What’s the Deal with the POC Characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

In a week where the Deadline Hollywood website shot itself in the foot for asking us to consider the poor white actors being denied work due to the current spate of “ethnic casting” for TV pilots and series, the ever-ongoing fight of POC actors to get more than table scraps is never far from mind. Despite the Bat Signal thrown up by Deadline to save whiteness in Hollywood, the fact remains that productions still routinely limit or shut out entirely actors of color from starring roles.

On Twitter this weekend the thread #whedonandrace critiqued Joss Whedon’s problematic depictions of black and other POC characters in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. This discussion has been ongoing among fans of color since Buffy and Whedon became a name; it just happened that this time it spawned a hashtag. Soon the thread became a general critique of his handling of race, encompassing Whedon’s other TV series as well as his films, including the series he co-created with Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon for Marvel Studios,  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., at first glance, is diverse in its casting (at least of its secondary recurring cast members and guest stars; its regulars are largely white), the series reveals an unsettling pattern of how these characters of color are depicted.

Simply put, what’s the deal with POC (mainly black) characters being killed, maimed, or evil on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

A disclaimer: before I get into it, I want to say that I am a lifelong fan of Marvel Comics. Were it not for me being exposed to the work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the other Marvel writers and artists of the ’60s and ’70s, I wouldn’t have cultivated my love of reading and of art as a child. I’m also a fan of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Joss Whedon’s work generally. This article aims to point out the problems of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. relying on irresponsible and lazy tropes concerning the depiction of people of color, especially the series’ depiction of black characters. It goes without saying you can be a fan of something yet still recognize the issues in which they are problematic.

If a pattern exists of recurring or guest characters of color consistently shown as evil, monstrous, or otherwise  antagonistic to the mostly white leads of a series — and are often killed or punished while the white leads remain largely untouched — people notice it.  Hearing that a character would be killed off for December’s mid-season finale, many assumed that it would be one of the two black S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Many fan podcasts joked about it, knowing full well that the white regulars wouldn’t be sacrificed. And, sure enough, not only was one of the black agents killed, but the other one was used in a cliffhanger the previous week where it looked like he was killed! This just illustrates how pervasive the disposability of black and POC characters is in the series, where 100% of the viewers who predicted that either black agent would die could claim to be correct.

It seems that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is approaching Walking Dead levels of infamy for its casual disposal of black characters.

Let’s catalog all of the examples, in nearly two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., of recurring or guest characters of color getting the shaft. This is a list of significant characters to the story, and not random bystanders, victims, or redshirts (with one exception — sorry, Idaho).

Mike Peterson, played by J. August Richards: Mike had a season long arc of torturous treatment — he was like the Job of season one, given the extent of his suffering. Introduced in the pilot episode, he is transformed into a rage monster for the agents to put down. Later, he is presumed killed in an explosion and loses a leg and eye in the blast. He is then transformed into the cyborg Deathlok, and is blackmailed into killing for HYDRA before being rescued. For the majority of his appearances in season one, he had no agency of his own.

Camilla Reyes, played by Leonor Varela: Agent Coulson’s Peruvian ex-lover, she is revealed to be a terrorist leader.

Agent Akela Amador, played by Pascale Armand: A disgraced S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, she is also blackmailed into working for HYDRA.  She is mutilated (having her eye removed) and then arrested, despite being evil against her will.

“Scorch,” played by Louis Ozawa Changchien: A Hong Kong national who is given fire powers. He is mutilated in the course of using them, burning his arms severely. He turns evil/crazy, fighting S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep his power, and is then killed.

Raina, played by Ruth Negga: Introduced as an evil lieutenant of HYDRA, she is revealed to be an Inhuman, and undergoes terrigenesis, changing her into a deformed, alien looking creature.  This transformation not only erases her humanity (unlike Agent Skye, who is also transformed but does not change her outer appearance), but also effectively erases her blackness.

This is part of a longstanding Hollywood tradition where actors of color often appear only under makeup as monsters or aliens.

