It wasn’t long ago that Marvel’s Jessica Jones Netflix exclusive series burst on to our screens and at the time it did not disappoint in giving us another great show from the house of ideas but most notably it gave us a Marvel experience unlike anything we’ve had to date and it’s one that has stuck with me ever since.
So Dark You’ll Need To Sleep With The Lights On
Whilst early trailers clearly depicted a series with gritty stylings, not unlike the previous Netflix Marvel offering Daredevil, they also hinted at series that could be even darker in nature and that it would have strong psychological themes to explore. They also clearly showed us that one element of the series would be a first for Marvel and something not seen in any of their now numerous films or, beginning to be numerous, TV shows. Jessica Jones was of course going to be none other than a female superhero.
This was big news for Marvel given that in its many box office smashes since 2007’s Iron Man not one of them has focussed on a female protagonist and the women who did feature were typically love interests or eye candy, this was even true of the ones who occasionally helped save the universe such as Gommora in guardians of the galaxy. Naturally, this brought a little criticism. In an industry that has not traditionally been the most gracious towards women, both in characters and in careers, Marvel really has been overdue in levelling the playing field in the superhero stakes and the Jessica Jones series was the opening volley in the gender equality war, and what a first barrage it was.
Balancing Equations With Lead Balloons
If Marvel to date had failed at every opportunity to present interesting female characters then one could be forgiven in thinking that, whilst sporting a dark and edgy exterior, the core experience would be standard female led fare, that for all its grime it would be a ‘tough girl’ in a man’s world trope, “she saves the day again but can she make that date on time with captain handsome?”. Wrong. Dead wrong. Jessica Jones is the real life stories of many women thrown together in a Marvel melting pot and turned all the way up to 11.
Jessica Jones doesn’t live in a ‘man’s world’ she lives in the real world, a harsh uncaring place where she does dirty PI work to keep the lights on whilst swigging back a bottle of Jack to forget her demons, and it’s not just her trapped there, so are all the other men and women that share it with her. As an example for the men, one of the first main male characters we’re introduced to is Ruben, who is Jessica’s drug addicted neighbour , Ruben stumbles and shuffles his way through everyday life as a drug-addled burden to himself and the casual passer-by. To represent the flawed women how about morally dubious high-flying lawyer and adulteress Jerry Hogarth, well played by Carrie-Anne Moss, who will step over anyone and anything to be successful? There’s a few skeletons lurking in that closet that’s for certain.
The series remains generally grounded throughout, with Jessica using her powers sparingly until the end of the series, and it's these flawed characters that drive the piece as they are so relateable with them serving heavily to re-inforce the central motif that Jessica is a damaged person trying to rebuild her life surrounded by people who have no answers for her and cannot begin to understand what she has gone through, as in real life. So let's look now at the characters of the show and how I perceive their core archetypes and what purpose they serve in the overarching framework of the series narrative.
The Women of Jessica Jones
To start we examine the women and the female experience they represent, they are a strong-willed and independent group and are all wildly individual with character depth and strong realisation.
Let’s begin with the lead role. Jessica is a rape victim, there’s no way that can be tactfully put as it’s a harrowing truth. She is trying, unsuccessfully, to keep her life together in the wake of this. We’re not just talking the physical act but also a mental kind that could be said to be a way of phrasing the damage done over the long-term course of an abusive relationship. Flashbacks, emotional issues, dependency issues, they are all there. She was a capable, super powered, individual for whom even this was unable to prevent a powerful man from bringing her world crashing down. He lurks round every corner, she mistakes others for him in large crowds and she’s scared she may never move her life past him and what he did to her.
Trish is the perfect friend, the one who seems to have everything going for her which makes it seem impossible perhaps for Jessica to confide in her, how after all could she possibly understand? Highly successful and on the face of it a very normal and adjusted person, scratch a little deeper though and there’s a troubled childhood with an overbearing mother. Later in the series she makes choices which bring her unwanted attention from the handsome male ‘hero’ character, exploring lightly the complex issue of female sexuality and promiscuity in modern culture. She is representative of most modern women, perhaps someone who Jessica could have been had her life not been marked by her having suffered her abuse.
Jeri is high-flying lawyer who seemingly has made the often necessary sacrifices of character and morality in order to attain her powerful position. Whether she is a powerful women as susceptible to the pulls of corruption as men, a mirror to reflect this male archetypes flaws against or as a simple character representing the increasing growth of women’s role in the upper echelons of society is open to interpretation. By going for the younger, ‘perkier’, wife and forgoing years of loving marriage I’m more inclined to below she’s a male parody and a warning, but in this blurred world of ideals I’m not so sure that’s particularly a particularly feministic message, to warn women from behaving like men. Perhaps a Cigar, is just a Cigar…
Robyn is one of my favourite sleeper characters. She is tough, not tough in the super-hero sense, but tough in the sense that she has a voice and is not afraid to let it be heard. Her brother, the only man in her life, is a wet flannel of used to almost no-one and loses his mind at the first pretty girl that looks at him. She cares for him and loves him whilst also simultaneously dominating him in a strange symbiotic sibling relationship. Ultimately though he perhaps traps her and she traps herself with him, afraid of the evils of the big wide world they have made a strange little one for themselves. She is probably the character that is most ‘herself’ ascribing to none of the traditional ideals of female self-actualisation, neither careers, beautification nor husbands. She is a survivor.
