight breaking out because Mushu threw an insult at Yao. Yet, as much as this violence is associated with masculinity in media in general, Mulan denounces it as inappropriate. Shang, the paradigm set by the movie for masculinity, berates the troops for their actions and punishes them accordingly. Here the hyper-aggressive and violent isn’t held up on a pedestal, its treated as counterproductive and harmful.
‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ is not just the best song of the movie. It’s the roadmap giving to the characters for becoming men. Its focus is on strength, but the song also highlights tranquillity and balance as traits the soldiers need to obtain. Aspects that aren’t far off from quiet, graceful and poised, all of which were applied to the women earlier. Mulan and the other soldier have to learn these traits before they are deemed ‘men’.
Even the Huns aren’t presented as just violent brutes. There is no doubt they are the strongest force in the movie, demolishing a highly trained army off-screen. While they are the closest to that hyper-masculine ideal the movie pushes against, they are given greater depth than that. They’re shown to be observant and clever enough to deduce the Imperial army’s location with a few clues and with small numbers they formulated and executed a plan to capture the Emperor.
Shun Yu is one of the few characters in the movie to not underestimate Mulan because she’s a woman. When she reveals herself to him, he sees the soldier from the mountain that cost him his army and determines her the bigger threat over Shang who he’s already mostly defeated. The moments the Huns achieve their greatest levels of success are when they use cunning and tactics in conjunction with their strength; the aforementioned victory over the army and the capture of the Emperor.
But both times Mulan defeats them is when they charge in with overwhelming force that ultimately fails to her resourcefulness and intelligence. In the mountain pass, the entire Hun army rides in without abandon to sweep a much smaller force that has no chance of winning a direct confrontation. Mulan defeats them by turning their reckless overconfidence against them and causing an avalanche.
She wipes out most of the Hun army by disregarding Shang’s order, ignoring the biggest threat, Shan Yu and seeing the bigger opportunity. She disregards the obedience that had been taught to her both as a woman and a soldier to claim a huge victory.
Later on, she takes victory again by fully embracing the fact women are as good as invisible, disguising Yao, Ling and Chien Po as women to get close to the Huns without suspicion. She defeats Shan Yu in his moment of overconfidence, thinking she has no more options.
Mulan never outrightly rejects femininity, only the aspects of it that make her uncomfortable. She takes care of her father and the household. She’s shown wearing dresses without qualms. Not only that, but she’s shown to be comfortable enough in them to do highly physical acts. She defeats Shan Yu wearing a dress, armed with only a fan. Mulan disarms Shan Yu using a fan. A fan, which throughout the movie was a symbol of femininity. In the same way, Mulan never fully embraces hyper-masculine ideals. Mulan doesn’t become a violent killing machine in the army. She doesn’t even begin to succeed in those masculine coded trails until she applies her ingenuity to the situation. She takes those traits as her own, using them on her own terms.
Mulan, both the character and the movie, find strength in the feminine, the masculine and balance in-between.
Images courtesy of Disney.
My First Queer: Evil Queens
This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!
Looking back at the other My First Queer articles, I have to say my experience is going to be rather different – but then again, each of those was different, too, and the experience is varied. Still, mine differs in the way that it is much more focused on attraction, instead of the more generalized realizations of queerness or powerful stories of love.
The second is definitely because there were none to be had. The first is, perhaps, because I grew up in a very liberal household. I knew about the existence of the the letters of the LGBTQIA acronym — except queer itself, I guess, because it doesn’t really have a Czech equivalent — probably by the time I started middle school, and certainly by the time I was fifteen. There was no need to discover the idea of queerness.
What was an entirely novel concept, on the other hand, was the idea that it could somehow relate to me, or to anyone close to me.
After all, in most media queerness was — and still is — only incidental, something that happens to the side characters, and as everyone is a protagonist of their own story, I never considered that it would be something to touch me in person. When I try to think of the first piece of media where I encountered a non-straight relationship, it’s difficult. I have been reading fantasy intermittently since I was eleven. Some of that fantasy probably contained background queer characters in a casual way that went well with my general expectations of “this is something that exists somewhere in the world but doesn’t concern me in any way”.
I do remember the first book where a non-straight relationship was at least a little bit prominent: the Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski. If you know Sapkowski or have read the books, you know it’s not…exactly an ideal introduction into the world of queerness. The protagonist — or one of the protagonists — of the book, Ciri, runs away from an attempt on her life, almost dies in the desert, and finally joins up with a band of outlaws. The first night with them, she is molested and almost raped by one of the men. One of the other women stops him…and then slides into bed in his place.
