an appreciation of Foggy Nelson

Note: this post has Netflix: Daredevil Season 1 spoilers in it. Probably this is obvious from the post title, but, you know, it's the Internet.

The last Daredevil-inspired post discussed some criticism traps one can run into when discussing female characters in a story. This time, I'm focusing on Foggy Nelson, Matt Murdock/Daredevil's best friend and law partner.

The purpose of a hero in a comic book story is pretty well established. He fights for what's right, saves the girl from the forces of evil, and winds up with her as a romantic partner. The Daredevil series has this too, in the character arc of its hero — Foggy Nelson.

Yup. As far as I'm concerned, this is one story where the sidekick turns out not to be a sidekick at all, but the true hero.

He fights for what's right. For all his “I should have been a butcher” and “I should have stayed at that big law firm and made lots of money” speeches, Foggy really does want what’s right. Sure, he supports low-income tenants when their homes are threatened by gentrification, sure he is comfortable defending a woman in what at first looks like an open-and-shut murder case (because due process and presumption of innocence), but he also takes his best friend to task for beating people up. Even when they both agree that the people Murdock is beating up as Daredevil are clearly bad guys.

He saves the girl from the forces of evil. Actually expand that to “saves the girls” (and let’s make it the more accurate “women” while we’re at it), and guys as well. He saves Karen on at least two occasions, tries to save Mrs. Caldena, gives Marci perspective on the law firm she works for (and gives her the space to choose for herself). He also acts as Murdock’s conscience, without his own knowledge at first, and then with awareness later. I especially liked that he works from his own moral, ethical, and legal code, not by what “team” he’s on — he gives Murdock hell when he finds out he’s Daredevil. I really loved the scenes when they were facing off in Murdock’s apartment.

He winds up with one of the people he saves as a romantic partner. At the end of Season One, Daredevil doesn’t have a romantic partner. Something is happening between him and Karen, but then again, something happened between him and Claire Temple earlier on and fizzled out. The only characters on the forces of good who actually get laid are Foggy and Marci, and the ending of the series strongly indicates he and Marci may be becoming a couple again.

Foggy is no white knight either, of course. The late-at-night scenes where he’s drunk and shouting through Murdock’s apartment door actually made me cringe (I was glad that, unlike a lot of TV shows, they bothered to show a disapproving neighbour). But still, of all the major characters, he’s the one who comes out on top.

But what about Daredevil? The show’s named after him — shouldn’t he be the hero? It’s complicated, and one of the things I liked about Daredevil is that it showed that it ought to be complicated. In the final analysis, the character who succeeds best is the one who fights for what’s right, gives everyone else respect, wins mostly through argument and logic, has street smarts, and stays inside the law. And that’s Foggy.

the feminist criticism corner (Daredevil as the main example)

There are some Netflix Daredevil spoilers below, because the topic for this blog post came on while I was watching the series. I tried to keep them minimalist and as non-spoilerish as possible, and to stick to the earlier episodes in my examples.

Okay. Here’s my thing.

I am a feminist, and I have a BA Hon in English Literature, and if those two facts didn’t make you stop reading, you will not be surprised to learn that I enjoy applying feminist interpretations to storytelling. Any kind. Spoken word stories. Written stories. Stories presented for TV and cinema and plays.

I also enjoy comic book superhero stories. I started reading comics when I was seven or eight, and although my parents made me stop reading them when I was ten and sell my collection, in my adult years I’ve got back into reading graphic novels like 1602 and V for Vendetta. (And Persepolis and Maus… you get the idea.)

And it seems to me that in the popular feminist criticism of things, it's easy to  paint oneself into a corner, where any non-aligned reader might throw up their hands and decide there's no pleasing feminists. And, since I am a feminist, I see that as a bad thing.

Consider:

  • In the Netflix Daredevil TV series, when Karen Page wakes up beside the dead body of her co-worker and is arrested for murder, she’s a disposable motivation for the hero to start his investigation of the villains. Yet when she fights back, later on in the story, she’s a “stereotypical strong female character,” and therefore boring/not realistic/and so on… yet all these reactions are happening to one character. Surely that’s more an indicator that she’s well-rounded?

    I could write a whole series of blogs about Karen Page as depicted in Netflix’s Daredevil, but I want to keep this more general.
     
  • Women characters who are daughters, mothers, wives get attacked because they're their roles, not people, and women are not just defined by their family or romantic relationships. Yet women characters who are not portrayed as daughters, mothers, wives are attacked because they’re one-dimensional, or “female characters with male character traits”. (And what the hell are “female character traits” and “male character traits” anyhow? I thought we were supposed to be working at getting past stereotypical gender binary personality traits.)
     
  • Female characters who get sexually assaulted are no good because that works into the whole woman-as-victim thing. So we’re supposed to forget that sexual violence is used as a weapon, that it’s out there, that it happens all the freaking time. I can see the merit of the argument that it doesn’t fit in this or that specific storyline, but not that it gets portrayed “too often” or “is a cliché”. It’s a cliché in real life too, but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be stopping any rapists.
     
  • If a woman is physically small and gets assaulted or kidnapped, she’s being portrayed as a “weak woman”. Yet if said physically small woman figures out a way to fight back and overcome her attacker (Lisbeth Salander with a nail gun, Karen Page with a regular gun), it’s “unrealistic” and we’re back to “strong female characters” again. I'd rather the takeaway that while women tend to be smaller and not as strong as men, that just makes it an unfair fight, not an impossible one.

  • If a woman is a force for good, she’s put on a pedestal. If she’s the villain, it’s misogyny.

  • If a woman rescues a man, it’s motherhood symbolism. If a man rescues a woman, it’s infantilism.

After reading some of the comments about recent shows, films, and books, it makes me nervous to write anything other than Beckett-esque, gendered-pronouns-so-you-can-tell-the-characters-apart minimalist stories.

We have to ditch the hair triggers. We have to stop freaking out because this or that type of scene is portrayed, and experience the entire story. I was always taught to read the whole book before writing an essay about it. Otherwise, we’re going to miss the part where the stereotype or trope gets subverted, or criticised, or balanced off. Experiencing a story is not supposed to be some sociological drinking game where you yell, "Sexist trope!" every time you spot something. Pointing out recurring tropes across multiple stories can be useful, thoughtful criticism, but lying in wait for a story to "screw up" and portray "that scene" — not so much.

Maybe you came to a different conclusion, but it was pretty clear to me by the end of Daredevil (Season 1) that when the bad guys decided to frame Karen for her co-worker’s murder, they definitely hung it on the wrong person. It was a huge mistake that cost them a lot, and not just because she wound up friends with the superhero (remember: she doesn't know he's the superhero). She does a lot of damage to them entirely through her own agency, her own network-building.

One thing I noticed about Daredevil is while the women did act violently, the source — the force that necessitated the violent response — tended to be men. And as for men with men — it’s a wonder so many of them are standing at the end. It’s almost like the story is showing us violence is a bad thing, and that without the advantages of height and upper body strength (which shouldn't count for much in civilised society), men don’t really have anything over women. Through a superhero TV show, with a male-dominated cast of characters?

Now that’s interesting.