Jessica Jones: Challenging the archetypal super-hero

Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Melissa Rosenberg, 2015) is among the franchise’s most nuanced takes on super-heroes. Despite her extraordinary powers, the protagonist, played by Krysten Ritter, isn’t a typical superhero. She is a cynical, straight-talking, self-sabotaging, bad-tempered, and an alcoholic. She has a traumatic past that involves her family’s death, being the subject of a chemical experiment gone wrong, a victim of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her adopted parents and a survivor of PTSD and sexualized violence by her ex-partner, who also has superpowers such as mind-control.

A conventional text from the superhero genre is expected to involve action and violence, feelings of catharsis, empowerment and triumph. However, this series is where Marvel breaks the cycle — because more often than not, Jessica is an empowered person who finds herself at the brink of disempowerment throughout the three seasons. It also breaks the cycle by “humanizing” the superhero because Jessica does not believe in carrying out justice by the book or a “moral-code”, a theme that is central to the genre. Even though her “code” is dependent on setting the world order right, bringing people to justice and helping the innocent, her means don’t always justify the end. The narrative involves so much deviation from the conventions that she fits the category of a super anti-hero more than superhero.

With Jessica Jones, Marvel also subverts the expectations of viewers in their perception of women in action in many ways. For instance, Marc O’Day, in his essay Beauty in Motion: Gender, spectacle and action babe cinema, points out, “There is a common, if not at all explicit, eroticised emphasis on the superheroines’ breasts and cleavage, each is carefully delineated by her costumes and powers.” Jessica does not operate in a specific costume like her male and female super-hero counterparts. Krysten Ritter sports no fancy or bright outfits but a jaded, alcoholic and often unkempt look in her dark and earthy-coloured t-shirts, combat boots and leather jacket.

It is also imperative to look at the show through the lens of “masculinity” — a term Yvonne Taskar coined, meaning, “a conventionally masculine strength most obviously signified by their muscular yet clearly female bodies.” It is interesting that the show specifically casted petite-framed, smaller-looking women.

Infact, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have often opened the debate about Jessica being much stronger than her bulkier, muscular and much bigger male counterpart Luke Cage. Jessica possesses superhuman strength, endurance and hand-to-hand combat skills, while Hellcat possesses strength, heightened cat-like instincts and combat skills and Alisa has powers similar to Jessica’s. In the third season, Hellcat begins training excessively to become proficient in acrobatics and gymnastics. However, at no point are the powers of the women attributed to a necessarily “masculine” body. The fight sequence between Jessica and Hellcat (in Season 3, Episode 13) contextualizes this through the tragic, super-powered head to head physical match-up, which ends with the death of Hellcat by Jessica.

Male characters that are flawed and complex became common, as ascertained in Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From the Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. However, there was a dearth of the flawed, complicated female character despite advances in noir cinema’s interest in the femme fatale. It was also particularly neglected in the superhero subgenre. Apart from that roles with strong female leads are largely comedic, traditionally heroic or plain villainous, as argued in Brian Fuller and Emily D. Edwards’ essay, The Ontological Angst of Jessica Jones.

The series had received criticism by The Verge, Washington Post and The Independent for lacking a clear villain after the killing of Kilgrave, the super-powered ex. However, as The Independent points out that while the superhero genre demands more screen time to villains, Jessica Jones remains true to their vision. The show does not revolve around the male villain, love interests or other male characters, but Jessica her relationships with the other women around her — like her friend/sister Trish, former employer Jeri Hogarth, her birth mother Alisa and fellow Kilgrave victim Hope Shlottman.

This vision, subversion and challenge to the archetypal superhero can be attributed to the presence of female creators too. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg in a Television Critics Association Panel, said, “We never walked into the writing room going, ‘We are now going to take on rape and abuse and feminism.’ We walked in telling a story for this character. And by being true to the character, it was true to the issues.” In a separate interview, she added, “The show is about exploring the inner workings of Jessica Jones and her ensemble, their relationships and Jessica’s examination of her own trauma and healing.”

