A (Feminist) Writer’s Take on Marvel’s Jessica Jones
My fiancee and I recently watched Jessica Jones together on Netflix. We’d heard that it was good and interesting and had a good rep among geeky feminists. And, of course, it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m the sort of MCU fan who generally really likes the business model and goes see all the new films in theatres, but I’m not deeply invested in the mythos or the character arcs, with a few exceptions. (Tony, Bruce, and Natasha. Tony, Bruce, and Natasha are the exceptions.) So while I wasn’t parked right outside Netflix revving my engine for Jessica Jones to be released, there was a certain inevitability to my watching it that somehow made it hard to get excited about it. You know. Sigh, all right, Disney, here’s another thing to mark off on the checklist so I’m not missing anything. With my luck, the one side project I skipped would be the lynchpin of Avengers 3.
My low-ish expectations lead to some pretty amazing returns when the reality of the thing crashed down on me.
One of the main reasons it’s hard for me to get really excited about the MCU on that passionate, visceral level that elevates something from an interest to an obsession – that line between fan and fandom, if you will – is that I’ve never quite felt that any of Marvel’s big names live in the real world.
Anyone who’s read my book knows that I value characters that feel like they have daily lives. And I have a hard time imagining Steve Rogers filing his taxes, or Natasha Romanoff making a doctor’s appointment for an annoying rash. Those are all the things that make a character truly compelling to me. A sense that they exist in a physical space. One of my little self-tests for whether a character feels “alive” is whether or not I can imagine them taking a bathroom break without it seeming weird. I 100% cannot imagine Thor taking a bathroom break.
Now, Jessica? I don’t even have to imagine it. She actually takes bathroom breaks.
Now, this isn’t a judgement on the MCU or its core characters. It’s a matter of preference. I love the MCU, but while its characters are deeply, painfully likeable, they lack a visceral realness that I find I need. And this is why, more than anything else, I found myself drawn into Jessica Jones.
The honest and heart-wrenching depiction of post traumatic stress disorder, the beautiful respect and love paid to friendships between women, the sharp, darkly funny dialogue, and the empowering look at women who have experienced sexual assault – these were all the things that made the series sing and gave it its identity. But what allowed me to get so much out of those things is how I really felt that Jessica and Trish and the people they met didn’t all wake up with minty breath and empty bladders.
Jessica Jones lives in a real place, surrounded by real people, and that’s something I really love.
Women Need Women Who Need Women
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Or, better yet, if you’ve said this one.
“I just get along better with guys than with other girls. Other girls are just so catty. You can’t really trust them. They always talk behind your back. It’s constant drama. Men just make better friends than women. I just connect with them better.”
I mean, I’ve said it. I think most women who grew up geeky have. Honestly, there are a whole host of seasons that we do this, but I think a large part of it is that geek media has socalized to see badass girls as girls who hang around with boys.
I can’t think of one female character I admired as a teenager and young adult who had strong relationships with other women. It’s one of those many unforeseen consequences of failing the Bechdel Test, which I talked about in my Backstage Character Pass on Maris Dawson, my tough scrappy policewoman. All of the tough, badass women in geeky media tend to be surrounded by men and have only male relationships. We’re affected by what we see and who we admire, and it’s hard to ignore that our iconic tough, badass ladies like Princess Leia, Black Widow, or Hermione Granger lack any deep personal connection with the women in their life.
Jessica Jones is so intensely aware of this. And it’s really amazing. I haven’t read the comic it’s adapted from, but to my understanding, the relationship between Jess and Trish is a lot different than the one between Jess and Carol Danvers. Jessica and Trish are one another’s Most Important Person, the single person the other would save if they had to choose just one. They have a rich and weighty history together, exhibit real, intense loyalty for one another, and would do anything for each other, but at the same time, there’s no idealization of their relationship. Jessica pushes Trish out. Trish is bossy and mothering. There’s a thread of codependance between their relationship. They both struggle with jealousy and with their own individual damage, but when the cards are down, they fight for one another. They laugh together, drink together, listen to music together. They act the way that women do in close, intense friendships, and there’s value in that.
Of course, there isn’t just Trish and Jessica. The ruthless shark of a lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, was a male character in the comics and is a woman in the show. Her relationship with Jessica is cutting, sarcastic, sharp, and impatient, but is based on a mutual respect that independent ladies have for one another. And in turn, Jeri’s two love interests, her failing marriage and flourishing affair, are also women, providing even more interaction. In so many ways, love (and all of love’s messy, ugly cousins) is the same regardless of gender. In others, romance between women really is different than the heteronormative ideal, and you really get a sense of that in Jeri’s interactions with the women in her life.
It’s so important that we, as women, see women interacting with women. Positively and negatively, as long as there’s depth to the relationship. When it isn’t just that same repetition of “girl drama” as seen through the eyes of those who think they’re above it. When we get told that tough girls avoid the cat fights and stick to boys, it gets lodged up in us and we believe it. Jessica Jones not only avoids showing that frankly bullshit version of events, it writes its women and their relationships so well.
The Greatest Plot Twist Of All
((The next section contains SPOILERS for up to episode 9 of Jessica Jones: “AKA Sin Bin.” Read at your own risk.))
