Jeri Hogarth Is Jessica Jones’ Messy, Compelling Look at Female Success Under Capitalism
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Jessica Jones Season Two.]
I’ve loved Jessica Jones‘ ruthless lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, since she debuted in the first season. I thought it was a brilliant switch to make the comics’ male Jeryn Hogarth into Jeri Hogarth, but still imbue her with all the callousness, drive, and selfish confidence that we associate with high-powered corporate lawyers. Jeri was an evil, queer character, but she was never an “evil queer” character. That’s because Jeri’s queerness is never the source of her evil; wealth is.
Jeri is a powerful, driven career woman, but the things that make her so powerful—buying into the corporate game, shameless self-interest, and a confidence that being smart and rich gives you the right to control other people—are also the things that so often make her evil. Her nastiest and most callous actions come from the entitlement that she thinks her money and prestige have bought her.
In the first season, she feels entitled to trade her loving wife for a younger woman—a younger woman who is also her subordinate at work. She then feels entitled to take that woman, Pam, anywhere she wants on a date, including the restaurant where she proposed to her wife. She feels entitled to Jessica’s time whenever and however she requires it, because she pays well and Jessica needs the money. She feels entitled to use Kilgrave’s powers in her divorce case. She even feels entitled to Pam saving her life: “You chose to pick up that thing and crush her skull. You did that.” Jeri has fought hard for her wealth, rather than inherited it, but that almost makes her delight more in the power that comes with it. She fought for that wealth because of what she wants it to mean: that she can control whoever she wants and get whatever she wants.
“The real world is not about happy endings,” she tells Jessica. “It’s about taking the life you have, and fighting like hell to keep it.”
I love that quote because it so perfectly sums up the contradictions of Jeri’s character. On the one hand, we love her when she’s “fighting like hell” for what’s hers; it’s a joy to watch her deploy her formidable talents as a lawyer and manipulator, and to display the savage confidence we usually only associate with men. But we hate her when she’s all about “taking”— from those who love her, from those who work for her, and from those whom she simply finds useful.
As the second season opens, we find Jeri doing much of the same. She and Pam have broken up, and Pam is now suing the firm for sexual harassment. “I never harassed the stupid girl,” Jeri snaps. “She was more than a consenting adult, or did you not see the way she dressed? She practically did a split on my desk.” This is a woman who dated her assistant despite the power imbalance, and now she slut-shames her—just like every shitty, victim-blaming executive who ever lived. When her partners try to force her out of the firm, she schemes to trick Jessica into helping her, even though Jessica has already made her boundaries clear and said she doesn’t want to speak to her anymore. Jeri is rude to the sex workers she hires; she ogles her yoga instructor. She pursues yet another relationship with a power imbalance when she hooks up with Inez. Jeri is, as she’s always been, a woman who likes a little indebtedness in her romantic partners, her associates, and her friends. It makes them easier to control.
As a result, I thought it was a particularly brilliant stroke for the writers to give her a challenge that no money could save her from. “Realizing that all the control, all the money, all the power in the world isn’t going to do shit for her is a huge wake-up call,” actress Carrie-Anne Moss told SYFY Wire, “and a real spiral down into the truth for her. [But] because she’s such a fighter, she’s going to figure her way out of it, you know? She’s going to do what she can to not go down.”
“She always wants to come across as really having it all together,” Moss told The Verge. “And as she’s dealing with this very traumatic news, we get to see the unraveling of her. When she’s with other people, she knows how to play that confident role: ‘I’ve got it all figured out, I’m good.’ So [in this season] I got to have some private moments which allowed me to do whatever I wanted, because in private, we are many people, right?”
I know some viewers might see Jeri’s arc as nonexistent in this season. In many ways, she ends the season exactly where she started. But for me, her growth here was getting back to being Jeri even in the face of something she couldn’t control—something that, in its power over her and in the way it leads to her humiliation, could have made her not feel like Jeri anymore. Being able to tell the universe, “I am still the same tenacious bitch I was before all this,” is a powerful arc, even if the person you were before all this wasn’t exactly heroic.
As feminism becomes more mainstream, we get to see more and more celebrations of women in positions of corporate and political power, but women CEOs can still sexually harass their subordinates. They can still pay their employees poverty-level wages. They can still provide their workforce with zero sick leave and laughable parental leave. In all her many facets, Jeri captures my incredibly complicated feelings about women like this. I absolutely admire their drive and their strength; I see all the extra work, all the extra bullshit, it takes for a woman—especially a woman of color, or a queer woman—to rise to a position of power in our patriarchal hellscape. And I know that having them there normalizes female power in a way that I directly benefit from.
But I am also keenly aware of what that success can do to those who attain it. Succeeding in a patriarchal capitalist hellscape often requires you to internalize the values of that system: its logic of dominance, exploitation, and manipulation. And when you rise to the top of that pseudo-meritocracy, you’re also encouraged to believe you “deserve” what you’re given (as if any human could truly “deserve” to be paid tens of millions per year in a company where front-line employees make $7.25/hour). That experience inevitably breaks some of the empathetic parts of you.
With Jeri Hogarth, Netflix is exploring those contradictions of female corporate power. We see Jeri’s admirable tenacity, intelligence, and confidence in a world that tells her to shrink herself. We also see her loathsome entitlement and exploitation of those with less power, or less talent, than she has. We see her at her cruelest and least compassionate. We see her at her most vulnerable and most human. Jeri is a powerful, successful queer woman in a world that makes it really, really hard to be such a thing and still be decent. And I love that Jessica Jones looks so starkly, and still so sympathetically, at what that means for her character.
(Featured image: Netflix)
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