The Men of Jessica Jones
The men of Jessica Jones represent their own collection of archetypes whose stereotypical traits are cleverly woven into the narrative; it is through these male characters that women and their experience of men is reflected and, as a male, it is in viewing the actions of these characters that you can glean some strong insight into how certain male behaviours are perceived and interpreted by women.
The rapist. But, this is a simplification. Kilgrave is the embodiment of the male predatory sexual instinct and rape concept, he is a man with the power to make women do things simply by talking with them, he has a natural power advantage that he abuses for his own selfish satisfaction and he experiences no guilt over his actions, it is almost natural to him. Typically in real life a man commits the crime, once or maybe several times and is searched for, hunted, apprehended, and jailed. The most important aspect perhaps of his depiction is that he is on the loose, no one believes his victims when they tell police or similar how he abused them, he is smart and difficult to find and even when he is apprehended he cannot be jailed due to the inefficiencies of the judicial system. Even when confronted by his victims and they explain to him vehemently how he hurt them he is incapable of relating to them and their pain, he is inhuman.
Will Simpson, Trish Walkers brief romantic interest and a kind of ‘Alpha Male’. At first a seemingly upstanding police officer, handsome and charming who wants to help in bringing Kilgrave to justice, he is fast lost to a kind of sycophantic love lust for Trish and he is representative of the stereotypical male stalker type. He quickly begins to claim ownership over Trish’s life after having known her only a short period and does things for her that are ‘for her own good’ without consulting her. Whilst in the show this is driven by his actually being “Nuke”, in the comics a combat drug addicted military psycho, and his use of drugs to boost his strength and acuity, his growing drug addiction serves as an allegory to how in real life a stalkers behaviour is self-building, the obsession drives itself to greater and greater heights. In true style he begins to blame Trish’s friends for ‘turning’ her against him and lashes out against Jessica Jones and others.
Malcolm is a character I’ve already mentioned, the hopeless drug addict neighbour. His character only begins as this however until he is forced to clean up his act part way through the series. As the drug addict he represents a male who is useless and without power, he is the first of the male characters who represent something different to Kilgrave and ‘Nuke’, they are more a burden than a threat. He is limp and useless and someone for whom Jessica must occasionally look out for, in an interesting twist he also betrays her trust for the sake of his addiction, plot twist or commentary? Once clean of drugs however he plays a strange role where he sits in a kind of ‘friend zone’ where it’s never clear as to whether he’s attracted to Jessica or truly just a good friend. My impression is that he seems to represent a kind of ex-boyfriend type, someone who is decent enough but not quite right, as well as all the dependency issues for which Jessica is forced to deal with and ultimately solve for him.
There’s not much to say about poor old Ruben, he is the Ying to Robyn’s Yang. He is the second of the male characters who are burdens, he is childlike both in his demeanour and outlook, and he is sheltered by his sister and easily swayed by a pretty face. He is the sibling male or cousin male who a women may have to care for due to blood connection and duty even though there is little care and protection you receive in return. He meets an untimely demise however and poor Robyn shows that although semi-useless he was a good soul and truly loved by her.
Luke is unlike all the other male characters; Luke is an example of what a normal guy could be considered and an example of someone a woman could have a normal relationship with. Appearance for the character aside, he’s already been married once to a woman he loved proving he’s devoted and genuine, he also shows he throughout that he is confident without being overbearing and respectful without being condescending. It is in her relationship with Luke that Jessica’s insecurities manifest and it is these she must work to overcome. Luke’s depiction as an ideal partner is heavily skewed by his need to fulfil the role of ‘superhero’ Luke and with plot elements such as Kilgrave’s inevitable gaining control of him (briefly), these serve to hinder the development of his archetype and it would be interesting to see it developed further.
Burn Your Skin Tight Lycra Costumes
So how would I describe the Jessica Jones series in its entirety? If I had to coin a phrase to sum it all up then ‘subversively neutrally feministic’ certainly feels like it would hit the spot, it’s subversive in that it slowly builds its world with the elements I mention, the sub-texts not obvious at first, and it’s feministic in the sense that it realisticly portrays the struggles of women in modern society from a womens perspective, especially those who have suffered abuse, but finally it is neutral in that it is not so onerous as to lay all the female characters problems at the feet of men. In Jessica Jones, in the real world, everyone is flawed, both women and men, and what separates the characters is merely the number of or the depth of those flaws and how well theose flaws are managed by them.
The highlighting of the fallibility of the female characters is a necessary evil in this article and not an attempt to partake in the typical gender blame game but done instead to draw attention to the method in which the series has successfully realised a strong female led narrative of importance that is accesible. This levelling keeps the series grounded and doesn’t stray into ‘cartoon feminism’ in the way many superhero stories (and it could be argued most movies and media) suffer from ‘cartoon masculinism’, in portraying all the characters as equally failable, as a man, the depiction of male character failings in the story is all the more affecting.
Season 2 is confirmed and heading to a Netflix streaming device soon, so I advise you, don't miss out! (2017)