“Idaho,” played by Wilmer Calderon: Introduced as a new agent in the season two premiere, he is killed off in the same episode. Technically, he’s a redshirt, as he was only introduced to die, but there’s enough of a fakeout that he appears to be significant at first.  The actor is Latino so I assume that Idaho was meant to be as well. Too bad we didn’t learn ANYTHING about him.

Idaho, we hardly knew ye.

Jiaying, played by Dichen Lachman: Introduced in flashback as Skye’s mother, she is shown to be tortured and mutilated in graphic detail, literally disemboweled on camera, until she is killed.

Agent Triplett, played by B.J. Britt: So far the only black character on the series shown as unquestionably capable and heroic. Despite this, and his legacy standing as the grandson of a Howling Commando, his role is vastly diminished in season two in order to introduce the new white additions to the cast. He is killed during Skye’s and Raina’s terrigenesis, unnecessarily and pointlessly. It could be argued that Triplett was fridged for the character development of the (half) white heroine, Skye.

(An aside: not knowing anything about Chloe Bennet, who plays Skye, I had no idea until they introduced Skye’s mother on the show that the actor and character is biracial. Of the regular cast, only Bennet and Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent May, are POC. And Bennet so unambiguously passes for white, that if I were not told she was biracial, I never would have guessed.)

Agent 33, played by Maya Stojan and Ming-Na Wen: Introduced as a presumably white agent (the actor Stojan is half Sri Lankan but passes for white, so the character’s race is uncertain) captured and brainwashed by HYDRA, she becomes a de facto WOC by impersonating Agent May. She is mutilated, her mask grafted to her face, and becomes a severely scarred “evil twin” of May. She then develops Stockholm Syndrome and is submissively dependent on her new handler, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton). This is a character whose sense of agency is so obliterated due to her brainwashing and manipulation, and she tends to always appear in the form of Melinda May, even after the mask technology is fixed.

Ming-Na Wen as Agent 33

Agent “Mack” MacKenzie, played by Henry Simmons: Introduced in season two, becoming only the second black agent in the cast, he is possessed into becoming a rage monster for an episode. What is more distressing, however, is his reveal to be a betrayer of S.H.I.E.L.D., even though he is not evil. Compare Mack’s ongoing storyline to a similar betrayal plot for Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), which was introduced and resolved in one episode. Hunter, the white mercenary introduced with few ties and little loyalty, is wholly and completely exonerated, so much that his loyalty is never questioned again. And ironically, Hunter is now the voice of opposition to Mack’s splinter S.H.I.E.L.D. faction, which wants to take down Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. for vague and, so far, illogical reasons.

This rebel S.H.I.E.L.D. faction is led by Robert Gonzales (Edward James Olmos) and as revealed in last week’s episode, its executive council appears to be run by majority POC, including Agent Weaver (Christine Adams), who was introduced in season one as an instructor at S.H.I.E.L.D. Science Academy, and is the highest ranking black woman/WOC so far shown in S.H.I.E.L.D. The inner council of this splinter S.H.I.E.L.D. is 75% POC; if you include Mack and Mockingbird (Adrianne Palicki) it goes down to 66%, but it’s still majority POC.

In comparison, the inner circle of Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. — the one we’re meant to root for — is majority white. The setup for the rest of the season appears to position the majority POC S.H.I.E.L.D. faction against our heroes, the majority white S.H.I.E.L.D.

Finally, psychiatrist Andrew Garner (Blair Underwood), May’s ex-husband, is introduced. He seems nice so far, but I have a feeling he’s going to be revealed to be part of the splinter S.H.I.E.L.D. faction. And there are also rumors that Mockingbird may be a triple agent, infiltrating splinter S.H.I.E.L.D. for Coulson or perhaps Nick Fury. Either one of which, if true, would further increase the racial divide between the two groups.

