The series is definitely a step in the right direction, but there are a few missed opportunities and mishaps that make it difficult for me to regard the show as completely feminist and queer inclusive.
The Netflix Original Series Jessica Jones has been hailed as a recent feminist and queer triumph within the superhero genre. Jessica Jones certainly does break the mold. She has super-strength, a quality typically associated with masculinity. She is neither a sex object in a spandex suit, nor is she completely asexual.
But there are a few missed opportunities and mishaps that make it difficult for me to regard the show as completely feminist and queer inclusive.
For the most part, the show aggressively tackles the prevalence of domestic abuse. When a man, named Kilgrave, who has mind control, captures Jessica and forces her to smile at him, tell him that she loves him, and to have sex with him, she very clearly defines her experience as rape. The show, further, treats abuse as a pervasive issue, as it affects almost every single character in some capacity.
The series is also careful not to underplay the effects of domestic abuse between Jessica and Kilgrave—it follows Jessica as she deals with severe post-traumatic stress disorder after their relationship and as she seeks out counseling services. Jessica notes that even while Kilgrave isn’t supernaturally controlling her, he always remains inside her head and emotionally controls her.
The show does, however, unfortunately trivialize the role of domestic abuse in another relationship in the series—between Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker and Officer Will Simpson.
Early on in the season, Kilgrave decides that he wants Trish dead. He uses his mind control and instructs Simpson to murder her. The officer, accordingly, breaks into Trish’s apartment and almost succeeds in choking her to death before Jessica stops him.
Later, when he is overcome with remorse, and no longer under Kilgrave’s control, he returns to her apartment to apologize. That night, after she shows him the purple fingerprints he left on her neck, they—almost immediately—sleep together. With just that scene, the show creates an uncomfortable tie between domestic violence and eroticism.
Some critics have claimed that because the sex scene shows Simpson giving oral sex to Trish, it is indicative of Trish being in control of their relationship. In my opinion, it seemed more as though Simpson was trying to offer a deeply unsatisfactory apology for his previous behavior against her; it seemed much like an instance in the domestic violence cycle: an attack followed by an apology, soon to be followed by another attack.
When Jessica tells Trish that she does not approve of the fact that he is sleeping with her after trying to hurt her, Trish shuts down the concern by responding that their relationship is “not your business.” This plot line in the series puts forth the ultimately detrimental message to women that if a man is violent toward you, it is alright to sleep with him afterward, so long as he is sorry and so long as he claims he wasn’t in control.
Though Trish does eventually leave Simpson—she even attacks him in order to defend Jessica—she continually defends his character. Even after Simpson demonstrates his physically violent and controlling behavior multiple times, Trish insists that he is ultimately a “good guy.”
Another component of Jessica Jones that appears, at first glance, to be progressive is the shrewd lawyer, Jeri Hogarth. In the Alias comic book series, on which Jessica Jones is based, Hogarth is a man cheating on his wife with his secretary. In the Netflix series, Hogarth is, instead, a woman cheating on her wife with her secretary.
While it’s great to see a mainstream television series resist the heteronormative standards of typical romance, it would be better to see a queer relationship that isn’t wholly deviant. Unfortunately, the series actually perpetuates the myth that people within queer relationships are more promiscuous than their heteronormative counterparts.
This show does take meaningful and important steps toward a popular culture that stands up against both sexism and heterosexism, but I was disappointed at times as a viewer. We have to be very sure what it is that we are endorsing when we deem a television show as queer-inclusive or feminist—and I don’t know that I can completely endorse Jessica Jones.
Alexandra Swanson is a writer living in Chicago. She recently graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in English.