In “Jessica Jones,” how important is gender to the story?


Something happens several episodes into Marvel’s latest TV show Jessica Jones (2015): the noir-influenced series about a female private eye with superhuman abilities goes from being a great story about female superheroes to being a great story about females, full stop.

Sure, it revolves around a woman with superhero strength whose nemesis is a man with the power to control people’s actions, but what makes the show so fascinating is that it is more interested in exploring the real-life aspects of this situation.Specifically, the show is interested in abuse as a disruptor of narratives as well as the starting point for new narratives. And Jessica, as written by Melissa Rosenberg and brought to life by Krysten Ritter, is the nexus at which several such narratives converge.

Arguably, things have never been better for female characters in the superhero genre, at least on TV. Marvel’s Agent Carter (2015) follows Peggy Carter in the mid-1940s as she paves the way for S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret organisation that later becomes the backbone for the entire Avengers movies’ storyline. Warner Bros’ Supergirl’s (2015) success, meanwhile, gave good indication before Jones that a superhero TV show headlined by a woman could have broad appeal.

These shows undoubtedly paved the way for Jessica Jones, yet Netflix’s series places women front and center in a way few other TV shows or films have managed to do:

The women have lives outside of the plot

Yes, we are aware that this is a work of fiction wherein the characters’ function is to further the plot. Too many women in too many fictional works, however, seem to exist solely as a function of the story, rather than as full, realistic characters that actually have meaningful existences outside of what we see. The women in Jessica Jones, however — whether Jessica herself, her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) or her lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) — seem like actual people, with interests, ambitions and relationships beyond the frame of the show.

They have real conversations that aren’t just about men or relationships

How many “female-oriented” movies or TV shows have we watched where the only conversations women ever have with each other revolve around men or their relationships with men? This is the basis of the Bechdel-Wallace test, which asks whether a work of fiction has at least two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man and is often applied to gauge if that work features an adequately complex representation of women.

It may seem like nitpicking, but in truth, what female characters talk about is significant because it is a reflection of how much importance the narrative is placing on the women’s concerns and perspectives. This is why the types of conversations the women in Jessica Jones have are so significant — not only are they about things other than men, but they also reflect that these female characters have stories of their own.

Gender is both a big deal and it isn’t

It is idealistic to think that characters can be written without specific notions of gender underpinning them. Watching a character like Jessica, however, one can imagine that she was conceived as a fantastic character first and foremost, instead of a pointed attempt at writing a female superhero into being.

And yet, in what is one of the show’s most interesting paradoxes, gender has everything to do with the character and its trajectory. In a show that is essentially about the uses and abuses of power, gender dynamics are essential: antagonist Kilgrave’s (David Tennant) power over Jessica and other women is often tied in with sexual domination and rape, and much of the first series’ story arc is specifically about women dealing with abuse.

What they don’t show about sex is as important as what they do

The show’s active decision to not picture scenes of rape or sexual coercion is a significant one. It is made clear several times that Kilgrave used his powers to make Jessica and other women engage in sexual activities with him, yet the show doesn’t ever depict these events; instead, we hear of them through his victims.

We don’t need to be shown images of rape to understand what it is; the imagery of the act itself is not more important that the survivors’ narratives. Conversely, what the show does choose to depict is healthy, consensual expressions of sexuality by women — sex not because it is a means to an end or demanded by the plot, but because it is a natural and acceptable part of being female.

For all these reasons, Jessica Jones not only exists as a powerful example of complex female-led storytelling, but it also frees itself from the confines of being a story about gender, limited to dealing only with gender dynamic concerns. In offering well-rounded, strong yet flawed female characters whose identities and day-to-day workings are not bound up in their sexual identity, Jessica Jones moves beyond simplistic representations of women as perfect beings, victims or love interests. Ultimately, the show’s dealing with gender is so successful because gender is by no means the exclusive focus of the show.