In the Daredevil comics, Karen Page is an innocent young woman whose life hits a downward spiral once she's hired as Nelson and Murdock's secretary. The longtime love interest of Matt Murdock, Karen is a popular example of fridging - in which trauma or death is inflicted upon a woman to arouse an emotional reaction from the male hero. In the comics, Karen is repeatedly kidnapped until she eventually breaks things off with Matt and moves to Los Angeles to become an actress only to get hooked on heroin, sell Daredevil's identity for a fix, become a porn star, get tricked into thinking she has HIV in a ploy to destroy Daredevil before ultimately being killed by Bullseye.
The Karen Page in Netflix's Daredevil is not that Karen.
"As an actor, it's always sort of funny because you don't write it, so you don't have a ton of control over what your character does. You just have control over how they do it. So before I signed on, I did want to ask some questions," Deborah Ann Woll tells TVGuide.com. But after discussing the show's plans for Karen, Woll was relieved to hear they weren't writing her as yet another helpless love interest. Instead, this Karen would be an incredibly independent, cunning and courageous woman who would fight for justice as passionately as Matt Murdock (and have nearly as many secrets).
"I think Karen's interesting because she's very different [from the comics]," Woll says. "I like the idea that it doesn't have to be an evolution so much. She doesn't have to go from being perfect Leave It to Beaver woman to the heroin porn star. All of it can happen at once... it's about that contradiction. It's about someone fighting against their nature to be what society wants them to be."
Throughout the first season, Daredevil drops hints that Karen's struggle to reconcile these contrary instincts has deep roots in her past, though what exactly Karen survived remains unknown. Even Woll only has a general idea of the events that caused the schism between the prim and proper façade Karen puts on and the rough and tumble badass she's is.
It's this shared inner struggle that seems to be what will ultimately draw Karen and Matt (Charlie Cox) closer together - if only either of them could be more honest with each other. Though Karen and Matt go on parallel journeys in the first season, fearlessly going outside the boundaries of the law in order better the city, Karen is unable to see Matt's true self. From her perspective, Matt isn't the heroic Daredevil. He's the stick-in-the-mud lawyer who wants to confine her to the safety of the legal system. "It's sort of funny how similar they are, but neither of them wants to admit that," Woll notes.
But the season ended with Matt and Karen sharing a lingering look that many assumed to be Karen catching on to Matt's alter ego, while others insist it represented the beginning of their romantic relationship. "I have to say I'm so thrilled that that moment got such varying reactions from people," Woll says. But the moment meant something entirely different in the actress' mind: It was about the shame and fear Karen felt about her actions becoming known.
"It's this idea that maybe we could move on, maybe the past could just be the past ... but it's tinged by that darkness, tinged by that idea that he can never know me because he would hate the person that I am," Woll explains. "And I love that idea. That for Karen, she's someone who doesn't love herself, so how could anyone else love her?"
Though the darkness is already deeply apparent in Karen, Woll says that doesn't necessarily mean the character will follow the same doomed trajectory as her comic book inspiration. "What I'm enjoying about it, is it actually seems like a lot of Karen's darkness is in her past," Woll says. "This isn't a perfect girl ruined by the world. This is a woman who's been through a lot and she's survived and keeps pushing forward. And I like the idea that we're seeing her 'after' maybe for the extreme experiences."
Though this seems like a small distinction, far too often media savors stories of women suffering, while largely ignoring the empowering resilience of survivor stories. To see the strength and complexity of Karen Page is not only a welcome sight in any series, but an especially necessary addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which doesn't even treat Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow with such care and respect. One can hope that Karen Page signals a feminist shift in the way women are treated by Marvel (at least within the shared Netflix universe). But Woll hesitates to instill too much importance on Karen regarding her role in improved female representation.
"They're not putting a lot of pressure or responsibility on poor Karen Page," Woll says. "Here's the thing: I think sometimes when we have a strong reaction to the idea of women being treated fairly in stories, we have a tendency to go too far in the other direction. There was a while there when all strong television heroines acted like men, which was a weird alternate reaction to feminism. I don't know. I don't want to have to give up every aspect of my femininity in order to be considered strong. We want to be a little careful about saying exactly what [better female representation] means."
One of the most important things for Woll is that all of Karen's decisions - whether something as small as stirring her coffee with her finger or as big as killing Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) - feel organic. "I want to look at the character traits through a very objective lens to make sure these are things that the character would do, and not worry about making decisions merely so that she can appear perfectly strong and perfectly intelligent and always do the right thing. That's not an interesting complex woman," Woll says. "So I think we should be fighting for complex, interesting, flawed female characters as opposed to the more old fashioned idea of a strong female who was this practically perfect person."
And though Woll celebrates Karen for doggedly fighting everything that comes her way, she wasn't without fears regarding how Karen's bravery would be perceived by viewers. "I feel like there's an old double standard in this idea that if Matt Murdock were to walk down a dark ally in search of truth, he would be considered a hero. But if Karen Page walks down a dark alley looking for the truth, she's an idiot. I didn't want people to think that. I wanted people to see her going down those alleys and think she's just as brave, she's just as strong," Woll says.
And what Karen lacks in martial arts skills and physical strength, she more than makes up for in intelligence. "I think information is incredibly powerful," Woll says, noting Karen used information as leverage as early as the first episode when she refused to tell Matt about the Union Allied hard drive. "I feel like in a different time and a different series, they would have had the girl just say 'Yes, Mr. Wonderful Man, please fix it for me. I'll tell you everything.' But instead, she goes, 'I don't know if I can trust this guy. I just met him. So yeah, I'm going to hold on to my information because it's the only thing keeping me alive.'"
Of course, Karen's decision to return to her apartment alone for the hard drive almost costs her her life. But the crucial difference between the kind of trouble Karen gets into and the kind of trouble many other love interests get into is that Karen is the one who puts herself in that position - and never without good reason.
"I think you're only a damsel in distress if the only reason you're in distress is because you're a damsel," Woll says. "If the bad guy kidnaps you, clearly because he knows the good guy likes you, then you're a damsel in distress. But if you actively go searching for the bad guy and he kidnaps you to stop you from getting him, then you're a hero."
Daredevil's first season is available on Netflix now.