Luke Cage is the Most Feminist Show on TV

Spoiler warning: spoilers throughout. Best to read this after watching the whole season! Which I recommend!

It was during a small, nearly throwaway scene deep in episode 10 that it hit me like Jessica Jones’ fist: Luke Cage is the most feminist show I’ve ever seen.

The scene, captured in the screen grab above, features four women characters — four black women, not a one of them under the age of 30 (and none of the actresses under 35) — each of whom is in fundamental conflict with the others, but who come together in two temporary alliances to fight a multi-level battle. Yes, it’s complicated.

Misty Knight (Simone Missick, far left) is a main character, and the police detective tasked with figuring out if our hero Luke Cage is innocent or guilty of the various crimes he’s been accused of. Her task is complicated by the fact that she had a one-night stand with him early in the show. Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman, far right) is a secondary character, a police inspector (a sort of deputy chief), and a political rank-climber who would rather throw Cage to the wolves than fall afoul of her superiors.

Center right is, of course, Alfre Woodard, playing Mariah Dillard, another main character: a city councilwoman and citywide representative of Harlem’s best aspects, whose career is propped up by financial influxes from her crime-boss cousin, and whose cash flow was interrupted by Luke Cage. And to her immediate left is Cassandra Freeman as Patricia Wilson, mother of a young teen boy roughed up by the cops, who is about to complete her law degree, and who has an unrequited crush on Luke Cage.

Misty Knight, police detective

It almost doesn’t matter that they have met to discuss the police’s misconduct toward Patricia’s son. What matters is that each of these women is a leader in a variety of ways, and the complexity of the interaction, of the alliances and conflicts between and among the characters. This scene is some next level Bechdel shit, passing the test with flying colors because, although on the surface the women are all talking about two male characters — the son Lonnie Wilson and the protagonist Luke Cage — the entire interaction is primarily about two or three layers of subtext, none of which have anything to do with men.

Priscilla Ridley, police inspector

Misty and Priscilla, who earlier in the show were fighting over the direction of Misty’s investigation and whether or not they should scapegoat Luke Cage (subtext: fighting over Misty’s addiction to finding The Truth vs. Priscilla’s addiction to working her contacts, one of whom is Mariah, and climbing the ladder) have been thrown back on their heels by the combined fury of their fellow (largely white, male) police officers, who think Cage killed a cop and have been viciously stop-and-frisking young men all over Harlem in response (subtext: they’re both conflicted about whether they are more blue or black.)

Misty and Priscilla are thrown together into a temporary alliance (which lasts the remainder of the show) by the sudden, aggressive onslaught of Mariah and Patricia. Mariah is accompanying Patricia as her public representative, and the representative of the Harlem community currently being ravaged by the police, and the two are there to make their displeasure known. Mariah is using Lonnie Wilson as a symbol for this police action (subtext: Mariah is a suspect in a murder and a money laundering scheme and is being asked to step down as councilwoman, but leading a protest against police violence could up her political capital and save her reputation.)

Patricia Wilson, mother, lawyer, potential love interest

In any other tv show or film in the world, Patricia would be played for laughs in the first half of the show (a woman who wants a man who doesn’t want her? Hilarious!), and then either portray the brittle or the pathetic aspect of outraged motherhood in the second half. But in Luke Cage Patricia first acts as a foil to Luke’s inability to commit to a real life or community. Then she, small as her role is, represents nothing less than the embodiment of respectability politics in Harlem.

She is a young, single mother of a teenaged boy who has completed her education and is about to deploy that education for the good of her community. She has also raised a straight-A student son, for whom she has sought out the best father figures the community has to offer (Pop and Luke Cage), and actively sent him to interact with them. When she shows up at the police station, it is not as Mariah’s pawn, but entirely under her own power. The show offers her not the slightest hint of disrespect or spin.

“Black Mariah” Dillard, City Councilwoman, crime boss

And Mariah, a fascinating mixture of weakness and strength, nurturing and violence, is not only on the right side of the surface question (police violence against the Harlem community,) but has always and sincerely advocated for this position. Mariah genuinely believes herself to be seeking power equally for its own sake and for how it benefits her community. In fact, the action of the show represents the first time in her life these two goals have come into conflict for her and the choices she makes as a result nearly break her, as they reveal to her what her real goals are.