This continuing pattern of POC as evil, monsters, or otherwise antagonistic to the white heroes is pervasive. As Mitra Nelson (@mitbot) put it in her Beyond The S.H.I.E.L.D. podcast, the white cast members are largely untouchable. And, as is the case for Chloe Bennet/Skye, the closer one is to whiteness as a POC, the safer/more invulnerable they become.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as a representative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reflects racial issues within the entire Marvel franchise. We all know the jokes about how in order to headline a Marvel movie, you have to be a white guy named Chris. And the midseason replacement series Agent Carter, while loudly addressing sexism in post-war American culture, chose to ignore the issue of race by literally vanishing POC from its narrative, casting no major roles, and casting only very few minor ones to actors of color.

Maurissa Tancharoen, Executive Producer and co- showrunner of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is an Asian American woman. She may have some writers of color working on the show. Her intentions for diversity in casting may be noble beyond belief, for all I know. And as the Deadline debacle tells us, the culture in Hollywood is ill-prepared to seriously address racial inequity, if not choosing to actively defend it.

But anti-black, anti-POC tropes are real, and they can exist as an easy storytelling device, despite the trope-tellers also being people of color. And they exist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — do they ever.

It could be that despite their best intentions, the people behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have a race problem and aren’t even aware of it. The funny thing is, there are a number of TV series with characters of color where they’re not treated like human (or Inhuman) pinatas to the benefit of the white heroes. Some of those series even air on the same network!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can — and should — do better.

31 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with the POC Characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

  1. It’s becoming a pattern but consider the line of work they’re in. Not even Eric Koenig was safe in the secret bunker. During that time what about all the white villains and guest characters who’ve been killed in this show? Blackout was killed. Those Italians who were transporting the limb for Deathlok were killed off. Lucy Lawless’ character was killed off. The female scientist who was part of Centipede was burned alive. Ward’s politician brother and parents were allegedly murdered at their family home. The ghost guy died off without any effort by SHIELD to save him. Donnie Gill was shot down by Skye. Garrett was killed off in the end of season one. Nazi Whitehall got his just desserts.

    It’s not 1980’s anymore where the heroes just have cool gear and save the day.

    1. You said what I was going to say, which is that there has been at the very least some parity in racial casting on AoS. The antagonists are just as likely to be people of color as they can be white, as we have seen. for every character of color who has turned out bad, there have been several white ones who went down in similar ways and for like reasons. There may be some insight in observing that the core protagonists read as mostly white.

      1. Or the characters who get more focus in the show are mostly white? Coulson is the lead character after all, with Agent May and Skye to work around him on the conflict issues. Then it branches out to the other characters who were further support and had their own screen time. So when it came to conflicts it operated as Coulson – May/Skye – Ward/Fitz/Simmons – guest villain/character.

        Replace Ward with Triplett, Fitz is sidelined and temporarily replaced by Mac, introduce Mockingbird and Hunter. So operations became Coulson – May/Skye- Triplett/Mockingbird/Hunter – Mac/Fitz/Simmons – guest villain/character. After the mid-season it’s turning into Coulson – May – Fitz/Simmons.

  2. Let me first point out that I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan. I watched every one of his shows from the first, starting with Buffy. I’m also going to point out that his depiction of PoC, in Firefly, well Black people, was inoffensive. He went horribly wrong by having no Asians on the show in its short run, despite the fact that the majority population in the universe was supposed to be Asian and everyone spoke Chinese.He ticked me off again with his depiction of the only Black Slayer ever shown, killed off after only a couple of episodes.

    Agents of Shield got on my s*** list from the very first episode when it cast J.August Richards as its first bad guy. I’d had enough of his mistreatment on Angel. I watched Agents up until Scorch was introduced ,then I gave it up for good. I tried to watch the show again, last season, but got bored. Now, I dont care how much people laud the show, Ive no plans to watch it even though I really, really, want to like it. Does it hurt the show that Joss himself is not directly involved in it? That it’s his brother calling the shots?

    I won’t give a flying crap about Joss’ Feminist reputation, if that rep is only for White women.

