I am so tired of the “strong silent woman” being the default trope that calls to feminism.
Strong female characters are a commodity these days. Marvel really loves to toot the “strong female character” horn, but so rarely do they actually walk the walk when they talk the talk. Characters like Black Widow become supporting characters, love interests, and sexual objects to her male Avengers. But when it comes to the talk about feminism, she’s the first (and sometimes only) person Marvel goes to as an example of a strong female character, because she can kick some ass.
And while a woman who can kick ass is great, her ability to fight equally and defeat a man is not the be-all and end-all of a truly well rounded female character. In fact, it kind of is insulting to women in general. Up until now, I haven’t really been able to identify a woman who really walks the walk, someone who can stand toe-to-toe to any superhero as her own defined character with more than just some muscle to back her up.
Jessica Jones is that woman.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones is an admittedly dark television show. A show that handles adult content so casually that it can easily default to titillation for the sake of sensationalism, but Jones rarely, if ever, takes that opportunity. The show is gritty and realistic the entire way through, giving its predecessor Daredevil a run for its money. Doling out strength and vulnerability in equal servings within a character allows for a depth that will continue to pay back in spades as the series progresses.
Jones does this repeatedly, not only with Jessica’s character but with Trish Walker and Jeri Hogarth and even supporting characters like Hope Schlottman and Robyn and Pam (not to mention the male characters like Kilgrave, Luke Cage, Malcolm, and Will Simpson). The show writes character portraits that define them apart from their physical attributes and their physical strengths. Trish is an entertainer and radio talk show host, she’s loved not only for the show that she hosts but also for her past as a child star. She bears her own weight of traumas, but she doesn’t let them define her and she is a stalwart in Jessica’s life: her voice of reason and confidante.
Similarly, Jeri Hogarth is a cutthroat top-firm attorney who toes the line between moral greys but remains one of Jessica’s strongest allies throughout the series. These two are crucial to Jessica’s story and growth — often playing as foils to Jessica — but they both have their own lives to lead and plot arcs to star in. All of the women paint different aspects of characters that are often jam packed into the singular female lead/supporting character.
For Jessica, her abilities and powers are simply a matter-of-fact and another weapon in her arsenal. She’s defined by the actions and experiences in her life, not by her ability to fight groups of grown men at once. She is known as a top-notch (if abrasive) PI, her powers certainly help her get the job done, but it’s just one part of the job. Her life is thrown into disarray when proof that her tormentor, Kilgrave, is back from the dead. Her life is highlighted as a woman who has survived severe trauma. Jessica Jones does the marvelous job of actually portraying this without any glossing over of the grittier points.
Television and films so often are prepared to put their characters — almost always female — through rape, filming actual or suggested rape scenes as a device of development either for the plot or the character. But instead of portraying the very real traumatic aftermath and consequence of victims of rape, they use it as a source of almost perverse entertainment. It’s frequently used in horror and crime genres as a catalyst or a shock, and then quickly forgotten if not mentioned with a simpering victim who wordlessly fades into the background. Just another lamb to the slaughter to draw in a blood thirsty crowd. But you won’t find any of that in this show. In fact, Jessica Jones does the exact opposite.
Rape is almost inevitable when it comes to a character like Kilgrave. His mind control makes consent impossible, and while his slaves may comply to his every wish, as Jessica points out to him he not only physically violated her but he mentally violated her everyday under his control and did so long after she escaped him. Indeed, the first look we get of Jessica is of her unapologetically drinking whiskey and going through the motions of the day to survive her encounter with Kilgrave. Even Hope, whose life has freshly been ruined by Kilgrave, is hardly simpering. While she might serve as the paragon of innocence for Jessica, she has her own toughness and jaded outlook that defines her as more than just a nameless victim.
When we see Jessica, she is always the woman post-trauma. She’s got her scars, but she is trying to heal. There are very few callbacks to her days as Kilgrave’s slave; there is no need. You are reminded every day just like she is; she is haunted by Kilgrave’s ghost and living in a veritable waking nightmare. In fact, Melissa Rosenberg, Jones‘ creator, does such a good job in showing a version of a real character there’s never anything lacking in Jessica’s backstory to make us require further clarification on her time with Kilgrave.
The nuances and time spent to creating each character creates a well-rounded story and strong narrative. Jessica Jones, in my opinion, by far exceeds all other Marvel television shows at the moment. I haven’t always been kind about my opinion of Marvel. So often I see them throwing around the idea of a strong female character who, in reality, is more a sexual object or a woman who can fight (or both), while the real character development is left for the male protagonists.
It isn’t just Black Widow, it’s Melinda May, it’s Pepper Potts, it’s Jane Foster, it’s Karen Page. The characters all have so much potential, but it’s all left behind in favor of the protagonist. They become unrealistic portrayals of women because we have barely dug beneath the surface. I want more. It upsets me because it almost always makes me think that they are throwing around words like “strong females” and “feminism” as a way to bait viewers.
But, Jessica Jones forces me to reevaluate my opinion of the shows that Marvel produces and the potential in future projects. From Kilgrave’s position as an almost perfectly despicable, irredeemable villain, to a multifaceted and diverse cast, Jessica’s role as a true main character — one that has been painstakingly developed through a show with dedication and commitment from a creator — who does not even need to be defined by her role as a strong woman because it goes without saying, pushes the envelope of great television today and breathes some fresh life into Marvel’s superheros.