Happy 2016, blog-followers! Now that I’m finished with the business of Christmas, New Year and slowly but surely getting older, let’s get back to business.
For those of you that don’t know, Jessica Jones is the lead character in Marvel’s phenomenally successful Netflix series, Jessica Jones. Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – by which I mean that one corner of New York that all Marvel stories seem to take place in – the plot follows Jessica’s efforts to take down an incredibly creepy supervillain who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. The show has been met with almost universal praise, particularly for its complex portrayal of relationship abuse and PTSD. Jessica herself is no exception, and has been hailed by critics and fans alike as one of Marvel’s best heroines.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: I’ll be focusing on the Netflix show, rather than the Marvel comics. Due to the nature of the show, I will be discussing sexual assault, relationship abuse and extreme violence all throughout this post.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Much of Jessica’s story arc focuses around her regaining control over her life. She starts the series as a young woman who is still living in fear of her abuser, and much of her life seems to be defined by the relationship she’s still trying to escape. However, as the series goes on she moves past her fear and actively starts working to make the world a better place – mainly by trying to stop her ex, Kilgrave. She takes the lead in every way she can, whether she’s solving her PI cases, trying to protect the people she cares about, or simply punching her psycho ex-boyfriend in the face.
Much of her character arc does revolve around her terrible, awful relationship with her ex-boyfriend, however. Jessica had absolutely no control over this – literally, as Kilgrave has mind control powers that can force people to obey his every command. However, she tries not to let this define her. Jessica does focus on taking Kilgrave down, but she doesn’t just do it out of revenge for what he did to her – she’s also doing it to stop him from continuing to influence other people. The series as a whole focuses on Jessica trying to redefine herself after her relationship with Kilgrave and regaining control over her own life – whether that’s through establishing herself as a PI, starting up a new romantic relationship, or reconnecting with the people she loves. Her overall journey really centres around breaking the control that Kilgrave had over her – in more ways than one – so she definitely passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Jessica’s goals are very clearly defined. She wants to stop Kilgrave – first by bringing him to justice, and once she realised that would be impossible, by killing him – but she also wants to protect the people she loves and help the other people that he’s wronged. This goal drives her all throughout the series.
We don’t see all that much of her hobbies – although it is established that she’s a functioning alcoholic – but her beliefs are also very well-established. She believes that she’s better off alone – she doesn’t like being too close to people because she’s worried that Kilgrave will hurt them to get to her, and she makes a conscious choice to keep her friends at arm’s length. She believes she’s responsible for the death of her family and has done since childhood – no matter how irrational this may be. She has a pretty pessimistic outlook on life, and really doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, but deep down she does still want to help people. That’s a range of goals and beliefs that she sticks to all throughout the series, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Jessica is a very consistent character. She’s short-tempered, acerbic, anti-social, tough, but deep down she’s a good person struggling with a lot of guilt. When she’s first introduced it’s clear that the more negative aspects of her personality have been exacerbated by Kilgrave’s abuse, but even in flashbacks of her life before she met him, we see her personality is largely consistent.
Her skills follow along the same lines. Like Kilgrave, she too has superpowers – but hers are the powers of physical strength and a shaky grasp of flight. Physical strength comes very naturally to her – we see her picking this up very quickly after an accident she had as a teenager – although it’s clear that she still has to put in a certain amount of effort to keep her powers under control.
She’s not so good at flight, however – in the comics it’s made clear that this is an ability she always struggled with, and in the show it’s always described as ‘controlled falling’. Both her personality and skills are consistent all throughout the series, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
An aggressive, short-tempered PI struggling with an alcohol addiction and PTSD is determined to protect her friends – even if it means facing her worst fears.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Jessica does make a few decisions influenced by her love life, but only in her interactions with Luke Cage, which don’t actually take up all that much of the plot. The bulk of her decisions are influenced by her desire to stop Kilgrave. In some respects, I suppose you could argue that all Jessica’s decisions are influenced by her love life, as the bulk of her story arc revolves around the fact that she was in a really terrible relationship. However, I don’t think that this argument holds water.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Kilgrave manipulated Jessica into dating him. It’s confirmed in a flashback to the moment they met – from the second that he opened his mouth, Jessica had no choice but to obey everything he said. This isn’t love, it’s mind control. Jessica eventually realises this – not having encountered mind control before, it takes her a while to work out what’s going on – but when she does, she becomes horrified and disgusted by Kilgrave’s behaviour. There was a part of her that was aware of his control, but unfortunately, awareness alone was not enough to break his hold over her, and she spent however many months forced to obey him no matter how much she hated it.
