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the heroes

Usually when I write these grad school entries, I bring a load of advice and try to take the therapeutic self-help approach. This time, though, I just wanted to share some exciting things about my thesis with you. Take what you will from it.

THESIS TITLE: “The Boy Behind the Mask” 

Research is a love-hate relationship. Not unlike weight-lifting. There’s lots of pain and slow but gradual gratification. I know it will be worth all that hard work, though, because at the end of my grad school career, I’ll have my very own book at Kresge Library.

For those who haven’t read the previous post, my thesis is going to be on the representations of masculinity in male-centered superhero shows, particularly the Marvel Netflix series Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Punisher. Yes, the latter isn’t out yet so considering how I’ve planned my themes according the first three, Frank Castle might introduce some fun challenges.

Those themes are going to be identity, family, embodiment (the male body), women’s roles and power… power in a Foucaultian sense; a blend of feminism and post-structuralism.


Found on tumblr (user: punishermygunmyhardandme).

Writing a thesis is no piece of cake: First you have to come up with a topic and/or research question or a number of questions. In my case, both happened at the same time after reading the introduction of Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century by Amanda D. Lotz (really awesome book, totally recommend it!).

Then you have to write a research proposal, where you need to show what you’re studying and why you’re studying it, how you’re going to do it and most important of all, which literature you’re going to rely on throughout the process (or analysis for me). The beautiful thing about the literature review is that it’s going to be part of the thesis itself.

So far, knock on wood, the research is going well. The lit review is kicking my ass, but I’m making progress on the four topics I have to cover before I can start my analysis: Definitions and key terms of masculinity, Netflix and the changing television industry, comic book adaptations, and feminist scholarship.

Once the proposal has been approved, I can start analyzing the text, AKA the four shows, which really is five whole seasons since Daredevil has two. Good thing I’ve already seen most of the material and got several ideas to work with.

Oh, and when you’ve done the actual thesis and gotten it reviewed by your adviser and a committee, it will be a bound book at the university library. I can even get it published if I pursue it! My own book in the stores, can you imagine.

hard at work

Karen Page (pre-journalism days) hard at work, Daredevil, s2/e5.

I will probably post the research proposal on my blog when it’s been OK’d. For now, I’m happy to share the introduction. It might get cut down a bit, so consider this a draft:

— Introduction 

It wasn’t the first time the blind, red-suited vigilante had entered the screen when Netflix released their own television series Marvel’s Daredevil, or simply Daredevil, in April 2015. The self-titled movie from 2003 had left a less than impressionable resonance with the mainstream audience. This time, however, something worked. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the online streaming service produced a show with 13 hour-long episodes that provided a gritty, realistic portrayal of a heroic figure that is well-established in the comic book genre. The story of Matt Murdock takes place shortly after the events in the blockbuster movie The Avengers, following the (superhero) tradition of independent characters sharing time and space in the same world. Through experimental, relation-oriented storytelling and a daring approach towards characters that have normally been ignored or neglected (female characters in particular), Daredevil became the prime example of what a superhero series should be. What has followed since then is a line of Marvel superhero shows on Netflix—Jessica Jones (November 2015), Luke Cage (September 2016), Iron Fist (March 2017), the team-up of the four heroes in The Defenders (August 2017), and The Punisher (which will be released this fall)—all of which bring their own host of relationships, values, themes and ideas.

