Jessica Jones Punches the way for Female Superheroes

On November 20th, Netflix released their second Marvel program, Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones is based off the Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias comic series. Marvel took a risk when they bought the rights to characters like Daredevil and Jessica Jones who are not that well-known to casual fans. They knew that a very little demographic of their audience would have read the comics before, so they couldn’t approach it with the same expectations that could be applied to Avengers or Spider-Man movies. With these realistic superheroes, Netflix has had a lot of freedom, and a lot of opportunities to mess up. Not only is Netflix’s Jessica Jones a realistic and relatable super hero show, Jessica herself is a relatable and realistic female character.

jessica-jones-marvel-netflix-logo

Who is Jessica Jones?

Jessica Jones was created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, who introduced her to the world as the star of a monthly comics series called Alias. At the time, Marvel Comics was undergoing a massive overhaul of its creative strategy, and one element of that overhaul was a project called MAX. The MAX line consisted of series that rejected decades of self-censorship in its featuring of sex, profanity and graphic violence. Alias had all these in spades. Indeed, the dialogue on the first page of the first issue famously consists of a man yelling swears, and that same issue features Jessica having extremely rough, doggie-style sex (the nudity is minimal).

Alias issue 1
Alias issue 1

The series, however, caught on not because it was raunchy, but because it starred a well-rounded lead with a fresh perspective on the Marvel universe. We were told she had once been a minor costumed hero going by the nom de guerre Jewel, and that she’d given it up to live like a normal civilian. That left us with something rare in the superhero genre: a lead who has powers but doesn’t use them to punch extra dimensional gods or foil schemes to take over the city. Instead she uses her powers sparingly during her efforts to solve her clients’ non-punchable problems, like infidelity and blackmail. But because she does have powers and did pal around with Avengers, she had all kinds of nasty and cheeky things to say about the way powerful people can mess up the daily lives of the powerless. Bendis loves writing crime fiction and satire, and Jessica allowed him to deploy both.

Jessica and Alias were pretty revolutionary in another respect: It was (and is) extremely rare to see superhero comics starring deeply imperfect women who aren’t defined by their relationships to men. Super heroines tend to be eye candy, bait for villains, hyper-competent goddesses, or adorable goofs. Jessica was a casually dressed, wholly independent, substance-abusing train wreck. Marvel had never featured anything quite like her.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones

When Netflix announced that they were going to be deploying another street level superhero, fans were ecstatic, especially after watching Netflix nail Daredevil. However, many were worried when they announced that the next superhero was Jessica Jones, and took several steps back. Jessica Jones is a character that one can’t just ‘do’. She is a troubled and conflicted character who has no filter and is more of an anti-hero than viewers are used to. Her story is something you cannot water down and push aside. Her ‘relationship’ with her villain is twisted and psychologically disturbing.  Worries were put to rest as viewers watched the first season of Jessica Jones. Netflix delivered, and they delivered well.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones in the episode titled AKA Ladies Night
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones in the episode titled: AKA Ladies Night

Netflix Marvel shows have a very grim and dark feel to them. The characters of Daredevil and Jessica Jones live in a realistic world that just happens to have people with powers, as opposed to a world that is built around super heroism. It is targeted towards an older, and more mature audience. Jessica Jones is not a show for kids – it’s full of violence, blood, swearing, sex scenes and problematic topics. And that’s what makes it so good.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones in episode 2 titled: AKA Crush Syndrome

Krysten Ritter delivers an outstanding performance as Jessica Jones; right from episode one, she completely owns the character. Throughout the series we explore Jessica’s life, from her relationship with Killgrave, all the way back to her family life and its tragic end. The more of Jones’s past that is explored throughout the series, the more Jessica comes to life and the easier it is to root for her. Although she is a character who, for the most part, is dismissive and disconnected from the world, Jessica Jones still makes it hard at the very least to not enjoy her presence when she is on screen. She is not your run-of-the-mill hero; she does many questionable things all throughout the series and that’s one of the many reasons she’s so relatable.

David Tennet as Killgrave
David Tennant as Killgrave in episode 9 titled: AKA Sin Bin

However, a hero is only as good as their villain. So it’s a good thing that David Tennant also knocks it out of the park as the devilish and devious Killgrave. In the same style as Daredevil, Jessica Jones produces a villain who is well-developed and given a powerful back story. Killgrave is, in a lot of ways, relatable, while also doing things that’d make most sick to their stomachs. Whenever Killgrave is on screen, you love watching him but you also want to punch him in the mouth. Killgrave is one of those villains who is more terrifying on the screen when off, in which you see the effects of his mind control in other characters, especially Jessica. Especially when he’s trying to be nice, because it just emphasizes how utterly sociopathic and morally blank he is.

