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Jessica Jones shouldered her way into my life, scowling and downing whiskey, and forced me to binge watch the entire series in two days. After sitting my mum down a week later and re-watching the whole thing again, I realised that this was more than just an addictive Netflix masterpiece – it was MADE FOR ME! It's not just that we have the same colour hair and both like whiskey (there the similarities unfortunately end) it’s a show that features supernatural action, gritty drama, and discusses issues that I realise I have been craving to be represented. The premise is relatively simple; Jessica Jones who, for a short time worked as a costumed superhero, has become a private eye after being emotionally and physically abused by Kilgrave, a psychopath with mind control powers, who is now obsessed and stalking her, hurting others just to get to her. So, obviously, she has to take him down. Whilst following this rather simple defence/revenge plot, the complexities involved in this are explored in a way that is missing from these story lines traditionally. You need to protect yourself? You want revenge? Well, then there are going to be pretty big emotional and social consequences!
It also shows women and their interactions with each other and the world, their need to react and protect themselves from it, and the way they support each other in that survival. It’s drawn comparisons with Buffy for obvious reasons, but I think JJ’s more focused and darker approach makes viewers consider these points in very different ways. Also, JJ utilises almost a complete gender reversal with the women taking the roles that men normally play: Jessica is the hard as nails, emotionally damaged heartthrob saviour, and Trish is the supportive quirky sidekick best friend. The men’s roles are also flipped: Luke is the love interest in danger because of Jessica and Malcolm is the troubled damsel in distress that Jessica needs to save. Rohan summed it up pretty well on twitter:
There is a wonderful moment where we see Kilgrave give Jessica the right to make his decisions for him, trying to convince her that if she stays with him she might be able to use his power for good. The fact that she decides to get out anyway is a strong message – the myth of the dangerous man (see our article on Twilight) who is gentle to you as an exception, is such a poisonous misleading narrative, presented to young girls and women again and again, telling them that not only are violent men attractive, but if you can tame them, that makes you extra special. This is a lie. Thank you JJ for not perpetuating it.
Laurel discusses how the various relationships in Marvel/Netflix's Jessica Jones make the show so great.
It’s not just the deep, complicated and complex characterisation, the way it highlights and explores domestic abuse, or the fact that it’s fast-paced, downright entertaining and has some rather pretty men in it – it’s the relationships that really got me. For this issue of Holdfast, Love, Sex, Romance, I wanted to explore all the different types of relationship that this show so expertly covers:
Jessica and Kilgrave
Kilgrave is very clearly an abusive, dominating, manipulative, controlling psychopath. He seems a very extreme example of an average abusive man, but is he? Give someone who already feels entitled to control people mind control powers (to symbolise a culture that aids and abets the control of women), and what happens? Bad things. And as well as this fantasy world examination of abuse, I see in Kilgrave the perfect metaphor for the white male patriarchy – so entitled and narcissistic that he thinks he not only could but should get and do anything he wants. Jessica and Kilgrave enact this relationship out on screen – when someone (Jessica) comes along and shows him that actually, that isn't cool, it becomes his mission to own her/control her (sound familiar to anyone? Internet trolling? Men's Rights Activists?!).
But the most important thing this relationship shows us is about abuse, and the need to have superhuman strength to survive it. Kilgrave chooses Jessica because she is strong, she has the ability to overpower him physically, and this feeds his desire to own and dominate her. Because of this strength, she is the only person with the power to eventually defeat him. This challenges the notion that people suffering abuse are in any way weak. In fact, they are the opposite, they have to be superhuman.
Jessica and Trish
Women can be friends! Who’d have thunk it? And those friendships are important. The intensity of Trish’s support and obvious love for Jessica is heightened by childhood trauma and the supernatural nature of the man that abused Jessica, but seeing this relationship at the centre of JJ struck me in its rarity. This is something that is seriously lacking not just on TV but also in film and fiction. When you consider how common the ‘bromance’ is in well-known narratives, this under representation of one of the most powerful relationships in many women’s lives – especially in genre – is actually terrifying. Why do we not present this as an example for young girls to aspire to? Instead we are mostly given sexual rivalry and petty jealousy. My closest female friends are what make my life worth living, why on earth have I never noticed how rare it is to see this on screen or read about it in novels? Again, another example I can think of is Willow and Buffy, but I struggle to get much further.
Friendship and teamwork - Jessica and Trish
Trish and Simpson
So, Simpson and Trish meet when Simpson, a cop who should be protecting her, forces his way into her flat and tries to kill her. He's been compelled by Kilgrave to do this, but even when this wears off and Trish knows that he is horrified by what he tried to do, she is understandably cautious of him. Then, pretty unwisely as it turns out, they enter into a highly charged sexual relationship (points for her being on top in the longest sex scene). Even though in truth it was Kilgrave that attacked her, the sheer violence of their first encounter really had me questioning why Trish would enter into this relationship. It felt in danger of slipping into the sleeping with a dangerous man fetish that seems to worm its way into so much pop culture (again – see our article on Twilight for an example).
But when Simpson later shows his true colours, and becomes what Kilgrave wanted him to be all on his own, Trish beats the crap out of him, weakening him enough for JJ to actually knock him out with a fridge filled with irony (fridging is a term used for when women are hurt, killed or abused in order to motivate a male character). This was a very clever, literal enactment of challenging the sexy violent man trope. Trish got herself out of that situation, even if she thought that deep down he was a good person, because she didn't need to be dealing with that crap.
Jessica and Luke
This is a complicated one – JJ, under control of the white male patriarchy aka Kilgrave, kills Luke's wife, Reva. Grief stricken by what she's done, she becomes obsessed with (super hot) Luke, eventually ending up sleeping with him. Very similarly to Trish and Simpson however, when Luke finds out that JJ killed his wife, he understandably ends that aspect of their relationship (or does he?), disgusted with her and himself. This for me was the most difficult relationship to understand. What Jessica does, even though she develops real feelings for Luke, is pretty awful. Even though, like Simpson wasn’t for trying to kill Trish, JJ wasn’t responsible for killing Riva, she is responsible for what she does afterwards, stalking him and insinuating herself into his life.
It seems like her guilt forces her to keep checking in on him, punishing herself for making him suffer. Does a small part of her think that entering into a relationship with him will make him happier? Or is this just the byproduct of following him? Is Jessica just being selfish? This has not yet resolved itself in series one, and will hopefully be addressed in series two.
Jessica and Malcolm
Jessica's junkie neighbour Malcolm starts out as what seems to be simply an opportunity for Jessica to show her softer side. Here is someone maybe more messed up than her, whom other people write off as hopeless, but whom Jessica helps and obviously likes. When it turns out that he too has been used by Kilgrave in order to spy on JJ, she helps him escape Kilgrave’s power, getting him off drugs and back to his former self. What stops this from falling into the trope of the White Saviour is that Malcolm saves Jessica too, becoming, alongside Trish, her moral compass, and her lifeline to friendship and human warmth. He becomes her partner in taking Kilgrave down, helps her when things get messy, and calls her on her bullshit.
As well as these key relationships in the series, there are other characters that make an impact, such as the eccentric twins upstairs, Trish’s abusive mum, and the morally dubious Hogarth, Jessica’s employer.
The fact that Jessica Jones covered such important topics, using relationships to explore them, and challenged gender roles in genre media, made people sit up and take notice. As I look forward to the next season, my main hope is that shows like this will become the norm, and when women take up most of the lead roles in an action series, people won’t even notice.