Thursday, January 14, 2016

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."

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