Woman Crush Wednesday: Daisy “Quake” Johnson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D)

Daisy Johnson has one of the best character development arcs I’ve ever seen.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D itself is a very under-rated series in the MCU, and one of its better achievements is the re-imagining of the character of Daisy Johnson, who first originated in Marvel Comics in 2004.  In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Daisy starts out as an orphaned hacktivist who goes by the name Skye, a name she gave herself.  After a demonstration of her skills, Phil Coulson offers her a place on his team.

In season one, Skye is kind of out of her depth in many ways as she tries to find her footing among the S.H.I.E.L.D team.  Unlike them she has no physical training and no loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D.  She knows little to nothing about her parents and at his point knows nothing at all about her Inhuman heritage or her powers.  She’s kind of flaky, kind of a clown,  kind of spunky in a childish way, and overall she just gives off the impression of being very young and idealistic.

At the close of the first season, Skye suffers a major betrayal.  It’s probably not a spoiler if you’re at all familiar with the MCU universe, but I’ll still steer clear of spoilers.  All I’ll say is that this betrayal is arguably what sets Skye off on a path of change.  After all, she has the rug ripped out from under her feet, her world is turned inside out.  Her skin turns from porcelain to ivory.  She ain’t soft, and she doesn’t forgive betrayals.

In the second season Skye discovers her powers and her parentage, and it is here that her growth really begins to flourish.  Though her powers are forced on her and frighten her at first, she eventually (slowly, slowly, slowly, that is key here, the writing is excellent!) becomes used to and adept at her ability to generate vibrations powerful enough to create earthquakes.  She also meets both her parents, and the trauma she encounters there would be unimaginable for most people, but Skye survives it.  She re-christens herself Daisy Johnson, the name her parents originally gave her.  It’s clear that despite the tragedy of her parents, Daisy has found a measure of peace and closure after having met them. She’s found an identity.

In the following seasons Daisy grows stronger and more mature, more confident in herself and her abilities. She becomes an excellent S.H.I.E.L.D agent, incredibly skilled at hand-to-hand combat, and spectacular at using her Inhuman powers.  She grows assertive and develops the leadership skills she always had. Though her skin turns to steel she still maintains those essential traits that made her who she was – a stubborn idealism, kindness, loyalty, a desire to make the world a better place.  Perhaps she jokes around a little less, perhaps her humor has become a bit more sardonic, but beneath it all she’s still a ray of sunshine (dimmed a little but still).  She becomes so aware of her strength and abilities; she’s not afraid of anyone anymore, and she’s stubbornly proud of who she has become. It’s beautiful.

Significantly, Daisy is half-Chinese.  There was a lot of brouhaha when Marvel hired Chloe Bennet given that she’s white-passing, but rather than elide Chloe’s ethnicity Marvel surprised many people by explicitly giving Daisy Johnson Chinese heritage.  Her mother, Jiaying, is a major character in the second season, and there are many references made to Daisy being Asian.  It shouldn’t be amazing and astounding, but it is.

I’ve never been all that crazy about superheroes, but I fell in love with Daisy Johnson.  She is the very definition of taking a level in badass and her gradual character development is astonishing good.  It’s clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D took great care in creating her character, to make her likable and admirable and just so damn cool.  She’s the kind of character you want to be your best friend but you also want to be her.  She kind of snuck up on me and became one of my favorite characters of all time.


Woman Crush Wednesday: Jessica Huang (Fresh Off The Boat)

I’ve been wanting to watch Fresh Off The Boat pretty since I started seeing GIFS of Jessica Huang being amazing.  Once the entire series went up on Hulu, I immediately jumped on it and was not disappointed.  Jessica, who should really be credited as the show’s breakout character, is a hilarious, pragmatic, tough-talking mother of three.  In her youth, she immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and is now a successful real estate agent.

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One of the things I love about Jessica is her complete and utter confidence in herself. She will often make off-hand remarks about how she is the best at absolutely everything, but it’s pretty true. She aces her real estate exam, she’s a great businesswoman, she’s fantastic at raising her kids, and she pretty much gets shit done.

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One of my favorite quotes by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi applies here: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Sure, Jessica does embody some traits that we consider Asian stereotypes: she’s a strict parent, she is very concerned with her kids’ grades, she’s thrifty…but those are not her only traits. She is also hella self-assured, clever, and ruthless. She loves Stephen King and colonial American history. She’s also gorgeous (and knows it), super proud of her Chinese identity, and comfortable with who she is. She’s just…well, there’s no other word for it – cool. And her casual disdain for white culture makes my day everyday.

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I mean, how often do we see characters like Jessica on TV? How often do we see comedies about immigrant families? Though my family is Arab and not Chinese, we have so much in common with the Huangs, and Jessica very much reminds me of my own mother. It’s so refreshing to be able to laugh at situations I could see cropping up in my own life. It’s nice to finally see one aspect of my experience in the media I consume. Seriously, y’all, go watch this show. You’ll love it and you’ll love Jessica.  She’s one of the most badass female characters I’ve seen in a long time.  I want to transplant her personality into my brain.

