Skye and the Heroine's Journey
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Feminism
Fitz: Things change, that’s what I’m saying, so maybe if you can learn to control this then you could have Avengers level powers. Something like Captain America even.
Simmons: I think it best we keep in mind the unstable nature of Skye’s power. If there is an Avenger equivalent right now, I’m afraid it’s the Hulk.
Fitz: Well, Hulk saved the world last I checked.
“Love in the Time of Hydra” (2.14)
Before the break, fans watched Skye transform in the alien chamber. Stirring music played as she shattered the rock surrounding her and shook the room with an earthquake. The beastly Rayna cowered before her. And, as many have seen coming, Skye transformed into a superheroine.
Skye has all the aspects of the classic heroine’s journey. She has a hero birth as she’s taken from a tribe of supposed monsters as a babe and categorized as a “084,” or object of unknown origin. She grows up with foster parents, ignorant of her destiny, and never belongs. Finally she sets off into the magical world of S.H.I.E.L.D. tech, aliens, and monsters up in the heavens. There’s a mentor, Coulson, and friends who inspire her with traits she needs to evoke within herself as the good girl (Jemma), the intellect (Fitz), and the raging warrior (May).
Skye chose to name herself (a sign of independence seen in many of Whedon’s works) after the orphanage named her “Mary Sue Poots” (“The Only Light in the Darkness,” AS1.19). She thus begins as a “Mary Sue,” a fanfiction term. A Mary Sue is an author or fan stand-in who is more clever and capable than anyone in the story, who wins the day every time. In fact, Skye outwits trained killer Ward, out-hacks Hydra, and survives a fatal gunshot without losing her mind. She’s Inhuman, on multiple levels.
Meanwhile, Skye, with no last name, is an enigma, to herself as well as to her team. Her single name, as a real English word, might function as a code name or hacker name, like Neo and Trinity in The Matrix. It’s revealed early that she joined in order to discover her origins. Midway through season one, they are revealed – she is in fact an “084” and literally fell out of the sky! Her name has shared her truth with watchers from the beginning.
The sky generally symbolizes freedom and open space. Skye is an anti-conformist hacker before she abandons this role to join the team. … Just as River [Tam] dwells on a ship, Skye dwells on a plane. Both can thus be considered the avatar of their respective homes. When Skye codes the hard drive of the first season to only unlock at a certain height, she sets the plane as her home base rather than the café of her past life. (Frankel, Joss Whedon’s Names 144-145)
She’s an avatar of the heavens, destined for magic and greatness, much like Luke Skywalker.
The heroine’s journey, like the hero’s, features a descent into death and rebirth as someone greater. Katniss, Buffy, Xena, Catwoman, Daenerys, Starbuck, even Bella Swan all literally or metaphorically experience death – their own or another’s, and return with their purpose clear. Skye dies and returns to life early on – when she’s shot in the stomach in season one, Coulson’s team administers GH-325 from an alien corpse to save her life. This presages a greater transformation to come.
Another trope of the heroine’s journey is the shapechanging boyfriend.
In the game of love, the hero and heroine each view their partner as a shapeshifter. This “other half ” they must cleave to like themselves has frightening mood swings and unpredictable desires. Hence, many tales appear about enticing swan maidens from the sea or taming beastly monsters into Prince Charmings. (Frankel, From Girl to Goddess 76)
Katniss discovers in the third book that Peeta has been remade as a monster, just as Buffy deals with Angel and Spike, and numerous other girls date werewolves, vampires, and creatures of transformation. Skye of course has Ward, revealed halfway through season one as a Hydra agent and complete inversion of himself.
Finally, Skye descends to the innermost chamber with the mystery artifact that guides her. Its mirrorlike surface suggests and transforms. The mirror is a sign for woman, not just as the modern icon of Venus.
