Luke Cage: Stereotype of a Black Man

Luke Cage: Stereotype of a Black Man
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I thought for my next article I would write about a recently released Netflix series you may have heard of by the name of Luke Cage – not necessarily about the show but about a hot button talking point from the show and what it’s based on. This new series coincides with one of Netflix’s other popular shows Jessica Jones. Before I get into what I really wanted to talk about let me explain a little bit about Luke Cage and his back-story.

Created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr. and Geroge Tuska, he first appeared in Hero for Hire #1 in 1972. He was created shortly after Blaxploitation films were emerging as a popular new genre. His comics were set in a grungier, crime dominated New York City unlike the other Marvel heroes of this time. By issue #17 the series was retitled “Luke Cage: Power Man”. As Blaxploitation faded the comic floundered and needed to be paired with another superhero, Iron Fist, to save both characters from cancellation. The series would last for quite a bit and later writings would give the character a better vocabulary not such a “street” feel or the need to make a black man a stereotype. I would say Luke Cage got his huge breakout in The New Avengers and respect for the character would grow from this story arc written by Brian Michael Bendis.

Born Carl Lucas and raised in New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood, he spent his youth in a gang called the Rivals. He commits petty crimes often on the behalf of mobsters and people you wouldn’t want to be making deals with. In and out of juvenile homes throughout his teens, he dreams of becoming a major New York racketeer until he finally realizes how his actions are hurting his family. Seeking to better himself as an adult by finding legitimate employment he struggles to find any work as would anyone with a criminal background would. Carl has a childhood friend who grows up to be high-ranking mob player and still keeps contact with him and finds it difficult to get away from trouble. His friend’s name is Willis Stryker and when Willis gets a little to big for himself he gets into a rift with another local gang who beat him almost to death but is saved by Carl’s intervention in the fight. When Willis’s girlfriend breaks up with him because of her fear of his violent work she seeks solace with Carl Lucas. Feeling betrayed and paranoid there is something between his girl and Lucas he plants heroin in Lucas’s apartment and tips off the police. Lucas is arrested and sent to prison and his family then wants nothing to do with him. Consumed by rage in jail over Stryker’s actions he gets into brawls all the time. Later recruited by Dr. Noah Burstein as a volunteer for cell regeneration, Lucas was an easy target to prey on based on his emotions and not caring about life anymore. Of course the experiment goes wrong and causes Lucas to gain superhuman strength and durability then break out of prison. Adopting the alias Luke Cage he launches what we now know as Hero for Hire, helping anyone who can match his fee. He sets up an office above Times Square’s Gem Theater and sets out to battle criminals after having a new lease on life. While this is his back-story, this isn’t exactly what I wanted to talk about.

While the character’s complexion, wardrobe and manner of speech has changed over the years, as he has transitioned from his Blaxploitation film genre roots to a leader of the Avengers, a husband with an interracial relationship and a father, Luke Cage is an icon that invites discussion. A muscular black man of stature who engages in physical combat on a regular basis, born in the streets with past known criminals associates, Cage has been portrayed as uneducated and promiscuous by writers. He has been illustrated with a torn shirt showing his dark chest, rippling with muscle and emotional energy by illustrators. He has represented the kind of mythical superhuman power attributed to black men by bigots throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and some police officers of present day. There is a direct correlation between the Attica Prison Riot of 1971 and the publication of Marvel’s “Hero for Hire” series. Luke is created from the kind of environment embedded in, at that time, the recent American consciousness as the battleground for black prisoners against an authority structure. Black masculinity, as presented in pop culture, has always been about making white people feel comfortable with black masculinity.

The show Jessica Jones on Netflix shows the first appearance on-screen for Luke Cage. That show is based on a story arc called “Alias” a Jessica Jones story line. Brilliant writing by Brian Michael Bendis, the first season of Jessica Jones was very good, touching on everything from rape, self-doubt, self-loathing and how life can crumble at any second. A big part of the show though is the topic of race and the interracial relationship of Luke and Jessica. Private investigator/ex superhero Jessica Jones and bulletproof bar owner Luke Cage, portrayed by Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter respectively, go through the first painful steps of their relationship from a staring point at which you like them both. In the comic book written in 2001 however things are a bit different. They have a one night stand in which Jessica is looking to give her body to Luke and allow him to have her way with it, so she can feel something, even if it’s not good for her. Luke, portrayed as a woman-chasing black bull, is more than willing to do so with no concern for Jess. The characterization of Luke Cage in the early issues of Alias series was a step backward and painted him in a light uniformed by his history. All the ups and downs they go through on the show is the inescapable subject of the interracial relationship. Not just any interracial relationship though, but that of a black person and a white person in America.

Marriage between a black person and white person wasn’t even legal in the United States until 1967, when the Supreme Court voted in favor of such in the landmark case of Loving vs. Virginia. Less than 50 years ago, let that sink in!! For the past few decades interracial relationships (Intermarriage types) have risen but still a 2014 study by Pew research center showed that white/black marriage to be the smallest percentage (11.9%) of the 3 primary dynamics of white people with people of color, specifically Hispanics and Asians. According to statistics Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are an unexpected couple!! During a scene in Jessica Jones, her and Luke have some pleasant sex and he asks jokingly at first if it’s because of race, then a second time more serious. While her attraction to him is probably informed by being drawn to the “exotic” Luke’s race in combination with his stature and physique makes it heighten the sexual tension. Another scene where Luke wears nothing but a towel while standing next to Jess’s desk as she checks some information on a case speaks volumes about social impact of the two as a couple. It magnifies the strong black man stereotype to varying degrees. The problem was posed in a 1969 essay detailing consequences of a normal woman having sex with Superman. Marvel is using this comparison to have bearing between a black man and white woman having sex while comparing it to something so different. Black and white superhuman sex can perpetuate both the prejudice based Black Superhuman myth and the phenomenon called “jungle fever”. The chocolate fantasy on the part of the white woman and the “selling out” on the part of the black man.

Their similarity, being two super-powered people in a world of fragile humans, is part of what makes them connect and able to sexually express themselves with each other fearlessly. In Marvel comic books the two became husband and wife, parents, and a staples in the community. They should be a symbol where America is heading with its acceptance of white/black couples. Time will tell whether that’s where we end up but I felt the need to not just make this a background piece and bring up something I feel strongly about. While Jessica Jones will reportedly not be in Luke Cage’s show I hope writers eventually make these shows a combined effort that would make for better viewership. Superhero fiction at its best is the vision of a world with our better ideals suffering and capacity for the worst tendencies. That’s what we want these shows to be!

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