I’ve never seen a scene like this on tv. And I can’t remember ever seeing a scene like this in a film, either.

Remember, this is a show: 1) named for its male superhero protagonist, 2) whose action is set off by a robbery perpetrated by male characters against male characters, 3) whose protagonist is motivated by the murder of a male character/father figure, 4) whose primary and secondary antagonists are both male, and 5) whose primary antagonist has both severe daddy issues and brotherhood issues with the protag. In such a show, a single scene as the one described above would be extraordinary, but Luke Cage is utterly infused and interpenetrated (used advisedly) with such female characters, situations, and subtexts.

Claire Temple, nurse, genius

Aside from Misty (good guy) and Mariah (bad guy,) we also have Claire Temple as a main character. Claire is currently the primary connector among the three Marvel Netflix shows, but it is only in Luke Cage where Claire comes into her own as a character. Fans of character continuity will be disconcerted by Luke Cage’s Claire, who in Daredevil and Jessica Jones was a world-weary, anti-violence nurturer desperately conflicted about the role of vigilantes and unwilling to date one, but in Luke Cage is reborn as a bright-eyed superhero booster who emotionally and physically pushes Luke into a hero role, law and order be damned, all while throwing herself at him. (Tho’, let’s be honest, Daredevs can’t help but look kinda cray-cray, not to mention weedy, next to Luke Cage. How are they gonna manage that in the Defenders show?)

Also? Claire’s function as medic to the enhanced finally starts to take flight here. She is given the time and space finally to think and talk about what she wants to do with her life, and she clearly articulates what her role will be moving forward: fixing superheroes, supporting them. Her MacGyveresque ingenuity when dealing on the fly with weird medical issues is finally called out here for what it is: genius. Relegated to living rooms and dark corners of hospitals in DD and Jones, Claire finally gets to operate (literally) in a mad doctor’s private lab here, and we start to see her really spreading her medical wings. I can’t wait to see her setup in Iron Fist and The Defenders.

I should also mention five other essential female secondary characters:

Betty Audrey, police captain
  1. “Genghis” Connie Lin (Jade Wu), Luke’s hardass landlady, first superhero save, and foil for his flashbacks;
  2. Betty Audrey, the honest, supportive police captain whom Priscilla Ridley replaces, played by national treasure Sonja Sohn;
  3. Soledad, Claire Temple’s mother and the show’s female version of Pop, played by international treasure Sonia Braga;
  4. Luke’s dead, flashback, kept-her-own-name wife Reva Conners (Parisa Fitz-Henley,) who was an innocent victim in Jessica Jones and is revealed to be a very morally complex character in Luke Cage;
  5. and the dead crime boss Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson,) also seen only in flashbacks, but whose ghost casts the longest shadow in Harlem and whose balance between positive community influence and violent community corrupter paints the whole show in her color.
Soledad Temple, mother, community heart

Like I said, the show is positively littered with strong, complex female characters … of color. More than that: none of these characters actually need Luke to activate them. They’re all motoring along on their individual and interconnected arcs when Luke enters and distorts their fields. But they would still have essentially the same stories without Luke.

All of this — the strong female characters, the complex interactions among them, the arcs independent of the male protagonist — make this show already unique in television. But beyond even these, it’s the relationships between female and male characters in the show — realistic and aspirational, both — that make the show a real standout.

Hands down my favorite female/male relationship is the one between Mariah and Shades. Shades, the Platonic ideal of a gangster lieutenant, is sent by his boss, Diamondback (the primary antagonist of the show,) to assist Mariah’s cousin and partner, Cottonmouth (the secondary antagonist) and, it is hinted, prepare Cottonmouth to be subsumed into Diamondback’s operation. Shades, however, ends up replacing Cottonmouth as Mariah’s partner in crime, in one of Luke Cage‘s many light-and-dark, mirroring character moments.

Mama Mabel

Mariah, a tremendously complex character with an equally complex background, is introduced to us as one half of a crime/politics machine family, established by her long-dead grandmother, Mama Mabel, with the help of their uncle. The other half of the machine is of course Cottonmouth, whom Mama Mabel raised together with Mariah. Mama Mabel pushes Cottonmouth away from a musical career and into one of crime, while their uncle champions Cottonmouth, protecting him from the family’s violence and supporting his musical genius. Yet that same uncle sexually molests the young Mariah, and Mama Mabel sends her away — partly to protect her, and partly to establish her as the legitimate side of the family business.

