Superheroes represent the unattainable dream of being invulnerable in a world that becomes more dangerous every day. They can be role models to men and boys and, more recently, to girls and women as well. They are the new myths and, like Hercules and Jason with his Argonauts, represent our longing to beat the unbeatable, to rise above mere mortals and be something more. We are drawn to their perfect physiques, their gadgets, their powers, and their adventure-filled lives.
The genre’s flaw is that the characters, at least the powerful characters, are mostly male. If a female character is powerful, she is reduced to a sexy cliché. Wonder Woman may be a powerful Amazon princess, but she is dressed in what is basically a scanty swimsuit with enough cleavage for her breasts to be their own superpower. Black Widow of Avengers fame is as capable as any of the male members of the group, yet she wears skintight black leather.
There is hope, though, in a Netflix show with a superheroine named Jessica Jones. The only thing more deadly than her strength is her quick, very snide sense of humor.
Hard-drinking and foulmouthed
Jessica is unlike any of the female characters that have come before her. Although she comes from the Marvel universe, she is not one of the major characters — she is, in fact, virtually unknown, which gives the writers room to play. Jessica is more complex than the (few) other female superheroes we have seen: She is a conflicted, hard-drinking, foulmouthed private investigator who would rather be killed than wear a sexy costume (she lives in jeans, black camisoles, a beat-up leather jacket, and boots). The actress who plays her, Krysten Ritter, is quite beautiful, but the character’s hair is always in disarray, her eyes haunted by things she has done, and her figure hidden by her clothing. Being heroic is hard for her, and she only does it when no one will find out; though she has incredible strength and can fly (sort of), she comes off as being very vulnerable.
The other women are equally complex. Jessica’s best friend, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child star turned talk show host, knows Jessica’s secret. She develops the resolve to help her friend stop the villain, belying her fluffy appearance. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a brilliant, obsessed lawyer who sometimes uses Jessica to get the dirt on someone, or, if needed, shake him or her up a bit. She’s married to a woman, giving a face to another group that is rarely represented in the superhero genre.
In a fun reversal, the men are the sex symbols. The confused and complex Luke Cage (the beautifully sculpted Mike Colter), Jessica’s frenemy and lover, is often shirtless, as is her neighbor, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville). The truly evil Kilgrave (David Tennant), on the other hand, is always fully dressed — in sharp suits and ties.
Women seeing themselves
There are other superhero shows featuring women — Supergirl even has her own show, but I’m not sure we needed a bumbling, female version of Superman. Arrow and The Flash have female characters, but they’re the usual tired tropes: girlfriend, damsel in distress, sexy super villain. Stand-alone movies about Wonder Woman and Black Widow have been long talked-about, but neither is yet in the works, in large part because the producers lack faith that audiences would come to see a movie about a female hero. Perhaps now, with Jessica Jones drawing rave reviews and Wonder Woman about to fly onto the screen in her invisible jet (in the upcoming Batman v. Superman), the studios will finally understand that women watch movies, too, and that they want to see women who are like themselves: strong and capable.