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For Luke Cage, women will always be the second sex

The Netflix show is brimming with interesting female characters. Too bad its hero can never fully appreciate them

This article discusses plot details of the second season of Luke Cage.

Being in a relationship with a superhero must be a bit like being in a relationship with a president of the United States: You’re always subject to an intensely unequal power differential.

After all, he’s (45 in and they’ve all been “he”) got nukes and you’ve got — well, whatever you’ve got, it ain’t nukes. You have a reasonable expectation of spousal benevolence but not a guarantee, as Pat Nixon may have known all too well. Such is the worrisome state of things for Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), girlfriend to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the super strong, practically indestructible bulletproof hero of Harlem. Claire’s role in the second season of Luke Cage, which premieres on Netflix on Friday, feels like a cautionary tale straight out of The Second Sex.

We know Claire as the hypercapable, unflappable nurse to Marvel’s Defenders. She doesn’t bristle at the sight of bone or blood. She keeps her head in tenuous situations, and she’s earned the grudging respect of the New York Police Department’s Misty Knight (Simone Missick) by saving her life during a violent night at Harlem’s Paradise, the epicenter of activity for Luke Cage. What’s more, she’s convinced Misty that Luke is not a murderous vigilante but rather a good guy who was set up by Harlem’s Paradise proprietor Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) to take the fall for the season one murder of her cousin Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali).

When Luke is felled by a Judas bullet (a piece of exploding ammo developed specifically to pierce Luke’s bulletproof exterior), Claire oversees his recovery and excavates the shrapnel in his chest. Dunked in the same raging bath of chemicals that made him bulletproof in the first place, Luke emerges even stronger than before, rendering Judas bullets just as useless as conventional ones. But after that concentrated hit of superhero steroids, Luke has developed quite an ego. Claire finds herself reminding Luke that she has no interest in being his woman. She wants a partnership.

Unfortunately, she wants a partnership with the man who holds the nukes.

In an essay entitled The Woman in Love, which was published in 1949 as part of The Second Sex, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote:

Men have found it possible to be passionate lovers at certain times in their lives, but there is not one of them who could be called “a great lover”; in their most violent transports, they never abdicate completely; even on their knees before a mistress, what they still want is to take possession of her; at the very heart of their lives they remain sovereign subjects; the beloved woman is only one value among others; they wish to integrate her into their existence and not to squander it entirely on her. For woman, on the contrary, to love is to relinquish everything … Shut up in the sphere of the relative, destined to the male from childhood, habituated to seeing in him a superb being she cannot possibly equal, the woman who has not repressed her claim to humanity will dream of transcending her being toward one of these superior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject. The only way out for her then is to lose herself, body and soul, in him who is represented to her as the absolute, as the essential.

It’s been nearly 70 years since de Beauvoir wrote those words and we are still traversing the same negotiations.

After he’s healed from the Judas bullet and newly open to the perks of celebrity, Luke starts to, as Claire puts it, beat his chest around town. He becomes a bully. Luke visits Cockroach, one of Mariah’s goons, looking for answers about her next move and finds Cockroach beating his girlfriend and child. Luke beats him senseless, leaving Cockroach with a concussion and several broken ribs.

In a story about a bulletproof man, it’s inevitable that the fights will start to become rote. Why run away from exploring his internal weaknesses?

The next day, Claire confronts Luke: “I’ve seen you raw, but never brutal.”

Luke, who spent an entire season establishing himself as the Dudley Do-Right of Harlem, responds with chilling flippancy: “Yeah, well, sometimes brutality gets s— done.”

A more consequential interaction takes place later at Claire’s apartment, where Luke has been living. When she confronts Luke about the fact that he’s scaring people, including her, Luke justifies his anger as a byproduct of the everyday racism he faces. When Claire tries to tell Luke that heroes don’t behave like bullies, he tells her he’s a man and that she can’t “castrate” him.

“I’m a black man in a hoodie,” he tells her. “People have always been afraid of me. Look, you never had anybody clutch a purse on an elevator, OK? Or follow you around a store. Or cross the street when they see you coming, now have you?”

Claire refuses to shrink and, more significantly, she refuses to let racism serve as an excuse for brutishness. “I didn’t need to leave my house to feel racism. Soy Afrocubana!” she hisses back. “I’ve got family members so filled with shame and self-hatred they will deny each other to the grave. That’s how deep it can run. But you rise above it. You rise above the labels.”