This is the beginning of Ciri’s first romantic relationship, which ends with her lover/rapist being brutally murdered by a man who then proceeds to enslave Ciri. So, you know. Not exactly the pinnacle of representation, and definitely not something you would want to model your romantic life on.
Sapkowski’s books have other mentions of wlw, too: the long-lived sorceresses being bored of their relationships with men and so trying women for a time until they discover it’s not any better. That caught my attention a little more.
I loved everything about Sapkowski’s sorceresses. Powerful, beautiful and arrogant, I can say with the benefit of hindsight that however over-the-top and mired in sexist stereotypes, they were a combination of my life goals and my wife goals.
However narcissist that sounds, the kind of person I want to be has always been similar to the kind of person I want to have, be they women or men, because I’ve always been more fan of the concept of “marriage of true minds” than “opposites attract.” That probably didn’t help with making matters clearer, since it provided a comfortable excuse for why I cared about them so much: I wanted to be like them.
The most important part, though, is that the sorceresses weren’t really queer. They were still predominantly depicted as straight, focused on the men and interested in them, and their gayness was only incidental, and always connected to men. That, combined with my real-life experiences, likely shaped my views for quite some time. Because the thing is, there was a lot of wlw women around me, but either none of them identified as bisexual, or I didn’t know they did. Just like in Sapkowski! Sleeping with both men and women was just what all the really cool girls did, right? And men found it hot.
What an amazing view to absorb.
Sadly, it held through my actual first experiences with women, and of those around me. Looking back at it, it was insane. A good friend of mine was in a relationship with a girl, they even got fake-married, but I still thought of her as straight and didn’t take it seriously. After all, it was just a couple of gals being pals. In bed.
In short, Sapkowski was the piece of media during my adolescence that got the furthest in having me engage with female queerness, and it did not go very well. But there was another way my identity as a straight girl had the potential to be eroded. Not with explicitly queer women, but with (assumed) straight women I simply found hot. And boy, were there plenty.
Like I said, Sapkowski’s sorceresses hit me exactly in my weak spot. I have always been fascinated by the “evil queen” archetype. If I lived in a country where Disney animated fairy tales were the standard entertainment for children, I’m pretty sure my first queer would have easily and decidedly been Maleficent and the Evil Queen from Snow White. As it is, I only came across them later, and Czech fairy tale films don’t really have any properly evil queens to speak of, for some reason.
So as it was, my first glimpse of this was Circe.
I had a retold-for-children version of Odyssey when I was little, and it was my favorite book. Odysseus was an amazing hero and everything, but there were also beautiful illustrations in my version, and the women in those illustrations were really pretty. Particularly attractive was the evil sorceress who almost defeated Odysseus (and totally would have if he hadn’t cheated by getting help from the gods). She was a-ma-zing.
Not too long after, there was an encounter with Disney after all: I had a book version of Aladdin, and in Aladdin there was Yasmine. In particular, Yasmine in her slave outfit. Yeah, I know.
Looking back at it, I can hardly see for the amount of cringe I’m doing, and I could write dissertations on the orientalization and sexism specific to what can be found in those scenes. But my seven year old self didn’t know anything about that. I just knew that there was, you know, something about Yasmine in that outfit, being so clever as she pretended to be willing to rule alongside Jafar.
I mostly thought it was because she was wearing red and I liked red. Like I said, I was seven.
The next step on this way was the evil queen from Never-Ending Story 2. I remember always being frustrated when she pretends to be good in the middle of the film, because she lost like half of her sex-appeal – though again, I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was probably about ten at this point. Then came Sapkowski, and my love for his sorceresses. And around the same time, there came the most important stepping stone from the realm of media on my way to self-discovery: Monica Bellucci.
I honestly don’t remember how I first came across her. It must have been online, because going through her filmography, the only things I really recall seeing her in are the Matrix films, and before that I was only aware of Asterix and Obelix. And I distinctly remember thinking when it came out, as a connoisseur of the animated version: yeah, she’s a good fit for Cleopatra, she’s hot.
So, somehow, somewhere, I discovered Monica Bellucci, and I was immediately smitten. To this day, I consider her effectively the epitome of female beauty.
I was fourteen when Matrix Reloaded came out, and I really enjoyed the scenes with her. A lot. In fact, they probably make me recall that film in a much more positive light than it deserves. Soon after this, my computer was stuffed with all the pictures of her I could find, mostly of them lightly erotic. Hilariously, yes, I still believed I was straight.
