There are few powers the world fears more than female anger. And superhero Jessica Jones is mad as hell.
The dry-witted private eye with fists that punch through steel returns for a second season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones amid a groundswell of female fury that has taken aim at powerful sexual abusers and declared Time’s Up on the silence that protected them.
It’s a cathartic (and complex) time, that is, for watching an acid-tongued, whiskey-swilling, fed-up survivor absolutely wreck shit onscreen.
The first Marvel heroine to headline her own live-action series spent her debut season hell-bent on ending her own rapist’s abuse. Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with coercive mind-control powers who for months forced Jessica into a non-consensual “relationship”—before manipulating and impregnating another, younger girl—managed to inflict one final trauma before season’s end: his death.
How easy it was for Jessica, left with no other choice, to simply snap her tormentor’s neck. New York may now recognize her as a hero, a Defender, but Jessica sees herself as a killer, and it haunts her throughout season two.
The rage she grapples with is a complicated one; she is often flattened by it, driven to new depths of grief and self-destruction. But she is fueled by it too, tearing through the search for a serial killer and uncovering sickening details about her own powers’ origins.
“My whole family was killed in a car accident. Someone did horrific experiments on me,” she recounts to a slack-jawed group she’s ordered to go through anger management with. “I was abducted, raped, and forced to kill someone. And now some maniac says that I am here for a reason. Like some sick destiny. She’s out killing people, and I’m in here bouncing a goddamn ball!”
The sheer force of Jessica’s fury at realizing she was violated in more ways than she knew resonates in ways now that the show’s makers couldn’t predict. In a moment defined by righteously angry women leading change, from #MeToo to gun control and beyond, a furious female superhero takes on heightened cultural significance.
For Krysten Ritter, who plays Jessica with a magnetic mix of snarkiness and vulnerability, that’s part of the appeal of a character like Jessica Jones.
“I think it’s exciting to have a show that has a strong female character at the center who’s angry and is kind of a mouthpiece for a lot of anger that women are experiencing,” says Ritter in a phone conversation with The Daily Beast. “I think that everything that’s happened has forced everybody to do sort of an inventory of their own lives and get fucking pissed. It’s just a random coincidence, but this show is addressing a lot of those same issues.”
Season 2 was written in the heat of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as a confessed sexual assaulter levied frequently sexist attacks against Hillary Clinton—and won. Jessica Jones creator and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg says writing this season proved a vessel for her and her writers’ rage: “We walked in really pissed off,” she told NPR. “And, not surprisingly, it sort of filtered its way into the storytelling.”
It’s the same emotion that manifests in one particularly prescient storyline about a famous director taking advantage of an underage starlet. Trish Walker, Jessica’s best friend, comes face to face with the middle-aged man who gave her a part in exchange for sex when she was a teenager, and finally unleashes her own pent-up rage.
The encounter culminates in a powerful image: the unrepentant pervert cowering before his victim and her friend, reduced to nothing as Jessica punches a hole through his car.
The show wrapped just days before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, triggering an avalanche of newly uncovered real-life stories like Trish’s. Ritter now looks back incredulously on the show’s timing. “I was almost like, whoa, Melissa, how did you…?” she says.
For her part, Rosenberg says abuses of power have, unfortunately, long been “part and parcel” with the stories of young women like Trish. “The story of Trish and the director is as old as time,” she tells The Daily Beast, seated in Netflix’s Manhattan offices. “It didn’t just come out of nowhere. When you’re writing a character who’s a child star, it sadly was a part of many of those young girls’ lives and experiences.”
As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to roil through Hollywood and beyond, Rosenberg is one of many women now reexamining their own histories, to “very cathartic, very emotional” effect.
“I think what’s been so striking for me personally and for everyone around me is that, you know, I can be a fiery feminist and have been for many decades, but even with that, these revelations are forcing me to look back at some of my own experiences,” she says. “Experiences that I accepted as, well that’s just what it is. And looking back and going, oh my god, that was such a classic incident! And really reevaluating my own programming, because we’ve all been programmed to accept that.”
Jessica Jones is hardly unique in hinging a woman’s backstory on rape and sexual abuse. But it is one of too few TV shows doing so through nuanced explorations of trauma, rather than settling for filming the act itself, a la Game of Thrones. It’s a trait Ritter credits to Rosenberg, whom she says has “such a problem with showing that kind of violence against women onscreen. She is sick of it.”
