Jessica Jones Is Great at Examining Trauma—Unless It Happens to Women of Color
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Season Two of Jessica Jones.]
Let’s be clear up front: I do love Jessica Jones. I love the way it wants to talk about women’s anger. I love that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that trauma often leads you to do actively shitty things. I love how awful and self-destructive and still sympathetic that characters like Jessica, Trish, and Jeri get to be.
But sweet Christmas, this show has a problem with women of color.
In the first season, I admit, it bothered me a little less that the show didn’t have any women of color as main characters. Jessica Jones has always been a character piece, so I could at least understand why it would concentrate so intensely on its white female protagonist and her best friend, at the expense of the rest of the cast. However, even in intense character pieces, the secondary and tertiary characters should represent the reality of our world, and the New York City of Jessica Jones is weirdly empty of women of color, at least ones who aren’t stereotypes. And those who are introduced in more detail are often the victims of cursory, offhand violence.
For example, here in the second season, we get superintendent Oscar Arocho’s ex-wife, Sonia. She’s an uncomfortable stereotype of a Latina woman, all high heels and colorful dresses and high-strung demands. To be fair, Oscar does acknowledge her pain; he admits that he “slept around on her” and that he “wasn’t good to her.” The audience is reminded that she has real reasons to distrust and dislike him; she didn’t become this hostile toward him out of nowhere. However, we don’t get a real sense of her interiority; it’s Oscar’s pain about having hurt her, rather than her experience of having been hurt, that we hear about on-screen. When she tries to flee with their son, Vido, we do get a brief, sympathetic glance at her motivations. “I got nothing left except for him,” she says of her son. But having a single Latina mom whose only life goal is her son is … not exactly a modern and nuanced character take.
Sonia is a character I feel is particularly important to call out, because if Jessica and Oscar continue their relationship in future seasons, there’s a great opportunity for Sonia to develop as a character, and for her and Jessica to learn to co-parent together. Sonia, like Jessica, is a woman whose anger comes from the shittiness of the world around her, from the stress of co-parenting with a man who cheated on her, from the financial strain of co-parenting with a man who might get himself jailed again, and from the fear of trying to trust a man who disrespected her while together to help raise a son who doesn’t disrespect women in turn. That anger is righteous, but it can lead to toxic behavior – exactly the sort of female rage that Jessica Jones finds so worth exploring in its white women.
Then we have Alisa’s prison guard, Marilyn. She’s warm and empathetic, the sort of person you don’t think would ever become a prison guard in real life. We hear about her daughter at the police academy; we see her generously grant the Jones women some much-needed privacy; we see her share covertly share her TV screen with Alisa. And then Alisa just grabs her by the neck and hurls her into a wall, and we never hear about her again. I hoped, watching the scene, that she was unconscious rather than dead; we did see her head loll a little. (It’s possible that visual cue felt like a clearer suggestion of survival to all of you than it did to me.)
But the show never checks back in on her. We see Alisa regret hurting Trish’s boss, and we get an update on his status (“he’ll live”), but we don’t get either of those for Marilyn. We just hear Detective Sunday say to Jessica, “Whoever [Alisa] hurts next, it’s on you.” The show seems to assume that the audience wouldn’t care or worry about her, that we’d view her as disposable—even when she’s hurt in an episode that’s titled around body count.
Lastly, there’s Detective Sunday. Whereas the white male detective, Detective Costa, is sympathetic to Jessica and trustworthy, Detective Sunday is forever sour and suspicious. She and Jessica even have this cringeworthy exchange in Episode Five:
Detective Sunday: “I think you two are working together. I know how you people like to team up.”
Jessica: “You people?”
(For more on the ways that this show misappropriates the language of marginalization for white people with superpowers, see Princess’s piece.) And after all her warnings that they shouldn’t trust Jessica, Detective Sunday is killed by Alisa dragging her out an open window. The death felt sudden and horrible, but it also didn’t make sense to me dramatically. Detective Costa was the one Jessica had a functional, trusting relationship with; it would have been more traumatic and meaningful if he’d been the one whom Alisa killed. Instead, it’s Detective Sunday. We’re treated to multiple shots of her body on the ground, and then we’re expected to root a little for Jessica and her mom to run off together? The contrast between the shots of Detective Sunday’s body, and the tone when Jessica and Alisa are in the RV a few episodes later, seriously didn’t work for me. I just felt so weird and uncomfortable about the treatment of this character.
I still love so much about Jessica Jones and what it has to say about women’s anger, trauma, and survival. I love that the show has hired omen of color as writers and directors behind the scenes. However, when it comes to on-screen violence and pain, I really wish this show would remember that “women” doesn’t just mean white women, and the trauma and anger experienced by women of color is just as worthy of recognition, sensitivity, and deep analysis.
(Featured image: Netflix)
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