Friday, January 15, 2016

So What Now?

Creating these blog posts and writing an analysis of the series has been very beneficial for my own reflection of the production. Initially, I watched the first season feeling satisfied with its feminist qualities, and it wasn’t until I did some research that I absorbed the show’s fallbacks. Too often, we watch a series that seems to be pivotal to existing television and ignore anything problematic about it. Even though the positive feminist qualities of the series outweigh the negative, it is still important to address the flaws present. 

I advise readers and viewers of the series to continue to support the production, but also actively contribute to the conversation surrounding Jessica Jones, comic culture, and television through a feminist lens. My aspiration is that future seasons of the show will offer solutions to its flaws and continue to offer complex and positive representations for women superheroes and all marginalized groups.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Backlash Against Jessica Jones and Why It's Important to Acknowledge It

In her essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” bell hooks defines the importance of cameras and photography in the context of black representation. Cameras and visual images and media offered the black community a medium they could participate in and use to create their own voice and recreate their representations. By using the media, particularly photography, minority or marginalized groups could document the truth and “create a counter hegemonic world of images that would stand as visual resistance, challenging racist images (57).” Literally using cameras as a political instrument and documentation as a tool for resistance is a powerful way to dismantle the master’s house and popular media has utilized this tool for both resistance and conformance.

Jessica Jones has offered an incredible opportunity for resistance and I believe that so far, it has used the medium of film to create new representations of womanhood and redefine many character archetypes within the superhero and film noir genres. However, there are significant gaps in Jessica Jones as well that are harmful to the potential success of the production in its efforts of resistance. For instance, it was disappointing to see how little representation there was for women of color (WOC) in the series. In an article that praises the feminist qualities of the show, Caroline Siede still makes it a point to state that she finds it "frankly embarrassing that Jessica Jones doesn't have a single woman of color in its main of supporting cast." In addition to the lack in black representation, the show also lacks LGBTQ representation. Other than Hogarth, presumably every main and supporting character is heterosexual. Not to mention, the only homosexual relationships are the unstable ones between Hogarth, her ex-wife, and her new girlfriend.

Although these flaws seem minimal, Jessica Jones is such a great new text for feminism and resistance, that it's just a little upsetting to see the creators and the series not jump at every opportunity they have to reinvent the superhero genre. It seems that Rosenberg has the intention of using the series to do just that, but with a series that's not too popularly known , much more could've been done and hopefully more will be done in the future of the show.

Jessica Jones and Identity: Womanhood and Gender Performativity

New and transgressive representations of women in popular media has been pivotal in redefining the definition of "women" and femininity. Jessica Jones has been very successful in offering a new image of women superheroes that decreases the conventional hypersexualization. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan analyzes the way that popular magazines are being constructed to create dominant ideologies about womanhood that have drastically changed from pre to post- WWII. The individual, identity-seeking female heroine from 1939, had been dramatically switched to the “happy housewife heroine” of contemporary popular media. By sitting in on a meeting with magazine writers and listening to the way most of the writers approached the topics of their next issues, Friedan discovered that the writers, who were mostly men, were creating and circulating an image of womanhood as something that exists only within the boundaries of the home and in relation to men. This created what Friedan called the “feminine mystique”- the idea that women were supposed to feel satisfaction with marriage and motherhood. This expectation that women should be happy with motherhood and domesticity and the essential qualities of the housewife heroine still haunt western media today. Although not many present shows feature a woman or mother who does not also have a job, the audience sees that the ultimate success for the woman is marriage, not self-actualization or advancing her career, etc. For instance, in the Tyler Perry movies, marriage or the assumption of marriage or (heterosexual) companionship is the goal. Love shows like Flavor of Love, the Bachelor, and others are similar in the way that all the women involved exist in the text to marry or offer romance as the ultimate outcome.

