Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series

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Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series ed. Tim Rayborn and Abigail KeyesJessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series ed. Tim Rayborn and Abigail KeyesJessica Jones, Scarred Hero: Essays on Gender, Trauma, and Addiction in the Netflix Series ed. Tim Rayborn & Abigail Keyes

It’s hard to fault an anthology for doing exactly what its title says it’s going to do, and so I won’t. I’m just going to note that Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero mostly focuses like a laser on its three sub-topics, particularly the latter two — trauma and addiction — and so if you are looking for a wide-ranging look at the character/series, one that might have essays dealing with class, gender, race, film techniques etc., this is not going to be that anthology. Personally, I found the sharp focus began to feel a bit constricting and certainly added to some slight repetitiveness/redundancy in the collection, but I’m not pointing to those as flaws, merely as warnings. If you desire a look at how addiction and trauma are portrayed in the series, an exploration that looks at those themes from multiple angles, you’ve found the right book.

In general terms, the collection keeps circling around several themes/aspects of the show’s noir influence, its portrayal of “the effects of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse,” specifically Jessica Jones being kidnapped, controlled, and raped by Kilgrave (played by David Tennant); and the depiction of addiction as displayed by the show’s main characters (most of which are linked to some form of prior abuse).

Several essays point out the classical noir, or rejuvenated “neo-noir,” elements of the film’s visuals and story. More than one, for instance, reference Jessica’s voice-over, the show’s color scheme, the “impressionistic” opening shots of a cityscape. These references do, as noted, create a little bit of repetitiveness, but for the most part even when they examine similar scenes, such as the opening montage or title shots, they’re through a somewhat different prism (gender, for instance) or one essay will explore the individual shots/images in more detail while another looks at more broad strokes.

The same mostly holds true in discussions of Jessica’s rape/abduction or her ensuing PTSD and attempts to cope through alcohol. Several essays, in setting up their premise, will reference what happened with Kilgrave or even the same conversation with him, or how much or what Jessica drinks, but then each will spin outwards from those similar moments into a mostly different take on things. That said, from my perspective, those essays dealing more directly with the alcoholism/mental issues of trauma were less engaging. They felt a bit more repetitive than the others, and pointed to aspects that felt somewhat more self-evident, such as the use of flashbacks, non-linear and incoherent images, and jangling sounds to mirror the feelings of the traumatized. Though to be fair, my subjective preference for a more literary analysis of narrative, symbol, film techniques, and metaphor could explain a good part of that response.

Here is a look at a few of essays in Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero that I reacted most strongly to.

“Even you can break”: Jessica Jones as Femme Fatale by Daniel Binns

Binns opens with a definition of noir elements, a quick look at some of the ways they appear in the show, then hones in on the femme fatale character of noir, citing several critics’ definitions, such as Janey Place’s description of the type as “women defined in relation to men” or Doan’s that the character is a “symptom of male fears about feminism.” Even so, several critics argue the character type can be dynamic, which leads Binns to argue for a fundamental tension in the role, an “alternative view of the femme fatale as strong, independent, and powerful, a willful vehicle (and/or victim) of her own destiny.” Binns further delineates two particular types: the “sexual seductress … that lures an unsuspecting character — typically male — into trouble” and the “Object-of-mystery” type, whose “motives are hazy, her morals non-existent … waver[ing] somewhere between angelic and demonic.”

After an exploration of the femme fatale in a few classic film titles, we turn to the parallels with Jessica Jones’ character: defined by male interest, an attempt to separate from that male domination and assert one’s independence, an attempt to find one’s place in the world, a “fracturing” of self. It is at the point of declared independence, Binns argues, that Jessica becomes a true femme fatale, playing up to that point (episode nine of the series) the usual “hardboiled antihero.” Now though, she becomes predator rather than prey, gaining her revenge by “enacting the tropes of that same femme fatale.” Binns uses the word “layered” to describe Jones’ character, and his essay does a good job of revealing the many layers, the complexities of a character, even as that character works within the boundaries of a “type” or “stock” character too often dismissed in an over-simplified manner.

“AKA Occasionally I give a damn”: Mirrored Archetypes and Gender Power in Jessica Jones by Aleah Kiley & Zak Roman

This essay focuses on the relationship between Jessica Jones and Trish in an attempt to show how the series “established rudimentary gender binaries, but … ultimately transgresses these stereotypical representations and presents a new understanding of women’s lived reality and possibilities for agency and empowerment.” The authors open with a description of traditional male-female superhero roles, with the women being overtly sexualized and portrayed as being manipulative, “constrained by a distinctly limited heroism that must be qualified, aided and validated by others,” and often forced to “adopt masculine characteristics and actively deny their femininity.” It’s a brief introduction, as the authors clearly don’t expect readers to push back on any of this, and why would they — these realities are sadly all too evident.

