'Jessica Jones' Is Sort of Cheating at Feminism

You can't just turn male characters into females. Think post-patriarchy, not "girl superhero."

Krysten Ritter plays a superheroine in "Jessica Jones." More "super" than "heroine."

Photographer: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Netflix

If you haven’t been watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, then allow me to be the 1,000th person to recommend it to you. The leads range from good to great, the visuals are excellent, and the core dilemmas are interesting and emotionally engaging.

The show’s great strength and weakness is that it is committed to showing a woman doling out street justice without crying at rainbows, or dressing up in a skintight leotard.

Web odes have been written to this show's feminist cred; I will not add to them. Much. Though for those readers who suspect “feminist cred” means Jessica Jones routinely stops the plot to deliver stinging lectures about the patriarchy … well, just give the show a try anyway. There are no lectures. It’s obvious that the writers wanted to explore feminist issues like sexual consent, and to make a show where women do the serious fighting rather than functioning as arm candy for the men. But the creators don’t dance around shouting about how feminist it all is; they just make a darn good show.

If anything, it wasn’t quite feminist enough. Or maybe that’s not quite right. I was left feeling that in order to break the normal mold of superhero shows, where the lady superheroes are secondary characters, they often ended up just inverting those conventions. Just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, this sort of volte-face is the tribute that feminism pays to the patriarchy.

What do I mean by this? Start with the secondary sex characteristics. Writers think they have given us stereotype-busting female characters, but actually they wrote a male part and cast a female for the role. The clearest example in "Jessica Jones" is Hogarth, the high-powered lawyer who’s cheating on her wife with a young chippie. I looked at my husband and said: “That character feels like they wrote a man, and then just changed the name at the last minute.” And indeed, it turns out that in the graphic novels on which this show is based, Hogarth is a man.

What about Hogarth as a woman feels inauthentic? It’s not that women can’t be amoral, adulterous or interested in someone younger and fresher than the old ball and chain. It isn’t even that women cannot be as self-centered and callous as a stereotypical “cheating male jerk” character in a film. But a woman cannot be that stock character, because one important aspect of that character is that he is not merely uninterested in, but actually oblivious to, what his romantic interests might be feeling.

I have no problem believing that a rich older lesbian can be cruel to her wife of many years and interested in a younger woman largely as arm candy. What I don’t believe is that that said lesbian can do this while being completely unaware of what it feels like to be the older woman losing her youthful looks as menopause rears its head, or the 23-year-old woman being courted. Yet that’s how the Hogarth character is written. This studied inversion made a significant subplot fall flat for me.

Jessica Jones herself suffers from this a little bit in the early episodes. But my larger problem with her character is that in the interests of making certain feminist points — that rape is terrible even if it doesn’t involve violence, that men who commit such rapes are pathetic losers, not studs — the show ends up weakening the characters, not just of Jones, but also of other important roles.

The two main female characters, Jones and her friend Trish, are given all the important action, but they’re also given only the sort of weaknesses that one confesses in job interviews, like “I care too much.” What’s Trish’s main conflict? She wants to be a hero, but doesn’t actually have superpowers (yet, anyway). What’s Jones’s main flaw? She’s emotionally scarred and pushes people away rather than letting them get too close. (This is, by the way, the heroine’s main flaw in every bad teen romance and bodice ripper I read at summer camp.)

To be sure, Jones is also supposed to also be a raging alcoholic, but aside from once getting her thrown out of a bar, her alcoholism apparently never causes her to do any actual damage to her cause or those around her, which is not my experience with actual people who drink as much as she does. The one time she tries to do something actually, certifiably stupid, it is foiled so early by the villain that it had no consequences. It was also so ludicrous that it was obviously a desperate attempt to stretch the plot and fill the contractually obligated 13 episodes.

Meanwhile, the villain -- a man -- isn’t allowed to have a single redeeming quality other than bold taste in suits. Feminists have a quite legitimate complaint about the way that rape (or the threat of rape) is often played for erotic frisson in movies, but in order to avoid that they go to the other extreme, belittling the villain so thoroughly as the rape subplot emerges that by the end, I had lost interest in him. He doesn’t appear to be particularly charming, or smart, or anything else. It's possible the writers did this because they decided that a rapist couldn’t be allowed to have any qualities that would make him look other than pathetic.

Whatever the reason for their choice, they ended up with a villain who was too small to be particularly interesting, or even very scary, so that by the end the show’s tensions ended up being carried by plot devices, and the introduction of a secondary villain, rather than by the "big bad" himself. That’s a pretty substantial accomplishment considering that the role was played by the great David Tennant.

After this great first season, in which a male character was only cosmetically revised to become a female character and in which a male villain was needlessly weakened, 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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