Jessica Jones issue 3
Jessica Jones issue 25

Killgrave is an unapologetic rapist and the horrors that he inflicts upon women in this series is meant to be horrific, not the deeds of a morally grey character, like Kingpin from Daredevil. Killgrave has no redeeming qualities; he is an abuser, rapist, and a murderer. Jessica struggles to maintain a sense of ‘self’ after being suffocated by Killgrave’s mind control. Her struggles show the extent to which a predator can alter how one views oneself and others, and how toxic individuals will sometimes use one’s compassion to their selfish advantage. Jessica Jones is a story about a rape victim and her drive to stop other people from experiencing the mental and emotional abuse she has endured, and that is empowering.

Female Friendships in Jessica Jones and the Bechdel Test

Trish-Walker

Throughout the 13-episode season, the biggest relationship explored is the one between Jessica Jones and her best friend, Trish. Meeting as children, the two overcame Jessica learning to cope with her abilities while Trish grappled with her psychotic stage mother who only saw her daughter as a cash-cow. Together, they grew into women and despite how much they bicker, the central focus of the story is on them and how their relationship weaves in and out of the danger that threatens to engulf them.

The series focuses on the idea of love and who can and who can’t feel it for another person. Sure, Jessica has sex with men and eventually catches feelings for another character but the biggest relationship throughout the season is the one between its two lead women. Throughout the season the only person Jessica is consistently concerned with protecting is Trish. Despite Trish being more than capable of defending herself, the two women play to each other’s strengths when the time comes to fight. When Jessica is given the option between her own happiness, and keeping Trish safe, she puts her friend’s needs above her own.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Trish Wlker played by Rachael Taylor
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Trish Walker played by Rachael Taylor

The Bechdel Test is one that is often used when talking about a piece of work and whether or not it is intrinsically feminist. The test asks films three questions to determine whether they’re feminist: are there more than two female characters, do they speak to one another? and do they talk about something other than a man?

While it may not be prudent to hold a television show to a test like this (there are 13 hours in this season, as opposed to film’s often 2 hour run time) but it was not surprising to find that every episode in Jessica Jones passed the test. As simple as it may seem to pass the Bechdel Test, very few films do.Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t watched yet, there is only one “I love you,” exchanged between characters that matters-and it’s when Jessica tells Trish she loves her.

Why is Jessica Jones so Important?

jessica-jones-screenshot
Jessica Jones with The Defenders

In a very male-centric cinematic and comic universe, it is refreshing to see a female character getting her time to shine. From Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Melissa Benoist’s Super Girl, and the yet to be cast Captain Marvel, the next couple years for women in comic book movies, is going to be breaking. Jessica Jones has set the precedent for female superheroes, showing that yes, female superheroes can be as popular and bankable as their male counterparts if they are given equally substantiate story-lines with gravitas. The Muse’s Stassa Edwards talks about Jessica Jones’s appeal and fight for women in the midst of being controlled and powerless by their abuser in the article titled, “Netflix’s Jessica Jones Is a Complex Portrait of a Woman Undone”:

If Jessica Jones is a feminist show, as many critics have said that it is, it’s not simply because it presents a complicated woman, but rather because it understands how strength and control play out in the lives of women. And it explores that with a depth and sensitivity that’s rare for television and even rarer for its genre. Jessica Jones doesn’t shy from away from rape or its aftermath, and it’s unafraid to confront the trauma and victimization of the protagonist without falling into a pit of bad stereotypes. There’s no perfect way to handle the casual brutality the show depicts, but Jones’s navigation of that is a mythical presentation of something all too familiar: the often invisible, adversarial forces that operate in the lives of everyday women.

Alias issue 11
Alias issue 11

With positive reviews coming left and right, Jessica Jones has put itself on the Marvel Mantel next to Daredevil for gritty, realistic, and action-packed television. It feels absurd to have to praise a show for treating women as regular human beings who can have lives and relationships and friendships that are written and performed as straightforwardly and normally as male characters’ are treated in other productions. But that’s the world we live in, where it’s supposedly somehow harder to create good, relatable female characters — particularly lead female characters — as if the “trick” isn’t to simply write them as regular people like anybody else, treating them with dignity and respect and unique goals and desires and expectations.