From there the authors move into a detailed examination of how both Jessica and Trish are characterized as individuals and with regard to their relationship. At first, they note, Jessica comes across in typically masculinized form: cynical, physically violent, tamping down emotions, “displaying power and domination” in her sex scenes with Luke Cage, etc. Meanwhile, Jessica’s hyper-masculinity and “potentially transgressive femininity” are being balanced out by the “softer and more heteronormative femininity of Trish,” evinced, for example, by her focus on appearance: her clothing, her exercise and diet regimens, and the like. Besides this balancing, the authors note as well how Trish is a mirror to Jessica, one lacking power and desperately wanting it in order to help others and the other superpowered actively trying to avoid altruism.

Had they ended there the essay probably would have been solidly interesting, but they then flip their argument to claim that “the conceptualization of Jessica and Trish as simple mirrors of opposing femininity is extremely limited … [they] present complicated reflections of gender from distinctly woman-centered points of view.” This deeper, more nuanced exploration includes a look at the shifting role of violence as its perceived when wielded by male versus female characters, the way the show overtly calls out Kilgrave’s “rape” of Jessica in ways the comic never did so as to place the show in the context of gender violence, the layered ways in which Trish’s past as a childhood star (one sexualized and objectified then and now) create a more complicated persona that may be seen at first blush, and finally the way these two “name and define their experiences of trauma, assault, and abuse … embracing one another’s imperfect traits … fully in control of their bodies, their realities, and their destiny … assert[ing] and ‘resist[ing] gender binaries.” It’s a wonderfully subtle and full examination and may have been my favorite essay in the collection.

AKA Marvel Does Darkness: Jessica Jones, Rape Allegories, and the Netflix Approach to Superheroes by CarrieLynn D. Reinhard & Christopher J. Olson

This gave the above essay a run for its money in terms of my favorite. After some introductory material, the authors make a distinction between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the Marvel Netflix Universe (MNU), noting for instance how Coulson’s absence in the latter while appearing as a linchpin character across the MCU implies the MNU “remains somewhat separate from the rest of the transmedia storyworld.” More importantly for the purpose of the essay though is how the Netflix model — “on demand all-at-once distribution” calls for a wholly different narrative structure and style. More specifically in terms of this particular show, that narrative style is centered on an allegory for rape. What follows is a detailed look at Jessica’s journey through trauma and its aftermath, leading to her realization that “her inner darkness — a combination of survivor’s guilt and loneliness — drives the choices that impact her relationships … embracing it as a form of inner strength … on her path to becoming a hero.” After further exploration of Jessica’s character, the authors move back into a comparison of the MCU and MNU, their differing use of allegory, the way in which the MNU is able to better do social commentary than the films, and how Netflix’s distribution model allows for more complex and faithful adaptations of the serialized comics.

“Is that real or is it just in my head?” “Both.”: Chronotopal Representations of Patriarchal Villainy and the Feminist Antihero in Marvel’s Jessica Jones” by Justin Wigard

Don’t let that title scare you off, this is a highly accessible essay despite its (well-explained) use of some critical jargon. I really enjoyed this comparison, through the prism of their seasonal “Big Bads,” of two of Netflix’s Marvel shows: Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Wigard begins by describing how Daredevil presents a “nuanced but straight-forward superhero narrative,” with the titular hero defined by the tropes of the genre, but more significantly by “the villainy he faces and how he responds.” After some discussion of genre — Daredevil an example of police procedural and Jessica Jones an example of noir (and here we get some of that aforementioned redundancy of analysis), Wigard delves into how “the Kingpin acts as an inverse of the core of Daredevil … [while] Kilgrave represents an inversion of Jessica’s identity and values.” One such example is her superpower being super strength while his is mind control.

As much of the article deals with the parallels to real-world misogyny embedded in the series, I’m a little surprised more wasn’t made of how this inversion is also a subversion of the usual clichéd portrayal of male-female powers in superhero comics, with the males having an active physicality associated with their power (strength, flight, etc.) and the females using having some form of mental power (telekinesis, mind manipulation) which feeds into the sexist portrayal of them as “weaker” and “dangerously seductive.” Despite that missed opportunity, Wigard does a nice job of placing Jessica in her cultural/historical context and showing how the series places a “feminist antihero” or direct (and successful) confrontation with a “misogynist and patriarchal villain.”

As noted in the opening, Jessica Jones, Scarred Hero is less wide-ranging than most collections that look at heroes/superheroes, and some readers may find it a little too constrained in its vision/exploration of the series. But outside of one or two essays (I confess to being disappointed in the comparison to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I was excited to see in the table of contents), each piece offers up a sharp-eyed look at an unusual character, as well as making pertinent connections to real-world trauma and its impact. Recommended.

Published in March 2018. Jessica Jones barged onto our screens in November 2015, courtesy of Marvel and Netflix, presenting a hard-drinking protagonist who wrestles with her own inner (and outer) demons. Gaining enhanced abilities as a teenager, she eschews the “super costume” and is far more concerned with the problems of daily life. But when Jessica falls under the control of a villain, her life changes forever. Based on the comic book Alias, the show won a large following and critical acclaim for its unflinching look at subjects like abuse, trauma, PTSD, rape culture, alcoholism, drug addiction, victims’ plight and family conflicts. This collection of new essays offers insight into the show’s complex themes and story lines.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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