Jessica Jones Flaunts Superhero Realism, Psychological Savvy, and the Female Experience

Though I don’t love every episode or character, Jessica Jones, Netflix’s new drama, brings with it a sophisticated understanding of gender relations, the affects of abuse, and a tone. The show doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same universe as Thor and Iron Man, but like its sister show, Daredevil, its tone is much darker than typical hero fare. Somewhere between a noir gumshoe drama, twin peaks mysticism, and a classic hero origin story, this show builds upon the nuance found in Daredevil, but to a lesser degree. I had some problems with the show, but was impressed by the way it handled topics of abuse, rape, and  guilt.

Jessica Jones’ character is not necessarily appealing, as she’s not a good person. She is a hard drinking, callous, mean spirited PI who drinks more often them she showers. I would have liked to see this character soften or show more development. The flat archetype of the sarcastic, self-destructive young woman gives her little depth, and is even trying at times. It seems like this character is the only one that Krysten Ritter can play well, since it’s not far off from her Breaking Bad role. If the writers had spent more time developing her persona outside of the Killgrave fiasco, I think audiences would have connected with her more.

Despite her shortcomings, she does exhibit some traits that make her a decent example of women in fiction. I must applaud the writers for creating a hero whose character is unmistakably feminine without being hyper sexualized or archetypal. Many supposed strong woman in fiction exhibit exclusively mail traits — undercutting the notion that traditionally feminine characteristics can show strength. Jessica shows great empathy when dealing with Hope and Malcolm, both Killgrave survivors, yet does not extend the same courtesy to the support group she accidentally creates. This may contradict my previous statement, but rather shows just how broken she is. Unimpeachably broken. Yet, as I think about the way gender is portrayed, I cannot imagine the character being anything but a woman because the entire plot of the story is contingent upon her gender. 

Killgrave is a violent man who seems to hate women. He hates most people, admittedly, but while he uses men to get what he wants, he actively preys upon women. In a flashback, audiences see the first time Killgrave met Jessica. Flanked by two svelte women, he dismisses them upon stumbling upon his new distraction. His narration implies that he believes he saved her, but it is clear in the action of the scene — Jessica is kicking a man nearly to death — that she is more than self-sufficient. Killgrave’s memories of her always rob her of agency in this way. When he finds Hope, he walks her through the same ritualistic process because she is simply filling a role in his life, not actively participating within it. 

Jessica’s experience with Killgrave is a hyperbolized version of the quotidian abuse most women experience in their lives. Killgrave believes that he can force Jessica to love him (and he did, with mind control), reminiscent of the belief that being nice to a woman long enough will eventually lead to romance. He exhibits textbook stalking behavior and attempts to break her will. He refuses to admit that using mind control to make women have sex with them is rape, and becomes angry when Jessica mentions it. “I don’t like that word,” he shrugs. David Tennant’s ability to easily slip between emotions and portray a quiet rage more frightening than outward violence really make this character terrifying. Even in his dialog, he tells Jessica what she believes and belittles her. 

Because we’re dealing with a man with mind control powers and a woman with super strength, it’s easy to dismiss the situation as purely fiction, but Killgrave’s character exhibits traits that I recognize as emblematic of society’s misogynistic attitudes.

As an aside, some commentators may feel moved to let me know that #notallmen treat women badly, to which I will reply with this analogy: Most people have encountered something they found disturbing or offensive online, but fewer actually create that kind of content. The problem is systemic because if its pervasive reach and lack of consequences for the creators, not because everyone on the internet is abusing it. Everyone online is looking at cats.

Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones excel in delivering realistic, dark superhero stories that elevate the genre and make them more accessible to those of us who aren’t Marvel superfans. It’s not necessary to have read the comics, though both shows include nods to those who have. Jessica Jones’ use of blue and purple lighting to illustrate mind control and Jessica’s struggle with it is subtle but effective. The show slowly builds a sense of unrest, making viewers feel off-center or uneasy.  

Though I think I prefer Daredevil to Jessica Jones, I’m glad the latter has a more diverse cast. Malcolm and are both men of color who are integral to the plot and Rosario Dawson’s Night Nurse makes an appearance in the final arc of Jone’s fight with Killgrave. Though there’s room to grow, New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, after all, it’s moving in the right direction. 
Overall, I enjoyed the show even I feel it could have been cut down to provide a tighter narrative. Some of the side-plots, like the insufferable, incestuous twins, added little, and the action relied a little too heavily on luck or circumstance to feel organic. It’s worth a watch just to see the Tennant play Killgrave and to become immersed in the mystical neo-noir tone. 

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