Rather than a sign of vanity, this mirror was a divine soul-catcher, or passage to the spirit world, as it was considered universally. … Celtic women were buried with their mirrors, as a gateway to the afterlife, and Buddhist and Christian teachings describe a future in which we can see beyond the shallow reflection of our current existence. Snow White’s stepmother seeks her mirror’s advice as from an oracle, and some magicians trap their victims as “slaves of the mirror” forever. In Egypt, the word for life and mirror is the same (ankh). One reflects the other. (Frankel, From Girl to Goddess 47-48)
The epic heroine also must face both her parents and learn and grow from the struggle. Cal on the show has super-strength and a fragile control over himself. He blames outside forces and superpowers for her murders he’s committed. Thus, even before his name was revealed, some fans believed he might be Mister Hyde. In the comic books, Hyde is actually Dr. Calvin Zabo, a gifted scientist and chemist who managed to chemically transform himself into a Hulk-like monster.
Calvin Zabo in the comics has an illegitimate daughter named Daisy Johnson. Daisy grows up with foster parents, who name her Cory Sutter (Whedon’s hand must be seen in the nature name Skye and silly foster care name of Mary Sue Poots). She’s something of a teen rebel, shoplifting though she’s not a hacker. As is told in Secret War: From the Files of Nick Fury #1, the Hyde formula, instead of making her unstable, gave her seismic powers, so she names herself Quake. Her powers include seismic energy manipulation, making objects vibrate themselves apart from the inside out, much as Fitz describes Skye’s watch. She becomes proficient enough to explode a man’s heart in his chest, and also has psychic shielding.
Nick Fury recruits her as a secret weapon, and Daisy eventually leads his team of Secret Warriors (other children of superpowered characters) against the Skrulls and Hydra. After, she becomes head of the new S.H.I.E.L.D. and joins the Avengers. This is quite a glittering future for the new superheroine. Granted, events may change onscreen, but as the characters are unfolding, it would be delightful for Skye to succeed Coulson as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and finally join Whedon’s Avengers films. She’s already been remade, with her origin from an inhuman mother rather than the chemicals of her father. This ties her more strongly to the matriarchy, as she was born this way rather than engineered by the hand of man.
The Inhumans were created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and were first introduced in 1965 in Fantastic Four #45. The alien Kree performed experiments on early humans and prepared a small group to develop special abilities. When this group encountered a mutagenic vapor called Terrigen Mist, they could develop a variety of powers. (All this is revealed by the visiting Kree of episode 12.) In the comics they lived separately from humans and created their own family unit and entire civilization – perhaps Skye will someday find her true people after all. Charles Soule, current writer of Inhumans, explains:
They’ve been on Earth for 20,000 years and there’s a lot of that history that we haven’t ever seen. When they originally appeared in the Fantastic Four back in the early days they were already established in this very powerful hidden city of Attilan and ruled by a king and a queen and a long standing race with all this obscure tradition and history and all these amazing things that they’ve done that preexisted all the superheroes that we’d already been seeing in the Marvel Universe…The Inhumans have been having huge cosmic scale adventures for longer than human history’s been around, so it’s very fascinating. (Granshaw)
In the same episode as Skye dies and is reborn from the Terrigen Mist, she gains a new name, Daisy. Metaphorically, she’s parting with the sky and bonding with the earth and its powers. The sky in myth is a masculine realm, that of Zeus or Odin, while the earth is the realm of the mother planet or world tree.
Heaven is often the top of hierarchical religious structure, with the Sky God (like Odin and his son Thor) ruling over all. “Heaven is the universal symbol of superhuman power, which may be either well-intentioned or to be feared” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 485). Thus Skye, in Buffy-like style, may turn out to be more powerful than the hierarchies of Norse pantheon and S.H.I.E.L.D. alike. This “single concept brings together meteorology, astronomy, astrology, theology, and notions of the origin of the cosmos” (Biedermann 167). Skye is thus all this embodied. While she began as a hacker, she learns self-defense from Ward, and other skills will continue to develop.
Whether divided into the dichotomy of earth/sky or the four elements of alchemy and European medievalism, sky and air are masculine attributes. Whedon is no stranger to gender-flipping names and characteristics, especially with gentle Fitz and aggressive Melinda May. Skye may display more masculine attributes later on. Sky also often joins with earth in a mystical marriage. An “Earth” character is not evident, but may appear in a superhero with powers born from the ground below. (Frankel, Joss Whedon’s Names 145)
This brings us to Raina, the evil plant girl.
Raina: I was supposed to become an angel…not some gnarled freak of nature covered in thorns.