Mariah and Cottonmouth

Thus, Mariah stands by as Mama Mabel forces Cottonmouth to murder his beloved uncle (for betraying Mama Mabel, not for molesting Mariah,) an act that breaks Cottonmouth permanently. This is the source of his ineptitude, his inability to fulfill his part of the partnership. Their complex and heartbreaking dynamic boils to a head in a devastating scene in which Cottonmouth (justifiably) calls out Mariah for failing to protect him and then (unjustifiably) accuses her of bringing her rape upon herself — and Mariah, in a passionate rage, brutally and bloodily murders him. It’s a testament to the the way the show commits fully to its own circumstances, that in that moment the audience is fully behind Mariah’s bloody act, even while sympathizing with Cottonmouth and cringing at the violence.

In this same moment Shades, who has been sincerely admiring Mariah from a bit of a distance, steps forward to praise and support her for an act that he reframes as one of strength and necessity, rather than one of rage and pain. Shades tells her what to do and cleans up for her, simultaneously proving himself the opposite of Cottonmouth (who made a mess for Mariah to clean up) and putting Mariah in his power, by keeping her murder weapon for possible future blackmail.

Mariah and Shades

Shades’ machinations are automatic for a character of his type, but what is unusual is his genuine respect for and desire to serve Mariah. And when, a few twists and episodes later, Shades offers Mariah her preserved murder weapon back as a gesture of fealty, I actually shivered with feeling. Shades is the smartest, coolest, most loyal gangster on the show, and his respect and support are really worth something. And underneath that is the fulfillment of a promise of true partnership that Mama Mabel made to Mariah but was unable to provide after breaking Cottonmouth’s spirit. There’s more pathos in Mariah’s relationship with Shades than in any other relationship in the show.

Misty and Scarfe

…With the possible exception of the relationship between Detective Misty Knight and her partner, the crooked cop Rafael Scarfe. The characterization of Misty, like that of the other good guys, is slightly flattened in Luke Cage, which follows Daredevil in saving its best characterization for the bad guys and the morally ambiguous guys in the middle. But Misty benefits tremendously from her association with the to-be-redeemed bad guy Scarfe, to whom she remains loyal even after his perfidy is uncovered.

Scarfe, on his side, despite lying to Misty for years while he works as an informant for Cottonmouth, never wavers in his respect, admiration, and support of her. Misty clarifies this after he’s definitively revealed to be dirty, and she doesn’t have to underline how hard it must be for a woman of color on the police force. We all know it, and Scarfe’s unequivocal support of Misty raises his stature in the eyes of the audience. The way Scarfe dies — running and hiding around Harlem under the care of Luke and Claire — amps up the pathos even more: it’s clear that he should have died in Misty’s platonic embrace.

Luke and Reva

The theme of strong men supporting strong women, like most of the characters and situations in Luke Cage, has its dark mirror as well. Most obviously in the partnership between Mama Mabel and the betraying, rapist uncle, who was a genuine partner to Mabel but, it was hinted, couldn’t stand to be second to anyone, much less a woman. But also, less obviously, in the relationship between Luke Cage and his dead wife, Reva.

They have a subject/object relationship from the beginning: overtly because she is the prison therapist who is shrinking his and his fellow inmates’ heads; but also covertly because Reva identifies Luke early on as a potential lab rat for her and the doctor’s experiments. Although the apparent betrayal is that Reva is dishonest about her interest in Luke, the subtext (again) of this betrayal is that Luke had always thought he was the hero of his own story and Reva the supportive helpmeet; yet he discovers that she had her own agenda, her own project, and was the heroine of her own story, in which Luke himself was the unwitting assistant. It is the upending of his role as hero that is the true betrayal Reva perpetrates.

