Superheroes and Violence: What the Punisher Teaches Us about American Politics

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dennis Young , covers the new article by Menaka Philips, Tulane University: “Violence in the American Imaginary: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Superheroes”.

The skull emblem of The Punisher—a vigilante superhero—has become a popular symbol among law enforcement personnel and has also appeared alongside Confederate flags in Charlottesville, VA, and at the January 6th, 2021 Capitol attack. The new article by Dr. Menaka Philips argues that closely examining images of the superhero, and of heroic violence in particular, may help provide some insight into the politics of violence in the United States. Understanding how and why certain groups associate with characters like the Punisher can also help scholars understand the role of race and gender in shaping popular conceptions about violence, and about how different groups are allowed to use it in the United States.

In her article, Dr. Philips compares and contrasts the Netflix-Marvel show The Punisher, with two other Netflix shows, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. The Punisher follows the story of Frank Castle, a former soldier who turned into a vigilante assassin after the tragic murder of his wife and children. Castle, a white man, operates with near impunity and uses extreme violence to punish those he decides are criminals. Luke Cage, a Black man whose powers include super strength and being bulletproof, fights to reclaim Harlem. Finally, Jessica Jones, a woman with extraordinary strength, is a private investigator whose primary antagonist is Kilgrave, a man who manipulates and controls Jones before she ultimately overcomes him.

Looking closely at each of these stories helps illustrate what types of violence are permissible based on each superhero’s identity. As a Black man in Harlem, Cage’s ability to use violence is very much conditioned by expectations of control. Unlike other superheroes who often have full license to use extreme violence and to kill under certain circumstances, killing is never an option for Cage. He is confined by ideas of respectability and must act as a model Black citizen. He must exercise violence through small motions and shows deference to the police when he is almost arrested. His legitimacy as a Black superhero requires restraint.

Similarly, Jessica Jones is only permitted to use violence after enduring repeated abuse. Philips points out that in many ways, Jessica Jones is a remarkable story to see on screen, the portrayal of PTSD and gender-based violence in the show is very important and progressive. At the same time however, Jones’ ability to use violence first requires her suffering and vulnerability at the hands of Kilgrave. Violence must always be her absolute last resort, accessible only after she has endured unbearable pain.

“Philips argues that the close affiliation between law enforcement and the symbol of the Punisher is indicative of the fact that these men feel threatened, white masculinity seems to be under attack.” But for Castle, a white man, violence is the driving force of his actions and because he is “punishing criminals” he is allowed to kill those he has decided are evil. As Philips shows, this type of violence represents the idea that the authorities may not always be able to deal out true justice and so it is the responsibility of men like Castle to punish evil doers. Where the violence Jones and Cage use is constrained by their gendered and racial identities, Castle’s status as a white man affords him an unrestricted access to violence in his policing of the line between good and evil. While other heroes like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage must moderate their violence, the Punisher does not.

Philips argues that the close affiliation between law enforcement and the symbol of the Punisher is indicative of the fact that these men feel threatened, white masculinity seems to be under attack. She suggests that they may adopt his logo because it feels like it represents their lost status and their rage. The idea of unrestricted violence to police the line of good and evil may be particularly symbolic for people who have usually had access to this violence but, in the wake of movements for police accountability, are finding this access challenged for the first time. She concludes by suggesting not that we all become Punishers, but that the Punisher and its appropriation provides important insight into the popular imagination, and that to move forward as a country we must seriously grapple with how the American public differentiates between legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence in ideas about the heroes depending on the identity of the perpetrator.

  • Dennis Young is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His dissertation research examines resistance to detention and deportation in the United States, coalitional organizing, and conceptions of freedom in these communities. This research operates at the intersection of American Politics, Political Theory, Public Law, and Race and Ethnicity Politics. In addition to this work he is also working on pieces about determinants of solidarity in protest movements, and the role of law in anti-detention organizing. He holds a B.A. from Whitman College and an M.A. from the University of Washington.
  • Article details: PHILIPS, MENAKA. 2021. “Violence in the American Imaginary: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Superheroes.”  American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–14.  
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