What Jessica Jones Understands About Female Rage

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Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a child was that anger is never just an emotion for women. It bristles with a historical context and radical potential. It need not be a destructive force, but one that can reshape the world. It’s a lesson I learned through watching the dynamic women in my family as they used anger as a fuel to rework their lives in the wake of widowhood, job loss, domestic abuse. Yet it wasn’t lost on me that anger is an emotion that women are often punished for exhibiting. Perhaps this is why the second season of Jessica Jones proves so beguiling.

The image that sticks with me most from Jessica Jones’s 13-episode sophomore season is of the main antagonist, Alisa Jones (Janet McTeer), wordlessly standing before a fire of her own making in episode five, “AKA The Octopus,” after killing a man. Her face grimly determined as she burns investigative research, reams of paper, and her own clothes. There’s something mythic and potent to this image that encapsulates the thematic thrust of Jessica Jones this year: the knotted reality of female rage in the wake of great trauma.

Season two of Jessica Jones isn’t without its issues. It lacks the propulsion and energy that a strong central villain provides, like what the verbose, toxic mind controller Kilgrave (David Tennant) gave season one before Jessica killed him in the finale. Instead, season two opts to provide an origin story for the hard-drinking, self-destructive private detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), as she reluctantly investigates her own past and IGH, the company that illegally experimented on her after a car crash that left her an orphan. In choosing to use a set of ideas rather than a singular figure as its central villain, the second season is much more discursive. The most evident thread is its consideration of female rage through the arc of its major characters: Jessica questioning the outdated narrative of her life; her best friend and celebrity Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) yearning to gain powers of her own, as if they would easily blunt the trauma of her life; and Alisa Jones (McTeer), Jessica’s long-lost mother who reappears with an unhinged temper and even greater strength than our titular lead.

In many ways, this makes Jessica Jones seem like the superhero perfectly suited to our historical moment. Even though this season was written before Harvey Weinstein’s downfall and the rise of the #MeToo movement, it glimmers with an exploration of the conversations and reevaluations that have burst forth with added intensity in real life — discussions of harassment in the workplace, sexual trauma, rape, and the narratives thrust upon women they often have little control over. On TV, there are currently several new and ongoing series using anger as the locus for the lives of its female characters, including the heartfelt Good Girls, the electrifying The Good Fight, and the operatic behind-the-scenes drama UnREAL. As Arielle Bernstein writes for the Guardian, “This angry sisterhood joins a chorus of feminist intellectual voices, who urge us to see anger as a response to injustice and argue that channeling that anger at sexism is necessary in order for women to ultimately be free.” At first blush, Jessica Jones is a particularly intriguing entry in this lineage because it isn’t afraid to show that women’s anger isn’t always just or righteous. Women’s anger is a worthy thematic pursuit, especially right now.

For these reasons, Jessica Jones has been positioned as the superhero for our time, an unlikely feminist emblem injecting a grayer morality to storytelling than most superhero adaptations offer. She is “the superhero for the #MeToo movement,” according to an Entertainment Weekly headline. “If the first season was about surviving deep trauma, Season Two is about what comes after: namely, anger. Rosenberg examines feminist rage from a variety of angles, through Jessica but also through the women around her,” a Rolling Stone article argues. I’ve often argued that no piece of pop culture can embody a political movement as unwieldy and complex as feminism, and the feminist bona fides that have been thrust upon this series prove shaky when examining its mores closely. But what especially hobbles Jessica Jones is that the anger of its characters is hinged upon physical violence and self-destruction, suggesting that the experience of being a woman is one singularly rooted in trauma.

As Moira Donegan writes for The New Yorker, season two is a “portrait of female rage” in which “Jessica is awed and terrified by her own anger.” Jessica is not healed by killing Kilgrave, but haunted by it. She numbs her pain by drowning in booze and anonymous hookups. When angry, she breaks glasses, starts fights, or pummels those who have little chance of defending themselves against her considerable abilities, like Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen), a detective with a swankier firm who hopes to put Jessica out of business and considers her a “freak.” Jessica’s struggle with anger is inseparable from the multiple traumas in her life: the loss of her parents, the way her abilities set her apart, her rape and manipulation at the hands of Kilgrave, the violence she hews toward, and her instinct to question the narratives that frame her life. When I spoke to showrunner Melissa Rosenberg about Jessica’s journey with anger this season, she told me that her arc is essentially a question of identity: “Who am I? Am I the killer that Kilgrave wanted me to be? Am I the superhero vigilante killer that the public is thinking I am? Or am I the monster?”

Jessica’s relationship to anger takes a turn when she finally tracks down the person responsible for killing off superpowered people linked to IGH: her mother, Alisa, who actually survived the car accident that killed her father and brother. (In the aftermath, a comatose Alisa was experimented on and gained powers like Jessica’s, but her captor, Dr. Karl (Callum Keith Rennie), chose to let Jessica believe her entire family was gone, rather than know what had truly happened.) In her mother, Jessica sees a warped-mirror image of her own possible future. Alisa is consumed by the rage of knowing she never lived up to her own potential. She gave up her own dreams as a mathematician to placate her husband and handle duties at home. This resentment has built up for decades — about the years apart from the daughter who believed her dead, the experimentation that robbed her of autonomy, the terrifying nightmares, the way her life went awry in her previous marriage — and when her chances of happiness and peace are threatened, she isn’t afraid to kill. As Rosenberg told me, “Even with her superpowers, [Alisa] could never become the person she wanted to be. Jessica leaves the season with that mind.”