The one false note in the feminism of Luke Cage is the light mirror that Luke’s relationship with Claire holds up to his relationship with Reva. Claire fulfills the role of helpmeet and pushes Luke into the role of hero and protagonist. Thus, although Claire is more fleshed out in Luke Cage than any other Marvel Netflix show, she’s also the one major female character who isn’t entirely here for herself. And it’s apparent in her isolation from the other female characters, the way she floats alone, a sort of lighthouse for Luke Cage in the sea of interconnected, complex women.

There’s a great deal more to be said about this amazing, frustrating, faulty, groundbreaking series, but I’ll leave it to others. Whatever you may think about the sloppy plotting, weird pacing, and completely failed depiction of Diamondback, there’s no denying that Luke Cage is and will be the most interesting show of 2016, nor that it raises the bar on women’s representation to unprecedented heights.

28 thoughts on “Luke Cage is the Most Feminist Show on TV

  1. I love Mariah. I could talk so much more about how things are not excuses or plot devices, but genuine parts of character and narrative. I’m already on my second viewing of the season because there’s so much to sort through. I really love this show – I know what other people are saying about some of the issues, pacing especially, but I just don’t care. It’s easily the best Marvel thing that’s happened, in the MCU or series.

    1. I hate Mariah. I hate crooked, corrupt politicians and cops for that matter. But, Alfre Woodward really put her foot in it as one of the most complex anti-heroines on TV. She’s smart, ambitious, sick, sexy, crooked, corrupt, crazy and disgusting all at once.

      I don’t have any issues with the pacing. I like how the showrunner took his time unfolding the story. Bravo!

      For once, we ain’t gettin’ all these FRIDGED UP women. Yes, Candice got fridged, but that was realistic given the context. You don’t even have to run a Bechdel test on this story.

  2. I LOL when I saw that scene in Club Paradise where the only White chicks you saw were playing club sides. There were Black chicks playing club sides, too but the one the show really focused on took pride in NOT being one of Cornell’s harem or a gangster moll even though she later allowed herself to be used as “patsy.”

    This is the FIRST show I have ever seen where a significant number of women of color have all the top, most complex and most powerful roles. I was further amused when we HEAR a mere voiceover/soundbite from radio host “TRISH TALK” about the vigilante Luke Cage, but Trish did not appear on the show…at least not to the point in the season where I got. I still have three episodes to binge.

    Yeah, these women are strong and powerful and I agree that this is one of the most feminist shows on “TV” period and I like it! Because I am a diehard feminist. Sonia Sohn was so good on LC, too and was sorry to see her get transferred out. Come back, Betty!

    Now, what would be even more down would be to see a full fledged female villain. Corrupt as all hell, Mariah Dillard tends to fulfill that role, but she waffles back and forth as the author said: from nurturing to violent and she’s as crooked as a boomerang. Wouldn’t it have been the sh_t if DiamondBack turned out to be Wilhelmina Stryker?

    1. Yes! This! I got a real kick out of loving and hating Mariah. She just resonated with me so much. And youre right, people forget about Candice, the tragic character who gets used by both the good and bad guys. I like it that the show doesn’t slut shame her, or claim that shes working as a hostess becasue she’s got daddy issues. She’s there to work. She’s there to make money, and there’s never any shame attached to her job at the club, and I liked that.

      I also liked the reporter that interviewed Mariah in that one episode. I liked that she started off the interview jovial and uncomplex, only to come hard about halfway through the interview. It really rattled mariah, and I thought that scenes was very well played.

      1. Poor Candice was just a babe in the woods. But, why is no one talkin’ about that serious vibe between Mariah and Shades? I mean what is up with that! LOL The tension is palpable between them but…..Hmmm.

        Yeah, that Timby chick was ambitious and lookin’ to move up in her industry tus the GOTCHA journalism. LOL I was thinking to myself how could Mariah be hangin’ with criminals and no media outlet ever connected those dots until…Timby (sp).

  3. I’ve noticed anti heroes are more well received than the can do no wrong character. It’s so refreshing to see multi faceted female characters especially female characters of color who are people in their own right than stereotypical caricatures. And this coming from a show where the protagonist is a man motivated by the senseless murder of his father figure/best friend.

    Mariah is one hell of a villain, I can’t help but love villains like this who like to justify wrongdoing for the ”greater good’; but in the end it’s for themselves and themselves only. Alfre knocks it out of the park yet again!