From those first moments in the first episode where Jessica hallucinates that Kilgrave is there beside her, whispering in her ear, the very suggestion of his possible presence can send a chill down your spine.
Something happens somewhere along the way, thought. As the series continues, Kilgrave goes from being a very mysterious character – face turned away from the camera, focus put on his voice and the reactions to it – to a more front and centre one. His sinister malignant presence fades somewhat, and a sort of horrifically charming, hapless sort of evil emerges. I found myself wrestling with my own brain, torn between being utterly terrified of Kilgrave and digusted by the horrors he’d committed, and actually being drawn in by him.
It all comes to a head in episode 8, “AKA WWJD,” where Jessica spends the episode willingly living with Kilgrave as he tries to win her over. He claims that he’s resolved not to use his mind control power and wants her to decide to trust him and fall in love with her on her own. There’s a childlike sort of hopefulness to Kilgrave in this episode, and it’s confusing and hard to watch. I would catch myself falling under his spell, or finding the awful things he said or did darkly funny. I found myself really enjoying the interplay between he and Jessica as she drags him to a crisis scene and manipulates him into playing hero. He’s almost puppyish in his desire to please her, to be what she wants, and I struggled with my own disgust at finding it… endearing.
It felt so inevitable when Kilgrave shows her footage of himself as a small child trapped in a laboratory, tortured and experimented on by his heartless scientist parents. It was the twist that I’d been waiting for in the back of my head. Why he was the way he was. His reason. His excuse. His parents mock him with false comfort and he shrieks as he’s forced to undergo spinal taps and tests under the harsh eye of the camera. “Ah,” I remember thinking. “It all makes sense, now. Kilgrave is just Kevin Thompson, a poor misunderstood little woobie who broke under the torture he was forced to undergo.” I felt vindicated for that part of me I’d been so disgusted with, the part that couldn’t help but want to root for Kilgrave’s redemption arc. He started talking about how hard it was to never know if someone actually cared about him or was just mind controlled. About how he had to examine every word that came out of his mouth. About how badly he wanted to make a real connection. I let go and let myself sink into the direction the story seemed to be taking: Jessica would selflessly pretend to cooperate with Kilgrave, and through that she would teach him a code and show him how to be a hero and he’d reclaim some of the humanity that had been cruelly snatched from him.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
That “plot twist” had seemed so inevitable because it was so damn familiar. The story turned down a familiar path, one that I’d seen a thousand times before. And I let myself fall into a comfortable place where I thought I knew where it was going. Worse, I was okay with it.
I’d like to take a moment to link this amazing tumblr post reblogged by my great agent, Caitlin McDonald. I think that it lays the groundwork for what I’m about to say better than anything I could write myself.
Instead of redeeming him, Jessica takes Kilgrave prisoner. And then comes the real plot twist. Jessica actually tracks down Kilgrave’s horrible, abusive, cruel parents. She wants them to answer for what they did, creating this monster. Only, as it turns out, they didn’t create one at all. Poor woobie broken Kevin Thompson had been terminally ill. His cruel scientist parents had been trying to cure him. As soon as he gained his powers, he turned the abilities on them. They did their best to care for him while he terrorized them for years, and eventually, they fled his reign of terror. The narrative Kilgrave had created in his own mind just wasn’t true. He hadn’t been twisted into a monster. He’d been born one. He was a dangerous sociopath given powers that allowed him to act with impunity. Bad to the bone. There was no heart-breaking, tragic tale, no one to blame for his corruption, and no possibility of redemption.
I’m not sure my mind had ever been so blown.
I realized like a sucker punch to my gut how I’d been played. The writing had been so brilliant and so twisted. It had coded Kilgrave in a way that aligned him with a lifetime of experience with redeemed bad boys, and then played on my desire to romanticize and redeem this character. It showed me what I had begun to want to see, and then it reached out and snatched it back and left me reeling. I had accepted Kilgrave’s version of events without thought. Even after everything he’d done, such horrifying things that they could turn the strongest stomach, I’d still let myself get taken in. I’d never stopped being afraid of him, never stopped being disgusted by him, but I’d seen that potential for redemption and reached out toward it and been burned so damn hard and I felt so ashamed and so angry and, at the same time, so deeply impressed.
I’d love to write something so brilliant.
It changed the way I looked at Kilgrave. His charms evaporated. His dark humour and boyish good looks and likeable David Tennant-ness all made me angry. His deeds had become personal. It served the story by plugging me into events more than ever before, by making me a maligned party along with everyone else who came into contact with this asshole.
And it made me think. It immediately brought to mind that post I linked above, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the cleverness of it. It’s made me decide to think a lot more critically about bad boys in all forms of media, to pinpoint the moment I start forgiving them their dark sides and examine why. It’s also made me think a lot about how I write villains. I’m of the viewpoint that no villain considers themselves one, and a good villain is one who the audience can understand or even partially empathize with. Kilgrave hit all those notes while explicitly not crossing that line into romanticizing a villain.
The way Jessica Jones slowly, gracefully charted the course from “scary Kilgrave the evil raping mind controlling boogeyman” to “poor Kevin Thompson the tortured soul trying to do his best despite being fundamentally broken” wasn’t half as brilliant as its abrupt swing backwards. It pulled the rug out. It’s something I’d never really seen done before… and certainly never seen done well.