I’ve loved Marvel’s Jessica Jones so much that I’m re-watching it this week by myself, and I’ve found it worthwhile for a closer study of its tasteful use of feminism, but also to remind myself that nothing is perfect; most forms of entertainment have problematic premises that we have to question in order to actually live as decent human beings. Although the show goes well beyond the typical “she’s super strong and she’s a hot girl” gimmick that others have been playing lately, I think it still tends to reward a small slice of the female demographic. Since I am that demographic, I see it as all the more important to try and articulate my discomfort with parts of the show. In fact, I’m a somewhat waifey brunette with a sharp mouth if you piss me off, and I like bourbon (though if I drank 10 percent as much as the other Jessica did, I’d be dead.)
What I’ll offer is what we were trained to do during my MFA, the criticism sandwich (the good, the bad, and a cheerful line at the end). For me, JJ stands in the Tough Girls Hall of Fame with Starbuck and Rinko Kikuchi from Pacific Rim. On the other hand, the writers have still played into some stereotypes, obviously to rope in a wider audience, idealizing thin, beautiful people and glorifying their struggles while depicting other classes, ethnicities, and body types in a way that I have to describe as careless at times.
First, the good: What’s truly impressive about Jessica Jones is deeper than her friendship with Trish Walker, her triumph over trauma and rape, or the general ways in which she kicks ass. (These aspects of the show have already been praised elsewhere.) Instead, I’d like to focus on how the writers and director have taken lessons from Laura Mulvey and other feminist film critics in the creation of a visual style that retrains viewers a little, showing them how to appreciate male and female beauty on their own terms. In short, I love how the director portrays her characters’ sexuality, with more respect than we’d see in the average comic book adaptation. The show doesn’t try to hide that the heroines are attractive. But neither does it constantly indulge the male gaze.
I mean, it certainly flirts with male audiences sometimes, because after all, there’s nothing wrong with finding a hero or heroine attractive. I can appreciate Henry Cavill without a special butt cam. Toward that end, I’ve been counting scenes where JJ sneaks in a glimpse of Jessica or Trish in their snug pants. It’s somewhat frequent, at least a few times per episode. However, they’re usually standing off to the side, and something else takes the focus of the shot. Other times, the director seems to toy with her viewers, showing only a brief second of characters when they change clothes.
The sex scenes feature comparable skin ratios for male and female characters. We see women and men as sex partners, not objects, not fetishized dominatrices. In one of my favorite scenes, Trish actually forces a partner back onto the pillows because she’s not done yet. (And haven’t we all wanted to do that at least once?)
The show also wisely steers around the temptation to simply portray all men as villains. No, in JJ’s world women like Claire can do just as much damage. In fact, we learn that Jessica’s cut-throat lawyer-boss not only admires Kilgrave, but wants to be him, even with full knowledge of what he’s done to countless people. When Claire first hears about Kilgrave, she jokes that she’d “have him do all my jury selection.” That’s not a throw away line for humor. It tells us a lot about her, what she assumes about herself, how presumptuous she is about her own place in the world. To put it more bluntly: she can only see Kilgrave as a potential service to herself, someone to control, and never a threat until it’s too late. JJ reminds us that feminism has never critiqued men, but always attitudes and assumptions held by all genders.
And now, the not-so-good: The problem with thinness has always started when institutions of our culture make one kind of beauty the gold standard and then beat everyone over the head with it. Unfortunately, that happens a lot in Jessica Jones. Who are the survivors? Thin, attractive women like me. Another blogger, Kiva Bay, has made excellent points about scenes where Jessica directs her snark at anonymous, plus-sized women who haven’t done anything to deserve her ire, unlike many of the idiots whom she justly berates. In the very first episode of the show, in fact, Jessica mocks a woman for chowing down on a burger after a few minutes on a treadmill.
I’ll tell you just why such moments are dangerous. Shamefully, I caught myself thinking during that exact scene, “Well, Jessica is like me, and I guess she has a point. Maybe I should let that slide.” In retrospect, I can’t believe that thought ran through my head. It’s okay to make sarcastic remarks about other people’s appearance, people whom I know nothing about? And let me anticipate those who would rush to Jessica’s defense. No, she’s not just talking to herself on a dreary night of private investigating. She’s actually speaking to millions of people. And in fact it’s women like me–those who strongly identify with someone like Jessica, and even more with someone like Trish–who do NOT need reinforcement of whatever bad habits or prejudices we have. Just because we were abused, that doesn’t make us immune to social critique ourselves.
Some of my friends have even commented on how Jessica makes them feel bad about their bodies. It’s a little difficult isn’t it, when a character like her embodies so much of what we want to emulate, and yet might also reinforce some of the harmful messages that drive girls toward eating disorders and other expressions of anxiety. It makes me wonder: Would I be that interested in the show if the lead characters, even the lunatic rapist Kilgrave, weren’t all so pleasing on the eye? So let’s think twice before we unquestioningly hold up someone like JJ as a shining example of feminism. Is she? Jessica tells us time and again that she’s not a hero. She’s a piece of shit. She’s human, a flawed anti-hero we shouldn’t be so quick to run up and hug. If she were even a little less beautiful, I’m sure we would be less forgiving of the way she treats people, even acknowledging her trauma.