I could continue listing all the other movies I saw with impressive evil queen/femme fatale types in them. Snow White and the Huntsman was a disaster of a movie. But the Queen, oh, the Queen! Well, I think you get the idea.
At any rate, Monica Bellucci was the first woman I have ever seen that I looked at and thought, yes, I want to have sex with her. Not even this, though, was enough to bring any change in how I understood my sexuality. Looking for the media that helped with that, the first media that actually included a healthy queer couple… That would be fanfiction. When I was over twenty, maybe even closer to my mid-twenties.
To be fair, if I had a varied romantic life in the years between, I probably would have figured things out sooner even without any books to help, but as I began dating my husband not too long after my Bellucci-induced awakening, that rather limited my exploration.
The fact still remains, though. It took twenty years of reading to come across a wlw couple worthy of the name. And it required fanfiction.
I read a lot, though I didn’t seek out queer books – I probably didn’t know that was a thing, to be honest, and if I did, I wouldn’t have searched them out anyway. I was straight, remember? But I read a lot, and varied things – detective stories, fantasy, literary fiction. In none of that did I come across a proper wlw relationship.
The first “femslash” fanfiction I read was a bunch of stories from the Harry Potter universe. It was mostly sexual relationships, combining various Hogwarts girl into pairs and seeing what happened. While fun, it didn’t do much to convince me to take my own preferences too seriously.
I can’t actually pinpoint the one story that did that. What I do know, though, is that as I moved from my reading from HPFF to FF.net and then to AO3, the number of wlw relationships that appeared in my reading increased. Though they were still mostly background relationships, they were at least treated more seriously than what I was used to.
Little by little, the stories chipped away at my denial. But I still can’t help to think that had Sapkowski been less of a sexist clown, and had two of his powerful women been badass wlw queens who ruled the Lodge of Sorceresses, I could have figured everything out so much easier.
In fact, that sounds like an AU fanfiction someone should write.
Images courtesy of Dimension Films, CD Projekt Red, Dargaud Films, Bounty Books, and Fabrizio Ferri
Past Looks Back from Terrier
Terrier contains many firsts for Tamora Pierce. Published in 2006, it surprises the reader with the first person journal format. Previously Pierce used close third person, but this works’s for Beka’s story. It also gives the reader their first glimpse into Tortall’s past. Pierce sets this book in 246 HE, almost two hundred years before her other novels. This also is her first police and crime novel. While she dabbled in crime in the Alanna books, and mentioned the Lord Provost, now she tells us how the police system in Tortall works. Or, used to work, we hope.
Spoilers for all of Terrier and for all of Pierce’s other novels.
So, What Happened?
Terrier opens with a flashback to George’s youth. Eleni bailed him out of the Guard station and told him about his famous Guard, then called Dogs, ancestress. Then we jump to 244 HE in the past, where we meet Tunstall, Clary, and the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost tells how he caught a gang of Rats, because eight-year-old Beka Cooper tracked one down.
Then, we see Beka on her first day of Puppy training, where she’s assigned to work with Tunstall and Clary as her mentors. She stumbles initially, given her shyness and overconfidence. But eventually, she grows into her job. Beka also connects to a friend from her past, Tansy, who’s married to the grandson of the most corrupt landlord in Corus. A killer called the Shadow Snake killed Tansy’s son Roland. Tansy gives her a strange stone that her husband claimed would change their fortunes. Beka and her Dogs discover that it’s fire opals, mined by Crookshank, Tansy’s grandfather-in-law.
Through her magic with ghosts and dust-spinners, Beka tracks the opals and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank killed 17 people to keep his opals secret. Beka befriends Rosto, Kora, and Aniki, new members of the Rogue’s court from Scanra. She divides her time between the opals, and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank blames the Rogue for Roland’s death, and the kidnapping of his grandson.
Eventually, Beka discovers the location of Crookshank’s mine, and the Dogs move in. They rescue the current work crew, dig up the dead crews, and arrest the guards. A riot starts the next day after the news of Crookshank’s mine breaks. Rosto locates the Shadow Snake and Herum, Tansy’s husband. They rescue Herum, and discover the Shadow Snake was Yates Noll, and his mother, ‘the kindly’ baker. The book ends when Rosts becomes the new Rogue.
