I love love love Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones. However, as I’ve written before, we can and should think critically about what we love.
A boatload of think pieces have been written about the show’s boldness in dealing with sexual assault and gendered violence (including one by me on Unwinnable!). Angelica Jade Bastién over at Vulture put it best:
what’s most frightening about Kilgrave is just how ordinary he is. Jessica Jones is intensely interested in delving into the ways women are silenced and cut off from any chance at autonomy — from not believing their stories to turning a blind eye to the physical aftermath of their abuse.
But the show has also taken some flack for how it deals with issue of race. For example, Cameron Glover at The Mary Sue writes:
To be fair, the show is from Jessica’s perspective, and though she is compelling as an unlikable heroine, her whiteness works as a way to assimilate her—even in this modern Hell’s Kitchen. By contrast, the few people of color that we interact with are immediately set up as her opposites. What’s even more frustrating is the lack of nuance that comes with discussing complex issues of identity along with race. Because we view this world through Jessica’s lens, it’s expected that we gloss over discussing race because, well, it’s not Jessica’s focus. As a white woman, we give her that leniency despite the prominence of race when it comes to how we view and interact with the other characters of color who do get time in the spotlight.
And Cate Young identifies the show as
the latest, best example of white feminist fiction: excellent on sexism, terrible on racism.
Often, Jessica’s creepy stalking of fellow superhero Luke Cage is singled out as a particularly troubling depiction of a “magical negro” being used by our heroine to absolve her of her guilt over the death of his wife. Again, Cate Young is instructive here:
Jessica makes a habit of using the black men around her, in service to her own ends treating them as interchangeable and disposable, a glaring and problematic oversight given the current political climate, and the historical context of black men being subjected to undue violence for the protection of white women. Jessica’s pursuit of Luke despite her knowledge of her involvement in what we are led to believe in the most painful event of his life replicates the same disregard for his feelings that we saw Simpson demonstrate with Trish. To Jessica, her own need to be in Luke’s orbit because of her overwhelming guilt and self-loathing, supersede his right to be fully informed about the circumstances of his wife’s death…
And Jessica very literally takes Luke’s control away by not disclosing her involvement in Reva’s death. She takes away his ability to choose not to be with the person who murdered his wife. Later, his choice to forgive is later revoked by Kilgrave, as he is forced to reconcile with her under Kilgrave’s control. Again, the invulnerable black man’s pain is not respected, but rather toyed with and manipulated by the narrative to serve the needs of white characters.
These points are valid and important and worth discussing. But I also think the show is a little more self-aware then we might initially be inclined to think. I think show is actually trying to simultaneously portray and subtly criticize Jessica’s reliance on her white privilege.
I am thinking particularly of the scene in which Jessica runs into her odd duck of a neighbor, Rubin, and helps him to scrape a drug-addled Malcolm off of the floor of their apartment building. Rubin is describing how afraid he and his sister were when Malcolm inadvertently barged into their living space.
He explains why he didn’t initially recognize Malcolm as a friend and not an intruder by matter-of-factly telling Jessica that “everyone’s a little racist.”
Jessica’s initial reaction is incredulity, as if she is thinking “speak for yourself there, weirdo.”
But then she gets an idea: she could use Malcolm (and the “little bit of racism” that apparently resides inside of everyone) to create a distraction in a local hospital so that she could steal the drugs that would incapacitate Kilgrave. Because all of THOSE OTHER people are a little racist, she thinks, they will buy her story that a black junkie lunged at a nurse for no reason and, she reasons, the over the top reaction from the police on security detail will essentially render her invisible as she carries out the actual crime. She feels a bit guilty using him like a tool, but she still believes that because she is aware of what she did she she must not REALLY be racist towards Malcolm. She is just a manipulative user asshole (which she is fine with).
But as we quickly learn, Jessica is just as gullible as the dupes at the hospital, due most likely to her own racist assumptions. She completely underestimates Malcolm as a possible threat because he is “just some junky” to her, someone beneath her notice. She regularly “protects him from himself” in a patronizing way, but she never bothers to really see him. And that means that she essentially falls for the same bait and switch routine she pulled on the cops and the nurses. He is the perfect spy for Kilgrave because Jessica assumes that he is incapable of the kind of self-control and competence that spying requires.
And she falls for it again with Luke when he seemingly forgives her for her part in Reva’s death while under Kilgrave’s control. Jessica wants to be absolved and isn’t above using manipulation and stalking to extract it from Luke. And when he tells her he will reassure her over and over that she is a Good White Person and Not to Blame, she is so eager to believe it that she is fooled once again.
In other words, I think the show goes out of its way to show that 1) Jessica has some blind spots when it comes to the black men in her life and 2) that these blind spots make her a worse detective then she might be without them.
Of course, the problem with these scenarios is that in both cases it is not the black men themselves who are using Jessica’s “little bit of racism” against her. It is Kilgrave. They are simply the tools used to manipulate her. So hopefully the forthcoming shows focused on the Hero for Hire and Iron Fist (which is already stirring up talk about race as fans debate whether he should be played by an Asian man or remain white as he is in the comics) will take these issues up in a more complex way.