Women of Color in Marvel Live Action Properties is an essay series that will look closely at the portrayals of female characters of color by actresses of color in Marvel’s various franchises. I was inspired by the fact that a lot of these female characters don’t get anywhere as much love as white female characters in similar roles and that we’re not as likely to see fandom analyze why they’re empowering. They don’t get meta-fandom or essays unless it’s about placing them in relation to white characters. I want to celebrate the women of color that inhabit the same worlds as our favorite superheroes while looking at how and why they’re important to fans like me.
Alexandra Reid: Her name was Elektra Natchios. You are not her. You are much more than she ever was. There was a man. They call him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. And in this other life, he let Elektra die.
Defenders Season 1, Episode 6 “Ashes, Ashes”
Elektra Natchios deserves better than Daredevil – the show and the character.
Introduced in Daredevil’s second season episode “Kinbaku”, Elektra is an old flame come back to burn Matt Murdoch, appearing in his apartment under the pretense of asking for a favor from the man she once cared about. Elektra is a morally grey character, a complex figure who disrupts Matt’s life just by existing.
She’s also a survivor of childhood abuse that includes neglect, manipulation, and violence from a parental figure, something that she has not been allowed to cope with. Elektra’s mistreatment by Stick, a man who serves as an abusive pseudo father figure for both her and Matt, is a significant element in the latter half of Elektra’s appearances in Daredevil and yet his abuse’s effect on her relationship and mental health are largely glossed over.
Her complexities as a character who has survived horrible mistreatment and who has been shaped into and used as a tool by two different sides in a war largely wind up not getting their fair share of attention in plots dominated first by Matt Murdoch alone and then the entire crew of the Defenders.
For this essay, I’m going to talk about Elektra as a complex anti-hero, one whose status as a survivor shapes her characterization and her approach to relationships.
First, I want to talk about how Elektra is more than a “Draco Malfoy in leather pants”.
TV Tropes describes this trope as a form of “misaimed fandom when a fandom takes a controversial or downright villainous character, and downplays his/her flaws, often turning him/her into an object of desire and/or a victim in the process”. Draco Malfoy, a character known for the fact that he’s an in-series racist that is actively hostile to Harry Potter, is the most famous example of what transformative fandom tends to call “woobification”, but there are others.
So many others.
Western nerd fandoms are full of characters that a majority in fandom somehow winds up deciding is really “not that bad” despite things like murder, fascism, rape, or attempted genocide. Even when the characters show no sign of regret for their actions, the characters’ violent behavior is mitigated or minimized by fandom or the canon they exist in, blaming their behavior on fandom-created headcanons centering abuse or mental illnesses.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone has Loki and Grant Ward, two characters whose awful actions are frequently attributed to not being loved enough by their families despite the fact that most people who deal with childhood trauma don’t go on to… try and kill people. Kylo Ren and Armitage Hux in the Star Wars’ fandom are woobified to a high degree, where their work for a fascist organization is attributed to how little they supposedly loved as children and where the fandom and media alike bends over backwards to excuse their behavior based on how attracted they find these men.
Elektra doesn’t get sympathy from Daredevil or its fandom.
It’s strange to me because all of the pieces are there. Elektra should be prime woobification material: when simplified, the trauma in her past and a childhood of being abused led to her becoming a vigilante that murders people. She’s sad and makes bad decisions and yes, she does look downright gorgeous in leather pants.
But who’s the woobie in Daredevil Season 2? Who’s the character we’re asked to empathize with despite the fact that they’re definitely a mass murderer?
The Punisher, another anti-hero introduced in the series’ second season, who has “good reasons” for the violence that he commits. He’s the one that gets the sympathetic spin and his own show while Elektra is… literally manipulated and turned into a tool and written off by the same people that think the Punisher is absolutely correct in his one man war against crime and the folks that killed his family.
For much of Daredevil Season 2, Elektra isn’t framed as a sympathetic figure. Somehow, despite Matt Murdock being a grown man who can and does call out her attempts at manipulating him, she’s portrayed as being a bad-influence.
You know, because they’re both apparently children.
I’m not saying that Elektra deserves forgiveness for everything that she does across her appearances in the MCU, but that out of all of the characters that were brainwashed, manipulated, or forced into murder and manipulation in that franchise… She’s the one character I see constantly put down for it by the narrative and fandom alike.