    1. I’m so glad we didn’t have this in the Highlander series. ‘There can be only one’ and it would have ticked off many viewers to realize that only MacCleod would be the one! Who’s name is on the show title again? The Highlander! It was the same thing with Buffy and Angel.

      Look to ensemble teams and holy shite – we might have a chance to get a piece of the pie! But who are the lead characters in those other shows? Capt. Mal, Echo, & Dr. Horrible. But I didn’t actually watch those shows because I was watching anime like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star. I tried catching up with Stargate but the broadcasts in the Philippines were inconsistent. I looked forward to seeing Tilk get freedom for his people. Joshua managed to live in the end of “First Wave”. What really surprised me was how many non-white characters in “Continuum” were killed then came back to life through time travel.

  3. I love this site. You guys are always on point.

    Honestly, I knew I was not going to stick around for this show when J. August Richards was introduced in such a “King Kong”-like manner. Like, what the fuck? And then his speech in front of that MLK/Civil Rights mural? Oh, give me a fucking break, Whedon.

    1. First of all, it is spelled the character’s name is spelled “Lex Luthor”. Let’s get that straight before coming at me sideways.

      Second, MY name is spelled “Lex Luther”; so if you were addressing me, that should be corrected.

      Third of all, did I miss something? Since when was Lex Luthor Black? In fact, most of the characters on that show including Supes and even Bats were super tan. Where the hell are you getting your facts? And even if he was, so what? People still seemed to like the character 1 and 2, Lex Luther was super complex and no one is saying they hate villains that are POCs. It is just a problem when the villain role, or you know, death, is the de-facto role.

      And really, are you coming at me with like one example of racebending versus countless examples of Whitewashing?

      Please take a stadium of seats, sir.

  4. Good article. I was thinking the same thing to an extent, especially in regards to Agent Triplett. I just found his death to be incredibly pointless. His actions didn’t stop the change. It was just a random death. I really think though, that the writers and casting folks on AoS ought to be invited to the conversation. I shared this post to Twitter to see if any of them would respond.

    1. The thing about Agent Triplett’s death was he died in vain doing his job. He didn’t know what was going to happen other than the bombs going off. That’s the sore point of it all.

      One fatal flaw in comic book stories is that they don’t believe anything happens by accident. It’s like every important character needs to have a meaningful death because heroes deserve better. But soldiers have died in accidents, or friendly fire. Life doesn’t promise us glory.

  5. In a recent episode, there was a scene between Coulson and Gonzales. What I remember about is that Coulson made the assumption that Gonzales could have joined “his team” instead of forming his own version of SHIELD. Gonzales made no such assumption. Instead, he recently suggested to Melinda May that she become part of the Board that controlled the other SHIELD agency. And I was amazed that Coulson would naturally assumed that Gonzales, who was more experienced SHIELD agent with his own authority, would join “his” team. Talk about white man privilege. Even worse, in the last episode, Coulson told both Mike Petersen and Nick or Lance Hunter or Blood that he needs to find Grant Ward in order to track down Skye. What I found amazing is that Mike didn’t bat an eye and blindly accepted Coulson’s suggestion. He didn’t react to the idea of them working with the guy who was associated with John Garrett – the man who had caused him such misery. Instead, of allowing Mike to challenge Coulson’s suggestion, Mike blindly accepted it. I found that disturbing.

    1. Ehm… that’s because Coulson was appointed as Director of SHIELD by Nick Fury, maybe?

  6. Some of you commentors, along with the author of this article, are absolutely ridiculous. Writing an article that implies racism in Joss Whedon, when you are the douchebags so focused on race.
    The way I see it, if you always see race as an issue, and you “notice” racism all the time where there is none, look in the damn mirror to find your racist.

    Fucking losers.

    1. It’s absurd to claim that noticing racism makes you racist. It’s certainly true that, with some exceptions, people of color in the US are doing much better than in the past, but we still have to deal with racism. Lack of proper role models in popular culture isn’t the same as getting lynched, but it is a problem, and shaming people for pointing it out is a pretty nasty thing to do.

