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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.

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