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Daredevil season 2 and the fear of a powerful woman named Elektra

Elektra in Daredevil.
Elektra in Daredevil.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Spoiler alert: There are major spoilers about the plot of Daredevil's second season here.

When Frank Miller — the writer of The Dark Knight Returns and the man behind the neo-noir Daredevil comic book run we're seeing play out in the second season of Marvel's Daredevil Netflix series — was asked about Elektra's appearance in the latter, he acted like someone ate his lunch.

"They can call it whatever you want, but it will not be the real Elektra," he said at a Brazilian comic book show in December 2015. "I’m her father."

His creepy, defensive reaction wasn't surprising; Miller is an enigmatic and divisive figure in the comic world. There are years' worth of (solid) critiques that his work, as revolutionary and influential as it was in its day, is drenched in sexism. And Miller is protective of the characters he's penned.

So now that we've seen all of Daredevil's second season, there's a natural desire to try to decipher what he meant. To try to figure out what Miller wanted in his version of Elektra, and to compare it with what we've seen in the 13 episodes of season two — while keeping in mind that what Miller thinks is good for Elektra might not be in her best interests. After all, Miller treated the character callously, killing her off as a way to further Matt Murdock's plot.

The Elektra of Netflix's Daredevil, the one Miller won't even acknowledge, is a glamorous antihero who, in the hands of actress Elodie Yung, slinks off with the second half of season two. And though she fared better on television than she did in Miller's initial run with the character in the comics, her presence opens up a conversation about Daredevil's world and the place of powerful women in it.

What does it mean to "fridge" someone — and how does the term apply to Elektra?

It's impossible to talk about Elektra and other powerful women in comic books without discussing the concept of "fridging."

The term refers to a trope known as "women in refrigerators," describing any situation in which female comic book characters are injured, maimed, or killed for the sole reason of causing anguish to someone else, usually a male hero. The trope, which trended during the '80s and '90s, gets its name from 1994's Green Lantern No. 54, in which Green Lantern returns to his home and finds his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, stuffed into his refrigerator like a gigantic cold cut:

Green Lantern No. 54. (DC)

Comic book deaths can happen to anyone. Famous heroes are just as fair game as low-profile ones, and men as well as women — both good and evil — can die. Wolverine, Superman, and Peter Parker have all died comic book deaths. But what the trope refers to is how women specifically were (and still are) used in plots where their deaths are little more than devices intended to motivate a male protagonist or superhero.

The most egregious example of fridging is widely considered to be The Killing Joke's treatment of Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl. In that iconic comic, she is sexually abused and injured to psychologically torment both Batman and her father. And there's more focus on what the exploitation of her does to them than on how it ruins her life.

Unlike their male counterparts, many of these female characters who get fridged don't just get back up and recover from their injuries as if nothing ever happened. (Indeed, some of them die.) Gordon's paralytic injuries in The Killing Joke became canon, even though Alan Moore, the book's writer, later came out and said the story was inconsiderate and ill-conceived.

While Wolverine, Superman, and Peter Parker (among many others) die valiant deaths or sacrifice themselves for the good of the world, characters like Gordon, or Green Lantern's girlfriend Alex DeWitt, or even Daredevil's Karen Page (who becomes a heroin-addicted porn star in Miller's original story) become emotional ammunition.

The trend was so rampant in the '80s and '90s that in 1999, comic book writer Gail Simone compiled a list of female characters who were killed, maimed, injured, or depowered to further a male character's plot. It so happens that Miller's Elektra, as well as her fellow Daredevil character Page, made the list.

Miller's Elektra is introduced in Daredevil No. 168, by way of a flashy street fight. She's a mysterious female ninja, draped in red ribbons. But you quickly forget the lack of logic in her costume and just want to give Miller a hug for the phrase, "Hears the splintering of bone as it [Elektra's sai] smashes an unprotected jaw":

Daredevil No. 168. (Marvel)

From there, Elektra's arc is a lot like what we see on the TV show — we find out via flashback that this glamorous, stunning woman is as tough as an overcooked ribeye. She and Murdock begin a love affair and eventually go their separate ways. She becomes a bounty hunter at one point:

Daredevil No. 168. (Marvel)

But a mere 13 issues after Elektra's debut, in Daredevil No. 181, a marksman villain named Bullseye bests her in battle and stabs her with one of her own sais. They both want to be Kingpin's best assassin, so they fight to the death. And before she dies, Elektra makes her way to Murdock's house and into his arms:

Daredevil No. 181. (Marvel)

It's a heartbreaking moment for Elektra fans. But as Polygon's Susana Polo points out, Elektra's story is standard Miller. She argues that his female characters often fall into two categories, victims or sex workers, and that Elektra became the former because she's Murdock's love interest.

"She's brought into an iconic story arc about a male character in order to take the brunt of a terrible act of violence," Polo writes, explaining that someone other than Miller needed to write Elektra to do her justice. "And other writers will work for decades to reclaim her agency and humanity in her universe."

This idea of Murdock being Elektra's savior is furthered by her eventual resurrection, which comes nine issues later, in No. 190. The Hand is attempting to revive her, and Murdock does something to purge her soul of its evil and bring her back to life. But by doing this, he's all but ensured that they will never ever be together:

Daredevil No. 190. (Marvel)

In Miller's eyes, Daredevil and Elektra are soul mates who complete each other. They're so immaculately perfect for each other that they can't be together in Miller's world of darkness, flaws, and noir. And their compatibility has always rested in Murdock representing the good in her, while she, like a lot of "fridged" women, represents his weakness.

