Netflix’s ‘Jessica Jones’ has a Race Problem, But it’s Fixable
As a fan of “Jessica Jones” I am calling for more.
By Michelle Carroll
Spoiler Alert: This article discusses specific scenes and overarching themes in season two of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”.
I am new to the expansive Marvel Universe. My interest was piqued during the first season of “Jessica Jones”, but my passion for these narratives was cemented by this year’s smash box office hit, “Black Panther”. Three weeks before “Black Panther” I committed myself to watching a majority of the films. I hoped that by diving into the deep end of the Marvel Universe I would be able to more fully appreciate T’Challa and the radicalness of an afro-futurist utopia.
Sitting through film after film with another white, cisgender male saving the day, I found myself wrestling with a specific question—how how would the existence of superheroes change the ways that racism and patriarchy affected marginalized folks? I realize that I am not the first person to apply a social commentary lens to the Marvel Universe and in fact, there is a long tradition of examining these graphic novels and films in the context of larger societal issues. But for someone who thought her participation in fandoms was relegated to Harry Potter and romance novels, I’m thrilled to find another world that I can become immersed in.
After Black Panther’s release I, like much of the internet, fell down the rabbit hole of cutting commentary on race, gender, colonization, and privilege. And so I began to look forward to the next releases in the Marvel Universe, including “Jessica Jones” season two, hoping that the development and success of “Black Panther” would propel Marvel screenwriters and directors to welcome diversity in their production meetings and storylines.
But in the days leading up to the release of “Jessica Jones”, my excitement was tempered by concern: How would season two incorporate characters of color? Would the screenwriters put effort into developing Malcolm as a character? Would they introduce new characters of color, and if so, would these characters be apart of fully realized story arches?
Feminist commentary following the release of season one critiqued how the show’s writers used characters of color as purely narrative devices to further the storylines of the white women characters. But when the production team announced in 2016 that the entire season would feature women directors, I hoped that the producers would spend time grappling with their weak portrayal of people of color in the previous season and challenge their pantheon of directors to do better.
Unfortunately despite the directors’ and scriptwriters’ incredible ability to depict two seasons worth of realistic storylines about women healing from violence, their commitment to giving a voice to women does not extend to women or characters of color. In season two, the screenwriters continue to ignore non-white characters and recommitted themselves to white feminist storylines that pit white women against people of color. As a whole, season two continues its messaging from season one, that in order to bring to life morally complex (white) female characters, people of color must be sacrificed.
I believe “Jessica Jones” and its production staff are not without the tools to explore how an intersectional analysis of supers interacts with current racist and patriarchal paradigms. However, without careful self-analysis and a deliberate effort to invite women of color to join the leadership team, season three will continue to harm people of color and fall short in its social commentary of supers.
Law Enforcement, Superheroes, and White Privilege
An aspect of the Marvel Universe that I am fascinated by is how the police state interacts with supers. My favorite Marvel movie (besides “Black Panther”, obviously) is “Captain America: Civil War”. Since a majority of the Marvel superheroes are white (or at least white presenting), it took the franchise twelve movies before we could explore how governments and law enforcement interact with super humans. Luckily for fans of “Jessica Jones”, we only had to wait until season two to see the repercussions of Kilgrave’s hostile overthrow of a New York City police precinct. At the conclusion of season one I expected to see season two’s narrative explore the militarization of police force to address the new threat of supers. However, this storyline never emerged in “Jessica Jones” (although we saw this in “Luke Cage”). Why? Because even though people with special abilities exist in the Marvel Universe and their powers threaten the State, the supers in “Jessica Jones” are predominately white women and so their white privilege protects them from state violence.
As season two explores the sources of Jessica’s past trauma and how she became a super, the storyline neglects to examine, or at the very least, acknowledge how Jessica’s whiteness trumps her identity as a super. Throughout the season, Jessica frequently receives the benefit of the doubt from police in regard to her motivations and actions. In episode “AKA The Octopus”, Jessica leads the police on a merry chase. At no point do the officers use force or intimidation, nor do they stop and frisk Jessica in her community. For anyone familiar with the New York City’s finest this behavior is normal—at least for the city’s white population.
