It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt… also a woman first. (x)
Vague spoilers for Jessica Jones and a trigger warning for rape throughout this post.
I’ve spent the last week watching Marvel’s Jessica Jones miniseries on Netflix. (I’ve still got a few episodes left, so no spoilers for the finale, please!) While it’s very good, it also seems to buy into a common problem that plagues female characters, especially the hard-boiled/hero types: whether mentally or physically or both, its women have been violated.
Now, you can argue that most of the characters in Jessica Jones have had their agency ripped from them at one point or another, and you’d be right—the villain, Kilgrave, has mind control powers, so anyone who’s received an order from him has been violated in that sense. But it’s the women of the series whose backstories are driven by their (often sexual) assaults at the hands of others. Jessica is haunted by both her mental and physical rape by Kilgrave but also by the murder she committed on his orders, and traded hero-ing for a PI job after she escaped his clutches. Trish was motivated to learn self-defense after years of abuse from her mother and after Jessica was taken by Kilgrave, and her sense of justice is informed by a desire to keep that sort of thing from happening to other people. Hope was kept and raped and forced to murder people on Kilgrave’s orders the same way Jessica was, and her whole storyline revolves around Jessica trying to prove her innocence to other people.
Noodle wrote a while ago about how female assassins have to be broken and put back together in ways that most male assassin characters don’t, and the same is true of heroes. Captain America’s backstory is that he was young, scrappy, and hungry and didn’t throw away his shot; Black Widow’s is that she was experimented on, abused, and mentally reprogrammed to be a killer, but she overcame it. Thor’s is that he has to prove himself worthy of the throne of Asgard; Gamora’s is that she was raised by and forced to serve and kill for the being who murdered her entire family. Daredevil likes to beat up bad guys because he misses his dad and hates bullies; Pepper got kidnapped by a dude who didn’t have anything against her but wanted to make Tony angry, got powers from Extremis against her will, and then had them taken away again at the plot’s convenience.
Society finds it so hard to imagine that a woman might want to punch bad guys for any reason besides “a bad thing happened to me and punching bad guys helps me make it right”. Agent Carter was a breath of fresh air not just because of its delightfully feminist writing but also because Peggy was given a typically male storyline: “Protagonist takes down evil in bare-knuckle brawls while dealing with angst over the fridged love interest.” Peggy wasn’t raped, wasn’t kidnapped or tortured or brainwashed—and that’s sadly a pretty unique situation for a female hero.
Let’s be clear, though: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write stories that talk about women who have been raped. One in six of us has been, and so being raped or the fear of being raped is something that every woman can relate to. It’s a tragically universal problem, and stories that show women overcoming their sexual assaults and challenging and defeating their rapists are important. Jessica Jones is definitely important in that it addresses this.
The problem is not that there are stories out there about women losing their agency, but that there are so many of them. Even in just the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s quicker to list the women who haven’t been raped, mind-controlled, abused, experimented on, or brainwashed than it is to list those who have. And while it is relatable to see fictional women dealing with unwanted sexual attention or mind rape, it’s also incredibly demoralizing, because it suggests that being a hero doesn’t make you safe from it. Even in the stories we look to for escapism, we still get Sif having her mind wiped, or Thanos modifying Nebula’s body against her will, or Daisy (Skye at the time) being romantically manipulated by a neo-Nazi. Jessica Jones, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and throw Luke Cage across a room with one hand, is still a victim of rape. There is a glut of stories about superheroines who’ve suffered through this sort of ordeal, and it’s time we moved away from it.
There’s gotta be a middle ground where we don’t ignore the fact that some women experience these things but also don’t bring them up in every single piece of media that features women. This is especially necessary in the stories where rape or loss of agency isn’t actually a crucial part of the story. Whereas the story of Jessica Jones is a story about rape and survival, rape is incidental to many of the other women’s stories. Why couldn’t Natasha or Gamora have chosen to become an assassin? Why couldn’t Pepper have decided on her own to get the Extremis powers? Each of the examples I mentioned could have been rewritten to completely get rid of the rapey aspects, and the stories wouldn’t have been particularly different. This is a deeply misogynistic trend, and I hope writers will start challenging themselves to write women who can take action without being damaged first.