Rosenberg may not explicitly admit that the intended meaning and gaze of the show was necessarily feminist. However, inadvertently, the show is able to engage with these complex and very real themes that are central to women while remaining true to the demands of the genre was because of the presence of the creators. It is important to note that Rosenberg was the Creator, producer, and show runner for this series. She also hired an all-women set of directors and writers for each individual episode of Season 2. Although Season 3 drifts away from this approach, it preserved the parity relatively, while also providing Ritter with a Director’s role on Episode 2.

This is not to imply that all female-created art must be looked at from the lens of their gender but Marvel’s first TV show about a female superhero that was deemed as challenging stereotypes if not breaking them, even while production demands that the lens of gender to be brought in. As Rachel Williams, in ‘They Call Me “Action Woman”’: The Marketing of Mimi Leder as a New Concept in the High Concept of Action Film, said, “The women director becomes the one who can breathe new life into an old genre, who can utilize her supposed ‘femininity’ in order to cut through the traditionally ‘masculine’ stereotypes of the action film. Her gender, and the different slant on things that this is seen to provide, are used to differentiate the film in a competitive marketplace.”

Moreover, Jessica is a challenge to the strait-jacketing that happens in all kinds of female characterizations — whether it is the action babe, the superhero or the anti-hero. She is all of those, but none of those. Another example to cite from the show to explain the same is the savior-complex laced with narcissism present in superheroes, across genders. Even when her own friend Trish assumes the role of Hellcat, she is a personification of the same traits, all of which Jessica is against or has does not believe in indulging. She regards herself as replaceable and damaged. It mostly comes from the back story of how she unwillingly received the superpowers and her subsequent disregard and misuse of them on various occasions. There is less self-glorification, more self-loathing; more undermining than overestimating her powers — all while keeping in mind that willingly or not, she has a responsibility to fulfill.

This theme is common in Marvel’s Daredevil (Drew Goddard, 2015), who is also her fellow vigilante in Hell’s Kitchen. Even though they don’t see eye to eye and their moral-code is extremely different from one another, their regard for their acquired powers is never self-indulgent. However, Matt Murdock/Daredevil is critiqued for this self-appointed vigilantism resulting in the Lone Ranger Mythology, as pointed out rightly by J.M. Tyree in The Good Paranoia: Notes on Jessica Jones. Although they are both found aiding the law enforcement system often which is often seen as incompetent without their help, extreme vigilantism can disregard the faith in law, distrust in institutions and collective politics.

Netflix cancelled its counterparts like Daredevil, Luke Cage (Cheo Hodari Coker, 2016) and The Punisher (Steve Lightfoot, 2017) set in the same city and with the vigilante theme before Jessica Jones. It can be attributed to the nuanced story-telling or the fresh concept and an audience preference that involves complex women moving away from conventional structures of womanhood, family and a career associated with the “tough guys.” However, the show also makes it clear that she is not incapable of feeling emotions attributed to perceived “feminity.”

She may be cold, stand-offish and self-admittedly regards vulnerability and concern as her weaknesses, but her friendship and sisterhood with Trish is also the bond she cherishes most. It also showed in the compassion for her traumatized mother who she believed was dead in the car crash only to survive it and be subjected to a gene editing experiment herself and being given powers greater and far more dangerous than her, along with fatal rage, terrifying nightmares and mental instability. Even though they share an up and down relationship, she exhibits a sibling-like concern with her neighbour, colleague and friend Malcolm Ducasse who she also helped battle drug addiction. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is an anomaly in more ways than one.


Action and Adventure, Yvonne Taskar

i. Beauty in Motion: Gender, spectacle and action babe cinema, Mark O’Day

ii. ‘They Call Me “Action Woman”’: The Marketing of Mimi Leder as a New Concept in the High Concept of Action Film, Rachel Williams

Jessica Jones, Scarred Superhero: Essays on Gender, Trauma and Addiction in the Netflix Series, Tim Rayborn and Abigail Keyes

The Good Paranoia: Notes on Jessica Jones, J.M. Tyree

Jessica Jones and the complex power of female rage, The Independent, Ilana Kaplan

Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Season 3 Episode 13 (2019) : Jessica Jones vs Hellcat



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