When Jessica Jones premiered on Netflix in 2015, it was met with critical acclaim for its portrayal of a rape victim seizing control of her life, all tossed with an extra slice of “fight the partriarchy.” “Groundbreaking,” critics said.
For all the praise, one would think the show contained the first character in pop culture to have this kind of character arc or feature this kind of heroine.
But before there was Jessica Jones, there was Eve Dallas, who came to life twenty years before. Dallas is the lead character of J.D. Robb’s (aka Nora Roberts) In Death series. The first book in that series, Naked in Death, was published in 1995. And even if you’re counting the comics—which I don’t because the versions of Jessica Jones were different—Eve Dallas is six years older than Alias (which introduced Jones).
There are striking similarities with the heroines and their stories. Not that I’m accusing the show of any kind of stealing or borrowing from the In Death series—I’m pointing out that the only previous place to find a character that complicated was in a mystery series written by the Queen of Romance. Eve Dallas is Nora Roberts most vibrant creation.
Not convinced? Doing the eye roll because you have a preconceived notion of what Nora Roberts can write or the type of characters featured in her books?
Let’s compare where Eve Dallas and Jessica Jones intersect.
Spoilers for Naked in Death and Jessica Jones.
They’re Haunted by Their Failure to Save Lives
They’re both survivors of rape, but that isn’t what defines them. Instead, what defines them most is the fear of failing those they feel obligated to protect. Jessica is haunted by being compelled to murder and moves heaven and earth to prevent anyone else from dying or suffering under her tormentor’s mind control.
The first thing we learn about Eve Dallas is that she cannot sleep because she’s haunted by arriving too late to prevent the death of a child. Dallas, a homicide detective in a futuristic New York City, pushes herself to the edge to find justice for the victims she couldn’t save. She takes death as a personal insult.
They’re Hemmed In By the System
The villain of Jessica Jones controls the legal system to use it against her in the form of police officers, mysterious benefactors who want to use her skills, and the manipulation of the courts.
This setup is mirrored almost exactly in Naked in Death. Not only does Dallas have to deal with chasing a murderer who’s murdering prostitutes, but she also has to deal with interference from a corrupt Chief of Police and a U.S. Senator determined to use her supposed failings as a scapegoat.
Jessica’s solution is to move outside the system. Dallas does so reluctantly, since she’s part of it, but she finally reaches her breaking point and has her new lover Roarke dig deep to find the secrets of the powerful.
They’d Had Enough of the Patriarchy
Jessica, of course, is haunted by the living, breathing symbol of male patriarchy: a villain who can literally control woman to do anything he wants. He’s aided by shadowy figures who want to make use of his powers.
In contrast, Jessica is helped by other women and people of color. The one positive representation of a male in power—the police officer—eventually turns into a problem as well, as Kilgrave plays on his pride and feelings of helplessness. The cop reacts violently, hurting anyone in his way of revenge. He becomes the emblem of toxic masculinity.
The villain of Naked in Death is the personification of the system: a man with great power who speaks with longing of the old days when women knew their place and their main function was to serve men. He’s so toxic that he physically seizes control of the women close to him—his daughter and granddaughter—and rapes them, effectively making them his. It’s only when his granddaughter attempts to seize control of this narrative that he kills her.
This villain is aided by others who believe that women don’t matter in the big picture and that the villain is a great man who will, um, make America great again…. Dallas’s triumph at the end is her triumph over this kind of toxic masculinity.
The main difference between Jessica Jones and Eve Dallas? Dallas finds the love of her life in Naked in Death in the form of a man who insists on seeing below the surface of what drives her. What he values most is her respect and dedication for human life. Dallas doesn’t need a romance to be healed, but she does need someone to show her that human intimacy is a worthy goal and that living is as important as serving the dead.
Of course, in the comics, Jessica Jones eventually finds love with Luke Cage. The MCU Jessica is, however, a slightly different character—one who can rely on her friend Trisha, her neighbor, and even (in a weird way) on her lawyer to help show her that friendship and emotional intimacy is something worthy. (Eventually, perhaps, Luke as well.)
That it took so long for us to have a television show like Jessica Jones with this kind of narrative doesn’t surprise me, nor does it surprise me that Nora Roberts was 20 years ahead of her time. The only question I have now: When do I get to see Eve Dallas onscreen in either theaters or television? The In Death series was optioned to film in 2014.
What’s keeping you, Hollywood?
Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.