By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47431125
I decided to continue taking advantage of my free trial of Netflix by watching the Jessica Jones television series. The series draws on various parts of the comics that featured her as a recurring character but doesn’t try to recreate the comics, much like most Marvel television and movie productions.
It’s an approach that seems to work consistently well, both in the big-budget blockbuster movie and the televised series formats. I just finished watching the series this week, and as a follow-up to my review of the Luke Cage series, I thought I would share some brief thoughts on Jessica Jones.
My first general observation is that the writing was excellent. Melissa Rosenberg made a coherent narrative out of the entire 13-episode series working with several directors and screenwriters. That’s the power of vision and teamwork bearing good fruit.
My second general observation is that the acting was excellent. Krysten Ritter was totally on point as a wounded, trash-talking anti-hero who is wrestling with her past traumas. And the rest of the cast, from her adopted sister to Luke Cage, Kilgrave and his parents, Officer Simpson and the hired guns, the lawyers and Hope, and on and on and on…were all great. Their characters were believable and sympathetic, even (and perhaps especially) the villains who caused a lot of trouble.
[SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points will be discussed below.]
My third general observation is that the show really had to navigate a minefield of issues related to mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual stereotypes of women, abortion, victim-blaming, and free will. And I think the show generally handled those things well, on balance, though I realize that there were probably people who were offended by how one or more of those topics were handled.
Some of my fellow Catholics might be offended by how the show handled abortion, for example. After Kilgrave had raped Hope and she realized she was pregnant, she was desperate to find a way to end the pregnancy and kill the child she could feel growing inside her. At first she paid a fellow inmate at the women’s prison to beat her up so as to cause a miscarriage, but when that didn’t work, she asked Jessica for help. Jessica provided an abortifacient in the form of a pill, giving only brief warning about the physiological consequences.
No one was even shown considering that there was any other option than an abortion. There was no wrestling with the moral weight of the choice to end a life. Of course, had the show dealt with that issue, there would have been plenty of fallout among pro-choice feminists who were watching the show. On the other hand, the show definitely presented the moral weight of Hope’s decision to abort.
She was portrayed very sympathetically, as having been the victim of both rape and the murder of her parents shortly thereafter, being forced to pull the trigger herself by Kilgrave. I think it’s a good thing to present women who want an abortion very sympathetically, as that’s very true to the real difficulties faced by most women who consider having abortions. At the same time, most women also wrestle with the alternatives, and it would have been nice to show that as well.
Showing the complexity of the moral issues was something done much better in the case of the question of free will around Jessica’s ability to resist Kilgrave’s mind control powers. It became increasingly unclear as the series went on as to exactly when Jessica had become able to resist his control and exercise her own agency. And this a good reflection of the difficulty people have in knowing exactly when they were coerced into doing something, particularly in situations of domestic violence or rape.
It’s not always easy for the victim to be 100% sure of their own agency, and the villain isn’t always sure either. I was glad to see the Jessica Jones series tackle that issue alongside various other related issues like mental illness and addiction and abusive family situations. I was less impressed by the way the series handled consensual sexual activity. It was important to the plot that Jessica have sex with Luke Cage early on because it sets up conflict later in the series, but it was completely gratuitous to show them having sex repeatedly in various positions.
It’s easy enough to imply a sexual encounter, and it takes less time in the show. I’m not sure why they did that aside from the fact that they could. Even the pillow talk after sex in which important exposition happens doesn’t require showing the sex to make it believable. Another minor irritant related to how sex was dealt with has to do with the relationship between Jeri Hogarth and Pam, the employee of the law firm Jeri is having an affair with (which her wife eventually finds out about).
Not only was it not necessary to the plot to show Jeri fingering Pam in the office, it wasn’t some sort of edgy barrier-breaking moment either. They’re lesbians. We get it. And we’re not shocked by it because we’re all Puritanical. Do they even know that their age demographic is quite tolerant when it comes to sexual orientation? Which begs the question of why the love triangle was depicted as being so catty and vindictive. Doesn’t that just reinforce negative stereotypes about women in general and lesbians in particular?
And speaking of stereotypes, I was deeply confused by Pam explaining her refusal to marry Jeri before the divorce from her current wife went through by saying, “I’m Catholic.” There’s no stereotype of Catholic lesbians waiting for a divorce before marrying someone, to my knowledge, justified or not. And most lesbians abandon their Catholic faith as they choose to keep having sex with women, which is perfectly rational.
A woman who is attracted to other women sexually can choose to be committed to radical self-denial of her sexual urges because of her belief in Catholic teaching or she can deny that teaching and abandon her Catholic faith in favor of having sex with whomever she wants. Either option makes sense as a way of dealing with the situation. So does refusing to marry another women until she has divorced her wife. There are good reasons for doing that. It’s just that being Catholic isn’t one of those good reasons.
Speaking of Catholic, one of the things Jessica wrestles with quite a bit is guilt. She never goes to Confession for it, but she does at moments confess her sense of guilt in various ways. And her sense of guilt leads her to fear, specifically a fear of causing other people to get hurt. Over and over again, she tries to keep more people from getting hurt, her fear driving her to rush into situations and make careless mistakes.
Her adopted sister Trish calls her out on this, and Jessica gradually overcomes her fears by facing them. She keeps taking on Kilgrave, and though he manages to escape her repeatedly, each time she confronts him (and thereby confronts her fears) she grows more confident and less fearful. This was one of the most beautiful and empowering aspects of the show.
I felt myself really rooting for her as she grew in her ability to let her fear pass through her while she remained standing. Fear is the mind-killer, as it’s put very effectively in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. Jessica’s authentic growth in mental strength to finally kill the man who had destroyed so many parts of her by raping her and forcing her to commit crimes was really inspiring to watch. She killed her fear before it could prompt her to let Kilgrave kill any more.
By the end, her fear no longer kept her from acting to protect those she loves. This was the culmination of a show that did a great job of showing that while feminine strength may not be often expressed in the same ways as masculine strength, it’s very real and very valuable. The world shouldn’t miss out on the unique gift of feminine strength to conquer fear with a love grounded in challenging relationships rather than the strength found in the cold callousness of the typical male action hero.