Another day, another “feminist icon” to examine. I waited to watch Jessica Jones. I waited, because the “detective noir” does not happen to be my favorite stylistic category. However, after several respected feminist friends and media sources had been raving for a few months about what an iconic, feminist show this was, I decided I needed to watch it. And I was disturbed… but not by what I originally thought I’d be disturbed by. The show is simply not the feminist pièce de résistance that I’d originally been led to believe – at least not in my reading of the show. It should go without saying that this post will have spoilers. So, do with that information what you must.
I did not know what to expect going in to Jessica Jones. I didn’t know what her super power was, her back story, etc. So imagine my surprise when literally minutes into this feminist power show, the main character is suffering PTSD flashbacks based on the story of a disappeared woman – only as it relates to her own abusive relationship with a controlling man. As the show progresses, literally the ENTIRE show revolves around Jessica’s obsessive preoccupation with the (male) villain’s previous treatment and control of her. So, let’s start with the feminist parallels being so loudly shouted from the rooftops, shall we? There are a few moments with which I was impressed, so they certainly do deserve their credit.
First, the relationship between Jessica and Kilgrave – the villain of the show – is obviously a violent one. Domestic violence, the controlling behavior of obsessed cisheteromale partners over their “powerless” cisheterofemale partners, escape from such violent relationships, the naming of unwanted or nuanced non-consensual sexual encounters as rape are all powerful themes which make appearances. Most of these, it should not go without saying, are presented in problematic ways; however, I will give the writers and producers credit for at least trying. These are all very important issues, and they definitely deserve to have a voice. That Jessica continually points out that Kilgrave’s “relationship” with her while he was controlling her was non-consensual, and that she loudly asserts that he raped her over and over again, is important. As is the eventual revelation that Kilgrave knew he no longer held mental control over Jones – and yet her fear of his control kept her there – an important and illuminating statement around domestic violence.
I also very much appreciated the conflictual but intimate female friendship between Jones and Trish Walker, Jones’ long time best friend. Their relationship is complicated and authentic, and I appreciate the fact that this, through all of her trauma, is where Jessica can find stability, a loving and challenging partner who both accepts her and pushes back against her in a loving way. The season’s last episode was particularly poignant in this regard, with Jessica coming to terms with her love for Trish and the challenge of communicating that to her best friend. I am even trying to be hopeful for the future since by the end, there is a new calling, perhaps, in Jones’ future post Kilgrave. I may even watch season two to see if it improves in its heroic messaging of feminism. Maybe.
These few positive issues, however, are not completely redeeming in my mind. First of all, the vast – VAST – majority of conversations between Jessica and anyone else in the show revolve around Kilgrave. This was an early red flag to me. What kind of iconic feminist show literally revolves entirely around the lead’s obsession over a relationship? I realize that this is somewhat understating the nuance of the Jones/Kilgrave situation; however, at its core, this is what’s being presented. Jones exists, for the show, within the context of Kilgrave – not the other way around. This despite the fact that Jones has plenty of trauma, as is later revealed, which is completely unrelated to Kilgrave and which could have been harnessed to create a much richer complexity to her character. Because the Kilgrave plot takes up so much time, the trauma of losing her family and of discovering/coming to terms with this new physical self after the accident is incredibly under-developed. Additionally, even this trauma is placed in context of Kilgrave, as much of this flashing back to the accident which left her an orphan happens within the confines of her move to the family home WITH Kilgrave.
This is probably the piece that I take issue with most. The fact that the show’s writers and producers decided that the story line for the initial season – despite the richness of the character herself – should be Jessica and Kilgrave. I will admit I am unfamiliar with the comics – I have no idea where this story line exists within the Marvel canon, nor, frankly, do I care. Even if this IS a canonical plotline, it certainly cannot be the only one from which the writers could choose. So why – WHY – would a show which has been presented as so subversive commit to such a codependent storyline placing Jessica in Kilgrave’s shadow? She does not exist as autonomous, nor does she exist even as an able woman. She exists only as Kilgrave’s abused and traumatized victim, and until she can somehow escape from that identity (by killing him, apparently), she cannot exist on her own. I do not find power in that, I find more victimhood.
I nearly stopped watching the show when, near the very end of the season, the kidnapped female victim who started it all commits a very public suicide in order to convince Jones to kill Kilgrave. This scene made me so angry and irritated, both logistically and symbolically, that had I not been watching it with someone else over the holidays, I’d not have watched anymore of the show. This scene was so over the top, and it did not make sense within the perspective of autonomy. So here is one more person pushing Jessica to do what they think is best – and she does it through KILLING HERSELF. This is controlling and manipulative behavior which is not different from the aggressive behavior of Kilgrave. And once again, women are mere sacrificial pawns in the Kilgrave game. To be clear – not the Jessica story, but the Kilgrave game, in which even Jones herself is a mere pawn, to be manipulated and moved by the actions of other players rather than of her own accord.
All of this, of course, does not even begin to touch on the whiteness, the thinness, and the heterosexuality of the show and its characters. Queer and non-white characters, again, are pawns or manipulative and deceitful. They function to serve the story rather than hold autonomy over their own stories. And as a fat woman I am incredibly tired of seeing unhealthily and abnormally thin women on the screen as the norm, treating women of size only as butts of jokes. Even all of this being said, though, the show at least does present queer and non-white characters, even if not in title or leading roles and even if sometimes problematic. The fact that the show at least attempted to diversify is evident and I applaud them for that.
I want to like Jessica Jones. And I’m glad that tv and superhero stories in general are moving to integrate strong female characters – even problematic, complex, flawed characters such as Jones who has so many parallels to noteworthy male superheroes (her parallels to Batman are striking, but that’s another posting altogether). I just wish that writers and producers would pay more attention to how they represent these characters. Jones is definitely a start – and I really do think there are some really strongly delivered, powerful feminist messages present in the show. I’m hoping that in the progression of this presentation of the strong feminist protagonist, we can eventually unchain her from the side of a man.