There are people who identify as “anti Elektra”. They talk about how toxic she is, using interchangeable ableist or misogynistic slurs to tear the character down for actions she undertook as a direct result of being brainwashed in The Defenders. They blame her for Matt being a bad friend to Foggy and Karen and for “driving them away”. They blame her for Stick using her to try and bring Matt over to the Chaste – by having him kill the man that killed his dad back when he was a child… somehow.
Why doesn’t Elektra get half as much sympathy as Bucky Barnes or Frank Castle? Why isn’t she accepted as a vulnerable, complex “villain turned anti-hero” the way that fandom does Loki?
Of course, part of the answer is that those three characters are all white men and that Elodie Yung’s Elektra is a woman of color that gets a plot that is honestly more typical to a white guy. Elektra, in Daredevil, is an Asian woman (the series leaves her ethnicity ambiguous, but Yung is French and Cambodian) and she has a plot and personality that blends those belonging to all three of the aforementioned anti-heroes.
Like Bucky, Elektra is brainwashed into serving a purpose that she wouldn’t otherwise have consented to. Not only did the Hand brainwash Elektra in Defenders, but the Chaste and Stick absolutely brainwashed her into believing that she had to live and behave a certain way. They literally trained her to kill.
Why do that if you fear a character’s potential for violence… unless you want to use them as a tool later on?
Like Frank, Elektra kills for “a good reason” but also… clearly enjoys a significant amount of the violence she carries out.
Fandom loves Loki. Seriously. Loki is beyond beloved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom and it’s to a point where many of his super fans or stans can’t imagine that he’s actually a villain. You know, despite the fact that he’s definitely well… evil.
The MCU fandom has been making excuses for Loki from the second Tom Hiddleston showed up in Thor back in 2011. They made up all of these claims (that he was abused by Odin and Thor, that he was isolated from other Asgardians who mistreated him, that he was always aware of his Otherness) to excuse the fact that Loki was literally responsible for trying to kill Thor in the first film, attempting to kill the Jotun (the entire race) at the end of that movie, and for trying to subjugate the entire human race in the Avengers.
To entire swathes of fandom, Loki is literally rewritten as a snarky-sweet misunderstood abuse survivor that was forced into his actions (by Thor/Odin’s neglect, by the Tessaract, by Thanos) and cannot possibly be responsible for his actions.
Elektra was taken by the Chaste as a young child, trained in combat and treated like a tool from a very young age because they feared her becoming a Black Sky, a powerful figure that could potentially become the Hand’s leader. (Another potential Black Sky, a young child seen in Daredevil’s season one episode “Stick”, is assassinated by the titular character.) Straight up, they treated her the way that many people treat feral animals because they thought she was ticking timebomb.
In one flashback in Daredevil season 2, a member of the Chaste, a man who later attempts to kill her, dehumanizes Elektra by referring to her as an “it” while in her presence and talks about putting her down as if she was a pitbull in Miami. Because it was better to treat her as a soldier or a potential weapon for an impending war than to actually treat her like a child…
Young Elektra: You said we’re going to war.
Stick: We are. And there’ll be a time and place for you to turn yourself loose. But right now, the last thing you want is for everybody here to be scared shitless of you. Tame that fire… or they’ll tame it for you.
— Daredevil Season 2, Episode 12 “The Dark at the End of the Tunnel”
Stick may have cared for Elektra in his own twisted way, but on what level does that excuse the abusive aspect behind kidnapping a child and raising them specifically to kill other people? I saw someone call Elektra the “epitome of a spoiled brat” while researching fan reactions to Elektra and it’s been bothering me the entire time that I worked on this piece.
Of course, after her childhood with Stick, Elektra was adopted by a wealthy family that undoubtedly were allied with the Chaste. I guess that’s where they get the “spoiled brat” comparisons from, because she appears to live in a life of luxury and that somehow negates the fact that she spent a huge chunk of her childhood being trained to fight and kill (with the threat of being executed hanging overhead) for a war that she knew nothing about – and then she doesn’t even have freedom in her adulthood as she is kind of forever attached to the Chaste.
I guess, we’re supposed to assume that Elektra’s superficial class and social power gives her privilege and that said privilege makes her incapable of the same relatability that other characters get, but I can’t get over that one flashback in episode twelve.
