Jessica Jones: Not Your Victim

I’ve been watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, because it’s Thanksgiving Break and there’s a new Marvel show out so what do you expect me to do? I’m eight episodes and, so this post will contain some spoilers.

Right off the bat, there’s the fact that after Agent Carter, this is the second MCU property to have a woman front and center. And to the sides too. And basically everywhere you look. Jessica Jones doesn’t skimp on filling out roles with women, whether they’re Jessica’s best friends, lawyers, or even annoying neighbors. Female characters in Jessica Jones are given the breadth and depth male characters are usually afforded.

More telling is Jessica Jones’ own subversion of the typical “Strong Female Character” template. As women become more prominent in fiction we tend to idolize characters like Black Widow or Imperator Furiosa; women who kick ass and take names. But characters like Sansa Stark fall by the wayside since they don’t fight back, at least not physically Never mind her steady mastery of politicking, she’s nowhere near as interesting or ‘strong’ as her sister, Arya (I disagree vehemently, but that’s for another day). Now, given that Jessica Jones literally has super strength, it would seem that she would lean towards the action-sort of a strong character. Yet many of Jessica’s biggest and best moments aren’t her throwing a punch. Throughout the show, Jessica will put herself in situations she would rather run from but instead will face up to despite the emotional weight. Whether it’s facing up to a villain she knows will bring up personal trauma or even trying to comfort someone when what happened is still eating her up inside, Jessica shows strength in ways that don’t involve punching thugs.

What Jessica Jones does, though, is rewrite the victim narrative. Jessica spent time under Kilgrave’s mind control and she shows the trauma and PTSD from it. When he comes back, the space exists for there to be a vengeance narrative; where she finds him and kills him. Through a cruel twist of fate, however, Jessica needs him alive. Which means she has to actually confront the man who destroyed her life. When she finally does, she yells at him; explicitly accusing him of rape. Though Jessica was a victim, she’s not the helpless witness while the CSI folks do their thing. The show lets Jessica make a choice about how to react to what happened to her, and she isn’t limited to the traditional revenge thing or running away. She can confront her rapist and prove that she’s more than what he did to her.

Which brings me to one more thing Jessica Jones does so differently from a lot of other shows: its depiction of female sexuality. With the exception of very few, the general consensus of pop-culture is that women aren’t supposed to enjoy or desire sex without being labeled ‘sluts.’ In Jessica Jones however, the consensual on screen sexual encounters — of which there are more than a few — are all either initiated by a woman or ones where she’s enjoying it. Furthermore, there’s a great emphasis placed on intimacy and not just physicality. We see Jeri and her mistress/girlfriend in quiet moments, cuddling in the back of a car rather than as sapphic eye candy. Although there are sex scenes intended for mature audiences, the women don’t seem to be “on display” for the camera and the male gaze. Quite the opposite in fact, since Luke Cage is clearly set up to be a person of desire. It helps that he’s smoking hot, but the show is shot so that Luke is clearly the eye candy for Jessica and the audience, and not the other way round. Of course, Jessica’s relationship with Luke is one of equals and something that I’d need another 800-odd words to get through.

Point of all this to say, Jessica Jones is a fascinating show — and I haven’t even gotten into its plot proper yet. If anything, Jessica Jones does a fantastic job of reworking the typical display of sexual politics in pop-culture. On that show a victim can be strong, women can do or want anything, and, dang, Luke Cage is hot.

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