Jessica Jones is dark and thorny and sometimes difficult to watch, but it is also the best superhero fiction I have viewed in a long time.
I want to recommend it, but not without caution. Jessica Jones should come with trigger warnings for rape, abuse, stalking, and harassment. If you have ever experienced any of these, Jessica Jones, and the first episode in particular, is likely to make difficult viewing. I do think it’s worth it if you are up to that, but it is also worth knowing it will have this content going in.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private investigator. She’s also superhuman. The exact extent of her powers is never clearly defined, but she definitely has super strength, can jump high enough that her power is frequently compared to flight, and can take a serious beating and keep going. She also appears to be an alcoholic, and considering the amount and nature of the booze she drinks, I can only assume she has a super constitution, too.
Like Daredevil, Jessica lives and works in Hell’s Kitchen, a fictionalised version of an area of New York beset by poverty and crime. As Daredevil is another Netflix Original Series, there are some brief cameos to look forward to, but by and large the two series are pretty separate. Daredevil comes from the perspective of a middle-class lawyer taking on organised crime. Jessica Jones is up close and personal with the mean streets. She is poor and her antagonists are individual with personal evils. She isn’t trying to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, she’s just trying to live in it.
Trouble finds Jessica when the parents of a young woman, Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty) – a student and star athlete – come to her concerned that her daughter has left college and cannot be found. As she investigates, Jessica realises that Hope has been kidnapped by a dark figure from her own past: Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind controller who once held Jessica herself captive, using her for his own amusement (including rape).
The first episode concerns Jessica’s race to find and save Hope, whilst battling her own PTSD and guilt over the actions she performed under Kilgrave’s control. Along the way we are introduced to Patricia ‘Trish’ Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child-star turned Radio Host whose mother adopted Jessica as a publicity stunt, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) the attractive and heavily muscled man that Jessica is, for some reason, stalking.
I have to start by discussing my biggest beef with Jessica Jones.
Let’s be absolutely clear about this: this would not be the way you would introduce a male superhero. It’s said that in Hollywood the way that you make a man a hero is to hurt a woman, and the way that you make a woman a hero is also to hurt a woman. This is a subject that was brought to prominence in 2013 when Tomb Raider was heavily criticised for introducing a backstory for Lara Croft that included rape. It’s an uncomfortable and distasteful mix of the hackneyed trope that being a hero is about saving a girl who can’t save herself so you ‘get’ her, and the ingrained sexist notion that women only become strong if something is wrong with them, if they are broken. As well as a toxic dose of misogynist yearning to just see strong women get hurt. Not to mention the grotesque comic book staple of ‘fridging‘ – the brutalisation and murder of women solely for the purpose of motivating a male hero to action.
So, the thought goes, if you need to hurt a woman to make a man act, you should hurt a woman also if you want to make her act.
And, more often than not, you hurt that woman sexually too.
I have massive problems with the fact that the first hardass female superhero to head her own show in decades is not only a victim of rape*, stalking, and harassment, but this is a part of her origin story, and that her main antagonist for the first season is her rapist, from whom she and other women are constantly under the threat of being raped again. It’s a real punch to the gut. It’s hard not to feel like Marvel (whose misogyny in repeatedly delaying their single female led film in a list that is currently scheduled to include more than twenty) are saying, OK, FINE, you can have your female superhero lead, but we’re going to rape her first.
I found that really hard to get past, to be honest. After the sexism and racism of Daredevil and Marvel’s general continuing sexism in its films, I was really hoping for – needing – something different. I was furious.
But, Jessica Jones is very well written and very well acted. Divorced of the toxic masculinity and misogyny of comics history, it’s excellent television, really first rate. Moreover, Jessica’s PTSD is very well explored, and the show works on many levels to highlight and challenge the misogyny and abuse that is a part of modern life. Kilgrave is not the only abusive arsehole. We see also the dangers of the putative ‘Nice Guy’ in the form of Will Simpson (Wil Travel) – a victim of Kilgrave who is mind-controlled to attempt murder of Trish, who feels immense guilt and ultimately forms a bond with her. Whilst Will can be said to mean well and to often seem ‘nice’ he demonstrates a clear need to be in control, even when he is clearly not the most skilled person for the job, and ultimately descends into a pattern of abuse and contrition that has nothing to do with Kilgrave’s control.
