Jessica Jones Doesn’t Care About Men of Colour

- by Zina Hutton -

2775 Words

 

The thing about the feminism on display in Jessica Jones is that it isn’t universally empowering or accessible. This is a series that centres the titular character’s pain above that of other people, and that treats the lives of people of colour—particularly men of colour—as accessories to her narrative.

As a show, Jessica Jones has represented peak ‘white feminism,’ centring white womanhood, from day one. Like Agent Carter, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman, it’s a narrative focused on white female characters in worlds where characters of colour are afterthoughts, sidekicks, villains, or background support. From Reva Connor’s death being used as a catalyst to jumpstart Jessica breaking free from the control of her abusive ex, Kilgrave, to the overwhelming lack of characters of colour in the series’ New York City, to killing off both of its black female characters in the second season, and to Jeri Hogarth filling the “Evil Lesbian” trope, this is not a series that cares about putting forward an inclusive or intersectional form of feminism.

However, one of the most glaring examples of this is in the way that the series treats its male characters of colour, particularly in its second season. Men of colour and their experiences (including their trauma) are never seen as important or as valid as Jessica’s trauma.

The series’ first season introduced audiences to Mike Colter’s Luke Cage, a character who would later go on to helm his own series. Jessica stalks Luke even though she’s responsible for the death of his wife, Reva Connor—a fact that she doesn’t tell him until after they have sex. In that season, Eka Darville’s Malcolm Ducasse is also introduced as a drug addict who is tailing Jessica on the orders of her abuser, Kilgrave. He’s a character who has little agency and is barely allowed a personality beyond following Jessica around like a lost puppy well into the second season of the show.

When Terry Chen’s Pryce Cheng is introduced in the first episode of Jessica Jones’ second season, he looks like he’s going to bring something new to Marvel’s Netflix series as a Chinese character who’s not a ninja or mystic.

Pryce is a rival private investigator who wants Jessica Jones’ Alias Investigations out of the way. He was set to break away from the stereotypes that almost all of Netflix’s Marvel offerings have clung to over the past few years. Unfortunately, within minutes of his appearance, I realized that the character was going to serve as a minor antagonistic figure in order to boost Jessica Jones’ status as a feminist hero, one who’s notable for how quick she is to shut down men and spit in the face of the patriarchy.

Pryce Cheng should have been a figure of positive representation. Instead, he’s characterized as an aggressive man who will do anything to hurt Jessica. After Jessica rejects his offer to buy her firm in the first episode, they have the following exchange:

Jessica: You don’t want me. You just want to eliminate the competition.
Pryce: I never take no for an answer.
Jessica: How rapey of you.

Jessica’s flippant response has been characterized as a feminist hallmark on various social media platforms, where I’ve seen it turned into several post-series gifs and gif sets. I think it’s important to acknowledge her right to call inappropriate comments out and how great it is to clap back against a misogynist, but that isn’t all that comment represents. Within moments of his first appearance, Pryce isn’t just a potential antagonist, he’s a character linked implicitly with the potential for rape. Rape of a white woman at that.

And somehow, his characterization gets worse from there. Throughout the season, Pryce keeps making incomprehensible decisions that are at odds with the way his character is initially presented: cool and collected, in contrast to Jessica’s hot-headedness. For instance, after Jessica shows up at his office and beats him senseless, Pryce goes on to fixate on her to the point of approaching lawyer Jeri Hogarth to try to sue her. When Jeri drops the ball on that, he then gets one of his men to break into Jessica’s office in search of dirt on her. He goes from wanting to protect his business to risking it, and his freedom, by tracking Jessica and later trying to kill her mother. It’s a complete flip that doesn’t make any sense.

And the writers make these sorts of absolutely nonsensical characterization choices for all the men of colour this season. It’s a problem that’s most visible in Oscar Arocho (played by J. R. Ramirez), the new superintendent of the building where Jessica and Malcolm live. Oscar starts out, like Pryce, as antagonistic towards Jessica in their early interactions. After Jessica displays her powers to lift his fridge in the first episode and then gets pinged as a person of interest in a suspicious death in the second, Oscar decides that he doesn’t want Jessica or her problems near him or his son, Vito. This is pretty reasonable to me, considering that the last two men of colour who got close to Jessica (Luke Cage and Malcolm) had their lives all but destroyed as a result. Jessica… doesn’t see things the same way.

