Ambition, Alcoholism, and Alias Investigations: Jessica Jones Review
Now that Jessica Jones has been out long enough for everyone else to have finished it and for me to have made it through my second run through, it seems appropriate to give it a write up, as it takes an ambitious swing at tackling many of the diversity issues that have plagued Marvel properties since they began making movies.
Before we get into the spoiler-filled section of the review, I should mention for those who haven’t seen JJ yet that the whole series comes with a massive trigger warning, and as explored here, Netflix really should have included one. The series deals with trauma in a wide variety of guises, including extreme violence, rape, torture, emotional abuse, drug addiction, and most particularly, the struggle to be believed after trauma has occurred. It is a difficult series to watch, but in my opinion it deals with important topics in a compassionate and careful fashion, and so for me it was worth the sympathetic anxiety and pain of seeing these things portrayed.
With the caveats out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the thing. Jessica Jones is a great series. It’s gripping, well shot, well acted, and well written. But what I’m really interested in focusing on is the ways that Jessica Jones does well from a social justice and equality perspective, and how those successes create a good show overall.
“Social justice” is a pretty huge category, and there are some things that I won’t be focusing on (primarily the things it does poorly, because there is just less content there). Mostly I’m going to be looking at gender and mental illness. But I should mention that Jessica Jones could do much better at including women of color, at addressing fatphobia (rather than parroting the same stupid ideas about fat people), and at challenging our conceptions of sexuality (although having a woman who is visibly in relationships with other women as one of the leads is a great start).
The most obvious way that Jessica Jones diverts from Marvel’s other works is that the lead is a woman. In fact there are lots of women in Jessica Jones. Her best friend is a woman. Her boss is a woman. Her boss’s lover and wife are both women. A variety of side characters with interesting and surprisingly well drawn back stories are women. What strikes me most about this is that having this wide variety of women takes the pressure off of each individual character to be everything to everyone. If Jessica were the only woman in the show, I would be frustrated that she is drawn as incredibly emotional. If Hogarth were the only woman, I’d be annoyed that she comes across as bossy and bitchy. But the variety of women allows them to each showcase different strengths and weaknesses, almost like (gasp) normal human beings. It makes the show as a whole richer by exploring all kinds of reactions to violence and trauma.
Many of the characters are also people whose stories just would not have worked the same way as men. Trish’s arc around learning self defense would not have had the same resonance if it were a man. Hope’s story is one that is all too familiar for young women. There’s a reason her parents are ready to jump to the conclusion that she has been abducted, and it has to do with the way mothers see the world as unsafe for their daughters. These stories are new and interesting and are enabled by delving into different categories of human beings. I haven’t run into many stories that have a character like Hope, who is both a victim and falsely accused, someone who appears weak and out of control, but has a strong back story and ends her life on her own terms.
In particular, the decision to change Hogarth into a woman not only added interesting dimensions to her affair, it also flipped around some of the scripts about what it means to be a powerful woman who is trying to have everything. Instead of Hogarth’s struggle being over children or family vs. work, it was about the ways that people in power often feel they can do whatever they want to get what they want. Since the show hinges on what it means to manipulate, abuse, or use other people, this makes Hogarth far more interesting and integral to the themes of the show than it would if she were a more traditional “woman in power.” If Hogarth were a man, it would be easy to write him off as manipulative or a jerk. The choice to subvert the trope makes us look again and ask how awful Hogarth really is.
I know that many people have talked about trauma and Jessica Jones already. I really can’t stop myself though, because as someone whose mental illness is a huge part of their life, I have never come across another piece of media that tackled trauma this well. What is so important to me about Jessica Jones is the way that it showcases all the different ways that life can break you. It doesn’t say that one person’s pain is more or less important than another person’s. It recognizes the struggle of every one of its characters, showcasing their strong moments as well as their weak.
Jessica is the most obvious example. She is in the most literal sense of the word strong. But she is a damaged person. She copes with her emotions through excessive alcohol. It’s an archetype. But it’s when we get into other examples of strength and weakness that things get interesting. At first glance, Trish is not what you would call strong. She appears spoiled and a bit condescending. But with each flashback to her childhood we learn the trauma that she lived through: everything from being a complete pawn in her life to her mother forcibly trying to purge food from her. Trish exhibits the strength of continuing on, of continuing to care and smile and succeed no matter what. But she also shows the ways that this coping mechanism can be damaging. She is frightened all the time. She has to hide bruises from her obsessive combat training.
Hogarth, Hope, and Malcolm are all great examples of people struggling against power structures or addictions or abuses to find strength again.
But the people that I find the most fascinating are Ruben and Robyn. Ruben appears to have some kind of developmental disability, which at first is almost played for laughs, but over the course of the season we come to realize that he is a sweet and kind person, and that his sister is fiercely protective of him for good reason, even if she’s a little off too. They’re struggling to get by even before Kilgrave comes and fucks everything over. For nearly every character, we see some of their oddities and are allowed to form a certain opinion of them before we’re introduced to the quiet and invisible struggles that people who live with trauma and disability survive every day. Our perceptions get turned. Trish isn’t just the rich bitch sister who is so successful. She’s also haunted so badly by what happened to her sister that she trains herself into injury and pain repeatedly to feel safe. Ruben isn’t just a weirdo in a diaper and Robyn isn’t just an overbearing obnoxious asshole. They’re people struggling to figure out how to live independently with something that appears to be developmental disabilities. Robyn might get in the way of Jessica’s goals, but she is trying to protect her brother. Her strength is her tenacity and her certainty that Ruben needs her.
Realistic portrayals of trauma, disabilities, and mental illness are hard to come by. People who struggle, but still have strengths. People who really can’t deal with some shit, people who get triggered, but still face what’s happened. This is where Jessica Jones shines. This is where we see characters that are well drawn and deep, people who feel familiar or ring true to our own experiences, people we love but who frustrate us with their bad decisions and blinded thinking. Highlighting these different brains and the different ways that a variety of people react to trauma and struggle is where Jessica Jones allows its characters to blossom, and the place it gives us new and interesting plotlines.
So despite some of its iffy elements around race, size, and sexuality, I still give Jessica Jones a strong thumbs up rating when it comes to representation. At this point it seems we can’t be picky enough to expect quality on all fronts, so I’m settling for good representation on my pet issue, especially because this representation creates a truly interesting show. The show would not be nearly as good if we didn’t have the plethora of characters each dealing with trauma in their own way, relying on different backgrounds, strengths, and difficulties to find their way through.