December 6, 2015 at 12:33 AM by Dr. Drang
A few days ago, I read Anita Sarkeesian’s critique of Jessica Jones and found myself agreeing with some parts, but seriously disagreeing with her main point and curious how she could’ve missed something I thought was obvious. I wasn’t planning to write about the show, but now here I am.
First, a few items of introduction. I learned of Sarkeesian’s article through a post by bspencer over at Lawyers, Guns & Money. This part of bspencer’s post struck me as particularly good:
… I didn’t even feel threatened because someone wrote something mildly critical of a thing I like and feel mildly protective of. Maybe it’s because I’m not fourteen that I know that it’s ok to like things that are flawed and other people critiquing or even disliking a thing I like is not pointed condemnation of me and my taste.
Also, like half of the guests on the very good Incomparable TeeVee podcast on the first four Jones episodes, I’ve never read the comic books on which the show is based. I was once a reader of Power Man, but my Luke Cage isn’t the guy depicted in the TV show. My Luke was the mid-70s version, with an open yellow shirt, a headband, and chain around his waist. He did say “Sweet Christmas,” like Mike Colter does, but my favorite Cagean epithet was the substitution of “spit” for “shit.” That’s how we knew he was street—in a Comics Code-approved way.
Last introductory comment: Yes, of course there will be spoilers.
Sarkeesian’s primary complaint about Jones is that Jessica is too much of a loner, that she doesn’t accept offers of help from others.
A support group is formed for people who have been violated by the villain, Kilgrave, but Jessica never participates. In reality, many people who have been traumatized carry around a tremendous amount of shame and do avoid opportunities for help and support. However, having the show’s hero be the one character who doesn’t ask for help suggests that it’s stronger and braver not to seek help, when it’s actually just the opposite.
I see this as seriously wrong-headed. Jessica is a fictional character, not a blueprint. It’s not incumbent on the writers to make her act in her best interests or in the way we’d advise her to act. The writers’ job is to make her interesting—nothing more, nothing less. And acting against the advice of others is one of the things that makes Jessica interesting.
What about character development? Wouldn’t it be interesting if Jessica changed and grew? She can and she does, but she can’t turn around fully by the end of the season for the very practical reason that she needs room to grow next season. And the season after that. Like you and me, she’ll always be a work in progress.
And then there’s Sarkeesian’s take on Trish:
Jessica’s relationship with her adoptive sister Trish Walker, for instance, is fascinating because of the contrast between them. Jessica drinks way too much and her apartment (and her life) are a mess; Trish is successful and seemingly has her life together.
There’s an awful lot of baggage hanging onto that “seemingly.” You might think Trish has her life together if you’d seen only the first few episodes (and even then, you’d be ignoring some pretty big clues: the safe room, her intense martial arts training, and Jessica’s surprise to find that Trish has liquor in her apartment), but you certainly shouldn’t be thinking that by the end of the season.
The importance of Trish is not simply in the contrasts between her and Jessica, but also in their parallels. The biggest parallel appears halfway through the season in the form of Trish’s mother, Dorothy Walker. Dorothy is Trish’s Kilgrave. Her manipulations may have been performed without the benefit of a superpower, but they were just as effective.
Now, you may argue that bringing in an overbearing and damaging stage mother is lazy writing, and you may denounce it as a perpetuation of stereotypes. These are legitimate criticisms. Even though I liked the Dorothy subplot overall,1 I saw its weaknesses. But to ignore it completely is critical malpractice. If you don’t see Trish’s story as an echo of Jessica’s, you’ve missed something the writers really wanted you to see.
Jessica, of course, learns that Kilgrave can no longer command her. I have a feeling Trish will go through a similar experience in the next season. Like Jessica, she will develop as a character without, I hope, losing the flaws and wrinkles that make her interesting.