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In Marvel's Jessica Jones, women get stuff done while men just talk about women

Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There are spoilers about Netflix's Jessica Jones here.

Netflix and Marvel's Jessica Jones is everyone's newest obsession, and it's easy to see why. Series star Krysten Ritter is a force of dark, dazzling nature. The show crafts a powerful narrative about abuse, control, and addiction — topics Marvel doesn't usually like to dwell on. And its villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant), is one of the most sinister we've seen in ages.

But there's something else that Jessica Jones, and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, is doing that's a little less pronounced but just as thoughtful and effective.

The Bechdel Test, conceived in a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is an exam that evaluates the presence of women in pieces of art like movies and television shows. Its purpose is to assess whether a given work passes a baseline level of sexism, by screening for one simple criterion: Two named women must talk to each other about something other than a man.

With its bevy of women characters, Jessica Jones passes this test with flying colors. Throughout the show's first season, we see Jessica (Ritter) talk to her friend and stepsister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) about their childhood, about superhero-ing, and about Jessica's troubled client Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), among other things. We see characters like attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) talk to her estranged wife about their assets. And there are plenty of interactions between Jessica and various female doctors and nurses.

But Jessica Jones does more than merely pass the Bechdel Test; it also subverts it. As season one continues, the show's male characters more frequently interact with one another. And those interactions are almost always about a woman.

How Jessica Jones turns the Bechdel Test upside down


The first interaction of this sort happens in episode three, "AKA It's Called Whiskey," between Officer Simpson (Wil Traval) and Kilgrave. Simpson, believing he has killed Trish Walker, goes back to Kilgrave to inform him of her death. The conversation ends with Simpson being compelled to kill himself because his job is finished.

Another interaction we see between two prominent male characters occurs in episode seven ("AKA Top Shelf Perverts"), when Jessica's neighbor Ruben (Kieran Mulcare) meets Kilgrave for the first and only time. Ruben finds Kilgrave messing around in Jessica's office, and they (mostly Ruben) just talk about how Kilgrave knows Jessica.


There are also inverted, Kilgrave-less scenes too.

In episode 4, "AKA 99 Friends," Simpson and Jessica's neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville) share a brief scene in which Simpson believes Malcolm is staring at Jessica. He then tries to fight him:


There is no discussion. It's a fight over a woman. And it's only broken up when Jessica steps into the middle of it and talks Simpson down, telling him about Malcolm's addiction.

Jessica Jones puts women in places of power and reverses a lot of sexist tropes

It isn't a coincidence that Jessica Jones passes the Bechdel Test. It's the result of the show putting women in roles that men usually hold. There have been many noir and neo-noir detectives in television and movies, but Jessica Jones is one of the first women we've seen in the role. Hogarth, a powerful lawyer who's cheating on her wife with a secretary, is an archetypal character usually played by men. Hogarth's estranged wife, Wendy (Robin Weigert), is a well-respected doctor who does charitable work, Patsy Walker's mother Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay) is a maniacal showbiz manager, and Hope Shlottman is a troubled scholar athlete — attributes that women characters rarely have onscreen, let alone all in one show.

There are also scenes in which the show subverts archetypal Hollywood scenes by flipping gender roles. In its fourth episode, we see Jessica track down and confront a couple having sex in a bedroom. She doesn't know it's a trick and that one half of the couple wants her killed. The subversion is that the confrontation happens between two women, with a man cowering on the sidelines:


That's echoed in the show's ninth episode, "AKA Sin Bin," when Kilgrave's parents confront him and try to stop him from doing even more evil. His dad is afraid, cowering in the corner, while his mother faces the monster Kilgrave has become head on:


Jessica Jones also underscores these choices in its aesthetics. There's plenty of sex on this show. And when it comes to skin, men are baring just as much as, if not more than, women, like in Jessica's scenes with her lover Luke Cage, and Simpson's with Trish. In episode five, there's a deliberate moment when Jessica accidentally catches Trish and Simpson in the afterglow. Trish is covered up, but the camera holds on Simpson in his underwear while Jess and Trish have a serious conversation:


There's a lot of lingering:


Of course, subverting gender roles and flipping the heterosexual male gaze isn't enough to make a piece of art good. Thankfully, Jessica Jones is a fantastic story told by a fantastic team of people. And it's fascinating to see the feminist points it's making in some of its subtler moments.