Elektra is a tween (no older than maybe 14) and mid-sparring session, one of the grown-ass men she’s fighting with, blows a kiss in her direction. It disorients her so badly that she gets punched in the face. Her response is to lash out against the man that blew the kiss, the moment that she gets a chance: clearly, something about the kiss upset her more than how it led to her being punched in the face. He later tries to kill Elektra most likely due to her humiliating him by nearly killing him during their sparring session.
That scene is… a lot.
(Fun fact, Elektra doesn’t actually kill people “for fun”. Throughout Daredevil Season 2, Elektra’s kills are people the Chaste tell her to kill or people trying to kill her. She may have fun doing it, but like the other killers that fandom keeps making excuses for… Elektra also has a “good” reason for what she does.)
Unfortunately, the response to Elektra’s backstory is a resounding “Cool story. Still murder,” which always ignores the fact that her status as a survivor isn’t properly addressed in either of the two series that she’s in and that her status as a survivor – of abuse and manipulation – should garner more sympathy from the fandom and from the media she’s in than it actually gets considering what happens to her.
In the last few episodes of Daredevil’s second season, Elektra goes through several incredibly traumatizing things in a pretty short space of time:
- She chooses Matt’s path over that of her father figure Stick’s and has him walk out on her as a result
- She finds out that Stick has ordered other members of the Chaste to hunt her down and kill her (Betrayal #1)
- Matt then not only stops her from killing Stick, but forces her to save his life (Betrayal #2)
- She winds up being mortally wounded and “dies” from her injuries.
It’s easy to write Elektra off if you the treat her the way that an unfortunately large portion of fandom does: the way that they should treat white male villains.
However, Elektra is a complex character whose seeming superpowers – both pre- and post- her rebirth as the Black Sky — are clearly survival and adaptability. She survived the Chaste, she survived upper class society as a woman of color, she survived the Hand. She’s a character who has literally been through hell and has been used as a weapon her entire life. The experiences that have shaped her as a character influence the relationships that she has in her appearances. They influence her defense mechanisms (like when she tells Matt that the one condition for them working together again is “no sex”) and her sense of humor.
The Defenders series does a better job at humanizing Elektra, at reminding audience and Daredevil alike that she’s only human. However, they do it while also having the character brainwashed by the Hand and repeatedly referred to with more of the same dehumanizing language that the Chaste used towards her in Daredevil.
There’s a scene in the fifth episode where Elektra – still as the Black Sky – finds her way to Matt’s apartment. She doesn’t’ remember anything, but she gravitates towards Matt’s bed and the comfort of the apartment. She dreams of him. It’s one of the most tender and heart-breaking scenes that she’s had (outside of her death scene, to be fair).
Defenders also sees Elektra gain the most power she’s had between the two series she’s been in. At first, Elektra is kind of in the same position that she’s been in since Daredevil, under the thumb of an organization that’s brainwashed her. (There are also kind of creepy vibes where she gets a white mother figure in Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra Reid who feels kind of like a parallel to Stick, but let’s put a pin in that.)
However, by the end of episode six (out of eight to be fair) Elektra has regained her sense of self and the personhood that both the Hand and the Chaste denied her. She’s also gained control of the Hand. She’s not a weapon or a tool to be wielded by battling organizations, she’s a power in her own right.
Unfortunately, Elektra’s grasp at power doesn’t last for long. Defenders ends with Elektra and Matt buried underground and presumed dead. I highly doubt that it means either one of them is permanently out of the picture. I’m hoping, that whatever come next will see Elektra getting to take a strong role as a leading character that walks the line between good and evil. I keep calling Elektra complex and she is – she just needs more examples to shine and a show of her own.
I don’t think that the MCU – or its fandom – understand the potential that Elektra has to be a seriously powerful figure in the franchise.
Elektra has similar plot and personality notes to some of fandom’s favorite anti-heroes and yet somehow… she’s not seen as an A-lister just as worthy of fandom meta and essays as they are?
Here’s hoping that when Daredevil season 3 comes out, that Elektra gets the screentime she deserves and a brilliant arc!
Elektra: Behind that door is the true power of the Hand.
Danny: And you expect me to open it for you? I swore an oath to my masters to protect K’un-Lun and destroy the Hand.
Elektra: I also had masters. But I’m free now. And you can be as well.