Jessica Jones is not what all female superhero stories have to be.
Since both Supergirl and Jessica Jones were announced for release this fall, people have been desperate to compare them. The two series have nothing in common, beyond the general superhero setup and the fact that they have female protagonists, and yet people have almost treated them as competing adaptations of the story, and rushed to decide which one was the best.
The winner, almost inevitably, seemed to be Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones, after all, is dark. It’s gritty. She’s a “brawling, whisky-chugging, self-destructive mess,” dealing with the darker side of Marvel’s superpowered world, a serious character in a serious story for serious and intelligent viewers. Contrast with the cheery, optimistic, rom-com esque world of Supergirl, with cutesy superhero costumes and an earnest desire to do and see good in the world, and it’s obvious why a world enamored with grimdark stories like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead might prefer Marvel’s take, or at least declare it a higher caliber of storytelling.
But moving from “Jessica Jones is good” or “Jessica Jones is the sort of superhero story I want to see” to “Jessica Jones is the only right way to do female superhero stories” or “other female superheroes aren’t Jessica Jones and therefore they suck” is based on the false assumption that a female superhero can only exist in one single way, or that we can only have one female superhero at a time. The assumption isn’t surprising, even if it is subconscious — most ensemble superhero movies only have one main female superhero, while most single-hero titles only have one (non heroic) female character at all. Of course the “only one!!” perspective has settled into our psyche. But it’s not true. Just as male superheroes can range from the dark grittiness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman to the lighthearted fun of the recent Antman to Spiderman‘s teen angst and quippiness, female superhero stories can be pretty much whatever they want to be. We don’t have to be tricked into believing that we have to choose one single female superhero to represent all female viewers in the world.
Yes, it’s great that we’re getting a female superhero who fits in with that trendy “darkness and nihilism and everybody dies” vibe. Gritty realism isn’t just for male characters, with female love interests merely existing to be threatened or killed and create a motive for revenge. It’s great that Jessica Jones is a complex and morally interesting protagonist, and is neither the clutzy aspiring journalist who’s unlucky in love or the femme fatale spy/assassin that we’re used to seeing.
But Jessica Jones is not a show for me. Not right now. I am completely burned out on grimdark stories, and just reading a description of the series’ backstory made me feel sick.
If I wanted to watch a female-led superhero story, or any superhero story, I’d want one like Supergirl. Something that skewed slightly younger perhaps. Something optimistic and fun. And if I was going to see myself in one of these protagonists, Kara Danvers would come a lot closer than Jessica Jones
And that’s fine, because we don’t have to be restricted to one type of story. Viewers can watch the “girlier” Supergirl. They can watch Jessica Jones stare darkness in the face and deal with incredibly difficult issues. They can step back to the 1940s for the perfect-lipstick world of Peggy Carter or grab a copy of Ms Marvel for some identity-searching teenage heroics. They can enjoy all of them, or some of them, or none at all. We can have optimistic heroines and pessimistic heroics, anti-hero heroines and Lawful Good heroines, reluctant heroines and heroines who throw themselves into their heroics headfirst. We don’t have to pick which version of “female superhero” we like best and have it represent all women forevermore. We can have as much variety as we see in male-led stories.
But only if we insist on it. So enough with the Supergirl OR Jessica Jones. It should be Supergirl AND Jessica Jones, and many more to come.