Past and It’s Benefits
Present and Past with Pounce and Poverty
One of Pierce’s successes is how she links the present and the past together. She does this several ways, through character links, and through class links. The most obvious character link is Pounce. Pierce draws on the emotions regarding the cat and constellation that followed Alanna from In the Hand of the Goddess on. Pounce also follows Beka, and we see how this spirit cat became who he was for Alanna. She uses him to tie us to Beka and her story. Pounce also grows in this story, being somewhat cattier than in Song of the Lioness. “Pounce trotted past the newcomers, carrying a black kitten … I cannot let you maul me about. Do it to him.” (427). In doing so, we see how his patience grows from past to present.
Pierce also uses her ties to the past significantly. She opens the book with Eleni bailing out a young George. Eleni tells him about, “Rebakah Cooper … She was a fierce and law-abiding and loyal, my son. All that I want for you. … Steal and you shame her.” (6). Afterwards, Eleni asks the Goddess to guide him on Beka’s path, instead of the theiving path he eventually takes. By utilizing irony here, as well as at the end, when Rosto plans to build the Dancing Dove, we see how the universe connects past and present.
Also in Eleni’s prologue is the revelation George started stealing because she couldn’t afford to feed them enough. This ties into the other theme that ties present and past together, that of poverty. Beka is the first POV from the lower class since Daine, and Daine talked mostly to the nobility. She counts coppers, and worries about rent. Even though the Provost fostered her, she remains part of the lower classes, which provides valuable insight.
Women’s Rights – Knights, Priestesses, and Pedestals
Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill proves one of the most influential secondary characters in all of Terrier. She is the first lady knight that we meet that never once is treated differently because of her gender. Alanna struggles with acceptance of her gender. Kel succeeds only despite prejudice against female knights. With Sabine, we see the age that inspires them, where lady knights were never doubted, never disparaged for their skills. Sabine rescues Beka from a tavern brawl that would have killed any other Puppy. She helps Tunstall, Clary, and Beka track down Crookshank’s mine and harry Duwall, one of the Rogue’s chiefs. Her fellow knights and nobles respect her. It’s immensely refreshing.
We also see respect for women’s rights in the religious arena. Fulk often sexually harasses women. When Beka’s Dogs ask him to identify the fire opal, he harasses Beka. They stop him. Clary threatens to send him before the Goddess’s temple. Tunstall clarifies. “At the last eclipse, the Mother of Starlight temple chose Magistrates. Goodwin’s now the Goddess’s Magistrate … She signs a writ, and the warrior [ladies] with the sickles come for him.” (86). While violence against women remains a problem for Tortall, past and present, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows the slow steps of progress.
Finally, in a more meta-textual level, women now have the right to be villains. There’s equality between evil women and evil men for the first time in Pierce’s novels. Roger, Ozorne, Blayce, Rubinyan, all male. Now, the Shadow Snake is the primary antagonist, and she’s Mistress Noll. Yes, we’ve had female secondary antagonists, Imajane, and Delia come to mind. But if you put women on pedestals and don’t let them be flawed, then you’ve only entered another phase of misogyny. Pierce takes steps to correct this here.
The Past and It’s Problems
The thing that shocked me most in Terrier was the depiction of slavery. After the very successful Trickster’s Duology, to include slavery and to not even mention freeing slaves dissapointed me. In addition, this is the first we hear of any slavery being in Tortall’s past. While the importance of not whitewashing history is clear to me, Pierce simply could have not included slavery in Terrier and in Tortall’s past. Not only is it slavery, it is child slavery, and state sponsered slavery, and a complete reversal of the slave positions of Scanra and Tortall.
Child slavery proves a significant problem, when Beka investigates the Shadow Snake. She uncovers people who sold their children and claimed the Snake took them, or children genuinely taken for the slave trade. “Slave taking is disliked in Corus, but it isn’t illegal. Kidnapping children without their parents’ leave is illegal though.” (79). To clarify, parents can sell their children into slavery, but other people cannot. It is morally disgusting, and Beka prostests it only minimally.
We know the Crown sponsers slavery because not only is there a, “Ministry of Slave Sales” (384), but illegal slave markets get broken up by Beka and the Guard several times. The ‘illegal slavers’ set up a stable to “look like a proper slave market.” (384). After seeing Aly destroy the slave markets in Rajmuat, after seeing a rebellion that freed slaves, this grows intolerable. Scanra also doesn’t have many slaves since they can’t feed free citizens, let alone enslaved ones. Given that slaves work most of the farms in Scanra in the present, it feels Pierce merely flipped Scanra’s present with Tortall’s past to make the past darker. That doesn’t sit well with me. It shows insensitivity on issues she handled well previously.
