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Good Men and Bad Men: Masculinity In Marvel’s ‘Jessica Jones’

There’s quite a bit of talk, and rightly so, about the splendid variety of female characters on Jessica Jones, and how they drive the plot. But one of the things that makes Jessica Jones such compelling drama – and such a feminist-minded property – is that it also closely examines different types of men, and how men and women interact.

In this, Jessica Jones is television’s answer to the glorious summer flick Mad Max: Fury Road. Both properties show women helping other women to escape a brutal and sexist type of slavery, and both show how toxic masculinity can trap, control, and harm men as as well, ultimately demonstrating that change to culture benefits from collaborative acts. Men are not the point of feminism, but that they can be positive allies to it.

Jessica Jones has four principal male characters, and they each demonstrate familiar facets of masculine tropes: the controlling monster, the dark berserker in disguise, the compassionate nurturer, and the romantic protector. There are good men and bad men in Jessica Jones, but the show’s slow-revealing pace means that the audience experiences what is the daily reality for most women: you can’t always tell a good man from a bad man at first sight, and rolling that dice can get you killed.

There’s some significant spoilers here, so cover your eyes if you haven’t yet seen at least the first ten episodes of the new superhero series Jessica Jones on Netflix.

The Monster

jessica jones david tennant

Kilgrave’s malicious use of mind-control makes him the scariest Marvel screen villain to date, but the most horrible part of his presentation is that he embodies the worst tropes of a controlling, abusive partner. To Kilgrave, women are sex dolls, and while he sees himself as giving them presents (five star hotels, amazing restaurants, dresses and pretty apartments), in truth he rapes them over and over again, both body and mind. When Jessica breaks free, he becomes obsessed with her, and is transformed into the stalker ex-boyfriend stereotype.

No behavior is too reprehensible: threatening her loved ones, illegally surveilling her, blackmail, murdering her neighbors, even reconstructing her actual childhood house as if her life is one big role-play game that he can step into. Kilgrave represents the threat of misogyny and white male privilege taken to its grossest extreme: like the slaveholding character of Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, there are no boundaries to his consumption. Everything he wants, he gets, and he stops seeing people as ‘real’ humans. Under his thrall, men become chattel and tools of labor, while women become sexually dominated possessions.

Kilgrave hunts Jessica with impunity at first: no one will believe that his compulsion is real, and that his victims are even being victimized at all. When Jessica continually refuses him, Kilgrave is unable to grasp that his fixation is one-sided. He believes that if he isolates her, terrorizes her, and gives her honeymoon gifts, she’ll willingly reciprocate his attention.

The Berserker

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If Kilgrave is the crazy stalker ex, then Will Simpson is the dangerous boyfriend that seems like a great guy at first. He’s protective, earnest, and sexually desirable.  He’s charming, and believes himself to be a righteous person. But as his story progresses, we get little details that flash like warning signs: for example, as a child Simpson burned down his sister’s Barbie dream house to have his toy soldiers rescue the damsel inside. It doesn’t matter that the toys burned, what mattered was the mission, the scenario, played out to completion.

Simpson sees the world as a threat and wants himself to be a solution to that threat. This is eventually taken to such an extreme that when he goes on a rampage to hunt down Kilgrave, he attacks innocent people who he thinks are standing between him and his target. He willingly takes drugs that cause him to lose self-control, knowing he will be endangering the people around him. To his lover, Trish, he becomes heedlessly violent, and he tries to murder Jessica. He apologizes one moment, then attacks the next. Sure, he seemed like “a good guy” when Trish first began a relationship with him, but his need to dominate a situation as meets his expectations of “what needs to be done” causes him to lose reason.

Simpson becomes the stereotype of the man who looks fine on the outside but beats his spouse indoors. This is an example of how some men can convince themselves that they are doing the “right” thing, yet refuse to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise, particularly the women they injure along the way. Although Jessica is the hero of the story, Simpson eventually tries to destroy her when he believes she’s incompetent for the job. In this tragic way he betrays Trish a second time, and his attack at Alias Investigations mirrors his initial attack at Trish’s apartment. While the first time he was enthralled against his will, the second time he willingly lets himself become a pawn to monstrous impulses.

The Nurturer

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As a stark counter to Kilgrave, who demands everything, Malcolm Ducasse is a giver. He represents positive masculinity in a way that is rarely explored on television. Malcolm is a nurturer, someone who desires to help and comfort his friends because of his wholesome upbringing. Even his unpleasant neighbors fall into his umbrella of care. He tries to help Jessica out of both guilt and out of genuine affection. After detoxing from Kilgrave’s control, he spearheads the survivor’s self-help meetings, giving others a place to share their heartbreak and regret.

What’s particularly interesting about Malcolm’s arc is that at one point he chastises Jessica for allowing their relationship to become a one-sided friendship: as much as he represents an aspect of her keeping her humanity, Jessica also represents Malcolm’s own search for human decency. As he loses faith in her, Malcolm is forced to question if there is truly such a thing as a good deed, or a heroic gesture. It’s refreshingly rare for a supposed ‘sidekick’ character to demand respect and reciprocity from the protagonist.

Ultimately, he makes the selfless choice that even if Jessica gives up on him, he will not give up on her. Malcolm sticks by his friends, constantly trying to take care of the people that get left on the wayside. To Malcolm, everyone deserves help, no matter how unpleasant they may seem, and he includes himself in that tally. He represents a kind, generous, and compassionate view of manhood.

The Romantic Protector

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While Will Simpson chases the role of protector to a destructive end, Luke Cage shows the audience that there are good men in the world who can be protective, decent, and kind. Luke’s relationship with Jessica is highly sexual, but is is grounded in a deep respect for women and for people as a whole. There’s no mistaking that Luke is dangerous: he has super strength, and skin that can’t be injured. But he’s also the kind of man that will lure a murderous drug dealer’s guard dogs to a safe distance because no matter their owner, “I don’t hurt dogs.”

This is all a wonderful set-up for Luke Cage to have his own superhero spin-off next year on Netflix, because in him we find a hero worth following. When Jessica asks Luke for help, he’s there, and when she tells him to back off, he respects that choice. He fights side by side equally with Jessica, a clear contrast to Will and Trish bickering over their roles in a heist. He’s clearly capable of love, but unlike Kilgrave, his love is not obsessive. He too wants Jessica’s companionship as a superpower-ed peer, but Luke is disinterested in affection that isn’t freely given.

In one of the most moving moments of the show, Jessica gives care of a wounded Luke over to a nurse, and tells her “Look, I know that we [powered types] scare you and you’ve never seen anything like us, but this is a good man.”  It’s telling that of all the men in season 1 of Jessica Jones, Luke alone is given that iconic description in dialogue from the heroine’s mouth.

The message of the writing team couldn’t be clearer: there are bad men in the world and there are good men in the world, and even a show that explores the terrors of assault survivors can find its own type of optimism.  Yes, misogyny and sexism exist, and yes, all women will eventually brush up against it in their lifetime. But there’s hope as well, because just as Trish and Jessica are a heroic contrast to the snake-like Hogarth and Trish’s abusive mother, men like Luke and Malcolm are the antidote to men like Kilgrave and Simpson. Netflix’s Jessica Jones tells us that instead of giving into despair, we should find good people, support them, and challenge them to demand the good in others. In the end, these characters prove that a group of people bound together by support, trust, and compassion do have the power to defeat hatred.