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'Jessica Jones' and Gendered Forms of Seeing

Daniel Murphy

It’s alarming that Jessica Jones' expressions of self-control and autonomy play into rather than controvert the pedophilic misogyny she fights in the form of Kilgrave.

The Netflix Original Jessica Jones, the newest television entry in the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is for the most part a treat. The narrative ably synthesizes a pop neo-noir sensibility with punches of comic book verve and hardboiled crime fiction. It also makes the MCU richer in palpable ways; this is a grittier, more realistic and more dramatically tractable New York than the glossy, cinematic versions we've seen in previous Marvel entries.

More importantly, Jessica Jones may be the most gender progressive texts among an increasingly wide selection of recent superhero fare. Upon its streaming release the program attracted both praise and derision from different quarters for its “feminism”. Fans rallied behind the show’s unapologetic emphasis on its leading women characters, while a vocal but persistent minority charged that the program “hated men”. With that in mind, let’s consider the show’s gender politics and assess what it might mean for Jessica Jones to be a politically operative text, particularly in the confines of a popular genre that traditionally skews male.

Jessica Jones quickly became a social media darling for a number of reasons, chiefly its pioneering of the “feminist superhero” show. This label in many respects makes sense. All the markers are in place: the show features a ‘strong female lead’, it resists the explicit sexualizing of its women protagonists, and the first season’s primary themes revolve around rape culture and patriarchal oppression.

Still, the show needs be taken to task for a number of curious transgressions it levies against its own posture as a gender progressive program. It may not be altogether fair to evaluate Jessica Jones on account of its ‘good’ or ‘bad’ gender politics just for having an eponymous woman protagonist. However, because the show is widely being touted as a “feminist” superhero program, it's worthwhile to consider the ways in which this label is and isn’t earned. It’s especially important to consider the ways in which structural misogyny and a masculinist calculus operate in the narrative’s formal logic.

I’m not interested in calling out Jessica Jones as a “bad” feminist show as much as I want to articulate from a position of caution some of the ways that ostensibly ‘progressive’ content can mask its own implicit conservatism. The stakes become all the more salient when “feminism” is applied as a genre label, rather than used to describe with accuracy a given text’s political nature.

Jessica Jones, played commendably by Krysten Ritter, is a force to be reckoned with. She can jump really high (and possibly fly?) and is preternaturally strong. While not altogether impervious to harm, Jessica can endure quite a lot of pain while she keeps on kicking. For all of her gruffness and caustic bite, she's an immensely likeable functional alcoholic in the vein of disillusioned ‘40s and ‘50s era private investigators.

Unlike her counterparts in mid-century film-noir, however, Jessica Jones holds back on the mansplaining. Whereas Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in The Maltese Falcon or Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) of Double Indemnity, or even either Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent takes on arch-detective Sherlock Holmes, have a propensity to express their intellectual cunning through exhibitive and talkative displays of rational deduction that “solve” the mystery in question, Jessica simply plans things and does them without much fanfare. The show thereby highlights one of the paradoxes of the noir crime drama; that being the surly, disillusioned “quiet man” who turns out to be very, very talkative when it comes to telling us how it is.

More often than not, the premise for this kind of exposition takes the shape of the male detective narrating the details of the case to women onlookers. The charismatic introvert-as-magnetic outcast invariably moves away from taciturn expressions of solitude and ably grows into a talky persona. Well-articulated displays of control and rationality are inextricable from forms of masculine conduct in detective fiction. Most whodunnits end, after all, with a recounting and synthesizing of information that culminates in a display of male prowess and intellectual cunning.

Indeed, the most famous detective in superhero comics, Batman, encapsulates this very pattern. Known for his clipped speech and no-nonsense demeanor, the caped crusader also indulges in self-aggrandizing moments of prolix analysis and summary.

Jessica Jones partially alludes to this very tradition in the figure of Simpson (Will Traval), the show’s would-be sidekick turned antagonist. A NYPD officer and former Special Ops soldier, Simpson’s long-winded and no-nonsense emphasis on tactical and “practical” knowledge is not rewarded in the show and is instead played for annoying.

Jessica’s plans work better than his do and, however capable in his own right, Simpson and his utilitarian brand of expertise rarely amounts to much. His credibility as a veteran-turned-cop is quickly squandered in the narrative’s value system. Not only does Simpson interfere with Jessica’s investigative work more than he helps, his condescending fits of white machismo find no quarter in the narrative structure. One of the most memorable and satisfying moments from season one comes in the form of Jessica’s half-sister and best friend, Trish (Rachael Taylor), cutting off Simpson early during one of his smug mansplaining rants: “last night was fun, but that doesn’t mean that I want your opinion.”