      Pointing out a specific of a pattern of portraying people of color (especially black people) as villainous and easily manipulated, and killing them off at an alarming rate is not implying racism. It’s outright stating it, and the case is pretty compelling. Instead of pulling out that tired and frankly pathetic trope of reverse racism, maybe you should ask yourself why the idea that racism still exists (and maybe even benefits you in some ways) is so terrifying to you.

  7. The underlying problem doesn’t appear to be about diverse representation. It has more to do with the lack of empowerment in non-white characters, as if they are entitled to outshine the leading cast.

    1. I don’t watch Flarrow and it still has viewers. I don’t feel I’m entitled to have my Mary Sue in shows that somebody else produced. Daredevil features stickfighting, which makes me proud as a Filipino. But hell if his teacher should be some blind Filipino descended from Princess Josephine. Let someone else tell that story.

  8. @Chisao101: In regards to POC…they have to deal with racism so of course they’re going to notice racism. That doesn’t make them racist. I’m going to assume you’re not a POC if you don’t understand that or you’re whitewashed. But going by your reverse racism I’m guessing you’re white.

  9. After binge-watching two seasons of this show I’ve reached this same conclusion. The representation on this show obviously reflects Whedon’s brother’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen. With the exception of May and the biracial Daisy, all other POC are trivialized. There is so much hypocrisy in this show’s writing that I can’t even stomach it at this point. Mike Peterson, Akela Amadour, and even Agent 33 are all characters that were discarded despite the manipulation and abuse they suffered, and this is in spite of their characters pledging themselves to SHIELD. Tripplet died a pointless death. Raina was mistrusted despite her making good several times. In fact, Raina and Peterson’s (you could include Jiaying and Agent 33/Kara here as well) disfigurement seems rather symbolic of their POC status. They didn’t attain their scars heroically, but through abuse. Unlike Coulson.

    I could never understand why despite Peterson’s repeated help his character was still mistrusted or never given a solid spot on the show. Mack is as engaging as drying paint and his stubbornness, and his betrayal alongside Bobbi, seemingly makes him the token black character meant to appease diversity quotas. (The whole “real SHIELD” storyline was weak, but I digress.) There is little depth to anyone’s character, least of all POC characters (the exception being May and biracial Daisy, who has the most growth of all). Yet still, May is portrayed as this icy emotionless erotic kung-fu fighting Asian character and Skye/Daisy is Inhuman.

    This, alongside the push to make a clearly lovable character (Ward) a villain despite his attempts at redemption has made the show irredeemable in my eyes. Perhaps, it’s because he’s the only young strong able bodied white male character on the show- an ideal that undermines the middle-class white/Asian feminist appeal of the show. I feel like the writers don’t know what they want and haven’t clearly thought through these characters or the point of the show. I feel their morals are unhinged and evident in their writing- after all, what makes SHIELD different from being a terrorist organization? What makes the “good guys” the “good guys” other than the fact they’re labelled the “good guys”? Why are abused or manipulated characters denied true second chances, or even counseling and rehabilitation? -I mean, wasn’t that the point of introducing May’s husband as a character?

    The point is that there seems to be no redemption or rehabilitation of antagonistic characters, especially the ones who were abused or manipulated into their crimes; many of these characters are POC. There seems to only be this flawed notion of black and white- but even then the distinction between what’s right and wrong on the show is grey. SHIELD can kill people and still be seen as heroes, after all that’s the whole point of specialists like May. However, if anyone else is doing the killing- even in self defense or out of manipulation they are immediately pegged as evil. It’s ridiculous!

    I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I can’t take AoS seriously as a show anymore. It’s hitting home tired tropes, recycling the same historic prejudices as western whites always have, promoting illogical counterterrorist dogma, with no real character development and a slue of random characters. I hope it gets cancelled.

  10. If Grant Ward had been portrayed by a POC actor, his ass would have been dead by the end of Season One and shuffled off screen.

Comments are closed.