When it comes to female Marvel heroes, their transition from the page to the screen has been historically lacking compared to their male counterparts. It took a whopping 61 years from the release of the first Marvel theatrical release, Captain America (1944) — and 15 male-led movies in between — for a woman to get her own solo outing and that was in the critically-panned 2005 Daredevil spin-off film Elektra. On television, the first female-led Marvel series came via the better received Agent Carter, though it too arrived very late — 41 years after the first male hero’s live-action outing, when Spidey Super Stories premiered on PBS in 1974.
While Peggy Carter’s TV lifespan was seen as unfairly cut short by many, fans were optimistic for the future of female heroes through Jessica Jones, whose solo series debuted the same year as Agent Carter, in 2015, and continues to thrive on Netflix. Not only is the series the most popular Marvel property on the streaming service, according to Netflix’s vice president of product innovation Todd Yellin, but it’s also one of the most critically acclaimed from Marvel Television.
The first season garnered a 93% approval rating from critics and the second season still earning a high consensus with an 83% approval rating, proving that there is more than an appetite for female heroes, especially for one who bucks the gender stereotypes the comics and live-action iterations have often perpetuated.
Krysten Ritter’s interpretation of the New York-based antihero is nothing like the overtly sexual female superheroes Hollywood has produced thus far. Her uniform isn’t the tight, form-fitting costumes of Elektra or Black Widow; rather her ex-superhero-turned-private-eye wears hoodies, baggy jeans, and boots to get the job done. That’s not to say women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe shouldn’t be showing off their physiques, but when their bodies are often showcased through the male gaze it doesn’t exactly scream female empowerment, just objectification.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones has benefited from a string of female directors who refuse to perpetuate a patriarchal perspective of women. Instead, they present a superhero who defies expectations. Jessica Jones is a hard drinker, with a dry sense of humor and a total lack of patience for men who objectify, belittle or patronize her. She doesn’t use her powers willy-nilly, but isn’t afraid to wield them to save lives and put men, and women, in their place.
Sadly though, while I enjoy watching this feminist antihero at work, and empathize with both her anger and traumatic experience, it is so frustrating to see her progressive narrative often written to the detriment of the women of color she interacts with.
There has long been an issue for representation of ethnic minorities in television and film, not just the MCU. For myself, personally, I’ve rarely seen a woman of Arab heritage play a leading role let alone a superhero, so my options have been limited. One would hope that a series like Jessica Jones would mean that at least one woman of color would get a significant role like Simone Missick does in Luke Cage, Jessica Henwick in Iron Fist, Amber Rose Revah in The Punisher, Elodie Yung in Daredevil Season 2 or Rosario Dawson in most of the Marvel Netflix shows, but that’s not the case.
Season 1 only featured one significant woman of color, Parisa Fitz-Henley’s Reva Connors (Luke Cage’s wife), who was murdered by Jessica and Kilgrave. In Season 2, there are four women of color but they are treated with far less care than the white characters or men of color.
Sonia is presented as the stereotypical Latina mother who is angry, loud and brash about her ex Oscar — Jessica’s new love interest — and tries to take her son away only to be thwarted by the P.I. and her mother. The writers never offer a more nuanced look at why Sonia is full of rage, or allow her to speak of her pain, but let Oscar unload his guilt about being a bad husband who cheated, despite the fact that he jeopardized his family’s welfare through his criminal endeavors, so as viewers we are manipulated into feeling more sympathy for him rather than her.
Then there’s Detective Sunday and Marilyn, the prison guard to Jessica’s superpowered mother Alisa. Alisa first assaults Marilyn, despite the guard showing her nothing but kindness and respect during her brief incarceration, then she straight up murders Sunday and we get treated to several shots of her dead body. All the while, we’re expected to root for Jessica and her mother as they mend their relationship at the expense of mainly innocent women of color around them who more often than not we never hear from again.
And let's not forget Sheena, the sex worker Jeri Hogarth hires which once again puts a woman of color in a highly sexualized role. None of these characterizations of WOCs sit well with me, so the problematic nature of this white feminist narrative is something that I hope is addressed in Season 3 because it doesn't have to continue.
The writers could stop using the language of the oppressed, like “you people,” to make discriminatory points about the treatment of powered individuals. They could also easily stop pushing women of color to the margins of the narrative to prop up the white female characters too.
Melissa Rosenberg, the show’s creator, has admitted that she allowed these issues of representation to fall through the cracks because it “just didn’t occur” to her, so one can only hope that now she will take into account that blind spot and ensure there's a more intersectional approach to its feminism.
It's not just Jessica's narrative that comes across as problematic though — it's that of Trish Walker too, specifically in the second season when we discover that she was a victim of sexual abuse as a child by the much older director Max. This incident is revealed in Episode 2 "AKA Freak Accident," when Trish (Rachael Taylor) tries to get her rapist to locate hospital records about IGH.
Some people applauded Rosenberg for preempting the #MeToo movement with this plotline, but I found it frustrating. Rape and sexual assault are used far too often in the back stories of female characters because they are a lazy way to define a woman's troubled present.
“It’s become shorthand for backstory and drama,” a female writer told Variety's TV critic Maureen Ryan. "Everyone knows rape is awful and a horrific violation, so it’s easy for an audience to grasp.”
It turns these female characters into "damaged goods," but in Trish's case, she's already "damaged" because of the fact that she's a recovering addict too, though that soon changes once this sexual assault narrative is added. The minute Trish opens the door to her past by confronting her rapist, she seems to descend into further emotional upheaval and ends up becoming an addict again, though this time her drug of choice is the Combat Enhancer Inhaler she steals from Simpson.
This sexual assault narrative isn't even the first to be seen in the series; Jessica is a rape victim too and her rapist was Kilgrave. Every time he had sex with Jessica without her consent, while she was under his influence, he was raping her. So now there are two rape survivors in one series. One might expect this from a male showrunner, but it's pretty frustrating that Rosenberg seemed to miss the ramifications of using rape as a narrative device more than once.
Netflix has already greenlit a third season and Ritter has hinted it will focus on Jessica's future rather than her past.
“Maybe we’ll get to see her be a bit of a hero," the actress said at Comicpalooza in Houston. "Maybe we get to see her move forward in a more positive way. Maybe we see her hating herself less.”
I hope that's true. Both she and Trish need a fresh start from the emotional devastation of their childhoods and Rosenberg needs a fresh start from the problematic narrative pitfalls concerning race and sexual violence.
I believe she can do it and I look forward to seeing how when Marvel's Jessica Jones returns to Netflix next year.