Marvel’s Jessica Jones isn’t a perfect television show—there’s an aggravating lack of women of color in the cast and Krysten Ritter’s dry delivery often traps her in a “Super-Cynical Riot Grrrrl” trope—but it’s a crucial addition to the genre. JJ is a gritty, noir subversion of the traditional hetero/macho superhero. It presents an unflinching dramatization of domestic abuse, a contemporary performance of female sexuality, and a super-strength punch to the testicles of problematic modes of masculinity. Flaws and all, it’s damn brilliant.
Let’s unpack the dense, tattered leather suitcase that is the cultural significance of Jessica Jones (please be aware that spoilers will follow and if you don’t like it you better step up your binge game).
Women Having Reeeaaaally Good Straight and Queer Sex on Their Terms
Watching a show and getting some quality masturbation material out of it is quite rare for women like myself. Too often, the sex scenes are gratuitous ass shots of male characters plunging into a secondary female character that will probably die in the next episode, and too rarely are women in the proverbial driver’s seat, having sex the way they want to.
The few sex scenes in Jessica Jones have been between Jessica and fellow superhuman Luke Cage (yay) and between Trish Walker (Jess’s best friend/sister) and NYPD cop Will Simpson (boo). They are undeniably mutual sex scenes, kick-started by a reciprocal and visceral sexual attraction on behalf of both partners.
Jess and Luke’s first sexual encounter is before their superpowers are revealed to each other. Luke worries that he will “break” Jessica (which initially comes off as gross macho man dirty talk), but Jessica assures him that he won’t—the result is a sexcapade that allows both participants to oscillate between submissive and dominant roles.
On the other side of the sex coin, Trish asserts sexual dominance with Will, an interesting role reversal considering he spends the entire season proverbially pissing all over everyone and everything in a feeble attempt to assert male dominance. One scene depicts Trish sitting astride Will mid-coitus, with her pinning his hands up over his head and refusing to allow him to take control. Atta, girl.
Masculinity So Fragile, Bro
I would be remiss if I did not mention Will Simpson as JJ’s take on problematic modes of masculinity (and patriotism). Will has a highly irritating savior complex and constantly attempts to assert dominance over Jessica and Trish, insisting he knows better because he has training, blah blah. We discover mid-way through the season that Will is part of a questionable military testing group that basically gives amphetamines to soldiers in the form of red, white, and blue pills (red to go up, white to stabilize, blue to come down). Yes, for Marvel fans, this is who you think it is—Will is Nuke, the deranged supervillian from the comics with, you guessed it, an American flag tattooed on his face (insert Jessica Jones’ patented eye roll here).
Will Simpson represents the growing subculture of men’s rights activists and xenophobic nationalists—keep in mind “taking the red pill” is a Reddit euphemism for “realizing” that women are the dominant sex and men are the victims. Simpson is masculinity on crack: misguided, aggressive, needy and crazy. It is also interesting to note that Will is a police officer—a wry comment on the nature of the police state in modern day America.
Kilgrave as the Poster Man-Child for Domestic Abuse (+1 Superpower)
A sizeable quantity of JJ’s viewership is familiar with (and possibly attracted to) the man who plays Kilgrave. Before Jessica Jones, David Tennant was best known as everyone’s favorite Doctor on BBC’s time travel epic Doctor Who; he’s famous in the nerd-verse for his wacky persona and mountains of charm. This meta-acknowledgement of the target audience for Jessica Jones makes Tennant’s Kilgrave all the more terrifying and tangible—he is the marriage of a charmingly eccentric guy you can’t help but like and a sociopathic rapist. The result is one of the most chillingly, relevant supervillains ever.
Kilgrave and Jessica’s relationship dynamic can be seen in two very different ways. For Kilgrave, he saved Jessica and “gave her everything she wanted.” For Jessica, Kilgrave mentally and physically raped her, invading her mind and holding it hostage. Kilgrave has the power of incredibly potent persuasion—if he tells you to do something, you do it—including (and especially) sex acts. This glaring disagreement on the nature of their relationship is akin to contemporary cases of rape and sexual assault: the (often) male perpetrator will claim his accuser wanted it, the (often) female victim will claim she was taken advantage of either emotionally or physically, while sober or drunk. The juxtaposition of Kilgrave’s nostalgia and Jessica’s traumatized disgust is a previously unseen popular culture representation of an unfortunate trend in modern society.
Jessica Jones makes clear that the women who have been “Kilgraved” bear emotional and physical scars. Jessica and Hope Schlottman (the all-star track athlete abducted by Kilgrave) are the embodiment of women on the receiving end of domestic abuse—the spectrality of his control is omnipresent, no matter where they are. Both suffer from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and carry the burden of his influence in their daily lives. Jessica sees Kilgrave on the subway and in her apartment; Hope spends a brief period of time pregnant with his baby (yay, pro-choice!).
The real-world application of this relationship is simple—take away the superpower of persuasion and you’ve got an emotionally immature, charming and well-dressed man who would doggedly pursue and romance a woman, just to subsequently abuse her. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is a supervillian’s version of an abusive boyfriend wearing a Meninist t-shirt with a Tinder profile that boasts his cosmopolitan ways. He blames his parents for his inability to discern right from wrong, he implores the women around him to smile, calls them stupid bitches when they oppose him or “revisionists” when they tell their stories, and resorts to temper tantrums in the form of brutal violence when he doesn’t get his way.
Depicting complicated mental and physical abuse on a superhero television show is not only ground-breaking—it’s necessary. For victims of abuse who feel like they are somewhat to blame (either because of societal pressures, their abuser’s claims, or their own personal ideology), Jessica Jones shows everyone that even with the ability to bend steel or gut-punch a woman to death, an abusive relationship can cripple you.
Alyssa Mercante is studying for her MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature in the UK. If you want to see some vulgarity follow, her on Twitter @beerandfeminism