Traumatic pasts are part and parcel of character backstories almost across the board. It’s harder to think of a well known character who had a happy childhood, for instance, than ones who dealt with some tragedy or another in their past. As in many situations, there is an expected code meant to communicate a character’s tragic backstory to the viewer, particularly in cases where the damage from the trauma lingers. And as with almost everything in (Western, American) culture, that code is very gendered.
It goes something like this: the man who has gone through some kind of traumatic experience will frequently be stoic, have difficulty connecting to other people, frequently turn to violence or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Traumatized men in fiction are frequently abrasive or aggressive, self-isolating loners.
Women who have suffered a traumatic experience, on the other hand (and a sidenote that it is far more likely that theirs will be somehow sexual in nature) are usually shown breaking down. They cry, or curl up couches in their nightclothes, staring into the distance. Frequently, there is something almost voyeuristic about the visual cues of their trauma that is linked to the long history of the aestheticization of women’s suffering/death (cf. this article on ad campaigns that glamorize rape or abuse).
It should go without saying that both of these depictions are oversimplifications that represent only a portion of possible reactions to trauma, divided along essentialist gender lines. By presenting only a single script for each gender, however, the implication becomes that this is the “right” way for people of that gender to respond or behave. People may judge real life survivors according to these examples and find them lacking. For instance, in rape cases there is frequently confusion about the reaction of victims. Denial that rape actually happened sometimes hinges on the victim’s not acting sufficiently upset or “traumatized” in the way people expect.
All this brings me to Jessica Jones, the Netflix series released by Marvel in November. The series follows the eponymous character, a private investigator who happens to have powers that give her enhanced physical abilities. Based on the series Alias by Brian Michael Bendis, Jessica Jones, when we are introduced to her, has already been through her own private hell: as we learn, she was controlled by a man called Zebadiah Kilgrave, who can force anyone to do his will simply with his voice. Kilgrave forced Jessica into a “relationship” with him, a compulsion she only manages to escape after murdering a woman at his command.
While the element of superpowers is new, this part of the story is not revolutionary: a woman is trapped in a relationship with an abusive man but manages to escape. Where Jessica Jones does enter new territory, however, is with the depiction of how Jessica reacts to her violation.
She drinks, a lot – there is a list of all of the different alcohol she imbibes over the course of the first season. We learn she has pushed away her closest friend, Trish Walker, refusing to contact her. She is abrasive and harsh with almost everyone she meets, emotionally closed off – even Krysten Ritter’s body language communicates tension, hunched in on herself. When she walks her shoulders are up and tight; for the most part she’s very contained – with the exception of moments when she loses her temper, which she tends to express physically.
In short, Jessica Jones is stoic, aggressive, and occasionally violent. She acts in ways most frequently coded in media as “male.”
This was, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of a show I loved in general (the friendship between Trish and Jessica alone probably would have sold me on it). I was concerned that in the transition from comic to TV the Jessica Jones I knew might get toned down – that fear of making her “unlikable” would lead to a softer, kinder Jessica. That was not the case – the Netflix series showed the “hard-drinking, foul-mouthed mess of a woman” in all her glory, and I loved it. How refreshing, to have TV give me a female protagonist who is angry, who is allowed to suffer in ways that are messy and ugly and real.
And the viewer sympathizes – or is meant to sympathize. Even when her behavior is harsh or morally dubious, Jessica is not meant to be vilified for her response. The show presents it as just a reaction to her horrific experience with Kilgrave – not just being coerced into a farce of a romance, but made to like it. We see the aftermath, and it isn’t pretty, and there’s no man who magically heals Jessica’s wounds. Her abortive affair with Luke Cage ends when he learns that she was responsible, under Kilgrave’s control, for the death of his wife. Ultimately, Jessica saves herself, snapping Kilgrave’s neck in a powerful moment of catharsis.
Too often, the suffering of women in media only serves to advance the story of male characters. Alternately, a female character can be provided a tragic backstory, but not permitted to react to it – see the sparse treatment of Black Widow’s violent past in Age of Ultron. Finally, women’s trauma can sometimes feel as though it is meant to provide voyeuristic pleasure to the viewer. Jessica Jones gave us something different.
None of this is to say that this depiction is the only “right” way to show trauma’s aftermath – far from it. As in almost every aspect of media representation, the most important aspect is variety: showing a range of people that doesn’t limit anyone to a single model. No one character should be forced to represent an entire category of people. Nor am I saying that Jessica Jones was a perfect show – others have written intelligently on the issues of race, for instance. But it did do some things right, and more interestingly, it did things new.
Further Reading: Race and Inequity in Jessica Jones by Cameron Glover, Netflix, Uncovering Cycles of Abuse and Chill: Jessica Jones and Domestic Violence by Shaadi Devereaux, Jessica Jones is a Show About Trauma That Doesn’t Skip Over the Complexity of PTSD by Katharine Trendacosta