How does “Jessica Jones” create an updated, feminist version of noir?

Neflix’s new hit Jessica Jones (2015- ) explicitly relies on style and content gleaned from film noir. The popular press, from The Guardian and to ScreenPrism, began announcing this emphasis even before the series’ release.

Beyond both general pronouncements and overviews, it is worth exploring more deeply exactly how the show not only utilizes but also experiments with film noir elements. The most obvious and most frequently noted to date is that our main character, Jessica Jones, is a private investigator. Like her classic noir predecessors, such as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, she works because she needs the money and values doing some good in a rotten world. Each episode features her voiceover, commenting on her life and the world around her in classic noir fashion. The crimes she solves are dark, her apartment is rundown and messy, and she drinks cheap booze from the bottle. That she is a loner with a past marred by tragedy adds to her noir PI appeal, even as amendments to the classic noir persona, like her PTSD and the fact that she doesn’t smoke, link her with the updated homage of neo-noir.

Of course, this is a Marvel comics-inflected world, so we must attend to the superhero element. Most generally, I read Jones’ super strength as a way of achieving parity with —even superiority over—the tough guy PI type. Jessica Jones is a fighter, and she doesn’t mind getting bloody in the line of duty or self-preservation.

The look of the show, with its throwback urban setting—from long narrow hallways and fire escapes to local liquor stores and dive bars—is also classic noir. The program’s soundtrack adds to this noir ambiance, often featuring jazz piano strains and mournful sax riffs, especially in the opening theme music and during moments of suspense. Even Jones’ cell phone has an old school ringtone.

Jones’ look in particular seems a direct reference to the black-and-white, chiaroscuro cinematography of noir. She wears blank tanks, black leather jacket, black boots, and a grey scarf, while her skin is extremely pale. But the program reaches beyond this homage to experiment with noir, in that Jones’ full red lips, always on display, offer the potential to read her as both the hero and femme fatale. She thus signifies as dangerous in multiple ways and directions. This is a new take on noir, even on neo-noir. The closest comparison we might draw is to The Wachowskis’ Bound (1996), where crimson-lipped, black-clad Violet (Jennifer Tilly) embodies both femme fatale and lesbian anti-hero, playing to and with the male gaze to get what she needs, then riding off into the sunset with the loot as well as hitter Corky (Gina Gershon).

If Jones is the tough noir hero as well as the femme fatale, however, she is also the vulnerable victim. In today’s America—whether inflected with fantasy or not—we face dangers that include but reach beyond the physical, and anxiety over our lack of control has always been a core element of noir. From the first episode, we learn that Jones suffers from PTSD, having lived in mind-controlled hell for eight years, possessed and abused at every moment by the villain Kilgrave (the “Purple Man” in the comics), the abuse culminating in her murder of an innocent woman.

In “How Jessica Jones Absorbed the Anxieties of Gamergate,” Arthur Chu argues, “The fear Kilgrave represents and exploits in Jessica Jones is hardly a modern one—it’s a fear that’s existed for as long as we’ve had cities big enough to have crowds filled with anonymous faces, any one of whom could be an enemy. But he looms so much larger as a threat today.” The reason and specific manner in which Kilgrave “looms” relate to a metaphoric reading of his psychic abilities as those of today’s hacker-stalker. This is a power especially threatening to women. “In other words,” reveals Chu, “Kilgrave’s power is an analog, low-tech, ‘meatspace’ version of a power that some men in the Gamergate crowd seem to dream of having: the power to be anyone, be anywhere, and do anything without social repercussions. It’s a power that, in our world, can be acquired by any determined troll with basic computer skills and an Internet connection.”

From this perspective, the heart of Jessica Jones is a particularly feminist take on and use of noir. As a rape survivor of both mind and body, Jones offers a new kind of “tough girl” for a new generation. We can enjoy her physical power and prowess, her intelligence and determination, her hard drinking and even her pleasure in very rough sex. Yet, simultaneously, we see—without emphasis on exploitation or objectification—her traumatized past, tortured present, and the threat of more to come. Even the strongest superhero combined with the shrewdest PI, we learn from Jones, is nonetheless entirely vulnerable in a world, as Chu argues, “without walls.”