Daisy Johnson, Superheroine of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.— And Why She Matters

This piece was originally published by Bitch Flicks on May 24, 2016 as part of its theme week on superheroines.

Much more family-friendly and comic-book kooky than its dark, disturbing and acclaimed Netflix siblings, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is often treated like the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by critics, audience members and even Marvel itself. Having just wrapped its third season, S.H.I.E.L.D. boasts one of the most underrated ensemble casts on television — not to mention one of the most diverse. Said cast features many amazingly complex, flawed, and fantastic women heroes who juggle trying to save the world with their own personal quests for family, love, acceptance, and peace of mind. In a television landscape where female characters frequently suffer and die just to further the storylines of their male co-stars, S.H.I.E.L.D. consistently gives these women their own stories and allows these stories to drive the show forward. Chief among them is Daisy Johnson, an ace computer hacker who joins S.H.I.E.L.D. to dig up information on her unknown parents and ends up discovering that she is a superpowered Inhuman.

When S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted in Fall 2013, the advertisements implied that it was a vehicle for Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, who was mysteriously raised from the dead after meeting a tragic end in The Avengers. I eyed these ads with trepidation, looking forward to an opportunity to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe every week but worried that Coulson wouldn’t be able to carry a show. Turns out, the reason why S.H.I.E.L.D. excels is because he doesn’t. The true star of S.H.I.E.L.D. is Daisy, who over the course of three seasons goes from having no family to being torn between two — S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Inhumans — to finding herself alone again. This tumultuous inner conflict is what cements Daisy asS.H.I.E.L.D.’s emotional center and one of the more complicated characters in the male-dominated Marvel Cinematic Universe. She is not a perfect superheroine, but as one of only a few currently gracing our screens, she should not be taken for granted.

Daisy, played by Chloe Bennet, has evolved so much since the show’s pilot that she no longer goes by the same name. The series introduces her as Skye, a member of the hacktivist group Rising Tide who spent her childhood getting passed around a series of foster homes. Skye is trying to dig up information on her birth parents, who she believes were connected to S.H.I.E.L.D.; it is revealed partway through the first season that she was dropped off at an orphanage by an unknown S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. It says a lot about the lack of diversity in television that for awhile, everyone assumed that said S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and Skye’s mother, was going to be Melinda May, played by Ming-Na Wen. (Bennet’s father is Chinese-American; her given name is Wang, but she now uses her father’s first name as her surname.) Two Asian-American actresses on the same program? There must be a connection, many fans mused, despite not wondering the same about all of the white actors on the show.

At first, Skye is little more than a vehicle for the audience’s entry into the covert world of S.H.I.E.L.D. Many of the early episodes spend too much time debating Skye’s loyalties, and the repetition grows exhausting. Audience members who survived this slow-moving, low-stakes freshman year were rewarded with a much more exciting sophomore season and a much more well-rounded Skye, now a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with the trust of her team and top-notch training from known badass Melinda, definitely the most competent agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Another shout out to Ming-Na Wen, who beats up men twice her size and half her age on a weekly basis.) Skye has not yet found her birth parents, but in S.H.I.E.L.D., she has finally found some form of family and identity.

That long-sought sense of stability doesn’t last for long. Soon, Skye is introduced to her birth parents, given her real name — Daisy Johnson — and transformed into an Inhuman. Her power is a literal embodiment of the upheaval and instability that plagues her life — the ability to create earthquakes. As the only Inhuman member of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daisy finds herself once again feeling alone; her powers are viewed as a potentially dangerous liability while she is still struggling to gain control over them. Daisy turns to the Inhumans to find a new sense of belonging as well as an understanding of her powers, only to find herself with divided loyalties when her vengeful Inhuman mother tries to sell her on a war against S.H.I.E.L.D. In the end, Daisy sides with S.H.I.E.L.D., but not without a great sense of loss and regret for what might have been in regards to her all-too-brief time with her mother. Daisy comes away with a desire to use the powers of S.H.I.E.L.D. to find, train and protect other Inhumans; the conflicts that desire causes within both groups becomes one of the driving forces of the series. Literally everything that follows ties into this uneasy alliance, brokered by a driven and determined Daisy, which devolves into conflict when the ancient Inhuman Hive shows up with the goal of coercing other Inhumans to help him conquer humanity.

The arrival of Hive subjects Daisy to a horrific brainwashing experience that turns her against S.H.I.E.L.D. and makes her content to follow Hive’s every order — even if it meant nearly killing her old partner, Mack. The storyline is eerily reminiscent of Jessica Jones’ experiences at the hands of Kilgrave, but without the overt references to rape — though, watching Daisy contently nestle her head on Hive’s shoulder while he plots the downfall of humanity is enough to send shivers down one’s spine. Even after being cured of Hive’s brainwashing, Daisy suffers from aftereffects similar to a drug withdrawal, while simultaneously berating herself viciously for having put her team in danger. Her sense of personal responsibility for actions she committed without having any control over them is heartbreaking, to the point that it would verge on melodramatic if Bennet was not such a capable actress; like the character she portrays, she has definitely developed better control over her abilities over time. By the end of the finale, Daisy abandons S.H.I.E.L.D.– but, it’s not all bad. She returns to a state of isolation and mistrust similar to the one we first found her in, but there’s one big difference: now she knows who she is. That identity as an Inhuman, and the desire to use her powers to help others and to atone for her misdeed while under Hive’s control, is what drives her forward. Daisy might be a fugitive from justice, but in the moment that the woman who newspaper clippings refer to as Quake uses her powers to escape S.H.I.E.L.D., hot on their former agent’s tail, she truly comes into her own as a superheroine.

The character of Daisy is not perfect; some think that others save her too frequently, though I think she returns the favor just as often. Nor is her storyline terribly revolutionary; struggles of identity and the need to reconcile both the heroic and non-heroic sides of one’s personality are not uncommon in superhero stories. What makes Daisy special among superheroes is that she embodies all of these tropes as the centerpiece of a network television series — and is also a woman. Not only that, she is a mixed-race woman — and not a token one, but one surrounded by other women, of various ages, races and backgrounds. In the Marvel movies, there are hardly ever enough women to have a conversation together, while on S.H.I.E.L.D. the women converse regularly, and about all sorts of topics unrelated to men. They mentor each other and challenge each other. They frequently are the ones giving the orders (and defying them) and are respected by their peers. None of these things should be extraordinary any more — and yet, they still are. Dee Hogan sums up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sense of equality pretty well in this description of a scene in the season three finale for The Mary Sue:

“During this stretch, the ladies to do [sic] a whole lotta butt-saving without having to die in the process, which helps maintain gender parity in terms of who saves whom this week while thankfully not adding to the year’s Dead Female Character tally.”

What can Marvel’s movies learn from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s small-screen superheroines? Why do the films, as enjoyable as I find them to be, always tend to disappoint in their depiction of women, and how can they improve? Representation at the highest levels definitely helps — co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen is an Asian-American woman, and Marvel’s other women-centric series, Jessica Jones and the dearly departed Marvel’s Agent Carter, had women literally running the show. It might seem like a deceptively easy solution, but it’s one that DC, at least, has taken to heart in giving Monster’s Patty Jenkins the reins on the much-anticipated Wonder Woman. One hopes that the perpetually-delayed Captain Marvel, adapted from Kelly Sue DeConnick’s iteration of the comics by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Nicole Perlman and Inside Out’s Meg LeFauve, will fill some of the void (if it ever makes it to the multiplex). Until then, I’ll continue keeping company with Daisy Johnson, superheroine of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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