What’s not to love about a female-driven superhero story that addresses issues of power, control, and abuse? Jessica Jones is one installment of Netflix’s set of superhero shows in the Marvel universe that already includes in Daredevil and Luke Cage, and provides a titular character who is both the tough-talking dame and the cynical private eye of classic film noir. Forbes magazine describes Jessica Jones as “the most important show on television.” Whether or not it’s the most relevant or insightful show of the moment, Jessica Jones is important for several big reasons: its portrayal of women, its depiction of abuse and victimization, and its critical commentary on the use of power and control.
Jessica Jones picks up in the middle of the story. Jessica, played by Kristyn Ritter (whose television credits include Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars) is sharp, with angular limbs and cutting remarks that provide a prickly defense against the pain of her past. A former superhero, she’s also a victim of the terrifying Zebediah Kilgrave (David Tennant), a villain with the power to manipulate people into obeying his will. After escaping from Kilgrave’s controlling clutches, Jessica lives as a sarcastic and cynical private investigator, using her abilities to aid her sleuthing while grappling with the effects of PTSD, and consequently, insomnia and addiction.
Jessica Jones begins to fill the dearth of complex, multi-faceted women in television and media with characters who are more than romantic interests or tired tropes. It’s thrilling to see a butt-kicking female protagonist on screen, but Jessica also offers one characterization of a victim wrestling with the aftereffects of abuse. She’s an obsessive, impulsive, terrified mess. She’s not the only notable female character. Jessica’s friend Trish is a blonde talk show host who is pretty, tough, intelligent, and a legitimately good friend. Other women are portrayed in a variety of positions and characterizations.
Jessica Jones also deals with complicated issues like rape, assault, and posttraumatic stress disorder—tough topics. Abuse and manipulation are major themes, yet the show never minimizes their effects or ignores consequences as characters are left to deal with the lasting impact of physical and psychological abuse. Kilgrave’s victims are never blamed, and it is made very clear that they are unable to prevent what happens to them. Women are not the only victims either–Kilgrave victimizes people regardless of their gender or race. Simultaneously, the experience of abuse is not exploited for macabre entertainment value like in shows such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit or Criminal Minds, and actually restores some dignity to the characters by affording them the agency denied by their abuser.
Though it’s a grim world full of horror and abuse, the narrative of Jessica Jones is ultimately hopeful. Jessica fails to be an adequate savior. Those she does rescue are left to continue grappling with the aftermath of their experiences. Rescue from peril does not signify the end—even for Jessica, yet she continues pursuing justice. She sneers, “Humanity sucks and they don’t deserve saving,” yet she continues using her powers on behalf of others. Though Jessica Jones is dark it avoids becoming bleak, because of crucial moments of humanity--glimpses of kindness, selflessness, and sacrifices that challenge a quest for control. In the end, heroes and villains are more human than super.