“Baby, a black man only has two choices in this world,” Luke responds. ‘You can either lean into the fear and be the n—– people already think you are or you can play the big docile house cat with a smile.”

Claire challenges Luke again. “That’s like saying the only choice for a woman is ho or housewife. It’s not that simple. You don’t need to feed your anger to prove a point.”

It’s clear that Luke is frustrated with Claire’s refusal to, as de Beauvoir put it, lose herself, body and soul, in him and his piss-poor decisions. So he resorts to violence, punching Claire’s wall four times, leaving a massive hole in the drywall. He doesn’t just leave a guarantee that she’s not getting her security deposit back. A visibly rattled Claire leaves town the next day. (Hence, the money-saving “special guest star” billing for Dawson this season.)

Poor Claire. Her choices with Luke were helpmeet or nag. Partner wasn’t on the table.

In her absence, Luke doubles down on his acid-drenched churlishness. Cage doesn’t need a barbershop and a swear jar. He needs a therapist.

In her indispensable recaps of season one, Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastién made an observation about a lamentable element of Luke Cage that’s followed it into season two: “Whenever the show strikes a nerve (like Mariah’s comment about Cottonmouth being color-struck), it scurries back to less compelling territory,” she wrote. “Is the show afraid to offend the sensibilities of its audience?”

After the pivotal argument in episode three of season two, the show’s writers scuttle back to less compelling territory. Claire is gone, and Luke consumes himself with chasing two villains: Mariah and her archnemesis, the mysterious John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir).

“I’m a black man in a hoodie. People have always been afraid of me.”

Bushmaster has some bulletproof capabilities of his own, and he proves to be a worthy adversary for Luke, who must contend with the special sort of internet-based humiliation that comes when a beatdown is livestreamed. Luke is busy with work, but any further interrogation of his crisis of masculinity and how it affects his romantic relationships is abandoned. Even as the show illustrates the ways that Luke is turning into a ‘roided-up jerk, it can’t help but fall into the same trap as Luke, whose stubborn stoicism is just as much kryptonite as the immobilizing powder Bushmaster blows in his face during one of their faceoffs. Aside from a mention of her in a late-season episode in which Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, travels uptown to check on Luke, Claire is forgotten. That’s really too bad, since she is the moral center of the show in a way that Misty, who has her own flirtations with planting evidence, cannot be. I suspect that’s why Misty and Luke’s relationship as friends and colleagues works so well. Luke displays some of the same dubious tendencies as Misty’s late partner, Scarfe, whose corruption ended up tainting much of the work that he and Misty accomplished together as police officers in Harlem.

If Jay-Z and Beyoncé can spend a trilogy of albums exploring the ways white supremacy hurts black men, the way that hurt is exacted onto black women and how to find a way to transcend both, surely the writers of Luke Cage know this is a topic with depths worth plumbing rather than merely skimming. In a story about a bulletproof man, it’s inevitable that the fights will start to become rote. We’re well-aware of Luke’s external capabilities. Why run away from exploring his internal weaknesses?

Bushmaster may provide a formidable physical challenge, but it’s Claire who provides the psychological one, especially if Luke is to avoid descending into the psychopathic nihilism that’s consumed Dillard. Season two does boast an incredible, hold-your-breath performance by Woodard as she unravels the backstory of her daughter Tilda’s (Gabrielle Dennis) parentage. But even when the show allows Mariah to solicit a measure of empathy, it never lets her off the hook for her crimes. Why is it so afraid to hold Luke accountable in the same way?

Instead, an arrogant Cage crowns himself King of Harlem and assumes his mantle as the new head of Harlem’s Paradise. In its upstairs office, Cornell once fancied himself Biggie. Bourgie Mariah announced herself as serious and cultured and so clung fast to her dual-crowned Basquiat. To claim Harlem’s Paradise as his own, Luke throws up a photograph of wide-eyed, open-mouthed Muhammad Ali advancing toward the camera, throwing a punch. Luke chooses to identify with another persecuted black man, who, for all his good public works, had a nasty side when it came to the women closest to him. Misty, half enabler, half sidekick, calls Luke on his shortcomings, but she doesn’t really challenge him. For now, he may be king, but a sovereign subject is what he remains.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.