Cal: You always did like flowers…(2.11)
Before, Raina was the beautiful femme fatale, seducing people with charm (“everyone loves flowers,” she notes of her favorite symbol). Flowers are receptive, a cup shape that symbolizes the feminine. Raina is indeed receptive – to John Garrett is demagogue, to the paradise promised her by transformation. Now that she has been remade, it remains to be seen whether she will continue as disciple and true believer or finally forge her own path.
Her association with flowers, beauty and the traditional feminine values marks her as an “assistant” rather than superpower in her own right. Eventually, her name is revealed as Raina, meaning queen … suggesting she’s incomplete without her boss and king. This of course is the Clairvoyant in season one, though she appears to have other loyalties. In “Providence” (AS1.18), Garrett calls Raina “Flowers” repeatedly and sends her a silk dress with flowers, even as she protests that she has another identity. Flowers are feminine, soft, sweet, and harmless – he may be not-so-subtly trying to pigeonhole her into that role. (Frankel, Joss Whedon’s Names 147)
Her beautiful alluring nature has been reversed, making her a figure of ugliness and loathing – thorns, not flowers. She has also become Skye’s evil twin of a sort, her dark and frightening reflection. Another arrives as Agent 33 changes from a May double to a Skye double, all so she can seduce Ward – the evil shadow of Skye, her dark side embodied, wants the evil shadow of himself that Ward has become. At the same time, Agent 33 is shockingly vulnerable and lost, mirroring the pain of her double. Facing the shadow is a vital part of the heroine’s journey, one that’s soon to come.
After her transformation, the real Skye is terribly frightened, aware that her DNA has completely changed and that Raina, so transformed, is now a monster. But to her surprise, her friends admire her: “You managed to be taken hostage by three known murderers, you gunned Ward down. Then were blasted by an alien chemical weapon and walked out unscathed,” Bobbi tells her. “Leper? I think you’re a rock star.” Meanwhile, Fitz protects her secret. Even after it’s revealed, the team help her in their individual ways, like the Scarcrow, Tin Man, and Lion all bringing their different gifts to help a distraught Dorothy when she needs it. Thus friendship provides an important support for the growing heroine.
Like Giles on Buffy, Phil takes his charge to the wilderness and leaves her there to train. When Giles did this in “Intervention” (5.18), Buffy learned, but while she was gone, an inverted substitute took her place. This was the Buffybot with sunny smiles to replace Buffy’s grief and confusion. Skye too is replaced, as Agent 33 (formerly May’s evil twin) transforms into Skye’s image.
Jemma is responsible for designing Daisy Johnson’s gloves that allow her to focus/control her quake powers. These are her staple in the comics, but also a tool of the classic heroine. If a sword is a masculine symbol (granted, heavy with Freudian layering), then a sheath is the feminine, mirrored in gloves and shoes, which encase the limb. “While the hero’s sword clearly echoes a phallic symbol, the heroine’s possessions are only slightly more subtle. Ovens, cauldrons, and shoes denote feminine sexuality, representing the genitals and womb” (Frankel, From Girl to Goddess 50). These outward manifestations of her own powers, given by a female mentor, help to define her as a symbol of her quakes, but also their inner cost to her body.
Thus Skye, now meditating in the wilderness with magical powers and their symbol, her new gloves, has become a superheroine. Of course, Buffy had a descent and rebirth at least once a season, so Skye’s story certainly isn’t complete…nor are her people’s. The Inhumans will enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen in 2019, but have already hit Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism. Trans, James Hulbert. USA: Penguin, 1994.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. John Buchanan-Brown. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2012.
--. Joss Whedon’s Names. USA: LitCrit Press, 2014.
Granshaw, Lisa. “Meet the Inhumans.” 3 Mar 2015 http://boingboing.net/2015/03/03/meet-the-inhumans.html
Published 2015 in Legendary Women
Valerie Estelle Frankel’s new book Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from Joss Whedon has just been released. It ties Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers thematically into all his other series and projects, comparing geeky Fitz, warrior May, and heroic Skye to his other characters and their tropes. http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Need-Know-Learned-Whedon-ebook/dp/B00V9H0ESG