I’m just going to start off with a big old SPOILER WARNING. More so than ever, Marvel’s churning out entertainment that packs in as many plot twists as punches. Like almost everything on the internet right now, this post concerns a little bit of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”; mostly, though, this piece is in response to last night’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” If you haven’t seen that movie and that TV episode and want to remain spoiler free, here’s an escape tunnel I dug with Fitz’s laser light hacksaw — I am a level 8 S.H.I.E.L.D. operative, after all.
Still here? Cool.
Before I start to get a critical, I’m going to acknowledge that what’s going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is awesome. Sure, I should try to come up with a better word than awesome, since that word is incredibly overused — at least I’m not using the term “amaze-balls” (uuuugh). A television series synching up with a big screen movie, with the former feeding off of the latter and working big developments into the ongoing narrative they’ve been telling for months? That’s more than awesome; it’s something I never thought I’d see, and it’s exactly what we hoped we’d get when “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” got the go-ahead last year. So anything I say for the rest of this piece, you gotta remember that Marvel’s storytelling efforts get a big ol’ thumbs up from me.
You know what else gets a big ol’ thumbs up from me? The representation in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” I’ve done a little research into this (research that could lead to a future Jam), and I can confidently say that “Cap: TWS” is the most diverse super hero film that’s ever been made. Of the movie’s six primary heroic leads, only one is a white dude. One. Remember how “Avengers” had five? Rounding out the cast are three women, all of whom are confident and capable, and two black men with drastically different personalities. No, there’s yet to be a single woman of color in the MCU outside of the small screen’s Skye and Agent May, but for a super hero movie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” scores big diversity points. That really gets a big ol’ thumbs up from me.
But all of the strides Marvel has taken towards giving women and some people of color meaty and important roles, there’s one area that’s becoming glaringly overlooked: the LGBT community. And in last night’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the one glimmer of hope queer comic book fans had for representation got a few bullets through the head — off-camera, of course. This is a primetime show on a major network!
As a gay man, Victoria Hand’s inclusion in the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” television show was a pretty exciting development. She was poised to become the first lesbian character in any Marvel adaptation — including Fox and Sony’s offerings. Hand also got introduced as a bad ass, take-charge S.H.I.E.L.D. officer, meaning that the revelation of her sexuality would be handled in the same way it was in the comics: it would be additional information provided to flesh out her character. Unfortunately, we never got that confirmation on television.
To the people that naysay representation, I have two things to explain. First, stop that — you’re helping out no one. Second, representation doesn’t mean what you think it means, at least not to me. I don’t care to see LGBT representation where every storyline revolves around them being the other to the rest of the cast’s default. Good representation looks like Andre Braugher’s no-nonsense gay police chief in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The show uses him being an out gay man serving in the NYPD in the early ’80s as a means to show how tough he is in the pilot episode, and from that point on, he mentions having a husband as much as any other married straight character mentions having a wife. He’s given more to do than just be a gay cop, and his romantic life is given the same amount of screen time as everyone else. That’s the role Hand should have filled on this “S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Representation for non-straight, non-cisgender individuals means that, as a baseline, we just want to be acknowledged as being alive. Viewers want to recognize themselves on television, and people struggling with their identity would greatly benefit from seeing a positive portrayal of an LGBT character on a super hero show. On a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” where diversity and representation for bisexual, lesbian, and trans characters of all ethnicities is the norm, every character is allowed to be defined by traits other than their sexuality or gender identity. That series shows that these types of characters can be more than just a sidekick, plot point, or joke. Now Victoria Hand is dead, and I bet a lot of lesbian fans of the show never even knew that the highest ranked S.H.I.E.L.D. officer we saw on the reg played for their team. It’s probably best if they never find out, too, because the dead lesbian trope is a rightfully reviled one.
To Marvel’s great credit, I’m only slightly saddened at the loss of a female character pulled from the comics. An alive Victoria Hand, one elevated to a series regular position where we might have gotten a glimpse into her personal life, does infinitely more for representation than a dead one. But even with Hand dead, the MCU still has Black Widow, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Melinda May, Jemma Simmons, and Skye representing for the female forces of good — and that’s just counting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Well, former agents, really. Compared to the men, most of whom have been revealed as traitors and killed, the women are faring a lot better. However big of a setback Hand’s death is for female representation, it torpedoes all the hopes I had for getting a gay character in the MCU — and one that’s treated seriously, not like Justin Hammer’s prison behavior in the “All Hail the King” one-shot. And I’m not arguing that gay characters should be exempt from bad things happening to them just because they’re gay. That’s not equality. That’s not fairness. But it’s also not fair or representative of the population and movie-going audience to have nine movies and seventeen episodes of television populated with hundreds of individuals and not have one notable lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans character.
The source material isn’t particularly helpful, as the Avengers are nowhere near as LGBT friendly as the Fox-owned X-Men. Fox isn’t doing anything with that, by the way, as the bisexual Mystique has yet to be shown as such onscreen. Of the characters Marvel could bring to life, Phyla-Vell and Moondragon weren’t included in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Karolina Dean and Xavin are part of the constantly languishing “Runaways,” and Living Lightning might be too minor of a character to get ever get adapted. Wiccan, Hulkling, Miss America, and a lot of other teen characters have come out of the closet, but Marvel’s live-action aspirations seem to be with the adult heroes. To make matters worse, none of those characters are non-magical trans humans (most trans characters in comics are such because of spells or because they’re an alien), which means that the MCU could actually outpace the source material should they include a trans person.
Marvel can fix this, though, and they have a solid track record with diversity that can only get better through branching out to the LGBT community. Phyla-Vell and Moondragon can show up in the cosmic films. Hercules can pop up in a “Thor” sequel or on Netflix’s “Defenders,” and he can be portrayed as bisexual. And so what if there are no trans individuals in the Marvel comics? There was no Phil Coulson, Darcy Lewis, or the entire cast of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” either. There isn’t one? Then make one. An ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist, a renegade Extremis patient, a visiting Norse god — if you’ve seen “Orange Is the New Black,” then you know Laverne Cox would kill in any of these roles. There are twenty-two hours of television a year that needs to be populated with characters; this can be fixed and I firmly believe that it will be fixed.
This being “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” I have a little bit of hope that Hand’s demise isn’t exactly what it seems to be. There are life model decoys and blue tube guys out there that can bring Agent Hand back into the fold just like they did Coulson and Skye. I really want this entire piece to be negated in a few episodes. I want to be embarrassed by my kneejerk response because there’s a fully realized, out lesbian Victoria Hand making tough calls and commanding strike units on television every week. Please, Marvel, embarrass me.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).