It's significant that Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Simpson in Jessica Jones bear a striking physical resemblance. I see the show offering an oblique criticism of the white male paragon of patriotism and civic heroism extolled in the MCU.

If Jessica Jones is in many ways a laudable appropriation of the traditionally male PI figure, there are still certain unsettling elements of her character and the show more generally. Both Breaking Bad and the B___ in Apartment 23 deservedly solicited criticism for the gratuitously sexual, anatomizing ways Krysten Ritter’s characters were shot in both programs. To be sure, Jessica Jones is less openly egregious than either Breaking Bad and the B___ in Apartment 23 in the manner that it films both Ritter and co-star Rachael Taylor. Still, the visual and narrative economy of Jessica Jones is not as different from these more exploitative cases as one might hope.

In spite of her grunge, anti-establishment demeanor and surface level refusal to participate in the economy of feminine etiquette -- in stark contrast to Trish, the traditionally cosmeticized and telegenic blonde media personality -- Jessica sleeps while wearing a full face of makeup, is conventionally attractive, and has a propensity to lounge around her apartment suggestively in revealing tank-tops while partially (and sometimes, very) intoxicated.

This leads to another complicating aspect of the character: her performance of destructive and embittered late adolescence as an expression of sexuality. This is one of the more troublesome features of the program for how it correlates with the first season’s primary villain, the insidious telepath Kilgrave (David Tenant). If Kilgrave’s mind-control induced, grossly literal expression of a patriarchal fantasy reduces Jones to a childlike, dependent sex doll (he controls Jessica and runs her life, dressing her like a doll and systematically rapes her), the show by the same turn asks us to read Jessica's youthful, pouty impudence as a sultry form of empowerment.

Indeed, this becomes a weirdly understated pattern in the show: Jessica needing to be taken care of in her apartment by effectual surrogate parents. At different times, Trish, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Malcolm (Eka Darville) all have to take care of Jessica.

It’s more than a little alarming that her expressions of self-control and autonomy play into rather than controvert the pedophilic misogyny she fights in the form of Kilgrave. Indeed, it’s an odd moment in the first season when, under the (well-disguised) control of Kilgrave, Luke Cage says to Jessica that the two of them could pursue a romantic future together predicated on his "forgiving her everyday". At this point in the season we know that Jessica, while being controlled by Kilgrave in the past, was directed to kill Luke’s wife. Jessica confesses this to Luke, which for a time truncates their budding romance.

They reunite, however, in the quest to defeat Kilgrave, which is when Luke mentions he could entertain a future relationship premised on his forgiving Jessica for Kilgrave’s sins. Even though she's not at fault for her transgressions against Luke, as she was under mind-control, Jessica demurely assents to Luke’s gesture. She is enraged later when she (and we, the audience) find that Luke’s expression of commitment is really Kilgrave speaking through Luke. Kilgrave has essentially tricked Jessica into wanting to be forgiven by her rapist.

This development only "works" as a twist because the initial moment with Luke is presented as a tender, romantic exchange between two damaged people we the audience have come to like and whom we know struggle to express their feelings. This is the 'desirable' formal union of the two likable, heteronormative characters in a moment of mutual vulnerability. Jessica's assent to Luke is genuine – her response allows what is presented as a favorable and viable future, at least until the arrangement is unmasked as patriarchy-in-disguise.

Indeed, something about Jessica as a character, and the show on the whole, quietly accepts rather than rejects a premise for identity that doesn't ultimately require male recognition and validation. This is one area where the show’s second season might deliver on an exploration of victim’s guilt. Until then, the first season’s treatment of this problem leaves something to be desired.

The infantilization of the title character gets us back to the show's organization and use of narrative space. Easy access to Jessica’s apartment – it's only nominally cordoned from other characters’ purviews -- is at once a running joke (her apartment’s door is always broken) and a plot contrivance facilitating different interactions between characters. One might be inclined to read this as the show gesturing toward collective action, cooperation, and a team-based vision of co-dependent heroism (in strong contrast to the heroic hyper-individualism so common in the genre). It’s also surely a convenient metonym for a Hell's Kitchen- like miniature in the apartment as a set and story space.

A more troublesome logic also features in this design. If the show provides a networked model of co-dependent action taken together to constitute “heroism”, it nonetheless takes the form of Jessica partaking in a caregiving economy from a place of vulnerability, again, because her self-destructive and drug-induced fallibility is actually part of her “charm”. Reiterating a weird and destructive trope from masculinist genres, binge drinking and drug-dependence are here a matter of style, played for “edginess” and “toughness” rather than employed to deal with addiction or intoxication in a meaningful way.

