By now, if you haven’t viewed Marvel’s “Luke Cage” in its entirety, I’m going to assume you’re living under a rock. Poor you, under your sad little rock, missing out on the greatest comic series ever made. (Yeah, I said it.)
There are tremendous SPOILERS ahead so if you haven’t seen the show, the WHOLE SHOW, go watch it first before reading this article. K thanx bye.
In the words of my friend Rob, “Luke Cage has everything, except white privilege.”
We live in a time when Blackness itself has come under assault from all sides. People appropriate Black culture and Black beauty, Snapchat Blackface and use the N-word. Black people are demonized in the media even while Black men, women, and children are gunned down by police in what can at best be called extrajudicial execution.
Black neighborhoods face gentrification and their residents face homelessness and exploitation. “Black Lives Matter” is countered by the ridiculous ignorance of hashtags such as “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Peaceful protests are met with the force of militarized police and covered as “riots,” continuing the sinister falsehood of an inherently violent mindset within black communities and black people.
“Luke Cage” and its hosting company, Netflix, take a brave stance with Marvel’s indestructible Black hero. Not only does Luke Cage address and tackle pressing Black issues, he takes up the burden of emotional struggle Black Americans are forced to carry. In his strength and his humility, Luke Cage embodies positive masculinity overcoming adversity.
Luke Cage: Hero in a hoodie
Luke Cage is a towering hero because he is the best of what Black men really are. He defies the myth of Black criminality. He has good manners. He respects women and works for the good of his community. He respects his elders. He is humble and kind.
None of this is in defiance of his blackness: Luke Cage is unapologetically Black. As a character, Luke Cage crushes the stereotype of the Black man as a Buck or noble savage. Luke Cage is not a brutish gentle giant, he is an intelligent, well-mannered 21st century man forced to carry the troubles of centuries of oppression on his broad shoulders.
And sometimes, like any other human being, Luke Cage gets emotional.
Luke gets introspective.
Toxic masculinity is not a problem in Black culture, but in any culture where men are present, and are asked to remain strong without breaking. Luke Cage is literally physically unbreakable, and yet mentally, Luke struggles with grief, anger, depression, love, and loss. While toxic masculinity would see weakness in the tears of an otherwise unbreakable man, show creator Cheo Hodari Coker and the “Luke Cage” writers seem to understand that there is more strength in Luke’s tears than there is even in his bulletproof skin.
When facing a physical struggle, Luke can punch his way out of anything. Luke can endure any beating, any bullet, any speeding vehicle. He can create doors where there were once walls, and move debris like a human bulldozer.
But when faced with oppression, imprisonment, slavery, love, loss, or anguish, Luke Cage fights with his words. He talks about his problems with people he trusts. He cries without attempting to appear more “manly” or stifle his tears. Luke Cage is not just a warrior against gang violence, police corruption, and racist brutality; Luke Cage is the mental health and positive masculinity hero everyone needs.
Luke Cage, breaking down mental health barriers.
There is tremendous strength in Luke’s willingness to be emotionally vulnerable with the men and women in his life. Luke opens up to characters like Misty Knight and Henry “Pops” Hunter. He shares his fears with Reva Connors and Claire Temple.
He mourns in front of a whole community while speaking at a funeral service. Even in his final showdown with villain Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, Luke bests his opponent not through hyper-masculine aggression, but by letting his defenses down and choosing tenderness over anger.
If Luke Cage’s emotional intelligence is the new definition of male strength, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes’ violent machismo is the picture of toxic masculinity.
From Netflix: Luke Cage versus Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes
The contrast between Luke Cage and Cottonmouth reads much like a warning to parents of young boys and to anyone with a man in their life. Whether he is a brother, a father, a cousin, an uncle, or a husband, we would all prefer to have a Luke Cage than a Cottonmouth beside us. However, are we, man and woman alike, ready to suspend forever the practices that lead to toxic masculinity and mental health struggles in the boys and men we so love?
Will we be supportive and gentle, like Claire Temple, or will we punish young boys and men for displaying emotion like the intimidating Mabel Stokes? Will we allow our young men to cry, to have interests in music and art, to speak their emotions, or will we demand that they “learn how to piss standing up” as Mabel does?
In stark contrast to his initial nemesis, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Luke Cage is able to reconcile his emotions, rather than burying them under a macho facade. Luke benefits from and learns from the forgiving nature of those around him, just as Cottonmouth learns to be brash, unfeeling, and murderous from the very people he calls family.
In the genesis of Cottonmouth and the emotional evolution of Luke Cage, we can find a roadmap to creating healthy spaces for mental health. This is even more important for Black boys and men, for while their non-black counterparts may face toxic masculinity, Black men also face systemic oppression and even “racial battle fatigue.”
Recently, Twitter opened up a firestorm of black mental health positivity when rapper Kid Cudi announced he was checking himself into rehab due to suicidal thoughts and severe depression.
Rather than unleashing tired negative epithets like “be a man,” “suck it up,” or “quit whining,” Twitter users fired back at Kid Cudi, and at each other, with the hashtag #yougoodman. #Yougoodman took off in a days long discussion of how society treats Black boys and Black men in particular, and it also opened a particular dialogue surrounding Black male mental health.
As a figure in this dialogue, Luke’s appearance could not be more timely. Luke Cage is perfect in his rebranding of emotional vulnerability as emotional strength. Rather than giving Black men another macho false idol, he is a figure that Black boys can actually realistically aspire to, as long as we keep asking questions like, “You good, man?” and responding to tears with consolation and not reprimand.
As long as we continue the dialogue surrounding masculinity and Black mental health, we will create more real, emotional heroes like Luke Cage.