Diversity and the Watsonian Lens
On a Doylist level, the amount of diversity in Terrier show’s Pierce’s advancing commitment to intersectional feminism. Take Sergeant Ahuda, the chief of the Guard Post where Beka trains, for example. “She is a stocky black woman with some freckle and hair she has straightened and cut just below her ears. Her family is in Carthak, far in the south. They say she treats trainees the way she does in vengeance for how the Carthakis treated her family as slaves.” (25). While the last sentance is dubious, she still remains a POC woman in charge of several dozen people. That’s wonderful, and Pierce develops her more than she did Sarge, in The Immortals Quartet.
In addition, Pierce shows people of color moving around Corus. “[The Rogue]’d foreigners with him, two Yamanis with their hair in topknots. With them stood the Carthaki who’d had Kayfer’s ear my first knight at the Court.” (399) Bazhir also move around the streets, though in a slightly more insular fashion. This reflects their isolation in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. This amazes from a Doylist sense, that Pierce moved so far from that contentious book.
But, in a Watsonian lens of thinking about books, it proves problematic. The diversity here only highlights the lack of diversity in her first series. Song of the Lioness doesn’t even mention non-white characters until the third book, and I find that depiction contentious. Something had to change between Tortall’s past and the present we see here that changed Tortall’s opinion of people of color. We know it results from the chronological evolution of Pierce’s feminism, but still. It also makes you wonder what happened that Lady Knights no longer were accepted. It may be this question is answered in the next too books. But still.
Police Novels and Modern Feminism
I don’t believe it especially controversial to mention that for the last decade or so, we’ve started having conversations about police brutality and corruption. It spawned movements, endless articles, and websites devoted to tracking cases of brutality and corruption. So, this makes it hard to see feminism and feminist movements in Police and Crime novels like Terrier. From our perspective now, we see a novel such as Terrier that contains moments of ‘police’ corruption and brutality, and find it difficult to endorse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.
Thankfully, no police brutality against unarmed and disenfranchised victims occurs in Terrier to my judgement. I might miss something, but the closest thing to brutality I saw lies in the ‘nap tap’. “All of us love that hammer blow of baton against jaw, even if it doesn’t always knock a Rat out. Goodwin has the city’s record for the highest number of perfectly delivered nap taps that end with a Rat carried away, stone unconscious.” (192). Beka hesitates at one point about hitting a tavern brawler that is attacking her with her baton, fearful that she’ll seriously hurt him. They do use riot gear at one point, when a riot forms when the news of Crookshank’s mines gets out. But those two moments are the closest the Provost’s Dogs in Terrier come to modern worries of police brutality.
Unfortunately, corruption proves differently. Someone kills a Dog that gambled with weighted dice, and Beka sympathizes with him. “Of course there are crooked Dogs. I can name two handfuls myself. … I do not like that he was crooked. But he’d still been a Dog.” (201). The insular community of the Dogs allows some exceptions for bad behavior if the perpetrator was a Dog.
Corruption also comes in the Happy Bags. “Other Dogs collect Happy Bags from each business that wants to know otherwise ill-paid Dogs will watch over them with diligence.” (92). In addition they collect from the Rogue which buys some peace between his Court and the Dogs. “Not taking offense over a bit of briber, are you? … On the very night your Dogs are here to collect their bribes from the Rogue. … That’s different. That’s for all the work every one of us does, to keep the streets orderly.” (107). But it’s not just for keeping the streets orderly. Dogs get personal bribes as well as the institution of the Happy Bag. And their bribe from the Rogue is not only in repayment for public order, but also keeps the Dogs away from several places. Places where the Rogue hides stolen goods, and where Yates hides from the Dogs.
The Dogs get funding almost entirely from the Happy Bags. Beka does not have a single qualm about the bribes that fund her work. She simply accepts it, and in some way the reader accepts it as well. Or they would if the conversation over police didn’t become so strident in recent years.
The mostly non-existent brutality and the blatant corruption make it difficult to read feminism in this book. After all, intersectional feminist groups spent years discussing and protesting this kind of behavior.
Overall, I believe that Terrier continues Pierce’s trend of increasing feminism. The way she includes diversity, even though it creates a Watsonian problem, convinces me of that. The depiction of slavery remains problematic, but I believe that her overall attempts at feminism trump that. It’s also balanced by the central nature of slavery in the Trickster’s Duology. However, the depiction of police corruption makes this book a harder sell to the modern liberal audience than when Pierce first published it.