When the police arrest Jessica for attempted murder, not one police officer draws their gun. Regardless of the fact that she has incredible strength and that the arresting officers believe that she is responsible for the brutal dismemberment of another character, the police lower her slowly to the ground as they arrest her. In one of the final scenes of the season, Jessica’s mother is arrested by numerous police at gunpoint. However, despite the fact that she is accused of several murders, not one officer shoots their weapon. These scenes offer a stark contrast to the almost weekly video imagery of police-sanctioned violence and murder of people of color.
Of course, “Jessica Jones” is a television show and we can expect there to be a disconnect between the fictional world and our world. However, the screenwriters’ choice to portray the police as level-headed and largely benevolent in the face of superhero abilities does a disservice to the of victims of police violence. I believe that this choice exemplifies the show’s commitment to a white feminist perspective and their willingness to ignore the lived experiences of people of color in favor of furthering white women.
People of Color as Anti-Super
A recurring motif throughout season two is characters of color expressing anti-super beliefs that mirror racist discrimination familiar to our society. Specifically, I am thinking of the more oblivious storylines given to J.R. Ramirez’s character Oscar Arocho. When the audience is introduced to Oscar, we quickly realize that Oscar and his son are latino. Within moments of meeting Jessica, the audience is made aware that Oscar dislikes and mistrusts Jessica because of her superpowers. Following the murder of another superhuman in episode two, Jessica brings two detectives to Oscar’s door with the expectation that he will corroborate the story she tells the police. And she becomes visibly irate when he does not. It’s clear from the progression of the story that the audience is also supposed to dislike Oscar for his ‘discrimination’ against Jessica.The screenwriters then move the story along by having Oscar, as the building superintendent, try to evict Jessica because of their identity as a superhuman.
This storyline culminates with Oscar apologizing to Jessica and asserting that he doesn’t dislike her because she’s a super, in a conversation that is uncomfortably similar to a white person asserting that they aren’t racist because they have “black friends.”
It’s almost impressive how Oscar’s storyline lacks self-awareness. Since 45 took office, there has been ample coverage of ICE’s increasingly prevalent raids of communities and courthouses. Oscar’s reluctance to speak with the police could stem from the undocumented status of someone in his family or simply from a distrust of the police common for people of color. The writers offer a half-baked side story with Oscar as an accomplished forger as an explanation for his fear of police, again erasing the very real fears and experiences of people of color.
Is “Jessica Jones” a lost cause?
“Jessica Jones” can be better, if its creators commit themselves to doing ‘the work.’ In comparison to other segments of the Marvel Universe (not counting the “Luke Cage” and “Black Panther” storylines), the story arch of “Jessica Jones” season one and two has successfully addressed mental illness in a way that goes beyond what the Marvel Universe had large has been able to do. The writers’ and directors’ commitment to a realistic portrayal of how addiction, sexual violence, and familial abuse can affect a person is unique in the genre but also in Netflix’s queue. However, as a fan of “Jessica Jones” I am calling for more. I want to watch more than just a complex story of white women, I want to watch a story where people of all abilities and ethnicities are called in to a storyline that explores the full spectrum of the human experience.
“Jessica Jones” can be the show that accomplishes this as long as the creator and writers hire women of color and make space for them in positions of narrative and directorial power. In interviews, creator Melissa Rosenberg makes the mistake that many white feminists make—by not actively considering who is in the room, they perpetuate racism. In her March 22 interview with Vanity Fair, Rosenberg reminisces on her process for developing the show: “I think it just sort of happened that our three female leads were all white, and when we were designing the show, it just didn’t occur to me.” Rosenberg probably does not think of herself as racist, but if she is not actively challenging racism and oppression in her work she is certainly perpetuating it.
I hope that season three will continue to cultivate Malcolm’s storyline and that the writers will introduce, develop, and stop themselves from killing off new characters of color. But this will only happen if they are constantly thinking about widening the focus of their show and if they hire women of color to lead season three. Let’s hope that Black Panther’s success will galvanize the team behind “Jessica Jones” to do better.
Author Bio: Michelle Carroll is an online feminist activist and co-founder of the NYC Feminist Action Network community. By day, she is the Director of Campus Projects for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. You can follow her musings on @troy_tastic.