One common thread between them is the new representation of men and masculinity, which within the Marvel Universe has created a shift in attitudes towards manhood, gender relations, and women’s roles. It is my intention with this research paper to explore and analyze the men’s portrayal—and consequently the women’s as well—in the male-centered shows: Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Punisher. The focus will be on the protagonists Matt, Luke Cage, Danny Rand and Frank Castle since the main plot revolves around their relationships, problems and goals. The reason why the analysis goes beyond them is because the showrunners display both the friends and villains connected to the hero’s journey in the same nature of empathy, care and attention to detail. There is a definite conflict between the protagonist and various antagonists and a lot of action, yet the story in all these Netflix dramas have a stronger emphasis on relationships. While characters are trading hands on a rooftop, the audience is aware of the people’s motives and what led up to that fight; perhaps it’s even uncertain whom the audience should root for. It’s like the New York Bulletin reporter Ben Urich once said, “My experience, there are no heroes, no villains. Just people with different agendas” (Daredevil, s1/e7, 2015). The difference between the good guys and the bad guys isn’t a sharp line in the sand, just like the nature of the gender roles. The female characters aren’t naturally love interests and/or victims. Instead the women are active participants in the story, with their own stakes, desires and fears. The fact that women such as Karen Page and Colleen Wing have their own hero’s journey to travel doesn’t emasculate the heroes, nor are their struggles and hopes displayed as less important than the one of the protagonists’.

In my literature review, I will explain how I plan to answer questions regarding the definition of masculinity, the background and understanding of comic book adaptations, Netflix and the changing television industry, and to some extent, how my findings contribute to feminist scholarship. (While the audience and fan engagement is a vital part to the comic book industry, for the sake of time, I’ve decided to leave it as a project for another day.) The most important questions to keep in mind are: How has superhero masculinity typically been constructed in other forms? How is comic book masculinity changing in relation to post-millennial masculinity? How is masculinity shaped by seriality, trans mediation and television seriality, and furthermore, what are the industrial and textual contexts that might help account for this shift? And how does this shift compare to the various reboots that characterize Marvel comic book culture? As for adaptation, I will go over how serialization has played into moving the comic book to the real-life screen, and whether there’s been a history of character development or character reboots. I won’t go into elaborate details on feminist scholarship, but I will consider the role of media in constructing ideas of gender. Regarding gender relations, I will define key terms in the study of media and masculinity, and identify the debates over the usefulness of the concept of hegemonic masculinity. These questions about masculinity and femininity will likely fall into all five themes during my analysis: How has the portrayal of the male superhero changed? How do the men in these shows display patriarchal and/or feminist masculinity? How do the showrunners use narrative elements to present the men, particularly the heroes we’re supposed to empathize with? How are the women portrayed? What are their relationship to the hero? How do they contribute or take away from the story? After my lit review, I will explain how certain themes fit into my broader theoretical and methodological issues. In conclusion, I will lay out the specific methods I plan to use in my textual analysis.

Within a critical and intersectional feminist framework, I’m going to examine the following five themes that can be found in the shows: Identity, family, embodiment, women’s roles and (as in a Foucaultian sense) power. My chapters will in fact be split into the themes as I perform a textual analysis with a focus on the narrative elements, and attempt to answer my questions. By intersectional feminism I am referring to the idea that feminism is concerned about gender beyond the limits of biological differences. Other social, economic, cultural and political factors contribute to different ideals about masculinity, all of which I will consider throughout the research. Michael Kimmel (2006) stated that before gender was visible to men—before masculinity became thought of as a gender and while it was still considered as the normal human experience—manhood was believed to be something innate in every male body, or a transcendent tangible property that each man manifests in the world. With the recognition that the manhood ideal isn’t a consciousness from men’s biological constitutions, but a cultural creation, it became apparent that masculinity means something different for every social group, every generation, meaning that there are several hegemonic masculinities. Some cultures may value manly stoicism or sexual prowess while others see the more emotional, familial man as an aspiring figure. Kimmel (2006) said, “Manhood means different things at different times to different people. […] What it means to be a man in America depends heavily on one’s class, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, region of the country” (p. 3-4). I will examine how such traits in the characters intersect in their lives, their idea of masculinity and how it shapes their behavior and attitudes. The idea of masculinity won’t be the same for African-American, ex-con yet well-read Luke Cage as it is for the younger, white American Danny Rand who was born into a rich family. However, even Danny, who was raised in a community immersed in Chinese culture starting at the age of ten, he will have different ideas of masculinity than Catholic, pro-bono lawyer Matt Murdock who has never been outside his hometown New York City, or middle class, U.S. Marine veteran Frank Castle who served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.