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Grown-up Comics: Netflix’s Jessica Jones Reflects on Female Trauma

Netflix dropped Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Friday and the internet hasn’t been able to shut up about it since, particularly when it comes to a corner of the internet that tends to be particularly hard on media: Feminists. The latest screen iteration of Marvel’s sprawling universe of properties is an intriguing standout and a reminder that comic book movies these days are really more grimdark than frothy spandex suits and fun, embodying a visual and cultural aesthetic that’s perhaps reflective of some considerable social changes. Viewers now are less innocent, and they want something harder, sharper, murkier around the edges, which Jessica Jones definitely delivers.

The Netflix miniseries is part of a small cluster of programmes coordinated around the release of the Defenders, also planned as Netflix Original Programming. Some of the fans of the show are coming from the perspective of years of loyal comics reading and a deep love of the characters and setting — others may come from those who are just interested in Krysten Ritter, playing the titular character, and with the buzz surrounding the show, more followers are likely to arrive. Ritter has a tendency of being able to draw an audience with her sharp acting skills and decisive range, and that’s certainly true here.

Jessica Jones revolves around the life of a now-retired superhero who’s chosen to keep her hand in the game by way of working as a private investigator. Alias Investigations takes on a range of cases, seeing “the worst in people,” as Jones puts it in a preview. It’s deeply rooted in the noir aesthetic, from the costuming to the play of light and shadow to the staging, reflecting the growing resurgence of noir.

At first, Jessica Jones tricks the viewer, with a classic noir opening and a note of dry humour — the snapping of illicit shots, catching an affair mid-moment, the dry comment about the PI’s fees in the face of an angry and abusive customer. But it quickly takes on a much darker turn as viewers are slammed into the speeding train of Jones’ PTSD, forced to confront issues like rape, complicity in terrible acts, and abuse. Jones clearly spoke to many women, because the internet was full of commentary in the aftermath of the release as people discussed their own experiences with trauma and dissected the level of verisimilitude on the series.

Using trauma as a plot point comes with considerable potential pitfalls — it’s so overused, especially when it comes to women, that it can become a turnoff extremely quickly. The sight of yet another broken woman sighing dramatically while draped across the chaise makes for painfully familiar and dull viewing, something the creators, writers, and actors themselves had to overcome. One of the ways in which they did it cut to the very heart of the show: Jessica Jones is explicitly and unflinchingly a show about trauma and what happens after.

One of the most frustrating flaws in the depiction of trauma in pop culture is that it typically takes on a brief arc on television before fizzling out. Someone is raped, and it’s traumatic for a few episodes before being forgotten, only to be brought up now and again when it’s needed for a hackneyed flashback scene. Similarly, characters lose lovers to car accidents, have miscarriages, or experience other events that change their lives forever, but these changes are elided very quickly because the show needs to move on. These incidents may drive the plot and bring in viewers during sweeps, but they’re not part of larger character development.

On Jessica Jones, by contrast, the trauma is present from the start and so is the recovery. If at times she seems a bit stereotyped — sarcastic, a heavy drinker, depressed — perhaps that’s because some of these stereotypes themselves speak to the reality of experiencing trauma. Some people do deal with events like those looming in her past the way she does, and the show very brilliantly tells the story obliquely, realising that it doesn’t need to show viewers the source of her trauma for them to understand what’s happened to her. The point isn’t the provision of a titillating rape scene, but honest questions about how people confront and manage their trauma, and at times, she doesn’t seem to be doing a bang up job of it.

Which is the point. Most people don’t do a bang up job of managing trauma, even those who appear to be handling it just fine — whether drinking or putting a face on it, many people struggle to recognise that what they’re experiencing is trauma, and they’re reluctant to seek help for it, too. For Jones, burying herself in her work and the world around her allows herself to deflect introspection, something brought home by her focus on investigations, but no real connections with fellow humans — well, sort of fellow humans, because while she’s retired, she still has super strength.

Snobbish critics infuriated with the rise of the superhero genre seem upset, almost tricked, at Jessica Jones, as though a series in a superhero franchise shouldn’t be complex, thoughtful, and engaging, with very few capes, spandex, flying people, and the like. They’re making a grave mistake in writing off an entire genre of media, of course, but they’re also missing out on a programme that’s deeply engrossing, if at times also deeply uncomfortable. Jessica Jones may show us the worst in people at times, but it also shows us some of the best.