Hopefully, Pierce’s expanding feminism continues as we enter the books that I have not yet read or reviewed.
Image Courtesy of Random House
Deep character dives propel Daredevil Season 3: Sister Maggie and more
This Daredevil fan has got a lot of words to spill about Season 3 of the Marvel Netflix show, which rose out of the ashes of Midland Circle (the messy Defenders and hit-and-miss Season 2) to make some of the greatest Marvel TV so far. And it’s in no small part thanks to getting back to excellent characters.
In Part 1, I explored why Matt is such a walking dumpster fire and that’s why I love him. And I enthused about great story choices made for Karen, possibly the best example of character development of the season. Here, I’ll cover some of the new characters this season, as well as an old favorite villain.
Part 2 of a 2-part article. Spoilers ahead!
Daredevil fans were excited to see the well-known comics character Sister Maggie appear in the show. Knowing a little about the comics storylines with Maggie, Matt’s mother that he never knew growing up, I was cautiously hopeful that this modern show wouldn’t succumb to some of the pitfalls that have happened with this character in the comics. In some storylines, she was demonized for leaving Jack and Matt when Matt was a baby. In a more recent storyline, post-partum depression was advanced as an explanation, finally giving more sympathy to the character.
This is the explanation that the show wisely goes with. We get a Sister Maggie backstory with Maggie as a young initiate to the convent, taking a detour in life when she meets and falls in love with Jack Murdock. In this version of the story, it isn’t that Maggie suddenly chooses to enter the convent after having a child. She returns to her original life plan, when her nun friends and mentor come to collect her, since Jack is at his wits’ end in the face of her depression. This gives some interesting ambiguity to comments Sister Maggie makes throughout the season about life choices and directions and regret. She clearly thinks she has made mistakes. Does she consider it a mistake to have left her training to marry Jack and bear his child? A mistake to have left Matt? Or both?
Before these revelations, however, Sister Maggie is a bit of a mystery. We don’t learn for quite a while that she’s Matt’s mother in this storyline. Until then, it isn’t clear, since the show only takes inspiration from the comics, and doesn’t strictly follow their stories. In the meantime, Sister Maggie nurses Matt back to health, curbs his worst self-destructive impulses (or at least chews him out afterwards, since she can’t exactly stop him), and gives him cynical life advice he sorely needs. She’s a hardened person who has seen it all and drinks hard liquor, a vice Matt accuses her of overindulging in. (A perfect example of Matt in a glass house, throwing stones.)
My favorite line from Sister Maggie, and a good candidate for my favorite line in the season, was in this exchange:
Matt: “D’you believe people can change?”
Sister Maggie [after a pause]: “I’m still holding out hope.”
In other words, in her five-plus decades of life, Sister Maggie has never seen anyone change. Her dialogue in the early episodes reveal her to be a deeply cynical person, who nonetheless remains true to her faith in humanity and in God. Joanne Whalley’s acting truly brought this tragic, realistic, and loveable character to life.
Secrets and guilt
Though it made sense for the plot, I found Sister Maggie less interesting as a character when her cynicism and sarcasm gave way to profound guilt. First, she blames herself a little too heavily for Bullseye’s murders in the newsroom, since she was the one who encouraged Matt to seek out his friends. She did so for Matt’s well-being, never imagining he would pull those friends into a plan to get testimony from the guy paid off to shank Fisk in prison. And that plan seemed risky but logical – I don’t even blame Matt for the newsroom massacre, much less Sister Maggie. Her guilt here seemed misplaced, and I thought it detracted somewhat from the emotional impact of her later, more important source of guilt.
That, of course, is how she left Matt, and never revealed herself as his mother. It’s an odd parallel to Matt/Daredevil, in a way – she helped raise Matt, in the orphanage, but kept her “secret identity” as his mother from him. Matt finds out who his mother is in a sad and powerful way, overhearing her prayer. His anger at her, and at Father Lantom for keeping her secret from him, is very understandable, and I thought was played well. But we got no more wisecracking, hard-drinking, cynical nun for the rest of the season, and I mourned that.
Not to say the subsequent scenes with Sister Maggie aren’t moving, and important: she confesses to Karen about being Matt’s mother and her guilt for abandoning him. She bravely misleads the corrupt FBI agents several times when Karen and Matt are hiding out in the church, quickly putting together that they can’t be trusted, and risking her own skin. And we get a glimpse of what Matt and her relationship might be like going forward, when Matt tentatively asks her if she can help him with the spiritual guidance that Father Lantom used to give him.
