Jessica Jones and Netflix’s New Storytelling

SPOILER WARNING

Jessica Jones has a lot going on. It’s about trauma, PTSD, rape, and domestic abuse. (Oh, and superheroes, and Hell’s Kitchen, and the Marvel cinematic universe MCU). The fact is that Jessica Jones and the subjects it covers are hard. They’re hard for the audience to see, to experience. The audience’s difficulty wrestling with these topics can be seen in the social media reactions to the show as people made their way through the thirteen episodes. Criticisms include poor pacing, comments that attacked Jessica, and her sexuality including calling her a “skinny white girl,” criticizing the fact that she wore the same jeans through all the episodes (one fan looked it up, it’s actually three separate pairs), and complaints about her internal monologues. While not overtly tied to gender issues (but they really are) were the complaints that given her size, Jessica couldn’t possibly have the strength she does. Small note guys: when a superhero has powers due to chemicals, accident, radioactive spiders, or alien tech or DNA, you just need to let go of arguments about “logic” of size equaling strength. Seriously. Let it go. Given that this is the second in Marvel’s Netflix arrangement comparisons to Daredevil were inevitable, not only because they are both set in the same world, but also because these shows are all building on in each other, while standing alone, and leading to the Defenders. Many of these comparisons judged the pacing of Jessica Jones as subpar compared to Daredevil and most criticized the fight scenes in Jessica Jones as not as good as Daredevil.

I think the two main issues, pacing and the gender issues of Jessica Jones, are both lenses through which we can analyze the new form of storytelling that these Netflix shows have led to. First, to get the obvious comparisons out of the way; while I believe given the nature of these shows that comparisons are inevitable, I also believe they are unfair. Matt Murdoch makes it his purpose to protect Hell’s Kitchen. He trains. He is single minded. Of course the fight scenes in Daredevil are smoother, more intense, ramped up (I’m still not over that hallway scene by the way). As we learn throughout the series Jessica is an accidental hero. She’s taken by Kilgrave just as she has decided to BE a hero, so of course she’s not trained. As evident by her numerous references to never quite mastering flying, she’s still more brute force than finesse. The differences between her bar fight with Luke Cage and any Matt Murdoch fight highlights this. And I think to a certain extent I believe they are meant to. Just as the bar fight highlights the difference in styles between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (he’s effortless because he KNOWS he’s unbreakable, and her solution default is brute violence). It’s the genius of each of these stand alone series- we have to know who these people are as themselves, on their own, before we can see who they are together.

I think we can apply the same logic of comparisons to the pacing. Jessica Jones hits the ground running while Daredevil was a slow build up, a roller coaster of moving forward and back. Once Jessica starts she doesn’t stop, there are barely pauses for serious injury and unconsciousness. I think the problem people have with the beginning of Jessica Jones is not the pacing. I think it’s that Jessica Jones is not a hero. She’s not nice. She’s loud. She’s a drunk. She sacrifices others for her own goals. She’s abrasive. She’s a user, in many senses of the word. You don’t like her. From the first moment we see Matt Murdoch we love him. We feel for him. In part this is the politically incorrect cultural coding invoked because of his disability. Part of it is his wounded status as a lonely hearts man. Part of it is because we know from the start he’s a hero, which is why we feel for him as he’s persecuted by people who don’t yet know he’s a hero. Jessica is not a hero, she hasn’t gotten her chance yet.

Anti-heroes are a hard sell. While they became more accepted from the 1990s on, the majority of them- Constantine, the cast of Watchmen, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, are all male. Female anti-heroes are a harder sell. They have more to overcome, in behavior and audience expectation. So I don’t think it’s that there’s anything wrong with the pacing of the show. I do think that a story where the pace depends on following a woman as she finds herself on the other side of trauma is one we’ve not seen on screen. While movies and tv shows have covered the topics of trauma, PTSD, rape, and domestic abuse for a few decades now, it’s rarely handled on this scale. It’s a plot device like fridging to motivate the male characters to act. It’s an event used to highlight why the woman needs saving, or can’t be with the man, or is distant. It’s used to explain a woman’s character, as a form of lazy storytelling. Even movies and shows that cover these topics in more depth are limited by their genres. Even if the showrunners or directors want to do more than a surface treatment of these topics, even if these events are the focus, they still only have thirty minutes, or sixty, or ninety, or two hours, to deal with all of this. Maybe they spend a few episodes on it, but sooner or later the events, the trauma, are dealt with, and moved passed. And neither of these genres ONLY focus on this. They have other characters to follow, stories to explore. And here is where Netflix’s new form of storytelling in thirteen episodes does something these other genres cannot. Daredevil used this form to show the Sisyphean struggle Murdoch and all these types of disappearing neighborhoods, face, and uses this to highlight the importance of roots, and fighting for something even when no one else will. Jessica Jones on the other hand, uses this form to illustrate what living with trauma is like. Trauma never lets up.You don’t get a break. The fact that these shows are designed to be binge-watched supports this. I know of few people who watch one episode at a time, doling them out over time. Most people I know sit down, press play, and it becomes a marathon, how many episodes can you get through? Where’s your endurance level? Do you tell yourself “just one more” over and over? This form of storytelling in some ways makes it both easier and harder for us as an audience to handle the traumatic plots. The audience stands in for the protagonist. We, like Jessica, can experience smaller mysteries, accomplish small goals, we go along and we’re fine, and then out of nowhere you’re ambushed. And here too, this form of storytelling supports this type of story. There are no commercial breaks. There is no chance to recover from events. To process. To prepare for what comes next. The hits just keep coming. If you need a break. If you lack endurance. You need to hit pause. You need to walk away. You are a participatory audience. To a certain extent you have to decide.

