'Jessica Jones' Is the Feminist Superhero Audiences Have Been Waiting For
Marvel’s superhero movies may be winners at the box office, but when it comes to nuanced female representation, the comic giant’s flicks—The Avengers, for example—tend to show women as either sexy, spandex-clan sirens or damsels in distress. (The buff white men save the universe.) The studio’s television shows have fared a bit better; ABC’s Agent Carter focuses on a female character—a 1940s secret agent—who is highly skilled yet still has to struggle against the gender oppression of her era.
But never has Marvel shot anything as revolutionarily feminist, plainly modern, and keenly sensitive as Jessica Jones, its new Netflix series. Based on the comic book Alias, it tells the story of the titular private investigator, who has superstrength from a childhood car accident that claimed the lives of the rest of her family and a chip on her shoulder from everything that’s happened since.
Because the show presents Jessica’s friends and coworkers without comment, it feels antithetical to point out that they include an unfaithful lesbian married couple, an African American romantic interest, a French-speaking Haitian American neighbor, and a gay hedge fund manager with an envy-inducing apartment. But given the white hetero homogeneity of the Avengers portrayal of New York, Jessica’s more representative universe is a change worth mentioning.
The show’s backdrop is also different from the whitewashed movie version of the Big Apple we’ve seen in other comic-book adaptations. It feels more like the real city—and not just because it includes unglamorous Long Island City diners, scuzzy Hell’s Kitchen dive bars, and the Lincoln Tunnel entrance ramp. Its diverse cast of characters look and feel like real New Yorkers.
Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter) is a different kind of female protagonist, not just for Marvel but for television in general. She’s hot-tempered, prickly, uncomfortable with intimacy, and unconcerned if people like her. She’s difficult—like Tony Soprano or Don Draper, and could probably win a drinking contest against the latter.
She's shown enjoying sex, but she's not conventionally comic-book sexy, which is to say that Ritter is a beautiful actor, but Jessica is never made up or dressed up. She is rarely shown wearing anything other than a hoodie, jeans, and motorcycle boots. Having given up the life of a superhero—it’s only hinted at on the show, but in the comics, she was formerly a member of the Avengers—she turns her talents to sleuthing, snapping photos of unfaithful lovers, and serving subpoenas for powerful attorney Jeri Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss).
But what drives her—and much of her work—is a deep well of guilt that stems from her former abusive relationship with this season’s villain, Kilgrave, a petulant madman whose terrifying superpower is mind control. Kilgrave (played by David Tennant) previously used that power to compel Jessica to live with him, sleep with him, and, in the act that incites the whole series, kill a woman with her superstrength.
For Kilgrave, such coercion is simply a dating tactic, perhaps the only one he’s ever known. But if the audience doesn’t recognize this as a supernatural sort of domestic abuse, Jessica spells it out for us. In one scene, she tells Kilgrave that their former life together was nothing more than repeated rape.
“Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?" he yells. “The part when I didn’t want to do any of it,” she replies. “Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”
Kilgrave’s type of telepathy is a fictional device, but manipulation, emotional abuse, and control by a romantic partner are real for too many women. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, almost half of the female rape survivors in the U.S. were raped by an acquaintance. Of those, just over 45 percent were raped by an intimate partner. One in seven American women has been stalked by an intimate partner, and four in 10 have experienced some form of coercive control by a partner.
These numbers are startling, but outside of Lifetime original movies, which seem to be obsessed with women in peril, few of these stories are ever told. If they are, it is often the prurient, hard-to-watch scenes of abuse that are depicted. We rarely see the aftermath, the part where women rebuild their lives and deal with the lingering feelings of guilt and regret, which is where Jessica Jones starts. With her “relationship” with Kilgrave in her rearview mirror, she is trying to reboot her life, only to be drawn back into battle with him after he begins to stalk her.
Surviving trauma is a thread that connects many of Jessica Jones’ characters. Jessica's best friend, Trish, a former child star, has built a fortress-like apartment, complete with a panic room, and learned Krav Maga as a way to deal with the abuse she suffered at the hands of her overbearing stage mother. Luke Cage, a sexy bar owner who becomes Jessica's lover, has unbreakable skin, but his heart is still broken over the death of his wife (the woman Kilgrave compelled Jessica to kill). Jessica’s neighbor, Malcolm Ducasse, a nurturing wannabe social worker, has to nurture himself to overcome heroin addiction and Kilgrave’s control.
But it is Jessica’s trauma that fuels the engine of the show.
Watching a woman with superstrength be made impotent by a cruel victimizer is a stark reminder that domestic violence can happen to anyone. But watching her survive and overcome a seemingly all-powerful perpetrator, it becomes clear that resilience is her true superpower.