Work Cited

(1) Bendis, Brian Michael, and Michael Gaydos. Alias. New York: Max Comics, 2003. Print.

(2) “Netflix’s Jessica Jones Is a Complex Portrait of a Woman Undone.” The Muse. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://themuse.jezebel.com/netflixs-jessica-jones-is-a-complex-portrait-of-a-woman-1744182340>.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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35 Comments

  1. Just watched the first two episodes, I love it already. Great to see Luke Cage finally getting some screen time.

  2. This sounds like a rip-off of my graphic novel which depicts the eponymous heroine with no superpowers doing incredible feats like battling through the Northern Line tube system to get to work or finally managing to stop the local pizza restaurants from bombarding her with junk mail …

    • ADenkyirah

      That sounds interesting! But, Jessica Jones does have superpowers! She has super strength and can jump really high and has been depicted that she can attempt to fly.

  3. Quintin
    0

    If it’s as good as Daredevil then we’re all winners. The made for Netlfix stuff is really high quality stuff. The best part is every episode is available to watch straight away. Waiting a week to see the next Walking Dead episode kills me.

  4. I did not like the show. The comic book is a lot better.

    • ADenkyirah

      The show, isn’t for everyone. Just like, I know some comic book friends of mine, didn’t like some parts of Daredevil, although I thought it was brilliant. I did enjoy Alias quite a lot!

  5. Christen Mandracchia

    Debating whether or not to get into this show. I think you’ve swayed me!

  6. Emily Deibler

    Excellent article. I absolutely loved Jessica Jones. I wasn’t sure whether to get into it, but the overwhelming praise convinced me, and I’m so glad I binged both Jessica Jones and Daredevil. I especially love the dynamic friendship between Jessica and Trish. Trish herself is an amazing character.

  7. Holiday
    1

    It doesn’t take super powers to totally manipulate another person’s reality – take away their own sense of agency, make them do what they don’t want to do. All it takes is being a narcissistic psychopathic manipulator and there are many, many quite ordinary-looking people like that around.

  8. This show is just fantastic. I watched it for six Hours straight last night and it was emotionally exhausting. The great thing about this show is it’s subtle nods to Marvel lore.

  9. Interesting piece. It’s a really great show.

  10. Beauchamp
    0

    Thoroughly enjoyed the show, apart from Tennents’ accent (I suppose they asked him to do a typical English baddie)..But don’t let that put you off..Very thought provoking as the article states. A nice crossover piece in the last episodes if you watched another Marvel/Netflix show

  11. Watched about 10 minutes and don’t think I’ll watch any more. I had a bad feeling in the opening credits when the cheesy guitar solo kicked in. I wish these Netflix marvel shows were a tad less ‘marvelish’ and a bit more ‘house of cardsish’. Doesn’t matter if some of the language and suggestive semi-nudity is for adults if the rest of the production quality is geared for 16 year olds. Pass.

    • ADenkyirah

      I mean, it is based of a comic book character and comic. I don’t think judging a show based off it’s opening credit is quite fair, but if you didn’t like it, that is totally fine! I’m guessing you didn’t like Daredevil either?

  12. Jeannetta Ho
    0

    Enjoyed it so far(seen up to episode 4) and Tennent’s bad guy has some scary power.

  13. I loved this show!

  14. Just saw the first episode. I have so many bad things to say about it, I wouldn’t know where to start. Trying to be hip and ticking all those cool, existential boxes makes for some very tedious viewing.

  15. Even as a super hero, she would not be able to defeat Heisenberg

  16. Kevin Mohammed

    The more I hear about Jessica Jones, the more I need to see this series! Still have to watch Daredevil though…

    I never even thought about how many super-heroine series are going to be released in these next few years. Looking at it now it does seem truly astounding!

  17. She must be super fast as well as super strong, cos when she lifted the tail of the Aston, she went form passenger window to rear bumper in a eye-blink.

  18. I’m up to episode five and it is starting to drag. The whole ‘cat and mouse’ element isn’t really working anymore as Kilgrave seems to almost get caught every episode. He’s losing his initial menance – which was pretty scary for the first few episodes – and is turning more into comic relief character…

    Still, it’s miles better than all the other Marvel rinse-and-repeat tosh. These Netflix series are the only good things to come out of it if you ask me.