The Elektra of Marvel and Netflix's Daredevil TV series has a lot more agency

Daredevil (Marvel)

Daredevil. (Marvel)

On television, Elektra is ahead of her source character in the Daredevil comics, as far as stereotypes are concerned. This is evident in smaller details, like her costume getting a makeover. She's more covered up from head to toe — she wears a cowl or mask that covers her mouth, and doesn't bare as much skin — and she doesn't don ribbons and call them a costume.

On a larger scale, the show also gives her a massive, albeit somewhat underwritten, backstory as "the Black Sky." She's supposed to be "the Black Sky," the ultimate weapon of the Hand, an ancient evil organization that has the power to raise the dead and an army of ninjas at its will. She is the weapon that will give them the ultimate power needed to take over the world.

It's unclear how everyone knows she's Black Sky, but just the fact that she carries that kind of status is infinitely cooler than being the second-best assassin behind Bullseye.

Daredevil (Marvel)

Daredevil. (Marvel)

But more pertinent is how the show handles her death. Elektra goes into the final battle of season two knowing that she might die, and dives into it with Murdock as her partner. Her death is a sacrifice. She dies thinking she's saved the world, that she's saved Murdock from both evil and herself. While she still takes her final breath in his arms, her death doesn't feel like a shopworn trope primarily used to make a man feel things. (To be clear, though I think her death is handled better on the show, the editing of that episode made it feel like plot device to get Karen and Matt back together.)

You start to see how this Elektra, in all her agency and her power, is something that runs parallel to what Miller created.

It isn't safe for women to be powerful in Daredevil's world

While watching Daredevil season two, I kept thinking about two pertinent quotes — one by Elektra and one by Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Both come at the end of the season.

"You'd rather see me die than outgrow you," Elektra tells Stick and Murdock, referring to her training and obliquely touching on how both men want to control her and her destiny.

Karen's quote goes hand in hand with Elektra's.

"You’d never pull this patriarchal shit with Ben," she tells her editor, Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), after he assigns her police protection as she investigates the Punisher's case at her apartment.

"You're right. And I'll never make that mistake again. Not about someone I care about," he replies.

"Okay," she says.

Even though Elektra and Karen are very different women, Daredevil has them both dealing with the patriarchy and patriarchal figures. They're both aware of it and feel stifled by it. They live in a world where violence has nullified all sense of justice and civil obedience, but the patriarchy still exists — and is perhaps stronger than ever. Whether it's police protection for Karen or Stick's controlling training methods for Elektra or Murdock telling Elektra that she doesn't need to kill, the patriarchy is painted as a nuisance, but a necessary one.

Both exchanges get at one of Daredevil's worldviews: that the lawlessness of this world has made the patriarchy seem safe. Karen needs to trust the patriarchy because it will help her avoid getting hurt or killed, while Stick and Murdock are guiding figures in Elektra's life.

But all those elements that the two women are told to believe in ultimately fail.

It's a riveting idea to kick around, if only because superhero stories allow us to explore or excuse ideas like authoritarianism and vigilantism in a way that's difficult to justify in real life. In the case of Daredevil, the show delves into patriarchy and how women are supposed to protect themselves in this world of lawlessness.

But there's something else here too that haunts the second season: Elektra isn't the only powerful woman to die.

District Attorney Samantha Reyes (Michelle Hurd), who appeared on Jessica Jones, is introduced in Daredevil season two as a cutthroat, corrupt attorney with her eye on the mayor's office. Reyes acts in her own best interests — circumventing the justice system and legal promises to get ahead in this world (see: how she doesn't save Grotto and instead uses him as Punisher bait). And just as she's confronted, confesses her sins, talks about her daughter, and gives Murdock and Foggy Nelson the information they need, she's gunned down.

Ultimately, Hell's Kitchen is not a great place to be a living, powerful woman.

Reyes and Elektra's deaths are two of the biggest moments of Daredevil's second season. And unfortunately, their deaths become the most interesting parts of their stories and their contribution to the season's bigger arc. Meanwhile, two other strong women in Hell's Kitchen, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) and Wilson Fisk's love interest Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) have gone into hiding because their crime empires have crumbled. In contrast, Claire (Rosario Dawson) and Karen, who don't wield as much power as the aforementioned women, live safer, more protected lives.

It's hard to tell if Daredevil's treatment of its powerful women is a coincidence or a bigger worldview that the show wants to present. Thematically, the first season felt much tighter and coherent, while season two, though filled with more action and plot, is looser and less purposeful in telling bigger stories about justice, authoritarianism, religion, and vigilantism.

If it is on purpose, and Daredevil does want to make the point that its hyper-lawless world is especially punishing for women in power, it might be accidentally bolstering some shopworn stereotypes, the kind that aren't very far removed from the women in refrigerators. It's a narrow view: that women are either doomed Elektras and Reyeses or enduring Karens and Claires.

In contrast, though the men of Daredevil are also risking death, they're treated slightly better, and are allowed to populate a middle ground that's seemingly off limits to the women. Fisk is allowed to keep his power. The Punisher is allowed to murder people because of his lost family. Murdock is allowed to make mistakes while being a hero. And Foggy Nelson is rewarded for his hard work and integrity in a way that Claire (and, to some extent, Karen) isn't.

Whether intentional or accidental, it's fascinating to see the gender dynamics of this world called out by the show, especially when contrasted with Miller's source material. There's been a conscious effort to buck what the comics have spelled out for most of these female characters, to give them more autonomy, and to give them better endings that don't involve the inside of a refrigerator. But there are times when that effort hasn't always been successful.