The season’s third episode “AKA Sole Survivor” features one of the most out-of-touch exchanges between Jessica and a male character of colour I’ve ever seen. When Oscar lies about seeing Jessica before the suspicious death and then slaps an eviction notice on her door, she essentially accuses him of being racist against powered people. Never mind that the notice is for the fact that she’s running a business out of her apartment, something that’s technically illegal and grounds for eviction.

Jessica: What is this shit?
Oscar: Whoa!
Vito: Pa, she said “shit.”
Oscar: Watch your mouth around my kid.
Jessica: Oh, like his bigoted father is some shining role model?
Oscar: You’re breaking the law.
Jessica: You were all smiles, checking out the neighbour until you saw that I was different. That’s called prejudice.
Oscar: You’re not a protected class. The people in this building want to raise their families in safety.

The exchange is supposed to be feminist, a woman confronting a man who hates her and wants to shut her down because of what she is. However, as with the initial conversation between Jessica and Pryce, the series’ writers clearly didn’t think of the power differential between the two characters or the optics of having a white woman yell at a brown-skinned Puerto-Rican about bigotry.

As with the X-Men, Jessica Jones uses powered people to stand in for an oppressed class of real people. One of the main problems with using superpowers as an allegory for race is that it doesn’t actually work, and in the event of an all-white writing room (like the one Jessica Jones’ showrunners alluded to having in a recent Vanity Fair interview) there’s no one to walk the content back from crossing such lines. This dialogue isn’t just about misogyny. If it was, she would’ve called Oscar out on his misogyny alone and he wouldn’t have brought up the idea of powered people being a “protected class.”

When you consider how other shows like Luke Cage and Black Lightning have balanced depictions of powered people and real-world forms of oppression in their stories, it’s clear that Jessica Jones doesn’t approach the subject with anything even resembling nuance. This is on purpose. Oscar’s bigotry against powered people is brushed off as a fear that no one should have. It’s framed as irrational. Never mind that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe powered people have been responsible for massive destruction across the world. Hell, Jessica herself has had how many people die in and around her office-apartment between the two seasons of her series and The Defenders?

Jessica spends a little over a quarter of this season at odds with Oscar. Between his attempts at evicting her and her insistence that he’s a criminal (she keeps bringing up his past and present illegal actions), by the time the characters finally forge a truce after Jessica saves Oscar’s son from falling out a window, I was just about sick of them being on screen together.

However, even this resolution is problematic. This is a man who lied to the cops and was trying to force an eviction because Jessica’s mere presence in the building is a threat to his hopes of keeping full custody of his son. Jessica even snuck into his apartment and had Malcolm try to get information on his past from their landlord—and after she saves Vito’s life that’s it . . . it’s over? All of Oscar’s worries about her influence magically vanish to the point where even when his ex-wife threatens to take Vito later on in the season after seeing him with Jessica, he just brushes it off because “she’s always threatening that.”

Oscar doesn’t just decide to let Jessica do her own thing or settles for an uneasy truce. By the sixth episode, they’re rolling around on a drop cloth, getting paint everywhere. The transition from surly superintendent to super-helpful love interest who’d do anything for Jessica—including things that could put his life with his son at risk—happens fast enough to give you whiplash.

Which brings us to Malcolm. Out of the three main male characters of colour in Jessica Jones’ second season, he’s arguably the one who has the most terrible things happen to him. In his characterization and his treatment at the hands of both Jessica and Trish—which hasn’t gotten any better since we last saw him in The Defenders—we see one of the biggest problems in the franchise: Black men’s trauma continues to be a non-issue to Jessica.

Jessica Jones is great about showing how trauma impacts white women, however. Across two seasons, we get to see Jessica struggle with the trauma caused by Kilgrave and the death of her family. We see Trish dealing with her own addictions and the emotional abuse from her mother Dorothy that leads her to make some truly terrible decisions. Heck, even the largely unsympathetic lawyer Jeri Hogarth gets a nuanced storyline revolving around a life-changing diagnosis. You know who doesn’t get a nuanced storyline or have his trauma respected by the characters who are supposed to be his friends?