Jessica Jones offers new representations of womanhood that can shift these discourses and the dominant ideology surrounding the term “woman.” Jessica does not have children and doesn't seem to want any, she lives alone and in an apartment that isn't particularly clean or aesthetically pleasing, and the series places more value on Jessica's relationship to her best friend Trish, than to any romantic partners. Trish is a successful talk show host who is always insisting on protecting herself and helping Jessica in any way she can. Hogarth is a queer and powerful lawyer and is the only female character who is married and even then she has an affair. In the entire first season of Jessica Jones, the audience never once sees Jessica show an interest in marriage. She completely denies the love interest Killgrave has in her, and one critic even suggests that Killgrave seems to represent male privilege and the patriarchy:

"The thread that ties season one together is Jessica's relationship to Killgrave, and by examining her trauma from every angle, it becomes one of the most unflinchingly feminist shows I've ever seen. Killgrave is the embodiment of male privilege, dialed up to psychotic. His superpower is being a straight white man in America. He;s handsome, he's wealthy, he gets everything he wants, including sex from whatever woman he desires whenever he desires her. Nothing sets him off like someone telling him no or insulting him. He's entitled to the whole world"

In this same text, Friedan highlights how the definition of "womanhood" and the feminine mystique impact a woman's experiences with her own identity and individualism. Considering Jessica is constantly struggling to interpret her identity while experiencing trauma from her time with Killgrave, the two themes seem to hold significance.

After diving deeper into Jessica's traumatic experiences with abuse and violence, the audience begins to recognize that consent and choice played a large role in her trauma. From the moment her family died, Jessica was ushered into the home of the abusive parent of her best friend and adoptive sister, Trish Walker without much choice. Then she was forced to personally serve Killgrave who sexually abused her without her consent, and now she struggles to determine her identity in regards to her past and her relationship with power.

In "Warrior Women in Thongs" from Susan Douglas' book Enlightened Sexism, Douglas discusses television and movies in the 90’s when shows, such as Xena: The Warrior Princess and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and the Charlie’s Angels movies were highlighting witty, combat-driven “warrior women” who “were both transgressive and conformist” (p 99), because they redefined women heroines while also remaining within the boundaries of “womanhood” defined by the patriarchy. For instance, Xena might have been able to kick ass in a fight scene and beat men down with one hit, but only when she was also scantily clad for the pleasure of a male audience. The challenges to the existing images of women heroines balanced with the utilization of femininity and sexuality created “debates about whether these characters were feminist role models because they were so powerful or retrograde because they conformed to, and thus advanced, very narrow fashion magazine standards of beauty and thinness while exposing vast acreage” (p 78). These new “warrior women in thongs had both feminist and antifeminist elements in them” (p 78) that are comparative to the lead characters in Jessica Jones, such as Jessica herself, Trish, and Hogarth.

Although Jessica Jones supplies viewers with an alternate image of “warrior women” that challenges the hypersexualization of women heroines, I believe that the show still manages to remain within patriarchal guidelines to maintain comfortability and avoid too much controversy. For instance, all of the lead characters are white, middle to upper class, and (other than Hogarth) heterosexual. However, it seems suspicious that out of these 3 lead female characters, Hogarth seems to be the most unfaithful and deceiving. Hogarth's character was originally written as a man but was flipped for the series. Why? What does that achieve? Yes, it's incredible that Hogarth's character now adds a queer presence to the show, but Hogarth also feels inauthentic and it makes me uncomfortable that she seems to be "punished" when she gets stabbed by her ex-wife after releasing Killgrave from a cell. One critic also noted these flaws with Hogarth's character and added that "After this great first season, in which a male character was only cosmetically revised to become a female character...I'm left wondering whether it is possible to make stories about strong female characters who come across as female -- not in an inversion of standard feminist bugbears, but without reference to them at all. While I got a lot out of Jessica Jones, I didn't get that."

