I love Netflix’s Jessica Jones—even though the themes of rape, abuse, control, and PTSD make it very difficult to watch. Despite the fact that stories about female characters who have been violated is an overused and misogynistic trope, I think the way the creators of Jessica Jones approach these issues without romanticizing them is pretty great. I especially appreciate the fact these female experiences are the focus of the story and that this story doesn’t serve merely as a backstory for a “strong female character”, even though Jessica is certainly strong in more than one way. The show explores Jessica’s character and post-trauma experiences in an intimate and chilling way and that makes Jessica quite unique as a female character.
Some spoilers for Netflix’s Jessica Jones below. Also, trigger warning for rape, PTSD, alcoholism, self-harm, and abuse.
It was actually the following passage from an interview with series creator Melissa Rosenberg that got me thinking about Jessica Jones as a female character:
One of the most unnerving elements with Kilgrave is when he directs women to “Smile.” Given the state of modern feminism and the movement to allow women more body autonomy, how much of that framing is related to modern misogyny?
[Laughs.] Let’s see, 100%? I was very conscious to really take all that on. This is a character [Jessica Jones] who is not defined by her gender. She is first and foremost a character. I didn’t define her any more as a woman as you would “white guy” if it was a white male lead. But those of us of the female persuasion, our lives are certainly informed by our gender and the misogyny around us. Her stories were definitely informed by it.—Melissa Rosenberg for Los Angeles Times
I appreciate that Rosenberg doesn’t shy from discussing topics like misogyny and rape, but I also think that she may be downplaying the importance of Jessica’s gender. Jessica herself isn’t defined by her gender, perhaps, but her story is very much defined by her gender. This particular story wouldn’t work quite the same way if Jessica were a man. As Rosenberg herself says, the “Smile” refrain is very much informed by misogyny. Kilgrave, even though he controls everyone to get them to do what he wants, doesn’t do to men what he does to Jessica and Hope and other, unnamed, women he made to smile at him over the years.
What sets Jessica Jones apart from many other female characters of similar fate in Marvel Cinematic Universe and other mainstream geeky media is that she’s the focus of the show. It’s her story. In most other cases, stories about rape and sexual harassment and especially its aftermath don’t get nearly enough attention: Pepper Potts has a moment of glorious revenge and flies into the sunset with Iron Man (or whatever), Daisy Johnson only seems to remember how Grant Ward manipulated her when he shows up again. In both these instances the process of violation gets a lot more attention than the aftermath. Jessica Jones, on the other hand, is all about the horrible, sad aftermath. We don’t see a Jessica who has overcome and moved on from her trauma and become a Strong Female Character. We see Jessica who is suffering from PTSD, paranoia, and flashbacks. She’s basically shut down, she lives on booze, and she breaks things. Even finally getting her revenge and killing Kilgrave doesn’t make her feel better—the show ends with Jessica slumped at her desk with a drink.
It’s all these things that make Jessica Jones such a fascinating portrayal of a female character. There aren’t many shows or movies or any stories, really, where the viewer is so far in a female protagonist’s head. I mean, there are fewer female protagonists to begin with, especially in the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy genres, and they’re usually lighter in tone. But although I love more lighthearted stories and I’m tired of dark-and-gritty examinations of white dude characters, it’s interesting to see such a dark and gritty show about a female character.
Additionally, Jessica is one of the very few female characters on TV with PTSD whose PTSD is actually explored. The only other character with a PTSD arc that comes to mind is Korra. Being a children’s show, Legend of Korra couldn’t make things too dark, of course, but it was a significant issue explored in multiple episodes. However, other than that, you mostly see female characters’ traumas referenced in Very Special Episodes or as throwaway lines, but the narrative rarely delves deeper. For instance, Helena’s (Orphan Black) abuse, brainwashing, and self-harm were used mostly in the beginning to establish her as a scary religious zealot assassin, and has been all but forgotten since she’s joined the Clone Club. Surely the results of years of abuse wouldn’t just go away now that she’s found a loving family.
Furthermore, the way Jessica deals (or avoids dealing) with her PTSD, by drinking, brawling, and breaking things, is usually reserved for male characters. As I watched her break doors and lift and threaten annoying dudes, as horrible as the underlying cause of it is, I remember just being so excited that we got a female character who expresses her anger this way. I feel like it goes back to the same misogynistic origin as “smile”: girls and women are taught that we always have to be pleasant, agreeable, and not let anyone see us without our “face on” (both in terms of makeup and smile).
In a way, it feels as though Jessica may be trying to forget or not to think about the fact that she’s a woman, especially when it comes to expectations imposed by society. She doesn’t care about her appearance—it looks like she basically only has one pair of boots, two pairs of jeans, a leather jacket, and a ratty scarf. She drinks and gets into fights in bars. She doesn’t care about most things and most people, or she tries to convince herself and others that she doesn’t care. And, obviously, she doesn’t walk around smiling. However, and this is very important, there is never even a hint of “I’m not like other girls”: Jessica doesn’t look down on Trish for being feminine and she understands how Hope feels.
Finally, I want to speak briefly about Jessica’s relationships with other characters. At first, it seems like she doesn’t really have any personal ties, but as the show progresses it turns out that she has a few people she cares about and who care about her, even though she puts up a cold exterior. Even when she tells Trish she loves her, it’s done as a deadpan joke “Something I’d never say, like, I love you”. Jessica helps Malcolm even though she seems to be annoyed at him the whole time. Her relationship with Luke Cage is a little creepy given that she essentially stalks him and feels guilty for being the weapon that Kilgrave used to kill Luke’s wife; while they’re together, the most she ever expresses her feelings is when she rushes to his aid. All of this reminds me of characters like John Constantine or Tony Stark, in other words, antiheroes and jerks-with-hearts-of-gold, yet again, typical male character tropes.
So, yes, Jessica Jones is first and foremost an intimately portrayed character, because she gets to be the focus of the show and we get a close look at how she feels and what she goes through. She has a complex combination of character traits, including a tough exterior which doesn’t always successfully hide her feelings and inner turmoil. This is usually the treatment the “default” white male protagonist gets. But, despite that and the fact that the character seems to try to distance herself from being female, the story of Jessica Jones is very much rooted in being female and the misogyny we experience. And even though I wish that we had more female characters whose background doesn’t involve violation of bodily and mental autonomy, Jessica Jones is important because it tells a story about a female character with the respect and nuance usually reserved for male characters.