Should We Marvel at a Woman Ex-Superhero?

“It was money that drove me to the naked girl business,” writes Molly Crabapple, adding:

I got my first regular gigs working as an artist’s model. For ten dollars an hour, I shivered before roomfuls of university students. Poses started at thirty seconds, and by the end, we stayed frozen for twenty minutes at a time. Posing had all the fascination of sitting on a cross-country bus ride with no book….Professionalism meant objectification—not the sexy kind, but the kind that turns you into an object, like a chair.

Crabapple is today a professional artist, a real woman—both like and unlike, I would argue, Jessica Jones, a fictional character given a wider popularity now that she has been drawn from the world of comic books into the Netflix universe.

Crabapple and Jones offer narratives about the world and lives of women—not a complete picture, but a vivid and disturbing one.

I have recently finished the first Netflix season of Jessica Jones and was compelled to include the importance of the series in a chapter I just submitted on comic books and race. I am unable to extricate from each other that popular media represents race and gender as well as sexuality in normative ways that reflect the very worst of U.S. culture while mostly skirting the opportunity to confront and even change the violences suffered by so-called minority populations.

Meredith J.C. Warren explains about efforts to uncover how the historical Jesus looked:

It is no surprise that many contemporary depictions of Jesus show him as representing what is upheld by Western standards of “normative” (that is, culturally imposed and valued) male beauty….

Our images of Jesus, then, say more about us as a society than about his historical appearance.

Religious narratives serve to maintain those norms, just as popular media function.

Yet for black and brown children, the stories they read rarely include them. Walter Dean Myers recalled his own journey to being a beloved black novelist for teens:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Myers found James Baldwin, he noted, concluding: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

“Literature’s job is not to protect young people from the ugly world,” argues Daniel José Older; “it is to arm them with a language to describe difficult truths they already know.” For Older, today, the question is “Do black children’s lives matter if nobody writes about them?”

And here I come back to the very real lived experiences of Crabapple and the fictional world of Jones.

As Emily Nussbaum somewhat reluctantly admits, “[I]n the world of Marvel Comics, a female antihero—a female anything—is a step forward. But a rape survivor, struggling with P.T.S.D., is a genuine leap.”

The superhero genre of comic books in the U.S. has a long history of objectifying women with roots in jingoism and racism. And as the ascension of Sam Wilson/Falcon to the new black Captain America and the lingering sexualizing of Wonder Woman reveal, superhero comic books have yet to shake off much of that dim past.

Should we, then, marvel at Jessica Jones as a woman ex-superhero?

The Netflix series opens by being fairly true to Alias, the graphic series; however, the Netflix adaptation mutes the superhero elements. Focusing on this version is important because the Internet series is reaching a wider audience than the original graphic version.

Jones’s story—a woman with super powers who gives up her superhero gig after horrific trauma at the behest of super-villain Kilgrave to become a private investigator—proves to be a “step forward” after all in terms of both gender and race.

The very complicated and sexually charged relationship between Jones and Luke Cage may be one of the best elements of the adaptation for both the quality of the dialogue and character development as well as the rare depiction of sex between white Jones and black Cage.

But it is the connection between Jones and Kilgrave, running the entire 13 episodes of the first season, that highlights the power of this series to confront the objectification experienced by Crabapple.

Kilgrave is the hyper-embodiment of misogyny, paternalism, and the male gaze; his victims must do whatever he demands when they are breathing the same air, and for Kilgrave, his singular obsession is Jones, who before the action of the series he has controlled, abused, and nearly destroyed.

Many other characters have suffered in ways similar to Jones—often gruesome and the result of Kilgrave’s amoral whims.

Pop culture doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, and Jessica Jones is very often good. But that good is very disturbing.

Jones and Kilgrave are exaggerations of the conditions women must endure under the privilege of men—but those exaggerations are not as extreme as we would like to pretend.

If you doubt this, read Crabapple recounting a dehumanizing video shoot: “Two hundred dollars to writhe around in a bikini for a heavy metal video. While a grip poured live crickets on my tits.”

Jessica Jones holds promise, but as Myers lamented: “There is work to be done.”

Please note the substantive counterarguments by @SonofBaldwin in the Tweets below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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