The show directly states that Jessica had no choice in their relationship from the moment of its inception – everything that happened in it was the direct result of Kilgrave’s mind control. Jessica didn’t consent to any single part of it – whether it was Kilgrave telling her what to wear, what to eat or how to look at him – and thus, every single sexual interaction they had was rape.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that even though Jessica Jones is about a woman moving on from a past relationship, it is not about her love life – it’s about reclaiming her own identity after a relationship that was so abusive she barely had any idea who she was any more. Most of what motivates Jessica through the series is fear and anger, not love – fear that she will put into that situation again, and anger that she had to go through it in the first place. I can’t really describe Jessica’s relationship with Kilgrave as part of her love life given that she herself describes it as repeated rape on multiple levels – that’d be like hitting someone with a spade and calling it gardening.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Over the course of the series, Jessica confronts her fear of Kilgrave, starts making more of an effort to connect with her friends, starts working with other people rather than on her own, and finally starts expressing her emotions to the people she cares about – although mostly that’s only when they’re unconscious. That’s some solid development on more than one count, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Jessica has plenty of weaknesses. She struggles with an alcohol addiction, she pushes her friends away when all they want to do is help, she’s prone to acting rashly and lashing out. She’s aggressive, she’s short-tempered, she doesn’t know when she needs to look after herself, she can be really nasty for no apparent reason, and she just doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. She’s got plenty of flaws that really hold her back – some of which she manages to overcome, some of which she doesn’t – so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Jessica is a driving force on the plot. She propels the story forward at every turn, whether she’s investigating a case, tracking down a lead or chasing after Kilgrave. She passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Jessica defies gender stereotypes in several ways – we’ll start with some of the more common ones. She’s aggressive, physically strong, has trouble connecting with people on an emotional level and pushes people away to keep them safe – these are all traits far more commonly seen in heroes than heroines. It’s actually extremely unusual to see a conventionally attractive young woman play the role of the grizzled, hard-boiled detective – complete with all the emotional baggage and substance abuse this particular cliché usually carries with it.
However, what makes Jessica such a really ground-breaking character – and what makes Jessica Jones such a compelling and interesting show – is the way that the series handles sexual assault, rape, and PTSD. Jessica is a rape survivor. Kilgrave, her ex-boyfriend and rapist, doesn’t fit into the mould of the ‘traditional’ rapist – he’s good-looking, charming, polite, and he didn’t drag her off into some alleyway on a dark night. He raped her repeatedly using manipulation and control, but was never actually physically violent towards her – as I discussed earlier, all his sexual assaults were committed using mind control. Nevertheless, the show never once undermines Jessica’s experiences by suggesting that his behaviour was somehow ‘better’ just because he wasn’t physically violent. Jessica’s experiences are still treated as traumatic, and Kilgrave is still portrayed as a near-monstrous human being, and rightfully so. This is very rarely seen in all kinds of media, as abuse and rape without a physically violent element to them are often ignored in the stories we read.
What’s more, the fact that the story focuses on Jessica’s struggle to come to terms with what happens to her while showcasing her strength is truly ground-breaking. Jessica is shown to be physically strong, tough, aggressive and doesn’t suffer fools gladly – yet she still has flashbacks that leave her shaking, still experiences fear that makes her want to drop everything and leave the country. She is shown to be vulnerable and this does not undermine her strength. Unlike many other shows, Jessica Jones says in no uncertain terms that rape survivors are not weak, and that the trauma that sexual assault can cause is not the result of some kind of flaw in their character. Her overcoming her PTSD is not the only element to the plot, whereas in many other stories, a rape survivor learning to move past their trauma is the plot.
Jessica Jones has been praised for its highly realistic portrayal of recovering from sexual assault and rape, and for showing that the trauma this can cause isn’t a sign of weakness. Jessica is an unashamedly strong character in every sense of the word, and having her deal with rape-related PTSD shows in no uncertain terms that this is a normal reaction to a highly traumatic event. Most fictional depictions of rape survivors coming to terms with their experiences aren’t nearly so nuanced, often only allowing the characters to be strong when they’re effectively ‘over’ their experiences. Jessica Jones shows that women who’ve been sexually assaulted can be strong and still be coming to terms with what happened to them – the two don’t have to cancel each other out.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Jessica has several relationships with a wide range of other female characters. She’s disdainful of her weird neighbour, Robyn. She feels incredibly angry with Kilgrave’s mother, but ultimately doesn’t hold her responsible for her son’s behaviour. She hates the fact that she has to depend on the lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, for work, and frequently treats her with both contempt and grudging respect. But by far her most interesting relationships are with Hope Shlottman and Trish Walker.
Hope Shlottman is another one of Kilgrave’s victims, who he used to get to Jessica. She’s a very young girl who has her future completely ripped away from her by his actions, and Jessica feels largely responsible. She wants to protect Hope from him while feeling incredibly guilty that she hasn’t been able to do more, and even though it doesn’t come naturally to her, she makes a point of supporting Hope, going out of her way to support her decisions, get her what she needs and provide some level of emotional support.
Trish Walker is Jessica’s childhood best friend and adopted sister. They’ve fallen out of touch at the start of the series – mainly thanks to Kilgrave – and spend the rest of the series reconnecting and growing closer together. Jessica spends most of their time on-screen trying to protect Trish, while realising that she might not need quite as much protection as she used to – a leftover from Trish’s childhood with her abusive mother.
All of these are very well-written, realistic relationships that have a real impact on Jessica’s character, her decisions and the plot as a larger whole. These relationships are complex, nuanced, varied, and they change as the series goes on – who could ask for more?
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
What a way to kick off 2016! Jessica is a really brilliant character – she’s in control of her own storyline, she has a distinct and consistent personality, she has flaws that hold her back, she has a range of relationships with a wide range of other female characters and she relates to gender stereotypes in a way that is actually pretty ground-breaking.
I’ve been hard on the Marvel Cinematic Universe ladies before, but Jessica has really knocked it out of the park. She is the proof that Marvel can – when it chooses – give just the same amount of time, care and development to its female characters as it does to its heroes. It’s really encouraging to see a character like this from someone like Marvel – and I hope we see a lot more of them!
Next week, I’ll be looking at The Lord of the Rings. Eowyn, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.