    Matt you have to remember is not the most sound of mind and his strength is in speed not physical strength, I mean I loved how he did back flips of buildings while chasing a car. But my guess Luke would be a better leader of the Defenders because he’s more of a people person than Matt is who is more of a lone wolf.

    I’m a Matt/Claire shipper all the way……

    1. I prefer heroes, not anti-heroes. A hero doesn’t have to be a choir boy or girl.

  4. I view Mariah as more of an anti-hero than a straight up villain because even though she’s crooked and manipulative as all hell her heart starts in the right place and her intentions begin beneficent, but she always zags when she shoulda zigged. Mariah wants to help her people but that self-servingness just gets in the way. Also, I think Mariah was a sexual abuse victim, which is no excuse for her behavior but it might explain some of her issues with men.

    Now Diamond head is a straight up villain who brings all kinds of crazy. LOL He’s interesting to watch.

    But, I gotta say, LUKE CAGE the streaming show has gotta be one of the most unrelenting;y violent shows on TV. POWW!

      1. I think Misty Knight and Danny Rand are a couple in the comics, I wonder if they will touch upon that in Iron Fist although perhaps he might be an item with Colleen Wing.

  5. Misty Knight was with Danny Rand in the comics. I am not big on Iron Fist for cultural reasons and will not watch, but go ahead Simone Missick.

    1. The whole Danny remaining white thing…I can see how that offend some people although in my opinion I would have made Danny a biracial Asian/European born in New York City where his parents met. His father I would see as Charles Dance because come on Dance radiates a powerful presence on screen and mother Michelle Yeoh…but alas.

      1. ^Biracial!Danny would have been ideal. Like, not only would that both fix the cultural appropriation issue but still be able to explore the issues of not fitting in once inside K’un-Lun, but it would also add an extra layer of subtext with him being literally of two different worlds with equal connection to both and the internal conflict of identity, which is what they’re going for but eliminating the action asian aspect.

        Biracial!Danny is what they should have gone with. But, alas, online racists and idiots prevailed.

  6. yes the women really were the backbone of this show just like they are the backbone of our community. loved the depiction of every woman on here and LOVED that misty wasnt a sidekick but a leading co-star to luke. i worship at her altar all day. LOVE MISTY KNIGHT AND MISS SIMONE MISSICK!

  7. Misty Knight is a complex character and I appreciate that and she knows how to play the Dozens! LOL

  8. ”^Biracial!Danny would have been ideal. Like, not only would that both fix the cultural appropriation issue but still be able to explore the issues of not fitting in once inside K’un-Lun, but it would also add an extra layer of subtext with him being literally of two different worlds with equal connection to both and the internal conflict of identity, which is what they’re going for but eliminating the action asian aspect”

    As a multiracial person myself it always fascinates me, characters caught between two worlds like Spock, Deanna Troi and even Worf who was raised by humans and tried to be more Klingon as he grew older and finally accepting both aspects of his upbringing. But I’m an optimist sounds like the producers are holding out olive branches with the diversity casting and if written right it could be a whole ”stranger in strange land” type of thing. But we’ll see.

  9. Wow. I am, in this moment, experiencing Ms. Light’s revelations on some deeper rabbit-hole level. Here I was, minding my own business, binge-watching season 1 of Luke Cage (a pop-culture TV show based on a Marvel comic series, distributed by a DVD rental website) only after having been unexpectedly charmed by its sibling comic-book show, Daredevil…

    As the episodes rolled on, I began to feel a sense of overwhelm at the sheer scale and scope of powerful female characters (and actors) of color that I had to keep track of. So naturally, I compulsively opened Google and typed in new character ‘Patricia Ridley’ to figure out what she was all about … and landed here.

    Paragraph after paragraph I was drawn in, as eventually it dawned on me: This IS the most feminist show I’ve seen on television. Claire Light, thank you. You are a brilliant and hilarious (read that deeply entertaining) writer. Your insights are spot on. Moreover, your commentary reminded me to occasionally curb my aging feminist cynicism, so that I may be inspired and uplifted by mundane acts which may, in some small way, carry the seeds of social change.

    And most importantly, you made me giggle, at a time when I needed a laugh.

    I guess we should also thank Netflix for creating such bold new entertainment options.

    Press play to resume binge…

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