Moreover, we see that abuse is not limited to men. Trish’s mother and former manager is shown to have abused her both emotionally and physically, and it is in protecting each other from her that Trish and Jessica find sisterhood.
These are important themes, well-explored.
Moreover, these roles are contrasted with a range of male characters who are not abusive – it is not that ‘all men are bad’. Both men and women are shown in great variety, including some interesting roles for people of colour. Luke Cage, in particular, stands out as a good man who does not abuse his great strength and power. It’s important to have the black guy be the good guy and not a thug. Moreover, as has been pointed out, Luke Cage has an important status in comic history. Created in 1972, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Luke Cage is a black man with bullet-poof skin. A good black man who cannot be assassinated. A product of the civil rights movement that, sadly, is as relevant now as he was then.
Somewhat more problematic is the presentation of Jessica’s drug-addict-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbour, Malcolm (Eka Darville). The association of black people with drugs is a racist trope too often iterated on screen. Until Jessica Jones, Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage, was best known for his recurring role in The Good Wife as Chicago’s top drug lord, Lemond Bishop. Most black actors have a CV that includes the roles of drug addicts, dealers, and thugs, perpetuating an unpleasant stereotype. Even Idris Elba first gained international recognition and fame from his role as drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire, before moving on to become the A list star he is today. Malcolm is a sweet and complex character, but still a perpetuation of a harmful trope.
It helps that he is not the only black character. And in addition to Luke Cage, we also see Oscar Clemons (Clarke Peters) as the insightful and upstanding police officer that Jessica eventually turns to for aid. As well as multiple smaller parts for people of colour. Multiple characters of varying types are what make for diversity, in contrast to tokenism.
Similarly, we see a range of female characters. Jessica Jones as an emotionally damaged hardass is well-paired against her feminine, but also strong, adoptive sister. Those in search of a more light-hearted female led superhero series have praised the new Supergirl for being sisterly, but sisterhood is not absent from Jessica Jones, and it is just as important. The elegant, but mentally steely, Jeri Hogarth is a wonderful role for Carrie-Anne Moss, best known for her portrayal of the high-kicking love interest, Trinity, in The Matrix. The complex relationships she has with her mistress and her estranged wife are also good in terms of representation of gay women in television. And it is delightful to see producers willing to change a character who was male in the comics to a female character in a modern context that tries to reflect accurately the number and diversity of women who exist in the world.
Women with masculine traits. Women with feminine traits. Women with some of both. Women who are strong in diverse ways. Women who are weak in diverse ways. Men who are weak in some ways and strong in others, too. Characters not simply defined by whether they are strong or weak. Deep, loving relationships that differ from those we usually see. Like the codependent brother/sister relationship of Jessica’s neighbours, Ruben and Robyn – clearly unhealthy and dysfunctional, but no less deep, allowing for Robyn as the domineering but protective sister to protray yet another role we rarely see for women.
Overall, watching this show, I was left with a startling impression of there just being way more women than I was used to seeing on TV. And that’s not the show having more women than men, it’s just the having of believable numbers of women, all of them being fully-rounded characters.
There’s a lot to be valued and much that is super important. I am still mad that rape and stalking and sexual abuse are such prominent themes in one of our few, precious shows that are led by women and feature women as superheroes. But I can’t fault them for how they handle those themes – seriously, with nuance, and with an understanding of the deep sexism that persists in ordinary society, and not merely in super villains like Kilgrave.
I strongly recommend Jessica Jones, with the proviso that it is likely to be difficult viewing for some.
*And let’s not forget that even Buffy was a victim of attempted rape in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.