Marvel’s mannequins of SHIELD.

My girlfriend and I are five episodes into Agents of SHIELD. I would characterize our response so far as “grudging acceptance”. We want this show to be good, we hold out hope that it will someday be good, we keep telling ourselves that it exhibits signs of incipient goodness. The Whedon track record, and the affable presence of Clark Gregg, are enough to keep us watching for a while.

Living somewhere off to the side of the Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr axis, I have only the vaguest sense of what other people are saying about the show. I happened to check out the episode summaries on the AV Club today and was somewhat comforted to read this comment from reviewer Oliver Sava:

Chloe Bennett … doesn’t feel quite right as hacker/S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant/double agent Skye. The easy breezy make-up, the hip but still commercial wardrobe, the lustrous brown hair that falls over her shoulders like ribbons of finely shaved chocolate – how the hell does this girl look so good if she spends all day on a computer in her van? (Would it have hurt to throw some glasses on her to help sell the tech wiz image a tiny bit?)

I think “doesn’t feel quite right” understates the problem. This has been our complaint with the show from episode one – having conceived an eclectic group of characters with distinctive and often clashing personalities, the show’s creators elected to populate these roles with a lineup of generic Hollywood pretty people. Which perfectly-coiffed mannequin are we watching now, the high school dropout anarchist hacker, the eccentric scientific genius, or the icily competent ass-kicking secret agent? Hint: one of these characters is Asian, and one has an English accent. The other one is the other one.

When Liz first brought this up, at first I was inclined to pooh-pooh her observations as typical Beauty Myth-derived feminist grievance-mongering. Of course the girls are all pretty, I said: it’s Hollywood. This show, like all other TV shows, exists in an alternate reality where double-digit dress sizes don’t exist and women’s hairdos are constantly tended by invisible magic sprites. It’s not fair to blame the creators for a standard of female hotness that is imposed by studio execs, advertisers, and furtively masturbating internet fanboys.

But I was misunderstanding Liz’s complaint. The problem isn’t that they’re hot, she said, the problem is that they’re identically hot. The reason people love the assembling the team sequence in so many adventure movies is because we enjoy seeing diverse people brought together in a common cause. The hero, the bruiser, the stammering intellectual, the mysterious loner, the comic-relief foreigner, the hothead who’ll eventually betray the team, maybe an alien or an elf or something…whatever, mix and match. On the movie poster they all pose together with the bruiser looming in the background and the elf crouching ninja-style in front, and they look awesome because they’re all different.

Agents of SHIELD has the diverse group of characters, but has neglected to physically differentiate them in any way. Our imaginary poster consists of a hero, a slightly larger hero, a stammering intellectual, and three pretty girls (one of whom, luckily, is Asian).

This isn’t solely a problem of branding. Liz’s particular beef is with the Skye character, the computer hacker with the finely shaved chocolate tresses. As written, Skye could be pretty interesting – a mistrustful outsider with a sketchy past and an Aspergery aptitude for computer mischief. Basically she’s Lisbeth Salander, and I wonder if they didn’t cast the generically gorgeous Chloe Bennett precisely because they didn’t want the resemblance to be too glaring. The result is that every time Skye talks about her life prior to joining SHIELD – her childhood being shuffled among foster parents, for instance – the viewer tries and fails to square this narrative of dysfunction with the apple-cheeked all-American girl delivering it, and momentarily checks out of the story. (In our case this checking out is audibly manifested in Liz’s dismissive guffaws.)

It’s too late to go back into the early episodes and give Skye some scruffier clothes and maybe a piercing or a tattoo or something. But it’s not too late to have Chloe Bennett start delivering her lines with something approximating the level of attitude a formerly homeless information-must-be-free ideologue might bring to her dealings with the world’s most intrusive supranational spy agency.

M.

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