(Note: there are some vague spoilers for Daredevil and other titles in the MCU. I don’t get into too many specifics, but you have been warned.)
I was watching the most recent season of Daredevil, and something struck me as off. It was surprising– I really enjoyed the first season, and I thought it was well done. But by the second season finale, I was getting agitated. There were a couple of issues, but the biggest one was that it struck a personal pet peeve of mine: he still has a secret identity.
I’m picking on the super hero genre, but the unnecessary secret is a huge trope all over the place. Vampires are forbidden from breaking the masquerade, and wizards can’t expose magic to muggles. There’s inevitably a long, drawn out sequence where the mundane person is suddenly exposed to this secret world that they never knew existed, and is forced to re-evaluate their relationship with the ones they love.
It wouldn’t bother me nearly so much if there was an actual solid reason for something to be kept secret, but that’s rarely the case. Often, it feels like a plot device to either create artificial drama, or as a plot coupon to explain why a hero/villain can go around killing masses of people without consequences, or to explain why only the designated hero could possibly stop the designated villain rather than the police or the army. (It has often been pointed out how quickly a gun could have taken out Voldemort, even if not all his horcruxes.)
The MCU has actually been pretty good about this for the most part, and it shows in the kind of plots that the characters are suddenly intertwined with. Being unmasked means that heroes suddenly have to face the consequences of their actions. Iron Man and Captain America have both been harangued by the US government about who owns their superpowered identities. Jessica Jones and Frank Castle have both been taken to court for, you know, killing people. These are new and interesting plots that you don’t see very often in the super hero movie/show genre (I won’t get into the comics, since there is literally a comic about the people who clean up after superheroes. Just because a thing isn’t mainstream doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist).
So this isn’t me calling out all secret worlds ever. Just the ones that don’t make sense. Particularly when they intersect with relationships.
Love in a time of secrets
You already know the old song and dance. “I can’t tell Aunt May that I’m Spiderman! Her heart can’t take it, and she will surely die!” “I can’t tell Lowis Lane that I’m Superman, because then she’ll be targeted by my enemies!”
Cue lots of lying and cover-ups, awkward misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Cue the loved ones of the super hero inevitably being kidnapped by all manner of villains anyway, and generally being put into more danger by their ignorance, often while trying to find out more about the hero or the secret identity. Cue them feeling lost and useless while the hero misses out on much-needed help that this person easily could have provided.
Perhaps most irritating to me, it almost always feels like rampant misogyny. Because even though platonic best friends sometimes get caught with the short side of the secret identity stick, that role usually falls on their wife or girlfriend (or in Peter Parker’s case, his aunt). Even if another man is kept out of the loop, they’re often clued in earlier and with a whole lot less drama than their female counterparts. (Because of this, I’ll be using ‘he’ for the hero and ‘she’ for the loved one from this point forward, even though either person can be any gender).
Hero knows best
Sometimes the hero’s loved one is told to just leave town, usually without explanation. She’s expected to obey without question, despite the hero’s erratic behavior. It doesn’t matter that she’s been shown to be reasonably intelligent before now; she doesn’t actually understand the situation, so she should just do as he says and trust that he knows better than she does.
It’s not just in isolated incidents of danger, though.
“She can’t know, or she’ll be in danger” assumes that it’s his right to decide whether or not she pursues danger or avoids it. If she doesn’t want to be involved in his life, it’s within her rights to leave. If she wants to risk the danger of associating with the hero, then it’s within her rights to stick around.
Consequently, the hero spends an irritating amount of the plot chasing after his loved one and saving her from obvious danger, as if she was a toddler playing blind man’s bluff in a knife factory. And there’s a reason for that: Taking away their right to know takes away their ability to make an informed decision. The entire premise of the secret identity reduces her agency to that of a child.
That isn’t to say that there can’t be secrets for good reasons. There are plenty of LGBT+ individuals who have to keep secret identities every day, because telling the other person could have grave consequences, especially in one of the many countries where those identities are criminalized. “If she finds out, she’ll be in danger” is very different from “If she finds out, she’ll try to kill me” or “she might not want to kill me, but she may tell someone who will.”
The biggest difference in this case is that the hero (the person keeping the secret) is trying to protect themselves, not the person they’re lying to. And consequently, they’re not infantilizing the other person by making decisions on their behalf. And that makes all the difference.