I missed that hard-edged side of Maggie, and I hope we’ll see it again in Season 4 (knock on wood that that gets made). Overall, though, I was more than pleased with this addition of another complicated, interesting female character to this show.
I don’t know if I can gush anything new about Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk that hasn’t already been gushed. His acting as Fisk is the kind of thing that can really irk you when you think about the unspoken rule that no superhero shows can win Emmys or the like, because D’Onofrio certainly deserves some kind of award.
In the first season, I initially didn’t like the character of Fisk. I didn’t see the point of following his slow, cautious courting of the art dealer, Vanessa Marianna. Nor of his love of art, meticulous choosing of cuff links, or expert making of omelettes. There was a genius slow build for this character, though. When Fisk’s childhood murder of his abusive father was finally revealed, with his emotional outburst, “I am not a monster!”, somehow D’Onofrio made that 12-year-old’s panic come through the face of this terrifying adult crime lord. And suddenly it all made sense: the obsessive clinging to all the trappings of civilization, of haute culture, are how Fisk desperately proves his own humanity to himself in every moment. It was brilliant, and I was thoroughly won over on this fascinating character.
Wilson Fisk is back in a similar excellent synergy of writing and acting here in Season 3. Once again, we see his ruthlessness combined with his deep vulnerability and insecurity that he rarely reveals – usually only in the presence of Vanessa.
Bending Dex to his will
I have two favorite things about Fisk in this season. One is his manipulation of ‘Dex’ Poindexter, a troubled FBI agent who we eventually see develop into the villain Bullseye. Fisk gives a couple of key speeches to Dex to win his trust and convince him to work for Fisk. In the first speech, Fisk takes a guess that Dex must be miffed about being investigated for shooting criminals that had surrendered, when Dex’s actions (at least from Fisk’s perspective) could be seen as heroic. Fisk’s adept psychological manipulation here was captivating. You could see Dex quickly get bent to his will. And it fits with everything we know about Fisk – how even in prison, in Season 2, he took methodical steps to become top dog and get everything he wanted. He’s a master at this stuff, and it is what makes him so scary.
Later on, Fisk has thoroughly dug through all the files on Dex he could get his hands on, including transcripts of therapy sessions Dex had as a kid. Fisk learns that, as a child, Dex killed his loving, supportive baseball coach in a fit of rage. Fisk’s manipulation after knowing all this is still skillful, although he has the benefit of all that information. Scarier is that he was willing to do so much research on the guy to find his weaknesses. And the synergy with his own life, with Dex murdering a parental figure at a young age, is not lost on Fisk.
Fisk’s personal art gallery
My second favorite thing about Fisk in Season 3 is a small detail that I find endlessly interesting, which is Fisk’s taste in art. I loved the storyline around ‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’ in Season 1. Now, as Fisk outfits his lavish house-arrest penthouse, we get to see many other art pieces in his possession. Fisk is clearly attracted to 20th century abstract art, with an emphasis on bold colors and geometric shapes.
I did a quick check with some art historian friends, who identified most or all of the artists represented to be abstract expressionists from the New York School. One looks to be Excavation by Willem de Kooning. Another resembles a Franz Kline. And the red and black rectangles on a smoldering orange background is clearly designed to look like Mark Rothko. (I might be the only viewer who gasped, “Not the Rothko!” when it got destroyed in the final showdown.)
The show made a great choice to go with New York School artists. We already know that Fisk likes abstract art, and this is a famed school that grew out of the city around which Fisk bases his identity. It makes sense that Fisk would see this art as representing some of the highest culture to come out of New York.
Benjamin ‘Dex’ Poindexter (Bullseye)
I am of two minds about Dex. As comics villain origin stories go, this one was pretty good. But I just wasn’t captivated by this character. I was more interested in his use as a tool by Fisk than who he was in his own right.
Dex’s mental illnesses were a bit cliché for a villain: the sociopathic tendencies, the obsessive-compulsive traits. At the same time, these traits made a lot of sense for the character. Dex’s obsessive cleanliness was revealed to be a way he keeps and regains control after a lapse into rage and confusion (symbolized through audio like a swarm of buzzing bees drowning everything out.) His sociopathy, and his struggles to control it and learn empathy, gave him some depth. His therapist was an interesting character in her own right, despite a short amount of screen time.
On the other hand, Dex’s quasi-love interest and (Dex-appointed) moral compass, Julie, gets stalked and fridged for the storyline. Again, even though this plot was relatively well-done – Julie seemed like a real person, with normal responses, for example – this is ground that has been covered so many times in TV that it has gotten boring.
