Plenty has already been said about heroes and anti-heroes. Superman was created over seventy-five years ago, and yet America today prefers its heroes to have a bit more grit, like Tony Stark. What’s undeniable is that a dichotomy exists between light heroes and dark heroes. It’s a way of looking at protagonists that has ancient roots, but manifests differently in male and female characters.
The light and dark dichotomy is very old and very ingrained in our storytelling traditions. On the surface, “light” stereotypes give the character traits that are traditionally associated with positive ideas and symbolism. More often than not these characters will wear white or light colors, have light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. “Dark” characters tend to have dark hair, skin, eyes, and clothing. This color dichotomy is associated with good and evil, for religious and historical reasons. If you don’t have electricity you can be more productive when the sun’s out, while it’s easier for robbers and rule-breakers to hide in the cover of night. White is associated with purity and goodness, especially in Christianity, while black is associated with evil and the consequences of evil (like sin and death).
While light heroes cling to a traditional morality, dark heroes have a more subversive attitude. There’s something bad or wrong or broken with a dark character, which is usually the source of their darkness. Men tend to be gallant, chivalrous heroes or troubled rogues, while women tend to be virginal maidens or seductive vamps. It’s taken generations to move beyond this rigid dichotomy, giving the light and dark new and interesting implications. But if we really care about smashing gender stereotypes, we need to move beyond the light and dark gender axis. Both Luke Cage and Jessica Jones from Marvel’s respective Netflix series take the light and dark dichotomies and smash them to bits.
Spoilers for all of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones below.
Light masculine and feminine utilize the most traditional ideas of goodness. Your light masculine man is going to be your typical gallant white knight: the lawful good on the alignment wheel. He’s self-sacrificing and kind, but not in a way that makes him seem feminine by those around him. They’re polite and chivalrous, because respect is important to them. The light feminine tends to be bubbly, sweet, and generally naive. She’s a paragon of purity—if not sexual purity, then moral purity. The best recent example of both a light masculine and feminine in the same story is probably Disney’s Cinderella from 2015. Both the Prince and Cinderella are kind, virtuous, and chivalrous. When both have problems, the universe conspires to make sure they aren’t sad for long (whether it take on the form of an understanding father or a fairy godmother). It’s a happy story with a happy ending. But it can also be really, really boring.
Enter the dark masculine and feminine. While the light is almost always a lawful good, the dark is not usually a chaotic evil. After all, we’re still talking about heroes, not villains. The dark masculine is the bad boy rogue with a heart of gold. The dark feminine is deep, brooding, introverted, and sometimes sexually predatory. Light characters experience adversity and it just seems to bounce right off; dark characters tend to have some kind of tragic backstory.
The terrible reality of having such a rigid white and black system of symbolism is that racism and sexism are inevitable. White males are the default heroes until someone proves otherwise, and white women are the default damsels (whose virginity is often implied to be the hero’s prize). Steve Rogers was created as the Aryan ideal to fight Nazis, but the fact that he’s a white, blonde man enforces his role as a light masculine character. His characterization still benefits from being white. Black men are the sidekick, the antihero, or just generally can’t be trusted. Black women are seductive, wild, and overly-sexual (if we get any Black female characters to begin with). Male characters usually benefit from the complexity (or lack thereof) of being part of the dichotomy. Male heroes tend to have dynamic motivations, and are treated like humans. Plenty of people have theorized about why today’s audiences prefer dark heroes like Iron Man over traditional white knights like Superman. Whichever category our male hero falls into, it usually adds complexity. Dark heroes get a tragic backstory or a complicated moral code. It’s much more interesting to watch a character struggle with conflict than everything coming up sunshine and daisies. Even light heroes are being cast in a new light. The White Knight, the stereotype in fiction and in real life where men swoop in to defend the honor of a woman as if she can’t do it on her own, isn’t a good thing.
However, female characters in the dichotomy become objects. Light feminine characters become prizes for worthy men (especially if said men are light heroes), and dark feminine characters are problems that need fixing by a male savior. The dichotomy essentially defines women by their relationship to men. Light female characters tend to be intellectually vapid or naive, while dark female characters are usually incredibly intelligent, cunning, or philosophical. Being naive or unintelligent is connected with being innocent, and thus sexually and morally pure. Dark female characters are more worldly and experienced, not objects to be won but problems to solve or conquer. A good example of both is the contrast between Raven and Starfire from the animated Teen Titans. Starfire is the light feminine: very bubbly, wears bright colors, and while she’s not stupid by any means, she has a warm and quirky personality. Raven, on the other hand, is dark and brooding, her magic is “black” (literally) but not evil, and she has a problematic relationship with a powerful evil man.
