Netflix’s first female-fronted superhero TV show stars Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, a human gifted with super strength and super jumping abilities and — despite being an orphan adopted for the sole purpose of exploitation — a hero’s heart. She wants to use her powers to help people. Early on in her crime-fighting career she gets tangled up with another “gifted” human, a sociopathic mind-controller named Zebediah Killgrave, who forces her to do horrible things on his behalf, including murdering an innocent woman. The show picks up after all that, as Jessica tries to cope with her PTSD by drinking every bottle of cheap bourbon in New York City and making money (to buy more bourbon) by skulking around in the shadows taking pictures of men cheating on their wives. She’s the proprietor of Alias Investigations.
Jessica Jones is not a perfect television show, but it is a perfect punch in the face to the reasons the art of superhero storytelling has mutated into one of the most sexist industries in America.
The thread that ties season one together is Jessica’s relationship to Killgrave, and by examining her trauma from every angle, it becomes one of the most unflinchingly feminist shows I’ve ever seen. Killgrave is the embodiment of male privilege, dialed up to psychotic. His superpower is being a straight white man in America. He’s handsome, he’s wealthy, he gets everything he wants, including sex from whatever woman he desires whenever he desires her. Nothing sets him off like someone telling him no or insulting him. He is entitled to the whole world. At one point he says to Jessica, “How do you people live like this, day after day, just hoping people are going to do what you want? It’s unbearable!”
Jessica Jones pulls no punches when it comes to him or to other men on the show who try to rob women of their agency. The word “rape” makes its way onto the screen in episode eight, but showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has no interest in showing sexual assault for shock value or as a way to make female characters more sympathetic. Rosenberg takes a swipe at politicians who would force women to give birth to their rapists’ babies. And she nods more than once at the idea that Killgrave is obsessed with making women smile at him. She doesn’t draw a direct line from allusions of street harassment to rape, but she doesn’t sidestep that conclusion either. There’s a pill one male character takes that makes him rage out and try even harder than usual to control the women in his life; the pill is named after an MRA subreddit.
There are some good men in Jessica Jones; it’s not Mad Max: Fury Road. However, the story completely centers itself on Jessica and her best friend/foster sister, Trish “Patsy” Walker (played by Rachael Taylor). Their relationship is the thing that empowers them. They rely on each other when they need to Get Shit Done. And even though they argue, it never turns into that gross woman-on-woman catty codswollop so many stories lean into. They squabble like grown-ups who are always going to show up for each other. They each want to be the superhero the other one believes she can be, but they also believe they’ll never live up to the other’s expectations. The show is way more interested in their love story with each other than it is in either of their love stories with the men in their lives.
Even the sex on Jessica Jones is all about what the women want. They’re on top, they’re in charge, they’re receiving instead of giving.
While the main narrative revolves around Killgrave, season one also explores plenty of other storylines. Trish is a former child star with her own radio show and an abusive mother. Jessica has a junkie neighbor who wants to do good but keeps ending up in impossible situations. A woman named Hope is in prison for following Killgrave’s orders and Jessica is determined to find a way to convince a jury that she was under his control when she committed her crimes. Jeri Hogarth is Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first canonically queer female character, and she arrives with two other queer women as well. She is a high powered defense attorney with an enormous office on the hundredth floor and a female assistant she’s in love with and a wife who’s not going to let her walk out the door without a fight (or 75 percent of her assets). And, awesomely, Marvel finally wonders out loud what happened to all the regular old people in Manhattan during the Battle of New York at the end of the first Avengers movie. (Surprise: a lot of civilians died.)
Sometimes Jessica Jones doesn’t balance all of those elements well. Like I said, it’s not a perfect show — but it’s solid, and it’s really important.
In 2015, three superhero TV shows feature female leads (Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Supergirl), and female-led solo titles make up only a fraction of Marvel and DC’s total comics output. Only two female-fronted superhero movies have hit the big screen, the last of which was released a decade ago. And only about 15% of creative jobs at Marvel and DC are held by women. You’ve heard the complaints: If women exist in comics (or in comic book movies or on comic book TV shows), it’s as love interests, sex objects, or as crumpled up dead bodies smashed inside refrigerators. But it wasn’t always like this! In the Golden Age of comics, girls read as many comics as boys did, and why not? Wonder Woman thundered onto the scene in the early ’40s, an equal to Batman and Superman in every way, and she held everyone’s rapt attention for over a decade as if she’d Golden Lassoed them herself.
In 1954, under growing pressure from Bible-thumping Americans who had taken to burning comic books in public protest in their town squares, comic book publishers adopted the Comics Code Authority, which sought to self-impose moral guidelines on their books to keep them in print. It started with things like banning violence, gore, gun play, and glorifying crime; and evolved — as these things almost always do — into a way for men to exercise more control over women, many of whom were pushing back against being pushed out of their jobs as more and more men returned home from World War II. One of the main tenets of the CCA was: “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” Soon after the CCA went into effect, DC’s Editorial Code was updated to say: “The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance.”
It has taken 60 years for the conversation to move definitively back toward the place it was in 1940, when William Moulton Marston conceived Wonder Woman. (He would have lost his absolute mind if he’d lived to see Wonder Woman give up her powers to pursue a CCA-approved relationship with her boyfriend.) Jessica Jones is a vital part of that conversation. Unlike Agent Carter and Supergirl (two shows I love very much), Jessica isn’t a squeaky clean hero. Luke Cage calls her a “a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman,” which is completely accurate. Not only would she scowl at the CCA’s ideas about the sanctity of marriage, she’d flip off plenty of other tenets of the Code, too.
Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity … are forbidden.
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed.
Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered.
Liquor and tobacco advertising is not acceptable.
Marvel and DC abandoned the CCA years ago when it came to their male heroes, but Jessica Jones is the first female-centric superhero show to completely disregard its influence. She’s not the hero we asked for, but it turns out she’s the hero we’ve needed all along.