Rosenberg, a former dancer and head writer on shows like Dexter and Ally McBeal, says TV’s well-documented rape scene epidemic amounts to a lack of imagination. “It’s such a go-to as writers. Oh, something really traumatic happened to this person, what could it be? She’s a woman? Rape!” she says. “And then with a man it’s like, what horrible thing could have happened to him? Wife raped, child killed! You know, we just have to push ourselves into new territory and not always go for the go-to.”
Twisting TV clichés is how Jessica Jones creates personalities like Jeri Hogarth, the high-powered attorney brought to blistering life by Carrie Anne-Moss. In the throes of a midlife crisis, Jeri is closer to Don Draper than to most female characters on TV: brilliant, successful, sexual, and hopelessly restless and unhappy (with less of a drinking problem).
To write women like Hogarth and Jessica, Rosenberg says one must remember, “I’m not writing a female character, I’m writing a character. Certainly she’s informed by her gender but she’s not defined by it.”
Reducing women to rote characterizations “happens a lot in film and television,” she says. “The female character is ‘the wife’ or ‘the sassy cop’ or something like that. And it’s like, if you just approach a character without that definition, or like if you’re writing an African American character, you’re writing a character who is informed by his or her race, gender, orientation, whatever it is. But they’re still a person, a human being, with a lot of different layers and damage.”
Advocates for change and inclusion in Hollywood have long contended that having more women behind the scenes results in better, more nuanced depictions of women onscreen. Jessica Jones, which already boasted a female-heavy writers’ room, raised the bar further in Season 2 by hiring an all-female slate of directors for its 13 episodes.
It’s the only Netflix series to have ever done so—the streaming service typically trails behind most top companies for its hiring of female and minority directors. (Last year it clocked in last among the top 210 at just 20.5 percent, according to a report compiled by the Directors Guild of America, compared to the next-highest on the list, Viacom, which hired 31.6 percent.)
Was it so difficult to find 13 capable directors who happened to be women? “Not even remotely,” says Rosenberg.
“You know, they’re there. Each and every one of them had a long list of screen credits, each of their names had stellar reputations to match any director. And so it wasn’t even—I didn’t discover anybody. I simply went and found talented directors.”
Doing so took only slightly unconventional means: Rosenberg combed through studio and network lists of potential talent, while also polling friends, fellow showrunners, and Google. “I googled ‘female directors.’ It’s a really long list!” she says. And then went, ‘Oh, I’d love to work with her, oh, I’ve been seeing her work for years.’ It really wasn’t very hard.”
Ritter says the differences in being directed by women on a show like Jessica Jones run both small and huge. “Our show has been predominantly female from the beginning, so that’s kind of always been the vibe,” she explains. “We have a really open, warm set environment and I think because it’s mostly chicks at the video village.”
“But I can say that when you’re dealing with some of the subject matters that we do, technically doing more vulnerable stuff and, like, sexier stuff, I find it a lot easier to have really vulnerable, raw conversations with women. Like for example, when it’s like time to do a sex scene and it’s like, ‘OK, we’re gonna show this much of your butt and you’re gonna wear this,’ that is a much easier conversation to have with a girl,” she laughs. “End of story.”
Every Season 2 director has since booked more TV work, in part because Rosenberg has begun singing their praises to colleagues, including Walking Dead showrunner Angela Kang and producer Carol Mendelsohn. (Mendelsohn hired Zetna Fuentes, who helmed this season’s “AKA Ain’t We Got Fun,” to film one of the most hotly pursued dramas of last pilot season, which will air this year on CBS.)
“I think people tend to work with the people they’ve worked with before,” Rosenberg says, a practice that’s created a pool of male directors who get pitched and hired in the same circles over and over. It isn’t that female directors aren’t available, she explains. “It’s just that they’re not the first thought that comes to mind because you get stuck in this rut.”
“I’ve seen so many of my friends who are directors, women, they’re all working now,” says Ritter. “And knock on wood, there’s still tons of work to be done, but we’re starting to see and feel a real change.”
“Every advancement is two steps forward, one step back,” says Rosenberg. She tempers her optimism with the reality of American gender equality’s slow arc from “the suffragettes to the women’s movement of the ’70s” to the watershed moments for women in film and TV that Thelma & Louise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Nurse Jackie once hailed.
But patience, of course, isn’t Jessica Jones’ strong suit. If she, the ones who make her story, and the rest of America’s angry women keep pushing forward, progress may come just a little bit faster.