The Marvel-Netflix series of shows has been a success both financially and creatively. Daredevil and Jessica Jones have not only remained faithful to the core attributes of its lead characters but have also stretched the notion of what the masses expect from a superheroic tale. Both works are darker than other fare from Marvel—clearly indicating comic heroes aren’t for kids anymore—utilizing quirky examinations of adult themes rather than juvenile titillation to make said statement.
Jessica Jones in particular has connected with an adult white female audience—a group woefully underserved where action projects are concerned (though inroads have been made with projects like Mad Max: Fury Road). However, where both Daredevil and Jessica Jones take great pains to examine the role of the white vigilante (or in a broader capacity, whiteness in urban society) and how it has morphed since the glory days of Batman, depictions of people of color suffer greatly for it.
It is both frustrating and exciting to watch. Jessica Jones dives headfirst into the topic of consent and its requirement for a true and healthy relationship. Jessica’s abuse by the hands of Kilgrave, and Patricia Walker’s dysfunctional romance with Will Simpson highlight the patriarchal need to dominate and diminish the role of women. However, unlike a by-the-numbers Lifetime movie, a tale of empowerment is woven using elements of science fiction as connecting threads. Kilgrave’s mind-control abilities push his tormenting above and beyond that of the average anonymous social-media bully, causing not only mental anguish for his victims but physical pain as well. Simpson, a rogue cop fueled by pharmaceuticals, attempts to control the movements of the women in his life via superhuman abilities. The character is perhaps even more frightening than Kilgrave in that Simpson shows that an abuser can wear a mask of kindness and can easily be a man one has been willingly intimate with.
Jessica’s physical strength saves the day, but not without the assistance of two very important things: smart women working in tandem and a higher socioeconomic status than others. Trish’s and Jeri’s money and notoriety provide access that would be otherwise impossible to obtain—from a favor from a morgue attendant to classified corporate documents to a speedy and medically sound abortion.
It is here where Jessica Jones shines and also falters. The familial bonds between Jessica and Trish as well as the snide working repartee between Jessica and Jeri are a delight to see. The show glorifies both sisterhood and women who are exceptional at their jobs. Women are shown in leadership positions in entertainment, in medicine, in law, and in criminal justice; the capability of said women is not questioned by the show—only by male characters who are rebuffed for doing so. Women do not need men to take care of them in Jessica Jones, but they are willing to exploit the white-supremacist society those men have built to aid them in their goals. Male characters of color suffer to serve Jessica; female characters of color are utilized to move the story along (and provide the show’s fleeting glimpse of lingerie-clad female objectification), but they are given little to no characterization or voice. Jessica Jones’ sisterhood welcomes members of only one type.
The treatment of Luke Cage is perhaps the most egregious given the character’s history as a Blaxploitation-era figure of empowerment. That history is gone in Jessica Jones—the character becoming a tabula rasa to aid in Jessica’s story. Luke’s cultural ties have been severed. No longer situated in Harlem, he runs a bar in Jessica’s integrated neighborhood. His past as a private investigator—one more skilled than Jessica herself—has also been taken from him. It is Jessica who shows him the ropes as a PI and compliments him for being a quick study. Luke Cage, a character with deep roots in northern African-American subcultures and an origin that highlights the racism of the prison industrial complex and the need for black people to work independently for their own justice, has been changed into a character wholly dependent on a white woman for instruction and closure in the case of his dead wife—a wife killed by the woman whose bed he routinely occupies as an emotional and physical salve. He is a private dick in the worst of all possible ways.
Malcolm Ducasse, a young black man twisted into a junkie spy by Kilgrave, does not fare much better. Jessica turns society’s irrational suspicion of black men against itself by using Malcolm’s presence as a distraction in order to steal items that will aid in her client’s release from prison. To reiterate, she offers Malcolm up to the system to free a young white woman from the same. Moreover, she extends Malcolm’s time in mental bondage to Kilgrave because it is advantageous to her. To Jessica’s credit she feels guilt regarding these actions, but what help is her guilt to a man railroaded into the system? Once Malcolm is freed from Kilgrave’s mental grip he does not return to his promising career, or to his family, but instead remains by Jessica’s side—fielding calls for her company and showing concern for her sobriety. And that is where we leave him, waiting for season two.
Would I recommend watching Jessica Jones or Daredevil? Yes, depending on the individual asking, for both works send different messages to two distinct groups. Unfortunately, as a black woman I am not in the group that is championed or empowered. I can hope for that to change with the addition of Luke Cage and Iron Fist to the Netflix slate, but I am still wary. And given Marvel’s history? I have reason to be.
Okay, you poor souls have suffered through enough Marvel thinkpieces for one day! Of that I’m certain. Next up? I play Daredevil’s advocate.