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How Jessica Jones fails people of color

Contributed by
Mar 15, 2018

There is a lot that Jessica Jones does well. Every single episode in its second season was directed by a woman. The first season is one affirming female friendship after another. There are enough women represented that they are allowed to be so many different things. They wrote in complex, thoughtful gay characters. This season saw casting of a transgender actress playing a nonbinary trans character who is able to just exist as a human being in the Marvel Universe.

Spoilers throughout this article for season 2 of Jessica Jones.

However, there are two glaring ways in which Jessica Jones fails entirely, and that is in its representation of women of color and the way Jessica interacts with men of color in her life. The first season of Jessica Jones saw only a borrowed Rosario Dawson in a somewhat significant role in terms of women of color, but there was Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville)—both of whom had significant storylines, and both whom engaged with the main character in meaningful ways. This season, we lost Luke, but gained Oscar Arocho (J.R. Ramirez) and Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen). There seems to be an effort, on the part of the show, to cast the series diversely and in a way that actually reflects what New York City looks like.

Unfortunately, without understanding what race can mean in or affect a character’s daily life, what you’re left with are scenes in which Jessica (Krysten Ritter), a cis white woman, complains to her Hispanic super about what it’s like to be discriminated against, or in which we hear the hiss of a black female detective saying “you people” to Jessica as she uncuffs her from a detention room in the police station, implying that super powered people are less-than. We get to hear Oscar yell out, “You’re not a protected class!” as Jessica calls him a bigot and berates him for attempting to evict her.

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Oscar, Vido, and Jessica. Jessica Jones. Netflix.

The way even major characters of color (all men, because there are no significant women of color in this season) are treated in season 2 is rough, to say the least. Pryce, introduced in the first episode as someone who seemed to be Jessica’s private eye competition, ends up seeming incompetent and fairly unimportant (though there is potential for this to change in season 3). Oscar first exists purely to show how people are bigoted towards Jessica and then to provide a safe space for her. Oh, and to provide forged passports. As a felon who went to jail for forgery, Oscar risks losing a custody battle for the child he cares so deeply for because a woman he met a week earlier needs his help with forged passports.

Let’s talk about Malcolm. Over the course of the season, Trish (Rachael Taylor) is pulled into one of the most frustrating storylines I’ve seen for a character I used to love. Her motivations are shaky, and so when she falls back into an addiction and tries to pull Malcolm down with her, as a viewer you can’t help but hate her. She uses him, sleeps with him, convinces him to ruin his relationship with Jessica, kidnaps him, and then shoots at him, before abandoning him. He is a plot pawn used to further the distance between Jess and Trish. They chew him up and spit him out and don’t look back.

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Trish Walker and Malcolm Ducasse. Jessica Jones. Netflix.

As for women of color, we have the empathetic black woman who is a prison guard (Officer Toussaint, played by Jennifer Fouché); the angry black woman detective (Detective Sunday, played by Lisa Tharps); the angry, helpless Latina mother (Sonia, played by Victoria Cartagena) who can’t take care of her own son; a wild friend (Kourtney, played by Sasha Hutchings), who encourages Trish’s drug use and dangerous behavior; and a corrupt Asian lawyer (Angel Desai, playing Elaine Chao), who, as per usual in Marvel and Netflix’s history, is there to deal with corrupt drug money. 

Sadly, that’s the best that we can hope for this season, because there’s much worse. In one episode, a white woman—accurately characterized as a mass murderer—kills two separate black women using violent and graphic tactics (the aforementioned guard and detective). That same white woman, Jessica’s mother, is then partially redeemed and nearly martyrized by the end of the series.

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Jessica Jones, Alisa Jones, and Sonia. Jessica Jones. Netflix.

Jessica Jones desperately needs to reassess how they write and have their lead character interact with people of color—because right now, the show embodies the worst of White Feminism with characters of color being collateral damage on a white woman’s journey to finding herself.