With this form of storytelling, everything becomes a trigger. Everyone becomes a threat. Both the writing and the production design do this with every episode. We see it in the subtle bleed of Kilgrave’s signature purple into scenes, his whispered dialogue in the background. We don’t know if he’s there or not. And that’s not the point. He doesn’t have to physically be there because he’s ALWAYS there. Jessica knows that the only way out is through which is why we have the repetition of her routine. The exhaustion she has facing her bed. It’s not the bed that exhausts her. It’s that the place that should provide comfort, rest, will offer nothing. We see it in her interactions with Luke Cage. She fears trusting him, and despite her misgivings she does, only to have her fears confirmed when it turns out that Kilgrave is controlling him. No where is safe for Jessica except the space she can make for herself. This is her story, and she must experience it, and tell it, for never forget that Jessica narrates this for us, in her own time. And Netflix’s form of storytelling lets her.

And this brings me to the second major aspect affected by Netflix’s new form of storytelling- the ability to tell this woman’s story. To tell a uniquely female story. Trauma and PTSD are not gendered experiences. Neither is rape. But ongoing rape, abuse, as Jessica experiences it is a uniquely female experience and narrative. And yet, to return to the criticisms I mentioned at the beginning, many audience members don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to hear Jessica’s story. We don’t believe it. And part of the reason for this is because she is female. And we don’t like her. In the week plus since all thirteen episodes became available, most comic and popular culture related sites and blogs have posted reviews. Many focus on what they see as problematic aspects, and highlight (and mostly approve of) how the show deals with trauma and rape. For me though, what clarified a lot of how I felt about both Jessica Jones, and the criticisms I was reading online of her, ended up being summed up by a set of tweets by Cameron Stewart:

Because he is absolutely right. In a world that has experienced Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D, H.Y.D.R.A, and alien invasions, the world, the audience, can believe in all of these things.

But we still can’t believe a woman when she tells us she’s been violated.

We still blame the victim for her experiences.

We still character assassinate.

We still require proof other than a woman’s word.

As the social media comments critiquing the character highlighted, and as I’ve written about before, we only want our feminist heroes, super or not, a certain way. They can be flawed, but not too flawed. They can act selfishly but only if at the last moment they realize they’re going too far and act for the greater good.They can target evil, but they have to do it in a particular way. In fact that’s the definition for how we want our feminist heroes, they have to act in a particular manner, an acceptable manner. Certain storytelling forms support this. These are easily recognizable plot devices that we all recognize when they occur so they act as a narrative shorthand. The writers and directors and actors can do more with less by using this shorthand. They can accomplish more in their shorter amount of time. But what Netflix’s new form of storytelling allows is for these deeper stories. Jessica can be flawed to start. And at the end of thirteen episodes she can still be flawed. It’s okay that she makes some progress but is not “fixed” or “saved” by the end of this arc. Because these seasons, this form of storytelling, are not just long journeys of a single character but are also interlocking pieces of a puzzle. Luke Cage will build on Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones built on what we learned in Daredevil. Each series becomes a layer. While this is similar to what we’ve seen in the MCU, the detail, the lack of surface treatment, is what makes this different. Many of the criticisms of the MCU are that the movies are too much- too many characters, too many storylines, not enough time spent on any one thing. Netflix’s storytelling on the other hand is the opposite. It’s laser focused character studies. As Netflix, and Amazon, and other services explore these types of stories, and expand and redefine how we view stories, I am most interested in whether or not these outlets will continue to be the places where marginalized stories can be told. Where we are exposed to complicated characters. Maybe we’ll realize that people don’t have to fit in a tiny box in order for their stories to matter. Maybe we learn something. Maybe we’ll listen. I for one will be waiting to see.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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