The Female Anti-Hero & White Male Privilege in Marvel’s Jessica Jones

This part-review-part-analysis of Netflix’s new original series Jessica Jones is going to sound very similar to many other reviews out there right now. It’s basically fucking amazing. Can I just say again how on point Netflix is right now? It’s churning out some seriously good content, has been doing for a few years now, and Jessica Jones is absolutely no exception to this. A small heads up – this post will be in no way spoiler free, so please go and watch it before reading!

If, like myself, you’d never heard of Jessica Jones and much less heard of the comic series ‘Alias’ from which Jessica originates (also known as Jewel) then I’ll give you a little bit of backstory. Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, is a private investigator. She’s aggressive, she’s unemotional, she’s a loner and she has a tendency to drink a little too much before midday. She is the quintessential cliche of a film noir style P.I. Except that is she is female. The first series of Jessica Jones serves as the origin story for Jessica – we basically get to see how she became a “hero”. A few people disagree with this and instead believe that the first season is actually Jessica’s backstory rather than her origin story and the origin story (though seen in flashbacks) will actually be explored later in the series. It’s easy to see where this train of thought comes from. We don’t actually see the moment where Jessica gets her powers in season one. What we see instead is Jessica pushed to the very brink of her beliefs, nerves and eventually her life. We see her conscious decision to become a force for good and her thought process behind realising that she cannot ignore what has happened to her. Considering this forms the very backbone of both the series and Jessica’s character, I would argue very strongly that the first season is indeed Jessica’s origin story. But enough semantics. Let’s talk about why this show is incredible.

 The Female Anti-Hero

 Being a female anti-hero is a historically very difficult position to be in. The anti-hero is someone who is (generally) a pretty terrible person, but whom the audience identify with and want to succeed. If you’re male it seems to be almost second nature, almost every other male hero on the small screen falls under the title of anti-hero: Dexter, Walter White, Tony Soprano, Francis Underwood etc. But what about the female anti-heroes? To be honest, there aren’t that many around, and when they do surface they don’t necessarily garner the same respect as their male counterparts. Jessica Jones bucks this trend sublimely. From the first minute, Jessica Jones is set up as a throwback film noir private investigator story. From seedy apartment buildings, to high contrast lighting to the unreliable first person narration – it all fits the recognised genre of film noir. With one exception.  Instead of Jessica taking on the role of the femme fatale – she is the protagonist. The foul mouthed, aggressive drunk who is a part-time private investigator and full time hater of the world around her.

 As we get to know Jessica, we realise a few truths about her. Firstly, that she has very few people in her life whom she trusts or even likes. Secondly, something truly awful has happened to her. We don’t yet know what, or if it has made her this cold and callous towards other people, but the introduction of PTSD type flashbacks in the first episode clearly imply past trauma. Jessica is not necessarily a nice person. We realise this pretty early on when Jessica is seen spying on Luke Cage due to her guilt over killing his wife. We later learn of this murder, and the fact that it was Killgrave who made Jessica do it, but nevertheless Jessica stalks Luke and even ends up sleeping with him. Whether this is initially due to her guilt or sexual attraction, it is not altogether clear. What is clear is that Jessica is not a ‘good’ person. Neither she is a ‘bad’ person, she fits somewhere in the middle.

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We can read Jessica’s actions and behaviour as a consequence of what Killgrave put her through, but it is never implied that Jessica’s actions are justified because of what happened to her. She is a true anti-hero; we identify with her but we don’t necessarily like her.

White Male Privilege

What you may (or may not, depends how observant you are) notice whilst watching Jessica Jones is that there is no single redeemable white male character in the entire series. There are actually only three white male named characters in the entire series. Killgrave, Simpson and Killgrave’s dad, Albert. As far as characters go, each of them are pretty twisted in their own way. Albert is probably the least abhorrent, but is still pretty responsible for how Killgrave turned out in the end. Whether we believe that Killgrave’s parents abused him for their own scientific gain, or were doing medical experiments to help him – it is clear that he was severely neglected during his childhood. Neither Albert or Louise, regardless of intention, gave him the love and affection that children desperately need. It’s true that Albert is punished for this (by Killgrave of course) but he never redeems himself like Louise does because he never actually apologises or expresses any love for his son. Albert represents the consequence of shutting off emotions and the impact that can have on a child.

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Killgrave himself, and Simpson, are a metaphor for something else entirely. White male privilege. If we look at Killgrave first, we can see straight from the outset that he is controlling (duh), selfish and a complete psychopath. But what is more chilling about Killgrave is that he believes that everything he does is completely justified. His shock when Jessica tells him that she didn’t love him, and that being with him was excruciating for her, is not fake. Killgrave genuinely believed that what he did to Jessica was not abuse. Not rape. She wanted it. He still believes this, even after she tells him. In the final episode, Killgrave tells Jessica that she will love him again. It may take time, but she will. Due to Killgrave’s powers of mind control, and the fact that he is shown quite clearly to be a violent sociopathic monster, Jessica Jones clearly aligns Killgrave with male power, misogyny and fundamentally – the idea of male privilege. Particularly white male privilege. It is not subtle. Killgrave believes all of his actions are just and this is stems partly from the fact that he has never been challenged on this. Of course, this is a metaphor. No-one can challenge Killgrave, because he can control minds. In the real world, however, men go unchallenged because they hold positions of power and privilege. Killgrave is no different, but the mind control aspect simplifies the root cause of the problem.

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