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Jessica Jones’ Freakish Strength & Our Fear of Strong Women

December 20, 2015

I can never be happy.

I should love Jessica Jones, the newest Marvel universe hero to hit Netflix in a binge-inducing 13 episode first season. And frankly, I do. I won’t go into the many reasons why since other people in other online spaces have done it better than I could. Briefly, the show puts a woman in a traditionally male role (as the brooding PI with few friends who only depends on herself) and highlights some feminist issues, such as abortion access in jail. Jessica Jones is a bad ass with a painful history, the plot being a thinly veiled allegory for getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship, that has caught up to her. Really, I can’t not like a woman who drinks bourbon to wake up and would rather stay away from people.

But Jessica Jones still follows at least one irritating trope: having a freakishly strong woman played by a very slight actor. The show inverts and pushes the envelope on so many other aspects of the superhero story. It basically takes the Bechdel Test (whether two named, female characters speak to each other for more than a minute about something other than a man) and tells it to “shove it.” This is refreshing after painstakingly sitting through two episodes of Daredevil in which literally all of the female characters are crying and in need of saving. But somehow the envelope containing what a super strong woman can look like is waiting to be pushed.

Jessica Jones – like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Wonder Woman before her – has super human strength. It seems to be due to something that happened after a car accident, although the audience has yet to find out what. She is played by the talented and beautiful Krysten Ritter who, while tall, does not have the physicality of a super strong woman; she is very thin and the character keeps herself going on booze and adrenaline most of the time. I probably wouldn’t have even paid attention to her build, since shows like Buffy are some of my favorites, save for two elements of the show. One is a minor scene in the first ten minutes of the first episode and the other is a major character that plays alongside Jessica.

Within the first ten minutes of the show we are introduced to Jessica’s late night addiction – secretly watching people from an NYC fire escape. We zoom into the window of a fat woman on an elliptical clearly having a hard time. At first I thought that might be the whole scene but the woman abruptly gets off of the elliptical grabs a burger and starts to eat it, then eats it while she’s on the elliptical (no one does that…no one). Jessica’s internal monologue says, “Two minutes on a treadmill, twenty minutes on a quarter pounder.” This seemingly unnecessary line about this fat woman exercising is meant to hammer in the idea many people have of fat people – they are lazy and lack willpower. I’m not sure why it deserved a whole line in the first ten minutes but there it is. And it only served to highlight for me Jessica’s thinness (and apparent disgust towards fat people). Especially since other than a few fat side characters on the show everyone else is impossibly fit.

What makes Jessica’s slight build most apparent though is the character Luke Cage, played by a whopping 6’3″ and ridiculously muscular Mike Colter, whom we get to see a lot of without a shirt. He has unbreakable skin paired with superhuman strength. But his strength is readily apparent – you just look at the guy and know that starting a fight with him would be a really bad idea. Side by side Luke makes Jessica look tiny which I’m sure is part of the visual the show wants. In addition, throughout the show there are references to “the green guy,” the Hulk, who also shows his super strength via his massive, green muscles. The strength of men in the Marvel universe (and in most pop culture) is something that is conveyed visually. But women’s super human strength often comes as a surprise – like when we see Jessica break open a locked door with a simple tug or bend a metal chair with ease and the audience has to wonder what’s going on.

Logically, Jessica’s slender frame doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If her strength does come from her muscles, even if they have been tweaked, wouldn’t it make sense for her to try and get more muscles to be even stronger than she already is? That might help with her high jump that allows her to escape from many sticky situations. At least Buffy trained quite a bit to improve her abilities, and as far as I remember there weren’t really any fat jokes on that show. But no, Jessica survives off cheap whiskey and little sleep. While her best friend tries to convince her to sleep at some points in the show she is never told to eat, and we never see her eating save for a bit of banana bread baked by a weird, but almost lovable, neighbor.

While I’m disappointed in having another super strong female character played by a lithe actor it’s not very surprising. People have a problem with physically strong women, just look at the treatment that Serena Williams gets. (I won’t go into it because it makes me sad.) Amy Schumer did a bit on it focusing on tennis. Physically strong women, Xena the Warrior Princess excluded, simply don’t get to be the stars. Maybe with the recent increasing interest in female UFC fighters we’ll one day see a super heroine with muscles big enough to make us want to hit the gym and lift some weights.
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