And finally, because I can’t resist:

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Woman Crush Wednesday: Juliet Burke (Lost)

When we first meet Juliet Burke, she is an absolute enigma. Who is she, really? What does she want? More importantly, whose side is she really on? As it turns out, knowing where her loyalties lie is moot, since Juliet herself doesn’t always know which side she’s on. She shifts allegiances depending on what works best for her at any given time. However, once she does decide to have someone’s back, you have her loyalty forever, no matter what.

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The more we discover about Juliet, the less we seem to know about who she really is. She operates with resigned stoicism and deadpan snark, but she is seen to be friendly and compassionate. She wields guns like she was born holding a rifle in her hand, and she shoots with no hesitation, or, seemingly, remorse, but she also ran a book club. Her ability to shift gears (and personalities) is one of the most fascinating things about her, and why the other characters have such a difficult time trusting her. This fluidity makes her one of the most fascinating characters in the entire cast.

What initially drew me to Juliet was her matter-of-fact attitude towards everything, no matter the situation. She could be running from a smoke monster or pointing a gun at someone’s head; she would still be cool and collected. Just another day for a gun-toting Other. One of the observations made about her by Sawyer is that she would have no problem shooting her gun and killing someone – not because she’s a stone-cold killer, necessarily, but because she’s practical and does what needs to be done. She is capable, independent, and resourceful. When you’re running from someone who wants to hurt you, Juliet is the person you want on your side.

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Proof of Juliet’s pragmatic attitude comes to us shortly after her introduction. Juliet is holding Jack captive under the orders of Ben, the Others’ leader, but rather than convincing Jack to operate on Ben’s cancer, she instead asks him to kill Ben during surgery and make it look like an accident. She does this by playing a video that faced away from the surveillance cameras Ben was observing, while having a perfectly measured conversation with Jack that certainly had nothing to do with killing anyone. It is cold and methodical and sneaky as hell.

But I want to make note of Juliet’s compassion as well. She is, after all, a fertility doctor, dedicated to helping women have children. Her quest to cure her sister’s infertility is the crux of her story; her love for her sister informs nearly everything she does, including her desire to leave the island. Her compassion, though, is not a trait she displays readily or often, which leads most people to think she is cold and apathetic.

I loved Juliet Burke from the moment I met her. I simultaneously felt like I wanted to be her and that she embodied every aspect of my personality. To this day, there is no fictional character I feel more connected to on every level. Even after writing all this, I feel like I haven’t truly conveyed how incredibly layered and complex Juliet is, or how much I love and admire her (that would be impossible to do without a lot of capslock and incoherent flailing). In case it’s not clear, Juliet is one of my favorite characters of all time. I probably wouldn’t re-watch Lost so many times if it weren’t for her.

Woman Crush Wednesday: Joan Watson (Elementary)

Those of you familiar with Sherlock Holmes already recognize the name. Joan Watson is not only a gender-bent John Watson, but a race-bent one as well. In Elementary, John Watson is re-imagined as Joan Watson, a Chinese-American surgeon. Instead of a military career, Joan has instead accidentally killed a patient during surgery, which led to her abandoning the profession to become, at first, a sober companion. This is how she meets Sherlock Holmes.

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That Joan gravitated towards the career of sober companion highlights one of her most significant traits: her compassion. When Joan first began working with Sherlock her kindness and empathy for those around her was a striking contrast to Sherlock’s cold logic. Rather than belittle her for this, the show makes it a point of strength, and in the first season’s finale, Joan’s emotional intelligence is a key factor in catching the Big Bad of the season.

Eventually, and after a lot of thought, Joan realizes that her path in life is to become a detective like Sherlock, and so she becomes his apprentice. Soon enough, Joan is competent enough to work on her own, but her partnership with Sherlock is one of the best things about the show. They have a friendship that, at its core, is rooted in deep respect for one another. In very few Sherlock Holmes adaptations does Sherlock venerate Watson like he does on Elementary – more than once Sherlock states that he is good at what he does only with Watson at his side, and that she makes him better. The show emphasizes that Holmes and Watson are two halves of a very effective whole; they are true partners and equals.

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The writers have done a spectacular job fleshing Joan out; she becomes a character in her own right, with her own backstory, outside of Sherlock. Her parents are Chinese, and this is not forgotten, but neither is it fetishized; the show finds ways to subtly make nods to Joan’s cultural heritage without pandering to a white gaze. Unlike most incarnations of Watson, Joan is not Sherlock’s sidekick or cheerleader; she does not worship him. She sees him as he is, flaws and all. In another fresh twist, Watson, despite being compassionate and empathetic, finds her romantic relationships mostly unsatisfying, and prefers to focus on her detective work, much to the concern of her friends and family.

