Jessica Jones: A Bad-Ass Female Family Tree

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones. (Steve Sands/GC Images)

Last month, much to the frothy anticipation of comic book fans, Netflix released the Marvel web series Jessica Jones. If you're an early adopter -- or even if you just like reading entertainment news -- you know the basics: Jessica is a private eye in NYC with superhero tendencies, PTSD, and a liver designed for whiskey. The show is set in the present, but follows the typical '50s detective noir motif of an alcoholic anti-hero digging up dirt in a metropolis.

The twist? The show continuously subverts gender norms, and places the female protagonist in a role of kick-ass prowess.

A few of her predecessors, Xena and Buffy Summers, were instant cult heroine classics. They taught the little girls of the '90s to throw witticisms into the face of danger, whether at a king dead-set on killing a baby fated to dethrone him, or a boyfriend who turns evil after the first time you two have sex. It's tough to tell right now whether Jones will be an influential cult hit -- she has a dark side that’s hard to stomach. What we can do is figure out where she fits on the echelon of supernatural female badassery.

First off: all three shows place a huge emphasis on female friendships. Xena’s sidekick Gabrielle helps Xena pursue the greater good with her maternal instincts, naivete, and sarcastic comebacks. She’s Xena’s moral compass and strategical mind when a roundhouse kick and screaming “ayi-ayi-ayee” just won’t cut it. Also,

Gabrielle and Xena
Gabrielle and Xena

the show was hugely influential with the lesbian community because of the sexual innuendos and tension between the two characters. Maybe not an obvious mainstream media win for the LGBTQ community, but a foot in the door nonetheless.

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Buffy, on the other hand, has an entire band of misfits, male and female, watching her back throughout the series. The core of Xander, Willow, and Giles have stuck with her since high school. They’re loyal to a fault, and often getting caught in heartbreaking dilemmas. Jessica only really trusts her best friend Trish Walker, a famed talk show host. Jessica and Trish protect each other while independently working on their own self-preservation. Neither are damsels in distress. Neither ask for a man’s protection.

Let’s talk about the inherent beauty of campy television, and ridiculous plot devices. Xena is allegedly the daughter of Ares, yet this is never confirmed. She was first introduced on the series Hercules: The Legendary Journey as a villain. After three episodes of tireless back and forth with Hercules, Xena wooes the audience and lands her own spin-off. Now, in a series that channels much of Evil Dead 2’s humor, she becomes “a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle” and fights mythological creatures in a push-up leather get-up and flawless skin. The dialogue is cringe-worthy. The male adversaries are blundering brutes with zilch chance at overcoming Xena and Gabrielle. The show lasts six seasons; a success.

You move on to Buffy, and you see similar campy ploys, but with a big shift. We’ll get to that big shift in a sec, but first: Buffy is the only Vampire Slayer in existence (aside from Faith), yet she pretty much never has to travel to fight big bads for other countries. What’s up? How was Sunnyvale so conveniently on a Hellmouth? Despite the chiseled jawbone, why was it okay that a 200-something year old vampire, Angel, was Buffy’s first love at 16? Despite the numerous common sense foils and deus ex machina saves, Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s saving grace was the family of stalwart friends with snappy retorts and unwavering loyalty. It was unnervingly exactly what you wanted yourself.

Jessica Jones lacks camp, silliness, and warmth. Instead, you get the bleak reality of life with PTSD, and using alcohol as an emotional crutch. Jones is volatile. You want to root for her, but half of the time her friends give her better advice and she still lashes out. If you want a neat arc of human progress and resilience, Jessica Jones is not the show for you. Instead, it’s a realistic portrayal of the lasting effects of PTSD even after therapy or time has elapsed. It strays so far from campy that you want to pull it back, but the discomfort is a necessary progression of the genre.

Stretching the boundaries of female characterization past the point of likability is brave. It’s experimental, relatable, and it’s causing people to rethink what constitutes a favorite character. I’d recommend all three of these shows. They all pass the Bechdel test -- and what do you know? They're all on Netflix.  There'd be worse ways to kick off your 2016. 

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