The one thing I really liked about Dex/Bullseye was his fighting abilities. Being a master at long-range weapons made him a perfect antagonist to Daredevil, who excels at close combat. Their battle in the newsroom made it clear that Matt was not prepared for Bullseye’s abilities, and Matt lost the fight. It is important to have your heroes lose sometimes, and Dex’s special skillset was a great way to accomplish this.
I was surprised at the end of the show that Dex did not die. Maybe I shouldn’t have been: a lot of villains in the MCU are spared to be used in further movies or seasons, especially white male villains (see e.g. Fisk, and Billy Russo from Punisher, vs. Killmonger from Black Panther; Cottonmouth, Bushmaster, and Mariah Dillard from Luke Cage). It was a striking scene at the end when, with experimental surgery, Dex prepares to come back as Bullseye.
But before that, Dex’s arc seemed to be bending toward death. In the calculus of action dramas, viewers were owed a tragic (or not so much) death on the part of the villains, to match the tragedies of Father Lantom and Ray Nadeem – not to mention minor characters like Julie, and Jasper, the Fisk-shivving would-be informant. Somehow, though, both Fisk and Bullseye made it, despite Bullseye’s life-threatening injury. I guess the actors signed a contract for longer than one season!
Nelson, Murdock and Page
Finally, there is so much to say about the original threesome we all loved from Season 1. Fans, at least in my corner of fandom, are enamored with the dynamic between Karen, Foggy and Matt, who enjoyed a heartwarming though booze-soaked friendship – it wasn’t for nothing that they were a popular OT3. There’s been a lot of angst over how this happy found family got so destroyed in Season 2, in part due to Matt’s battle with the Hand. We’ve been eager to see the three of them come back together, and Season 3 delivers it.
Best Damn Avocado
First, a little bit about Foggy Nelson. Fans of Foggy were pleased to see a big role for him this season. We got him running for District Attorney, in a bold attempt to push the other candidate, Blake Tower, to do something about Fisk. We were granted some comic relief in the form of interactions with Foggy’s best frenemy Brett Mahoney – who often seems like the only non-crooked cop in Hell’s Kitchen.
We finally got to meet Foggy’s family, with his brother Theo played by an actor that I’d believe was related to Elden Henson. Matt saves Foggy’s life in the newsroom fight, which was not highlighted much but seemed to add some balance, as Matt has saved Karen’s life multiple times. And Foggy’s relationship with Marci was explored, although I was disappointed that not much of Marci’s “shark in a skin suit” personality got to shine through; she was mostly relegated to the role of Supportive Girlfriend.
Foggy’s relationship with Matt has been through some ups and downs. Foggy reached a breaking point in Season 2 in particular, drawing a line in terms of how much crazy he could tolerate from Matt. In this season, he seems to have reverted to that intense loyalty that led him to unquestioningly follow Matt in quitting his lucrative law internship to start their own firm. This loyalty-to-a-fault does fit the characters’ backstory, and hearkened to Foggy’s role throughout the comics. But I would have liked to see more emphasis on what the transition involved for Foggy to turn back to trust and forgiveness towards Matt.
Similarly, though it warmed my heard to see the happy reunion of Nelson, Murdock and Page – hanging out in the Nelson Family Meat Shop, drinking beers, and plotting opening a firm together again – I wondered if this happiness was completely earned. Yes, the three finally started working together again to counter the menace of Wilson Fisk. But there had still been friction between them over Matt’s reluctance to go through legal methods, versus doing it “his way” – the vigilante way. And all the hurts Matt has rained upon his friends seem swept aside in the end.
Plus, Matt appears surprisingly mentally stable by those final scenes (drinking whisky for “medicinal purposes” notwithstanding). At the start of the season, Matt was in religious, identity, and emotional crises, and he engaged in suicidal behavior. It seemed a little miraculous that Matt managed to climb out of his deep emotional hole without psychiatric help.
Then again, I could be succumbing to the trap I’ve fallen in before with the Marvel Netflix shows, and with Daredevil in particular: expecting too much realism and forgetting that it’s all a comic book. Matt physically survived a building collapse. Compared to that, it isn’t too hard to swallow that he mentally recovered from emotional collapse. That realism mistake I keep making is just a testament to the excellent world-building, writing and acting of this show, especially true of Season 3. The care and craft that’s been put into this show makes it feel real enough to believe.