Joan shatters stereotypes of East Asian women as demure or docile; though she radiates calm she is possessed with a fierce independence and a will of steel. You can often find her setting Sherlock straight or threatening people who hurt those she cares about (including Sherlock’s ultra-powerful father). With her grace, serenity, and quiet strength, Joan Watson is an absolute tour-de-force of a character.

Woman Crush Wednesday: Katherine Pierce (The Vampire Diaries)

Katherine Pierce, born Katerina Petrova, is a 500-year-old Bulgarian vampire.

See how cool that sentence sounds? Well, “cool” is a great word to sum up Katherine Pierce. “Badass” is another one. But the word Katherine chooses for herself? “Survivor.”

What I admire most about Katherine is how resilient she is. In 1490, Katherine, then still Katerina, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter. Katerina’s father snatches the baby away the moment she is born, forcing her into adoption, then disowns and exiles his daughter to England. Katerina quickly adapts to her new surroundings and meets two vampire noblemen, Klaus and Elijah. Always clever, she soon realizes she is a supernatural entity known as a Doppelganger, and that Klaus plans to sacrifice her to break a curse. Without missing a beat, Katerina runs, tricks another vampire into feeding her blood, and then hangs herself, thereby turning herself into a vampire and making her blood useless for the sacrificial ritual. The consequences of Katerina’s stubborn bravery will haunt her for the rest of her life: Klaus slaughters her entire family and forces her to live on the run for 500 years. Needless to say, she’s been through hell, but she continues to bounce back.

Were she a superhero, this would totally be Katherine’s origin story, but she’s not, and this backstory is not revealed until the audience is familiar with Katherine. Without this context to humanize her, at first Katherine appears to be a selfish, ruthless, and manipulative vampire ready to sacrifice anyone to save her own skin simply because she’s a terrible person.  Once we learn her history, her personality makes perfect sense – 500 years running from a vicious killer would mess with anyone’s head.  Just look at some of the things Katherine says:

“I will always look out for myself.”
“Better you die than I.”

Katherine has been forced to lead a very lonely existence, and it shows in everything she says and does. Cruelty and selfishness are traits she’s been forced to adopt in the name of self-preservation. Despite this, Katherine still retains hints of the optimistic, romantic – and even forgiving – young girl she once was. One of her many motivations includes getting back together with Stefan, whom she fell in love with and turned into a vampire in the 1860s. At one point she enters into a relationship with Elijah, one of the vampires who was complicit in hunting her down. After he unceremoniously dumps her, she resumes chasing Stefan again. It’s a fascinating and endearing trait in a woman who is otherwise cynical and jaded.

I would actually argue that Katherine’s faith in love borders on the delusional, but it makes sense, when you remember that, before she went through hell, she had this to say:

“If we cease to believe in love, why would we want to live?”

Woman Crush Wednesday: Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time)

I fell in love with Emma Swan from the moment we met her, when she reveals herself as an undercover bail bonds person to her blind date, who is actually her mark. What a way to come out swinging.

At first, Emma Swan is the epitome of lonely, friendless orphan. She’s jumped from foster home to foster home, which has led her to have no friends or family. When the son she put up for adoption ten years ago shows up on her doorstep in Boston (on her birthday no less!), she winds up in Storybrooke, Maine, with her son insisting that the town is actually inhabited by fairy tale characters who don’t remember who they are. A staunch skeptic, Emma continues to disbelieve until she is forced to stare the truth in the face, leading her to reunite with her birth parents.

We talk a lot about “strong female characters,” and I hate that phrase for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it leads to one-dimensional characters whose only characteristic is that they can punch people. Emma’s certainly capable of holding her own in a fight, but there’s much more to her than that. There’s intense vulnerability and severe abandonment issues over her upbringing. There’s anger and frustration at her birth parents, who made a choice to send her away to save her life along with the lives of their people. Emma is pragmatic, sarcastic, and droll (her dry wit is one of my favorite things about her). She is courageous, tenacious, and resourceful. She is rash, wary, and solitary. Emma Swan takes no shit from anyone. Her defining characteristic – her “superpower” as she tells her son – is that she can always tell when someone is lying, a skill no doubt picked up as a result of her rough past.

With the life she’s had, you would think she would be misanthropic and closed off, but not quite. While it’s true that Emma shields herself in emotional armor, she doesn’t seclude herself from the world completely. She forms a beautiful friendship with Mary Margaret Blanchard before she knows who Mary Margaret really is. The two quickly move in together, and Emma offers Mary Margaret emotional support and no judgement when Mary Margaret makes…questionable life choices. She sticks by her when no one else will and saves her life on more than one occasion. She shows a fierce support for other women and their choices – the fourth episode of the first season revolves around Emma helping a pregnant teenager make her own decisions in keeping her child safe.

In short, Emma Swan is an incredibly layered, dynamic character that is constantly developing. Once Upon a Time is ultimately her story, her own huge character arc. No matter how ridiculous the show gets, I will always love it for giving me Emma Swan, who has, in short order, become one of my most beloved characters of all time.