In Marvel’s Jessica Jones, both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage embody the dark feminine and masculine. Luke is Black, has a tragic backstory he doesn’t like to talk about, and does his own thing. He’s not a rule-breaker, but he doesn’t feel the same need the Avengers do to always get involved in crime-fighting and world-saving. Jessica has a tragic backstory that functions as her primary source of character development and plot. Cinderella’s story is about good people finding happiness together. Jessica Jones is about conquering her inner demons to save the world from more evil. While Luke Cage does a great job examining the issue of racism, when Luke appears in Jessica Jones we can’t ignore the fact that his race plays into our deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about “dark” characters. When we meet him in in Jessica Jones, Jessica is suspects that he is sleeping with a married woman. We learn that he’s a fugitive flying under the radar, superpowers and all. It’s only later, in Luke Cage, that we get to see race issues treated in a comprehensive way.
Jessica Jones gives us the light-dark female hero dichotomy through Jessica’s friendship with Trish Walker. We can tell that Trish’s mother tried to force her into the light hero stereotype when she was the child star “Patsy”. Trish is blonde and generally has her life together. She has a boyfriend, a steady job as a radio host, and a nice apartment. By all accounts Trish is the modern definition of the successful woman. Jessica has dark hair, a grungy apartment, is a loner, and seems to barely make ends meet with her private investigating business. When Jessica meets Luke, Luke doesn’t try to fix or save her. They have awesome superhero sex, but the narrative doesn’t shame them for it. In the end, Jessica alone is able to defeat Kilgrave. What happens isn’t even a true reversal: if that were the case, she’d defeat Kilgrave in order to save Luke. Instead, she does it to save Trish, uttering a platonic “I love you”, but more importantly to save herself and prove to herself that she’s no longer under Kilgrave’s control. This breaks her out of the most fundamental parts of the dichotomy trope; Jessica is a dark feminine character but is no longer defined by any relationship with a man. Neither women totally break out of their dichotomy trope, however. Trish is thoroughly damseled when she’s kidnapped and is rescued like light female heroes usually are. Jessica doesn’t get Luke as her snazzy boyfriend or become more virginal. She even keeps her drinking problem. In this, Jessica retains some of the darkness of her character while subverting the idea that women, whether they be dark or light, need to end their stories by being with a man. The series starts by showing us the light and dark dichotomy to establish our assumptions about who these characters are, but later breaks the dichotomy… selectively. You don’t need to be dark to be deep, men don’t need to save women, and women can defeat the villains themselves.
Luke Cage takes its title character further. We see how Luke isn’t really a true dark masculine character. He has a strong personal moral code that tends to be more traditional than most: he doesn’t swear, he confronts Black men when they use the N-word, and he treats women with respect. Luke becomes a hybrid of light and dark masculine traits, and therefore a more interesting and dynamic character. In fact, it seems like Luke is actually more of a light masculine hero. After Pop’s death he’s motivated to help all of Harlem, in big ways (taking on the big villains) and small ways (retrieving stolen items). The final scenes of Season 1 show Luke calmly agreeing to go back to prison, because the law says he still owes time on his sentence. If that’s not lawful good, I don’t know what is. Yet being lawful good isn’t the only requirement to be a light hero; they’re usually monogamous (either with a partner or “married to the job”) and self-sacrificial, too, and in Season 2 it’ll be interesting to see how his character continues to evolve, as well as how audiences respond to him.
While the hero dichotomy plays on old, deeply ingrained concepts of good and evil, today’s heroes show us how much better our stories can be when we break characters out of the confines of their stereotypes. We have to be especially careful when assigning physical characteristics that correspond to our cultural assumptions about good and evil. Otherwise, we perpetuate racist stereotypes. These stereotypes aren’t applied evenly between men and women, and also perpetuate rigid gender ideas about what is and is not acceptable for a man and woman to do or be. Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Luke Cage give us some really good examples of how to use the gender dichotomy, with its masculine, feminine, light, and dark categories, to create characters who aren’t bound by them.