In the season’s eighth episode, “AKA Ain’t We Got Fun,” Jessica’s consideration of her own anger begins to evolve, partly out of the fear her mother brews in her. In many ways, Alisa is a warning to Jessica of what she might become. Watching the two women play off each other provides the season with a thorny mother-daughter dynamic, but also robs its display of complex female rage. These women don’t know how to express anger beyond brute force or the most painful displays of self-destruction, yet again grounding that rage in the experience of trauma. McTeer and Ritter are admirable, and many of their scenes sparkle with a palpable yearning and surprising vulnerability. Nevertheless, their dynamic is troubling because of what it reveals: Again and again, the show treats the experience of womanhood as a warped story rooted in trauma and violence.

Trish’s story line this season begins by heading in the same direction as Jessica’s, exploring how trauma sparks an anger in women that leads to violence and threatens to consume them. Like Jessica, Trish confronts her own traumatic past: In episode two, “AKA Freak Accident,” she faces Max Tatum (James McCaffrey), a sleazy director who sexually exploited her as a teenager at the beginning of her acting career, after her vainglorious mother, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay) pawned her off on him. Trish puts herself in this precarious position to get more information on Jessica’s obscured past and IGH, because Max is a valued donor to the hospital at the center of this mystery. Their scene together is intense and harrowing, as the capital Trish has amassed seems to slowly drain from her. Even when Trish threatens Max with blackmail, it still feels like he has the upper hand, eroding her self-confidence until she is once again the 15-year-old girl he exploited.

The next time Trish confronts Max, Jessica is standing by her side. Jessica uses her strength to intimidate the director, pinning him to the hood of his car. “What the hell are you?” he bellows. “I’m angry,” she coolly seethes. It’s a moment so powerful it could easily operate as a tagline for the entire season. It’s understandable why Trish looks at having superpowers as salvation: Jessica is able stare down a monster from her past and make him cower in fear. In later episodes, Trish goes to extreme lengths to gain powers — relapsing into addiction by taking a performance enhancing drug, then roping Dr. Karl into repeating the treatment that transformed Jessica, despite the tremendous risk. As Rosenberg noted when I spoke with her, “Trish has everything. She has talent, success, fame, social graces. She has it all except powers. Jessica has the one thing she doesn’t have, the one thing she most desires because Trish herself comes from a place of being an abused child, first by her mother, later on with various experiences with her career. She’s so critically aware of feeling unsafe in the world and doesn’t want anyone else to feel that. Powers will fix that, those fears.”

In other words, Trish’s anger is most definitely rooted in trauma. But it’s also rooted in something a bit more dangerous that the show doesn’t fully consider: a myopic, all-consuming privilege. Like Alisa, I don’t buy Trish’s “pseudo-noble shit.” Watching Trish bulldoze through people’s lives roots her anger not in righteous feminist fury pointed at institutions and the men they support, but a privileged milieu of white women who are more interested in amassing the power of their oppressors than dismantling the systems they represent. That the Jessica Jones writers don’t take more strides to consider these intersecting concerns of privilege and whiteness nullifies much of the series’ potential to speak to both the issues that plague women’s lives and the experience of anger itself.

Ultimately, Jessica Jones proves to be most complex in its interrogation of female rage through an unlikely character: the venomous lawyer and power lesbian Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). Jeri is cunning, underhanded, dangerous, and selfish to monumental degrees. She only helps heroes like Jessica or Danny Rand (in Marvel’s Iron Fist) when it suits her own agenda. Her anger is often pointed toward those at a lower station, including her ex-wife, who was at one point her assistant. The power dynamics in Jeri’s sexual and romantic life are touched upon this season, albeit not fully explored, much like Trish’s own privilege. But the fact that Jeri rose from poverty and is dealing with a diagnosis of ALS, a disease that no amount of power and money can protect her from, complicates her arc. “Jeri Hogarth has spent her life accruing power and money and control. The reality is that there is no such thing as control,” Rosenberg told me. The ALS diagnosis leads Jeri to forgo her usually gimlet-eyed calculations to trust Inez Green (Leah Gibson), a former IGH nurse who tells Jeri about a superpowered man named Shane Ryback (Eden Marryshow) with the ability to heal.

Jeri’s faith proves to be foolish. When she comes home to her once-lush apartment, she finds it cleaned out by Inez and Shane. His alleged healing process and the hope Inez built up around it was an elaborate con, a means to squirm their way into Jeri’s life and rob her. Her illness made her fallible and she was conned at this moment of great desperation. But unlike Trish, Jessica, and Alisa, Jeri is not quick to physical violence. She spills no blood, punches no villains. Instead, she instigates bloodshed by manipulating people’s desires and needs in order to meet her own goals. There’s something particularly ruthless about this approach. Her rage spills into the world in a way that lacks the easy categorization and blunt force of the other women in Jessica Jones. Jeri is mercilessly methodical in finding Inez and Shane after learning her ALS wasn’t healed. She manipulates Inez into killing Shane, finding a vengeance that is equal parts thrilling and terrifying to watch. Jeri’s arc offers the series its most complex rendition of female anger rooted not in sexual trauma, but something murkier, teasing ideas about class dynamics, wayward desire, and the limits of power all while pushing at the boundaries of the series’ gray morality.

As TV continues to pulsate with new explorations of female rage, I am curious to see how Jessica Jones develops from here. Its characters end in very different places than they began, especially when it comes to their anger. In its second season, Jessica Jones was intriguing, blistering, and frustrating as it reached admirably toward complicated renditions of fraught topics we’ve found no clear answers for in real life. As its leads continue to experience the self-destructive, paralyzing side of anger, I wonder if the show will be brave enough to consider anger’s most potent quality for women: its ability to not just destroy our lives, but reshape them.

What Jessica Jones Understands About Female Rage