By Ashley R. Lierman
Netflix’s Jessica Jones carves out an odd little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, adapted loosely from Brian Michael Bendis’s comic series Alias. Both revolve around the eponymous character as an ex-superhero and current private investigator, dealing with the past as best she can and, eventually, tracking a villain who once held her under telepathic control. I admit I’m only passingly familiar with the comic, but where the television series goes with this is to focus thematically on trauma: Jessica is a survivor of a form of psychic and physical abuse, her PTSD and treatment techniques for it are explicit plot points, her heavy drinking is identified as a form of self-medicating, her trauma is a guiding force in the story. Even the show’s cinematography appears to support the theme, lingering on claustrophobic, unsteady shots, and obscuring shadowy parts of the frame where it seems anything might be lurking.
Violence against, and trauma to, women aren’t exactly unusual in media – but this kind of treatment of them is. Harm to characters, and especially to women, is for the most part seen as it happens, as part of the action or for shock value, often to provide (male) heroes with motivation. The consequences are most often invisible or nonexistent, and if they aren’t, they tend to be treated almost fetishistically, with the audience made voyeur to a character’s (especially a female character’s) suffering and resulting “brokenness.” This is unfortunately especially true in a lot of speculative fiction, and superhero comics in particular have had their share of problems with it: The Killing Joke and its fallout is a classic example, of course, and let’s not forget that it was Green Lantern that the term “fridging” came from in the first place, for that matter. It’s still pretty rare for a piece of media, especially in this genre, to actually deal with the day-to-day of a survivor’s trauma, coping mechanisms, and recovery in a way that’s remotely realistic and doesn’t rob them of agency. Honestly, it’s rare in any genre, and only gets rarer the less a work is specifically aimed at an audience of women (which I don’t feel that Jessica Jones necessarily is). What’s more, Jessica Jones is concerned with the aftermath, the lingering effects of abuse, far more than portraying the violence itself onscreen. Bits and pieces of Jessica’s traumatic experience are told through the occasional flashback, but no more than that; it isn’t the focus, and the series displays great wisdom and compassion in knowing that not only does it not have to show us the details for us to understand, but that if it did show the details, it’d be too much to ask many of us to watch.
Because trauma is common, much more common than we seem to think it is, especially among women. NOW estimates that women in the U.S. experience 4.8 million instances of intimate partner violence per year, the equivalent of 600 are raped per day, and even statistics that adjust for underreporting to law enforcement can be assumed to be missing a substantial number of cases that are never reported to anyone. Trauma is frequently hidden, but it surrounds us; it is more likely than not to be part of the life of at least one person you know. So it’s really valuable for a relatively mainstream show like Jessica Jones to deal with trauma in this frank, survivor-focused, public way, for a number of reasons. Firstly, trauma is also isolating: talking about trauma is hard, intimidating, and often not welcomed by other people, and many survivors can end up feeling alone in their experiences and struggles. Seeing themselves represented in media can be just as rare – and just as important – as it is for other kinds of minority groups. Secondly, for that matter, trauma is often not well understood in general, especially in ways that women tend to experience it and especially in relation to sexual assault. I think often of the experiences cited by Halse Anderson, author of YA novel Speak about a teenaged girl dealing with the aftermath of rape, with young male readers of her novel; she found over and over that boys did not understand why the experience had had such a profound effect on the protagonist, and didn’t seem to understand the emotional experience of rape at all. It’s hard to imagine, furthermore, given some of the discussion we hear about it (“legitimate rape,” anyone?), that this problem improves much in adulthood for some people. The paucity of media dealing with survivors’ experiences isn’t likely to blame for this disconnect of empathy, but it seems to me that it can’t really be helping, either. And likewise, while more stories like Jessica Jones might not fix the problem… they sure couldn’t hurt.
Okay, great, but what does all this have to do with queerness? you might ask, and rightly so. And I could say that trauma doesn’t belong only to heterosexual women: those statistics above apply to queer women too, and trans women (especially trans women of color) are often even more at risk of physical and sexual assault than cis women. I could say that queerness itself can certainly still be a risk factor for assault and murder, as we are all intimately aware at least on occasion in our lives. And that’s all true – but there’s more to it than that.
One of the recurring secondary characters in Jessica Jones is Jeri Hogarth (originally Jeryn Hogarth, a male character, in comics continuity), a cutthroat and unscrupulous attorney with whom Jessica has an uneasy working relationship. An ongoing subplot revolves around Hogarth’s messy divorce from her wife in the wake of an affair with her secretary, a younger woman. The sexual orientation of all three women couldn’t be further from the point of this plotline, and is never made an issue of; they’re just people in a complicated romantic entanglement, who happen to all be women. Neither are they shining paragons of queer representation: they’re as complex as their situation is, and all have their instances of behaving both nobly and reprehensibly. These characters didn’t have to be queer. There’s nothing built into their story that explicitly marks them that way, and nobody is trying to write a “very special episode” about same-sex relationships. But the acrimony of the divorce and affair are in keeping with the show’s overall themes of people treating other people badly, and how to eventually move past it. Their storyline is here because it belongs here, it fits into the rhythms and tone of the overall story that’s being told. They belong here. They are a part of the world that’s being built.
When you’re gay, trans, a person of color, a disabled person, anyone who seldom sees themselves reflected in media, you don’t necessarily take it as a deliberate exclusion when you’re watching something where nobody is like you. A story where nobody is like you can still be really important to you, something that you take to heart and identify with anyway. But when it happens, there’s sometimes that moment of doubt, whether you want it or not: This resonates with me, but is it even for me? Am I wrong to feel like a part of this, when for all I know it might be pretending I don’t exist? Even when there is a character like you, if they’re offensively or stereotypically portrayed, it’s not really better: This story means so much to me, and this is what you see when you look at me? But when you identify with something and it has included people who are like you, deliberately and compassionately, that can change absolutely everything. You know that you’re invited to the conversation, that the people who have created this thing that’s important to you see you, and recognize you, and have made a point of including you. You have a place here and a part of this. This is for you, too.
Jessica Jones isn’t perfect on this front or others, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be, but it’s better than a lot of things are. It has a diverse group of characters in a number of ways; the love triangle I mentioned are only those that are most relevant to this column. And stories dealing with trauma in a sensitive way – as rare as they are – may be most important of all for marginalized people to feel invited to, and that they belong in. It’s a nice and pretty surprising combination to see, in a show about superheroes of all things.
Plus it’s a good, enjoyable show, with a lot more to it than just trauma or representation. Just be warned that, depending on your personal history, it might be a tough watch in some ways. But it would understand that. And either way, your invitation stands.