    • First of all, I hope you keep going. Episodes 6, 7 and 8 were probably my favorites for their acting, emotional loads, and revelations. And everyone’s sense of humor is different, but to me at least Kilgrave could never be comic relief. He is an unusual villain yet a believable person. His powers make everything a suspenseful mystery. I am genuinely scared of his character.

  19. I was waiting to fall in love with this TV show, and I did. There’s a great number of women characters (and no dearth of men, in case you were worried) and they’re complex and different and fully-formed. The overall effect is amazing.

  20. Definitely an interesting show. The destruction of typical super hero tropes is something I always want to see, especially featuring a strong female lead.

    My two qualms were Killgrave’s plans falling apart too easily and themes of forgiveness/absolution/revenge remaining unexplored.

    I do wish that Killgrave was written to be even more powerful thanks to his powers. A more scheming Killgrave, who can can still have his attraction to Jessica be his ultimate undoing, would have elaborately laid plans and countermeasures against capture or death. He can literally have anything he wants, all he needs in close-ish physical contact with another human. Death Note executed these sorts of scenarios perfectly, such intricacies would have made things gruesomely fun to watch.

    Jessica kills so many people around her, or rather through her presence causes those mixed up in her life to be killed and manipulated by Killgrave. She’s not directly responsible, but damn should she feel crushing despair when that shit happens. And sure, eventual victory is great, but it felt like an empty victory at the end of the day; which I wish was the tone and overall message. Instead there’s a little too much triumph at the murder that takes place at the end of the series.

    Absolutely great compared to the CGI-fest of one liners and super hero tropes that normally infest marvel movies, I’m ready to be blown away at releases that are even more polished in terms of their complexity and thematic content.

  21. Kevin

    I loved this show: Ritter was a perfect Jessica Jones; the character is dynamic, well-written, and feels real; and, above all, she’s a super hero living a regular life. This show is great for the same reason the original Hellblazer comics were better than the New 52 Constantine run. This is a person. Not a god, not an international agent, or bizarre villain, or synthetic extradimensional what-have-you, but someone you could imagine bumping into on the street.

    This show did a lot right, from its set design to soundtrack to casting, but what it did best was premier right now, in our time. That was the smartest decision, to have Jones appear in a time where women are still not treated as equals, in real life or fictitiously, but enough people are stepping up to change that. Her story is one of hope, both personally, for one’s own life after trauma, and socially, for the future.

    Though she, like most who go through such abuse, is often called damaged, Ritter’s portrayal, and the character overall, show that even though bad things happen to the best of us, we can be stronger than those who attacked us. People need a hero like her, now more than ever.

  22. I’m intrigued by your article and arguments. You don’t think Jessica is defined by men? Almost her entire persona exists the way it does because of Killgrave. He impacted her so deeply, she damaged her relationship with Trish and the way Jessica interacts with everyone else (though I know some of that stems from her parents and those issues).

    I did enjoy your observations on the relationship between Jessica and Trish, though. Good incorporation of the Bechdel Test.

  23. The thing that has always drawn me to Marvel comics (over DC) is the complexity of their female characters. You look at the trials of characters such as Elektra, Captain Marvel, Jessica Jones, and Agent 13 and how they have been shaped by them, this to me seemed very real to life. They take these things they have done or that have happened to them and make them a part of who they are and keep going.

    Then again maybe I am just lucky to have grown up in the time I did.

  24. The minute they come out, I watch these Netflix Marvel shows all at once. They totally pull you in with the first episode.

  25. Great article, makes me interested in reading a perspective on the differences between the comic version of Killgrave and Tennant-Killgrave. I’m also curious as to how you felt about the explanations (spoiler alert) as to why she can break the effects of his power in both mediums (self-will versus help from a companion).

  26. Great article! I binged the whole series the day it came out. As you mentioned, the complexity of all of the characters is what makes Jessica Jones great. The ambiguity of the characters’ intentions and their decisions is what made it so compelling – nothing in real life is black and white, and Jessica Jones has lots of grey area.

  27. Hands down Jessica Jones was better than Daredevil. I am a female, and nver have I liked a female lead (except Peggy Carter, but that’s besides the point). Female leads are either whiny or so strong they are a Mary Sue. That’s what made Jessica Jones so great, her strength does not come from her powers, it comes from her will to help people and her bravery in facing and taking down her abuser. Right in the dictionary under Strong Female Lead there should be a picture of Jessica Jones. Strength isn’t about how well someone fights but rather whether they are depicted aa human – imperfect, but lovable.

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