Photo: Netflix

TV

Jessica Jones is the feminist icon we need right now

Since the revelations of sexual abuse by Hollywood men in October last year – and the groundswell of female anger that has followed – we need more stories of female strength and survival, says Kate Leaver

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By Kate Leaver on

Jessica Jones is wearing a floral yellow dress. She’s the picture of feminine decorum, with a hemline swaying by her ankles. She emerges on to a balcony and stands dangerously close to the precipice, as though she’s about to throw herself off and tumble to the street below. Behind her, we see a man. This man, like Jessica, has a superpower. Where she has unnatural strength, he has the power to control minds. He is, at this very moment, controlling hers. With little more than a thought, he is forcing Jessica close to her own death. When he releases her from his control, she trembles back to reality, realises where she is and, breathless, steps back to safety. This sort of coercion happens again and again, as Jessica is forced to act against her will, against her morals and against her own survival instinct. She is, as well as being a superhero, a victim of domestic violence.

The first season of Jessica Jones was driven by this storyline; an arc which saw Jessica manipulated by a man who could make her do anything. It was an intelligent, harrowing metaphor for domestic abuse that made the whole thing difficult to watch for anyone who had been there, or known someone who has. In rebellion, Jessica sheds the dress her abuser wanted her to wear and dresses herself in the same simple outfit every day: light blue jeans, black T-shirt, black boots and a black leather jacket with a tragic backstory. It is her way of shrugging off his influence, cloaking herself in her own choices again. She will, in this uniform, make him accountable for his actions.

Her survival of rape, domestic violence and emotional abuse is what makes Jessica Jones the feminist icon we need right now. She has spent a lifetime wounded and coerced by men: her father drove the car that killed her family, a male scientist with a God complex tampered with her body while she was in a coma and her arch-nemesis became a man she thought she loved. Each time, she found a way to keep living, and, each time, she validated the experiences of people watching her on their television screens. The currency of superhero shows is exaggerated violence and Jessica resorts to superhuman strength in a way the rest of us cannot, but her rage against the patriarchy feels real and even familiar at a time when female anger is finally having a moment.

Since the revelations of sexual abuse by Hollywood men in October last year and the groundswell of female anger that has followed, we need more stories of female strength and survival. We need more art made by women. We need to see ourselves on screens around the world, fictionally meting out the kind of revenge that may not be possible in real life.

Jessica Jones does an important thing for anyone who’s been through trauma: it shows us someone who survives it, someone who tries to heal, someone who gets revenge, someone who may even learn to love again

This is a show run by women: female showrunner, female writers, female director, female protagonist. It is the first Netflix/Marvel show about a female superhero. It is a feminist parable about survival, resilience and anger – and it’s exactly what we need right now. Watching a furious, whisky-swilling private detective hand out consequences for male-perpetrated abuse is cathartic. We are so rarely given female characters with lasting, complex rage, and in Jessica Jones we actually get several. The second season gives us a new, even angrier character to watch – someone who makes Jessica vulnerable in a way we could not have anticipated. We see her brittle and stoic at the same time, trying to wrestle with moral dilemmas no young woman should have to. Jessica’s best friend and adoptive sister Trish unleashes more of her anger, too – at her job, at her mother, at her ex, at her own future.

As an important side-note, Trish is played by Australian actress Rachael Taylor, who went through an incident of domestic violence very publicly at the hands of an Australian actor and former partner. Being an Aussie and knowing that story as I do, this show takes on added poignancy. In this new season, Trish actually gets her own #MeToo storyline, which is deftly explored by a female-led creative team and feels extremely timely. In this show, sexual abusers are held to account and male perpetrators of violence are punished. It may be a fictional universe where superheroes roam the streets and move stationary vehicles with their own hands, but it is also a place of reckoning. It is a place we get to visit every time we switch on Netflix and sink into a story of wrath and healing.

For all its choreographed fight scenes, bloodied limbs and CGI, Jessica Jones does an important and very real thing for anyone who’s been through trauma: it shows us someone who survives it, someone who tries to heal, someone who gets revenge, someone who may even learn to love again. For all her unapologetic anger, her dangerous temper and her whisky habit, Jessica Jones has the capacity to be tender, to care for people, to protect the ones she loves. She is complex and fallible and good. In her black boots, T-shirt and leather jacket, Jessica Jones is the feminist icon we deserve.

@kateileaver

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Photo: Netflix
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Netflix
Feminism
Arts & Culture
Opinion

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