A school photo of Hae Min Lee alongside the news of her ex-boyfriend’s conviction.
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Serial reveals how much more we care about justice for a man than the life of a woman

As the podcast tries to investigate whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee, a discrepancy emerges – it’s so much easier to spot the cultural misogyny when it is applied to race rather than gender.

Serial is the story of who killed Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore High School student murdered in 1999. Except, Hae Min Lee is dead and so unable to speak, and her family declined to participate in Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast, so instead Serial is the story of Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend, and the man convicted of her murder. In every episode, the first human voice we hear after the recap is Syed himself, saying his own name. Whether by default or design, he’s the star. The question Serial asks most insistently is not “Who killed Lee?” but “Did Syed do it?” The answer to that, with one episode still to come, is a big fat maybe, with more than enough reasonable doubt to make Sayed’s conviction look shaky.

At the very least, he had a phenomenal amount of bad luck, and part of his bad luck was race. After playing a clip of Syed’s attorney cross-examining the state’s star witness (an acquaintance of Syed’s only known as Jay in the podcast), Koenig wonders how this played to the mostly black jury: a well-spoken black boy being harangued by an angry white lady probably didn’t do much to get the courtroom on Syed’s side, suggests the reporter. And then there’s Syed himself. 1999 is, obviously, pre-2001. A Muslim teenager in America then didn’t have the burden of suspicion then that came after 9/11, when his race and his faith would have marked him as an enemy of the state to many. But he was still marked – not as a terrorist, but as a dangerous alien with “dark” (the prosecution’s word) passions.

During jury selection, one male member of the pool approaches the bench to say he doesn’t think he can be impartial because “a friend of mine’s a Muslim, and I’ve seen him mistreat his family, his wife and everything.” Among the police documents, there’s a specialist consultant’s report into the cultural backdrop of the case, which explicitly suggests “honour” as a motive. And at pre-trial, the prosecutor sketched a picture of Syed as the archetypal honour killer as she requested that bail be denied, citing “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.”

The prosecutor’s claim was later retracted in full, although Koenig notes that even in the correction, one striking error stood: Syed is not Pakistani, he’s American with Pakistani heritage. If he has any connections to the terrible patterns of femicide and male authority in his parents’ homeland, they’re very hard to make out in his own biography. He’s a high-achieving student. A football player. A track athlete. Prom prince. He smokes weed and has sex with girls. He’s the pattern of a normal US teenager in every regard.  Throughout the state’s case, Syed’s guiltiness and foreignness go hand in hand: when one is emphasised, the other gets exaggerated too. His defence responds in kind and stresses Syed’s Americanness as often as possible – but if it’s a fallacy to suggest that “Pakistani” equals “guilty”, it makes no more sense to say that “American” equals “innocent”.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four American women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in six have suffered rape or attempted rape, and one in 12 have been stalked. In American homicides, 90.3 per cent of offenders and 77.4 per cent of victims are men. The gap between those two figures is America’s femicide problem: violence is overwhelmingly male, and women are disproportionately likely to be victims. Serial constantly emphasises that everything in Syed and Lee’s relationship appeared to be normal by teenage standards, and it’s true that none of their friends saw any cause for alarm at the time. It’s also true that normal doesn’t necessarily mean benign when sexual violence and control is embedded in the cultural texture.

None of the things that Serial reveals about Syed and Lee’s relationship means that he killed her. What’s striking is that the controlling, possessive tendency you can track through the various accounts isn’t actually all that striking: Syed’s behaviour sounds sometimes chauvinistic and unpleasant, but always within the bounds of how you might expect a male American teenager to behave. So, he originally asked her out because he had a competition with his best friend to get the prettiest date for prom – at the very earliest point of their relationship, she’s more a trophy to him than a person. He showed up uninvited when she was out with her friends or at their houses, and there are mentions in her diary of him getting angry with her for not answering messages quickly enough.

Religion comes into it after all, as well – not as a motive for the murder (which is the prosecution’s contention), but as something Syed might have used to exert emotional control over Lee. Certainly there’s a mismatch between his version of himself as a not-particularly-observant Muslim, and her distraught diary entries recording him calling her a “devil” for drawing him from his faith. “I may have said it as a joke,” Syed concedes to Koenig in a phone interview. Some punchline, if it left Lee feeling responsible for his soul. He doesn’t seem to have accepted the breakup easily either, though he was dating other girls. A letter from Lee to Syed sounds tetchy and exasperated: “I’m really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is. You know people break up all the time. You’re life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.”

If these things are evidence of anything, at worst they’re evidence of Syed being a crappy, controlling boyfriend. They don’t mean he was abusive to Lee, and even if he was abusive to her, that doesn’t mean he was her murderer: there are many steps between that need to be filled with physical evidence and witness statements, which may not even be possible to obtain 15 years after the fact. But the complexion we put on the available facts is strongly influenced by how much we think about skin colour. When it comes to identifying cultural misogyny, it’s so much easier to spot when it comes infused with melanin. The kind of sexism that means we talk more about justice for a man than the life of a woman? Well that, after all, is just normal.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.