Marvel and Miss Jones
- by Leo Stableford, 13 January 2016
It's been a couple of months since Netflix released their second Marvel TV Series Jessica Jones. The series was met with generally positive reviews and well and truly overhauled the mental image many cherish of the 11th Doctor. People are divided as to whether they prefer Daredevil or Jessica Jones, but that's not really a surprise. It could be seen as something of a surprise that Jessica Jones even offered The Man Without Fear a run for his money... or maybe it isn't.
To a lesser or greater degree Jessica Jones played to its strengths and made strengths out of its perceived cultural weaknesses, like the titular heroine it gave every appearance of having nothing to lose. Let's face it folks Daredevil did have a harder time in terms of fan expectation and apprehension at past mis-handling (although I like the Director's Cut of the 2003 Affleck movie, I do agree the theatrical cut had a lot of problems).
The reason for this is that more people actually know who Daredevil is, hell the character Jessica Jones has even made a feature out of not knowing who she is herself. All I knew going in was what I'd read in my Marvel Encyclopaedia and the bits and pieces of her part in the Secret Invasion storyline, where she's pretty much Mrs. Luke Cage. If you were Marvel and you wanted to put out a pioneering first female superhero property, then JJ doesn't really look all that inspiring on paper.
In a way, it remains disappointing that Marvel's first contemporary leading lady has been shunted into the "edgy" Netflix TV Universe. On the surface, it's a bit of an insult not to have female superheroes in the lead role debut on the big screen. On the other hand, more people watch Netflix than watch any individual movie, in the main. It's easier to put a show on at home than it is to organise a trip to an event movie.
Ludicrous as it might seem to view a female starring superhero franchise as "a risk" at this stage in history, the insanely conservative entertainment industry views it as such. In a world with Black Widow/Mockingbird action figure supply and demand issues, putting such an obscure heroine in the limelight seems like an odd move. Then again, I'm not sure that a JJ action figure would really be age appropriate. (Now Available! PTSD JJ in down-at-heel gumshoe outfit. Includes bottle of whisky and despair drinking action arm!) For that reason alone, it could be seen as a shrewd manoeuvre to make the first leading lady a character you won't want little girls to emulate. Or even be able to watch. After all, with the wealth of strong female role models provided in the comic book world, what's one less? Oh, no, wait.
Still, this cultural artifact is what it is and for its failings, it is still one of the most important superhero products ever produced. For a start, Jessica Jones, superhero origins and powers aside, seems like a real person. The whole gumshoe angle on the show is fully exploited, the show comments upon hardboiled detective fiction even as it explores the tropes.
At the same time, the show actively comments upon gender stereotyping, simply reversing those hidden rules of thumb so rife in narrative construction for popular media. The unwritten rule that random characters should be written as men by default is switched here. I wasn't keeping track, but I did feel that where random characters came in, they were female more often than not.
This simple reversal gives the women in JJ a greater degree of agency. Simultaneously, it highlights how such a provisioning of dialogue and action really changes the view of men in the story. With the arguable exception of David Tennant's Kilgrave, the men in Jessica Jones tend to come off as accessories to the story, even superpowered cross-over-tastic Luke Cage fits into roles as "Assistant" and "slightly dopey love interest". He is never allowed to dominate the episodes where he appears, even though he can play a pretty major role in the unfolding events.
At one point, in a perfect microcosm of the series' attitude, someone's mother organises a revenge plot. When JJ springs the trap, both the woman and her husband are there. What dramatic lines there are to deliver are delivered by the woman plotter, whilst the husband stands by, the weaker partner by virtue of his silence.
What's really clever about these conceits is that they dance the line of narrative satire without slipping into some weird social justice pastiche of hero fiction. Every narrative decision has been made for sound dramatic reasons. I am very used to the features of the story being told here, but I am not so familiar with the players or the shape of their relationships to one another. As I have noted before, if you have a character written as male, or performing gender in a way that is stereotypically male, then, if they are female, it leads to some pretty weird motivational back story.
In other words, when a male gumshoe hits the whiskey pretty hard in their squalid office, it's a familiar trope. When the gumshoe is female, you begin to ask "Why is she in this terrible position? Why is she hurting herself this way?" In actual fact, you should ask that question in either case, and when the gumshoe trope was young, that was the point of it, but we've all been desensitised to it in the intervening years. This is one of the things that makes JJ such a refreshing watch.
It comes to a point where the play between the quality of the series, it's story and it's cultural context make JJ the perfect flagship for female superheroes in our culture. It is a challenge to the prevailing Neanderthal attitude that superheroes are for boys and deal with boy-issues in a way that a Black Widow movie or a Mockingbird series simply can't.
There was a time before Milla Jovovich, Buffy and JJ Abrams when the kick ass female was a surprise and a revelation, a bold new direction in mass media storytelling. It's only the fact that male archetypes have continued to dominate that allows the room for Natasha Romanov and Bobbi Morse to exist without feeling tired and worn out. Even so, you could bemoan the lack of variety in heroic female archetypes.
In comes JJ, who defies expectations in just about every way. She has all the features of a generic male hero (her main "ability" is enhanced strength), but as a woman she uses what she has in a completely new way, because a woman gifted with super strength will need to exploit her advantages both in physical capability and the performance of gender.
To add into that the storyline about the dangers of such an individual being exploited by a more powerful corrupting influence and that's the icing on the cake. The series plays with audience expectations about gender roles and relationships and simultaneously comments on an industry viewed as being behind the times in its own attitudes towards what people will watch men and women do on screen.
JJ may not be the hero we were expecting. She may not even be the one we necessarily wanted. Despite this, she is most definitely the female Marvel superhero that we all needed. Long may she be a jewel in the Marvel/Netflix crown.
Have you seen Marvel's Jessica Jones? Have anything to add? Let us know below!
Tagged: movies & TV.