Jessica Jones and Identity: The Anti-Hero

Many superheroes have fallen within the category of anti-hero, or a hero who doesn't necessarily want to be titled as a "hero" or have their powers (i.e.: Deadpool, Catwoman, and Wolverine). Anti-heroes are often negative or apathetic and have reclusive qualities and flashbacks to violent or traumatic pasts. With her constant flashbacks, anxiety coping methods, and alcoholic tendencies, Jessica Jones is easily categorized as Marvel's newest and darkest anti-hero. In an interview with Time Magazine, Krysten Ritter expands on Jessica's character and her relationship to the role, the anti-hero persona, and feminism in more detail and suggests that Jessica is more than just an anti-hero. So what makes her different?

Ritter states in her interview with Time that Jessica Jones is a "psychological thriller first and a superhero show second." Throughout the series, there is an ongoing focus on Jessica's experience of trauma from the death of her family and her experiences with her Killgrave. This underlying importance of her PTSD and her struggles understanding her identity seem to be what set Jessica Jones apart from the other anti-heros. In most anti-hero and superhero stories, the audience knows that the hero's family was killed or that they experienced torture before gaining powers, but Jessica Jones directly addresses how this past affects Jessica's relationship with her identity and is not afraid to directly confront the topics of consent, choice, and abuse.

One critic addresses how "Marvel with violence on a wide scale" and that "While those are harrowing situations, the humans caught in the conflict are just collateral damage. There is nothing private about the violence." They add that "Jessica Jones, on the other hand, explores the intimacy of abuse. The more personal the show gets as it delves into the abuse, recovery, trauma, and guilt, the harder it is to watch." Jessica doesn't flinch to remind her friends that Killgrave abused her, and her vulnerability about this and other trauma is not hidden from the audience. Her sarcastic eye rolls, stubbornness, and empathy towards people who have also encountered Killgrave reveal her fragility, and viewers can tell that there's something heavily wrong and complex about her past.

Jessica Jones and Comic Culture

It is important to analyze the history of the comic industry and how Jessica Jones plays into and is altering this history. In an article from Autostraddle, Heather Hogan reviews the 2015 female presence in the superhero genre:
"In 2015, three superhero TV show feature female leads (Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Supergirl), and female-led solo titles make up only a fraction of Marvel and DC's total comic output. Only two female-fronted superhero movies have hit the big screen, the last of which was released a decade ago. And only about 15% of creative jobs at Marvel and DC are held by women." 

Hogan goes on to note that in 1954, comic books publishers adopted the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which intended to incorporate moral guidelines on their publications that included banning violence, gunplay, and glorified crime. This evolved into a way for men to assert dominance over the role of women within comics and thus comics became another tool to subjugate women. In this same article, the critic includes a quote from one of the main tenets of CCA: 
"The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage." DC Comics was even updated later to say: "The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance." 

Since the CCA was formed, it has been rejected and abandoned by many publishers, and it's notable that in 2001 (the same year Jessica Jones was published), Marvel Comics withdrew from the CCA. It seems that 2001 was a pivotal year for Marvel, and since then, the addition of Jessica Jones to the MCU has offered pivotal contributions to the "secondary in importance" position of women within the comic industry. Hogan summarizes the importance of Jessica Jones at the conclusion of her article: "Marvel and DC abandones the CCA years ago when it came to their male heroes, but Jessica Jones is the first female-centric superhero show to completely disregard its influence. She's not the hero we asked for, but it turns out she's the hero we've needed all along."

According to study done by Tim Hanley in June of 2014, only 10.1% of DC comics belonged to women and 12% of Marvel comic credits belonged to women. Of those two companies, white and male creators dominated the superhero industry and stated that "After crunching all the numbers, it looks like superhero comics are still being made primarily by white men. I'm blowing your minds, I know, but it's true." Take a look at this graph he provides in his overview of the study:
Although Jessica Jones was written by two men, it's important that the television series was created by a woman who seems to be actively attempting to challenge the negative representations of women in television and the superhero genre. Rosenberg states in an interview with Rolling Stone that "Apparently the only people who can have dark, flawed, interesting characters are white men. When will it be time for women to play those roles? When can we show women as human beings like anyone else?" Hopefully Rosenberg will continue to attempt to redefine the role of women within popular media and the ratios above will look a little less daunting. 