This is especially unfortunate considering the show’s thematic interest in sexual assault and domestic violence. Alcohol-induced vulnerability is really not presented as such – it's used, often semi-comically, to make Jessica seem tough, plucky, and amusingly recalcitrant, even when this same drinking places her in compromised positions.

Structural and industry level factors also complicate how we might read the show’s underlying gender politics. That the show’s two leading figures, Jessica and Trish, are both conventionally attractive, young white women is worth noting. More troublesome is the way the show leans into visualizing its “blonde and brunette” as a sexual iconography. In the show’s logic, Jessica and Trish mark the poles of a relatively small range of desirability: on the one hand, an attractive, romantically anti-establishment rebel figure, and on the other, a paragon of streamlined corporate feminity, affluent, stylish, and polished.

The male gaze is more operative in Jessica Jones than one might at first realize. As I mentioned before, a number of shots linger on and emphasize Jessica's body. The majority of these shots take place while Jessica is alone in her apartment, reproducing rather than critiquing a Hitchcock-like voyeurism. The show does thematize the ubiquity of the male gaze and depicts the threat of infrastructural surveillance. Male-driven scopophilia becomes in Jessica Jones a literal feature of the story environment. Jessica constantly fears being filmed by Kilgrave through one of his controlled victims, and she, for a time, is coerced into sending Kilgrave pictures of herself on a regular timetable. It's therefore a little surprising that the show seems at once cognizant of this cultural problem and willing to partake in it formally.

In turn, it’s true that the shirtless scenes featuring Luke and Simpson do work to objectify male bodies (it's an open question as to whether or not this is a progressive answer to domineering gazes or not), but these (few) shots are marked and contained as such: exhibitive body shots bracketed in the narrative. The show proceeds to anatomize its female leads in a subtle, but more persistently structural way.

Jessica Jones more self-evidently runs into problems elsewhere. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) is a surprisingly offensive lesbian caricature. She is a severe, androgynous, rational-choice monster. She nonetheless has an important role in the narratively speaking: she's styled as an anti-hero sidekick, in no small part on account of Moss's star power and cachet in the sci-fi genre. If she had been presented in another way, Hogarth’s character might have made for an interesting occasion to comment on queer renderings of second-wave feminism. But at present, the show seems unreflective of the way it employs a caricature as a means of representing an under-represented subject position (Jeri is the first lesbian character in the MCU).

Further, the show’s feeble resuscitation of the Blaxploitation-based character Luke Cage is similarly uninspiring. The character’s relationship with Jessica is interesting and generally well crafted, but formally, Cage is mobilized as a fantasy of otherized black masculinity. The show does little, in other words, to distance itself from the crass economic directives underlying Blaxploitation.

The show does productively offer a strong and sustained critique of hegemonic white masculinity. One of the first season’s most harrowing moments hinges on a debate about whether Kilgrave truly raped Jessica or not. He did. Many times. For Kilgrave, however, the telepath whose words always become actions, the inability to parse his intentions in language from actual manifestations of sexual assault makes for a striking representation of sexual violence in both its physical and discursive forms. Moreover, Kilgrave's deluded strategy to win back Jessica's affections -- he buys and restores her childhood home, trying to playact her father-as-lover and coerce her into the role of dependent, childlike sex object -- offers a terrifying and straightforward articulation of patriarchy's governing logic.

Further, the show’s refusal to represent and in any way accommodate white models of heroism is both important and well executed in the narrative. In a culture rich with superhero stories, many of them teeming with titular _____mans (Superman, Batman, Spider-man, Iron-man, take your pick), it’s politically and aesthetically significant that the show resists this mode and makes no gesture toward mitigating half-measures.

Film scholar Tonia Modleski argues in her take on Hitchcock’s films, The Women Who Knew Too Much, that in the interest of counteracting prevailing white masculinist norms in cinema -- “cinema” defined as an art form, a technology, a cultural common place, and an ideologically freighted way of seeing -- filmmakers must renegotiate the routinized formal praxis and dominant signifying strategies that obtain in the existing domain. While it isn’t fair to critique Jessica Jones for not fulfilling this lofty contrapuntal task, it is worth noting that the show’s progressive content is undermined by its insistence on a certain formal praxis and media-specific narrative grammar. Jessica Jones is in many ways a progressive show, and we should talk about it accordingly. Hopefully, we might watch the next seasons of Jessica Jones, from a position of good faith, with the expectation that it will ably grow into its aspirational feminism.

Daniel Murphy is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies contemporary American fiction and film, media theory, and pop culture.

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