jessica jones: thanks, marvel; it’s about time
Over the last week, I have obsessively binged on Jessica Jones, the superhero that insists she is just trying to ‘make a goddamn living in this goddamn world.’ Jones, played excellently by Krysten Ritter, is a sarcastic, hardboiled alcoholic who resists being labeled as a heroine. After a brief stint as a superhero, she crossed paths with sociopathic mind-controller, Kilgrave (David Tennant), leaving her with crippling PSTD and a past that haunts her every move.
Jones’ character is already being compared to Buffy from Buffy The Vampire Slayer: she is gifted with super-strength and has little in the way of physical limitations. Although both empowering females, this is about as far as their similarities go. Jones is self-loathing, destructive and insatiably rude.
With a female producer and show-runner, Melissa Rosenberg, Jessica Jones is a damn fine start at dispelling Marvel’s sexist trends. The production certainly proves their own CEO wrong in his claims that female superheroes are ‘unmarketable’ (not that this should have ever needed proving, anyway). After 19 films staring men, Jessica Jones destroys the ungrounded excuse that female leads will make bad superhero movies, and will hopefully bring forward more long overdue cinematic representation for women.
It is refreshing to see a woman who is unabashedly powerful and flawed. On one hand, there is her physical strength. Jessica Jones is removed from physical assumptions normally placed on both women and men. She flips stereotypes imposed on women in our society, making her unrestricted in refreshing ways. She is able to be the lurker in shadows, alone and unafraid. She is able to stand up to men when they harass her (or her best friend) in bars. But on the other hand, she is still vulnerable, human and imperfect. The show is ultimately based on her survival after an abusive relationship, delving into many other relevant issues in the meantime. Jones has super-strength, but she is a victim of sexism, of rape, of abuse. She is fighting things we fight, and she overcomes them. She is a superhero all too familiar; she is a superhero of our own world.
This is consistently reinforced through six words: ‘Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane.’ The repetition of the names of the streets surrounding her childhood home was recommended to Jessica by a therapist as a method of grounding herself during her PTSD panic attacks. Even when battling villains, she is also battling human issues. As Rosenberg explained in an interview: ‘Playing [the panic attack scenes]as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing over this. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.’
The rest of the cast are also notably female, and are similarly facing battles that are all too real. Trish (Rachael Taylor), Jessica’s best friend, is a career woman, getting self-defense lessons to ‘turn into a ninja’ and protect herself from her abusive, estranged mother. The human inferiority of Trish is, at some points, a barrier in her friendship with Jones. But Trish’s altruism, removed of superhero responsibility, brings out Jones’ own heroic heart, and the women stick together unquestionably. One thing to like about Jessica Jones is this realistic portrayal of female friendship.
An interesting revamp is Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a ‘no-nonsense’ corporate lawyer. Depicted as male in Alias, the original graphic novels, Marvel changed the character to a lesbian woman for the TV show. Having an affair with her assistant, Hogarth is cold and remorseless. This is another complex, atypical portrayal of a woman that – refreshingly – pays no attention to the male gaze. This warping of the heterosexual male gaze is also established through frank sex scenes, which depict ‘ALL the women within the show […] driving the more overtly sexual acts.’ For Marvel’s first graphic depiction of sex, they did an excellent job at using this to further enforce female empowerment.
While the characters are impressively diverse, they are faulted by their lack of racial variance.With the exception of Rosario Dawson, who guest-stars in a crossover from Daredevil, women of colour are otherwise absent from both the main and supporting cast. This was a huge disappointment that will hopefully be remedied in the next season.
Rosenberg has made it clear that the production made no conscious decision to be ‘an issue series,’ but was based upon exploring the workings of ‘Jessica Jones and her ensemble.’ This lets the gendered power dynamics arise naturally and subtly, becoming all the more meaningful. The first indicator of these themes is Jones’ flashback in the first episode, showing her under mind-control while sitting in a restaurant with Kilgrave. She looks nothing like herself, both in the way she is dressed and in her robotic expression. Kilgrave commands her to smile and cringingly, she does. While this instruction also appeared in Alias, the darker interpretation of this production makes it clear that Kilgrave is the embodiment of casual and intentional misogyny.
Rosenberg chose not to show any sexual assault, explaining that graphic depictions on TV are a distasteful way, often, of spicing up the storylines of male characters. Jessica Jones, in contrast to shows such as Game of Thrones, focuses on the aftermath of rape and offers commentary on issues of consent, rather than sexualising the act itself. Kilgrave attempts to redirect blame, excuse the abusive nature of their relationship and claims he is unaware of the impact of his actions. Although Jones says he ‘violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head,’ she pities him and contemplates whether he can be reformed. With the sudden sympathy towards Kilgrave, the audience is even tempted to hope he might be able to change, too.
This manipulation by Kilgrave is a typical example of gaslighting, which is a form of abuse that makes the victim question his or her own perception of reality. The choice to base this scene in Jones’ desecrated childhood home signifies that he has destroyed the only thing that truly grounds her from his manipulation. Her momentary wavering reveals a disturbing trend in media, of minimising sexual assault and abuse because of the ‘charming rapist trope’. It is troubling to see the amount of fandom support of Kilgrave, excusing him as an abuser because he is attractive, mysterious and misguided.The scene where Jones willingly returns to the house is used to trick Kilgrave into thinking she is giving him another chance, allowing for his eventual capture. Some fans are now misinterpreting this as genuine, holding onto the idea that he would have had the potential of redemption if Jones ‘could see past her pain’. These attitudes frighteningly verge into victim blaming, making her on-screen decision to continue fighting him a fundamental moment. It represents a complex portrayal of fighting for truth and refusing to be silenced by those who have control over you. It shows that these behaviours are never justifiable, in television or real life.
From the unashamed sex scenes to the atypical characters, Jessica Jones is a show that explores the multi-faceted depths of power. The production provides sadly necessary proof that female characters can hold the same agency and depth as men, without being a marketable risk. It is the perfect example of what direction Marvel needs to follow, and reflects a wider disturbing trend in media treatment of sexual assault that desperately needs to be changed.