So Why Is Jessica Jones Important?

Jessica Jones is action-packed with feminist qualities. Packed with witty comebacks, sarcasm. super strength and confidence, Jessica fights crime and villains without the hyperexualiazation. Jessica is never in spandex, dresses, heels, or excessive makeup. Her loose jeans, t-shirts, leather jacket, and combat boots work just fine as she kicks ass across New York.

The show features incredibly powerful women, interracial relationships, and LGBT representation. Throughout her battle against Killgrave, Jessica receives aid from a local bartender and love interest, Luke Cage, her best friend, Trish Walker, her lawyer/boss/client Jeri Hogarth, and her neighbor, Malcolm Ducasse. Jessica’s relationships to these characters, in addition to Kilgrave, are complex, dynamic, and add a centerpiece to the show that has less to do with killing a villain, and more to do with the mesh of friendship, trauma, consent, and control. These characters and the relationships Jessica has with them are both conformative and resistant to traditional characters in superhero, noir, buddy comedy and action genres. There is no token black character (and those black characters that do exist aren’t killed off), Jessica’s friendship with her friend Trish is stressed more than her romantic relationship with Luke, and the show ends in a Thelma and Louise manner rather than a “Happily Ever After” one. Jeri is a gender-swapped one that differs from the comic series and now features a lesbian relationship and Jessica’s friendship with Malcolm explores the complexities of addiction and race, while not assuming a heterosexual relationship. All of these qualities make Jessica Jones a delightful addition to the Marvel Universe and to popular television in general because it redefines the typical narrative for superhero and film noir genres in a way that challenges the patriarchal foundation that these institutions are grounded in.

What is Jessica Jones?

On November 20, 2015 Netflix released the first season of Jessica Jones created by Melissa Rosenberg, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name and the Marvel comic Alias created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the show explores the superhero and film noir genres through its action-packed narrative advanced by the main character Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter).

The series takes place in Hell's Kitchen, NY, where Jessica Jones runs her own detective agency and works as a private investigator after the end of her career as a costumed heroine named "Jewel". As the show progresses, the audience discovers that the end of Jessica’s career wasn’t entirely by choice. After stumbling across Zebediah Killgrave (also known as the “Purple Man”), a man with the ability to control people with his words, Killgrave becomes enthralled with Jessica’s similar access to superhuman abilities and literally talks her into remaining at his side as his lover and slave. After Jessica is finally released from Killgrave’s control under the impression that he is dead, she begins her work as a PI while also trying to forget and recover from her experiences with Killgrave. The show begins when Jessica finds out that Killgrave is in fact still alive and follows her through her pursuit to expose and kill him while she explores and battles addiction, sexuality, relationships, and trauma until Killgrave’s ultimate death in the final episode.

Jessica Jones first appeared in the Marvel Universe in the first issue of Alias in 2001 and then featured in several other comics like the Spiderman and Deadpool series. The comic's plot is guided by Jessica's investigations as a P.I., but is also intertwined with her history with The Avengers and The Purple Man. Critics have noted that the television series differs from the comic series because it doesn't place enough emphasis on Jessica's relationship to the MCU, but rather just on a very small window of her personal story. Others have noted that this was done for a very good reason, and I agree. One critic argues that: "if you know you have a good movie or series on your hands, then you establish it as a completely individual entity that can generate a new fan base on its own." I know I would have never been as personally interested in The Avengers, Daredevil, or frankly, most of the MCU if it hadn't been for this series. It's probably not wrong to assume that Rosenberg has placed more focus on Jessica's personal relationship with Killgrave for the first season and her life as a P.I. rather than as Jewel, because of her intense experiences with trauma and identity. Of course a mass of other superheros have had issues with trauma, but this is one of the first and most recent Marvel series to really highlight and focus on the topics of consent and choice. By doing so, I believe creating an individual series for Jessica Jones has attracted a feminist audience (that includes myself) that can now notice and appreciate the Marvel Industry more than they might have before.