“Luke Cage” is a new show on Netflix as part of the Marvel series of superheroes. Luke has super strength and unbreakable skin, meaning he can deflect bullets and take a punch like it’s nothing. I want to address how the intersection of gender and race are not necessarily beneficial for his superhero identity. Black men suffer from being negatively stereotyped as hypersexual, violent, and immoral in the news and entertainment media. They are positively stereotyped as having physical and athletic talents best seen in professional sports. However, black men are rarely praised for their intellectual accomplishments or seen as particularly gifted in areas of business, medicine, technology, academics, etc. In fact, the repeated stereotype is the myth that black men can achieve success by pursuing careers as professional athletes or rappers. This myth is sold by marketing and advertising campaigns that target specific demographics of low-income people of color. Professional athletes are seen achieving hyper-masculine ideals through consuming energy drinks, wearing overpriced tennis shoes, and driving fast cars. In reality an extremely small percentage of talented and disciplined athletes achieve a professional career which typically lasts only a few short years before injury or age necessitates a premature retirement.
In fact, another documentary called “Last Chance University” premiered on Netflix this year that follows the talented athletes who were unable to meet the academic demands of college, almost all of whom are black males. Some were dismissed for violations of student conduct or drug policies. The show follows the young men through a semester at a Southern community college that attempts to close the achievement gap for these students, many of whom came from extremely low-income high schools. Most of these students arrived woefully underprepared for college in terms of academics and culture shock. The so-called Last Chance University assigns a team of counselors and coaches to teach the men study skills, core values, and basic skills in English and math in hopes that they will be offered a second chance at scholarships for Division I schools. These men suffered from the same societal stereotypes that promised them money and success through athletics but did not encourage them to develop other skills necessary for college and life. By valuing physical strength over intelligence, some of these students who are unable to come back from an injury often return to their hometowns with virtually no career prospects and a decimated sense of self-worth.
Luke Cage is an honorable man by all accounts. He respects his elders, treats women with dignity, and works hard at low-paying, low status jobs. He is a widower who chooses not to sleep with every woman that approaches him and is upfront about his expectations, standards, and intentions. He does not exploit his super strength for any kind of personal gain. He only protects others when it is absolutely needed and does not assume a hero complex. However, Luke is not known for his brain. He represents the hyper-masculine ideal – a man who is able to assert dominance through physical strength (using force and sometimes violence) and exists to protect the vulnerable and weak. These are the same traits that are exalted in professional sports and are strongly correlated with domestic violence, assault and battery, and sexual assault. Male college athletes are much more likely to commit a violent offence than a non-athlete. This is a direct result of a value system that teaches men to develop physical strength instead of emotional intelligence. While superheroes can have any combination of special skills including x-ray vision, invisibility, mind-reading, etc., it seems more than coincidental that the black man is characterized by super strength. While the show does much to combat negative stereotypes using Luke’s integrity and honesty, it continues to promote physical strength as his most valuable and unique feature, a trope that can have damaging and limiting effects on its viewers.
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