Friday, January 10, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Melinda May (Agents of SHIELD)

Let's get one thing straight here: Agents of SHIELD isn't the world's greatest show. It's not bad or anything, and not even interesting enough for me to have something to say about it on a regular basis. It's not good, precisely, meatloaf. Like the televisual equivalent of meatloaf. 

Because it's not like it's terrible or anything, and you'll totally eat it if it's in front of you, but you're probably not going to order it at a restaurant.

Then again, most of the diners I like have meatloaf on the menu, so what do I know?

What I'm saying is that Agents of SHIELD, while a perfectly respectable piece of television, isn't great. It's not Marvel Movie Universe great, anyway. It's solid, and fun, and perfectly enjoyable to watch. But it's not really anything to write home about. Except for, and this is why we're talking about it today, Melinda May.

I knew I was going to love Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) from the pilot, because she was just so freaking cool - even if I didn't yet know really why I would love her. The answer, it turns out, is because Melinda May is a perfect, stereotypical action hero. And she's also a woman. She's not a stereotypical action woman. Nope. She's every single action hero trope piled into one character, and oh yeah, she has boobs.

This woman is my hero.

Let's go down the list, shall we? I mean an actual list, too. I got this off of, because I am a nerd like that. (Do not visit that site if you are short on time. It's a vortex and will suck you in only to spit you out eight hours later, craving salty food and more television.)

1. (S)he* always ends up believing that Violence Really Is The Answer. What I mean here, with relation to Melinda May, is that while she starts the series as the backup, as the "bus" driver and the paperwork person, Coulson's second and just generally the backgroud person, by a couple episodes in, Melinda May is kicking some serious ass. Sure, she believed that she was done with fieldwork and totally not going to fight anymore, but look where that got her. It got her on a specialized team. Where she fights bad guys. All the time.

Hey, sometimes the action life just chooses you, man. And by man, I mean woman. And by action life, I mean exact replication of all of the action hero tropes. Woooo, specificity!

2. She is a Badass. Do I even have to explain this one? I mean, I will. 

Part of the fun with Agent Melinda May is that she's the kind of agent that the other agents tell stories about. Confusing, wildly inaccurate stories. The legend of how she got her nickname, "The Cavalry", grows more ridiculous with every telling, but it turns out that the truth is just as badass, if not more, than the fiction. Basically, Melinda May is the kind of hero where just hearing her name makes people want to surrender, which is actually a plot point when Skye (Chloe Bennet) impersonates her in order to scare a bad guy.

Because being Melinda May was the most intimidating thing she could think of. I'm not crying, that's just happiness leaking out of my eyes.

3. When problems arise, she solves them by Cutting the Knot. This (a reference to the Gordian knot and one of the lighter Greek myths) pretty much just means that when a complex problem arises, Melinda May is apt to stare it dead in the eyes, punch something, and solve it.

Like, say you've got a berserker staff being passed around and you really need to grab it before it falls into the wrong hands (like the ones it's currently in), but touching it means you go berserker and - sorry, can't finish the thought, Melinda May has already grabbed the staff, taken down the enemy combatants and managed to not go crazy like literally everyone else to touch it ever.

I mean, those are just three perfect examples straight off the Action Hero list**, and here are a couple more.

4. She's got the kind of cold dead stare usually reserved for Clint Eastwood.

I really mean it. She just looks at a suspect and it's like they burst into flame. Or wish they could burst into flame. Or both. Probably both. It's most hilarious when she turns it on the crew, too. Skye spends the first half of the season terrified of her, but also a little in awe. And by this point, all that fear is just more awe. And still fear, because fear is a healthy response to this much awesome.

5. She's the one that everyone turns to for advice. When Skye needs to know how to deal with a situation, she asks What Would Melinda May Do? When Grant needs to figure something out, he takes a tip from his hero. When Coulson is stuck and not sure how to go on, he asks Melinda May her advice. And then manages to interpret her steely silence into something usable.

6. She's completely comfortable with herself. Like, completely comfortable. She doesn't necessarily like everything, but she knows exactly what's there. Massive guilt over casualties sustained on a mission? Nah. She knows it's already there. Raging PTSD? Got it covered. 

In short, Melinda May is the kind of action hero that most character really wish they could be. And it's made all the better by the fact that she manages to avoid most of the major pitfalls and stereotypes of being a female action hero.

She's not fetishized at all, we have barely seen her out of uniform, even, and her uniform is perfectly functional and reasonable for her position. She's not a ditz, nor does she have anger management issues. Rather, she's a very reasonable person who keeps her problems in the inside so they can chew on her liver. (I never said Action Heroes were healthy or stable people, for the record.)

And she doesn't fall into any racial stereotypes either. While she is, yes, Asian, she's not an expert at kung-fu or anything. She just fights like all the SHIELD agents fight. Effectively.

I guess what I'm saying is that while Agents of SHIELD is really just an okay show, I will keep watching it for one simple thing: I need Agent Melinda May in my life. I'm never going to bust down a door with my food (I hope) or beat up supersoldiers or fly an airbus, dodging missiles and evading enemy planes, but I do need a badass-spiration every once in a while.

Sometimes it helps just to look at the badass over there and thing, yeah. Yeah. If she can do that, then I can do this.

Sometimes that's all it takes. So thanks, Melinda May.

*Yeah, so apparently TVTropes was just as surprised as I was to find out that Melinda May fits their definition so well. Because all their pronouns are masculine. I shall be changing them to make more sense, but I guess this is here to let you know that TVTropes is a little sexist. Shocker.

**Technically it does say on there that because Melinda May isn't the main character she can't be the Action Hero, but screw them. We all know the truth.


  1. What strikes me about the auto male pronoun for the tropes action hero is that they are always men! Which makes Melinda both trope laden and original! Well rare at least. Sure we have other badass action heroes who are women... but fully clothed ones? All the time? Ones were their sexiness isn't also a foundation? Or (my personal favourite and by favourite I mean nauseating) ones who, for all their badassery, will still need rescuing. At least once. It's a rule.

    There are others but not a lot

    1. Added bonus: she's 50. (Well, Ming-Na Wen is 50).

      Old enough to be plausible mentor-material.

    2. She actually is a mentor, well sort of, to Agent Ward, who thinks she hung the moon. But they have a casual sexual relationship (which is handled shockingly well), so I'm not sure if that counts.

      But yeah. One of the things that drew me to her was the fact that her strength is never undermined. She's never defined by her sexuality, but she's not sexless, either. She's, dare I say it, a well written female action hero?

  2. I've never seen this series, but Melinda May is the reason I want to.

    1. She's pretty much the best reason I can think of to watch it.

  3. Oh I love Melinda May! I was so happy to find such a cool kick ass hero portrayed by a woman without the extra sexualisation we are used to in female superheroes (catwoman, scarlett in the avengers). And you are completely right with that cold dead stare. she is beyond cool:)