Marvel Television Keeps Up Its Streak With Jessica Jones

Image: Title-card/title screen from “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” is owned by ABC Studios/Marvel/Netflix is available as fair use.

In a dreary landscape of on-the-nose, faux-feminist “strong female characters,” Marvel’s Jessica Jones is a feminist jewel. The Netflix original series tackles themes of sexual and emotional abuse sensitively while not pulling any punches. In the footsteps of Peggy Carter (Agent Carter), Daisy Johnson, and Melinda May (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Jessica Jones shows us that Marvel can create interesting and well-rounded female characters.

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, the grim and gritty super-powered private investigator trying to defeat her nemesis Kilgrave (David Tennant) and prove the innocence of Kilgrave’s victim Hope (Erin Moriarty). She is helped by her best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), shady lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and fellow super-powered non-superhero Luke Cage (Mike Colter).

While Matt Murdock, from last year’s Netflix original series Daredevil, is fighting corporate corruption in the form of the Kingpin, Jessica Jones takes on male creepiness in the form of Kilgrave. He exhibits many of the characteristics of an emotionally abusive partner: he’s obsessive and deceptively charming. He targets regular people, often women, and, in the words of Jessica Jones, “leaves a trail of broken people behind him.” He forms an obsession over Jessica, following her, taking pictures, and regularly insisting that she smile.

The writers do not take the abuse lightly, using the grittiness of the series to show how serious and damaging it is. At his best, Kilgrave is thoroughly creepy, of which the writers are completely unforgiving. Even when the true intent behind his actions is revealed, there is no point in which the writers portray him as anything less than a psychopathic stalker.

On top of the unrelenting depiction of abuse, the series centers around a theme of blamelessness. One of the first things Jessica tells Hope is, “None of it is your fault.”

The series is also noticeably heavy on female characters. For one thing, it passes the Bechdel Test within the first three minutes ((1) Two named women (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man), and does so repeatedly through Jessica’s interactions with Trish, Hogarth, Hope, and the many other supporting female characters.

In fact, Jeri Hogarth, the lawyer working with Jessica, was cis-swapped for the series. She was originally Jeryn Hogarth, the (male) attorney of the superhero team Heroes for Hire. However, her wife and mistress remain female, resulting in on-screen lesbian relationships that don’t feel forced, obligatory, or “token.”

The best part is that the writers treat each of them like human beings, each existing in a gray area between all good and all bad, and each deeply flawed in their own way. Instead of being all-around awesome embodiments of Girl Power (which characters like Peggy Carter are sometimes guilty of), they are paranoid, apathetic, alcoholic, and unfaithful. On the other hand, they are also strong, loving, determined, and heroic. In other words, they’re people.

However, no series is perfect, especially those coming from as huge and mainstream a corporation as Marvel, and Jessica Jones is no exception. Though the racial representation often goes beyond tokenism, and Jessica’s most positive romantic relationship is interracial, the series is still exceedingly white, with many of the people of color relegated to waiters, truck drivers, and security guards. The series is also guilty of employing waif-fu, a subtly sexist but commonly used trope in action movies that implies larger, heavier-built women are not worthy of main character status.

Despite its flaws, Jessica Jones is uniquely honest. It features a wide variety of female characters who come off as human, not caricatures. For those who enjoyed last year’s Daredevil, but were slightly put off by the hyper-masculinity (despite the kickass Karen Page and Claire Temple), this show will not disappoint.

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