Malcolm.

Malcolm’s struggle with addiction and his trauma from being controlled by Kilgrave don’t get half as much attention—or treatment—as when Jessica and Trish experience them. Throughout much of the second season, Malcolm is still largely presented as an immature, puppyish figure who follows Jessica and Trish around. He’s good at following orders and needs to be needed, but he’s barely a person to the white people in this show. Why else would the way Jessica keeps firing him from her agency for not doing what she wants or reminding him that’s it’s her business all the time be presented as comedic throughout the season?

The second that the series starts to focus more on Malcolm and his trauma—through a subplot that relates his issues to Trish and her problems—his relationship with Jessica starts to deteriorate. For starters, Trish and Malcolm’s relationship becomes sexual and it’s revealed that he’s had a “thing” for her. The writers were clearly trying to put two people dealing with addiction into a relationship with each other, but they’re not particularly subtle about it. Instead, this contributes to the way that Malcolm’s trauma is minimized.

The relationship starts in episode six, after Malcolm unknowingly delivers Trish’s drug of choice in the form of an inhaler that grants her superpowers, and is a problem from the beginning. Earlier in the season Malcolm’s protective instincts towards Trish is established when he defends her from an abusive figure from her childhood by punching them, but there’s something about the way that their relationship segues into a sexual one that left me uncomfortable.

At no point in their relationship does Trish actually seem to care about Malcolm’s feelings or his past. At one point, when he assumes that her red eyes are from crying over ending things with her boyfriend, he talks about running into his own ex-girlfriend Nichelle—but she doesn’t care. Malcolm is there only to be an ear for Trish’s problems, an object of desire, and a handy sidekick in her quest to get superpowers all her own (because he gets her and what it’s like to struggle with addiction). She even tries to get him to use her drug after he’s injured, messing with his hard-won sobriety for something that isn’t even guaranteed to work.

It’s never about Malcolm. Not his desires, not his hopes for the future, or his struggles. While the B-plot between him and Trish eventually becomes about what it means to struggle with addiction in the context of superheroes and villains, it never quite thinks about Malcolm’s experiences when they’re not in relation to a white woman. Even when we get nods to what he’s gone through, they come during conversations where he’s either trying to comfort Trish or Jessica or when he talks to his ex. And, as you can see in the following dialogue, they’re not exactly the most sympathetic takes:

Nichelle: Have a nice life, Malcolm.
Malcolm: Niche, please. I didn’t have control of myself
Nichelle: Yeah. Some crazy man made you do drugs? Like you never partied before? Please.
Malcolm: You’re right. I was an addict waiting to happen, and I fell right down that rabbit hole. I was just lost.
Nichelle: You were in one of the best schools in the country. Full ride. Pride of your family.
Malcolm: I was just going through the motions.
Nichelle: Well, I’m glad you got hooked on drugs to find out who you really are.

In the eleventh episode, after Trish goes missing and Jessica realizes that Malcolm may be involved in whatever she’s planning, she accuses him of being complicit in Trish’s downward spiral and winds up dehumanizing him in the process. Their interactions in the hospital are basically a masterclass in how not to write Black characters dealing with addiction.

As with Jessica, once Malcolm stops being useful to her, Trish casts him aside. More specifically, she knocks him out and stuffs him in the trunk of her car, effectively kidnapping him. And once he breaks free (just in time for Jessica to show up) Jessica seems angrier with him for falling into bed with Trish than she is with Trish for any of her actions.

She repeatedly calls him a “junkie,” telling him that “Sticking your dick in anything that moves is the same thing as sticking a needle in your arm.” Everyone else gets to grow and heal, and learn from their mistakes . . . except for Malcolm. She goes on to fire him again, for good this time, and Malcolm snaps back at her that he quits. At the end of the scene, all I could think was that “unnecessary and awful” should be Jessica’s middle names.

By the end of the season, Malcolm is effectively cut out of Jessica’s life and put into the opposition when he and Pryce wind up working together for the always-scheming Jeri Hogarth. The only male character of colour whose arc ends with anything resembling happiness is Oscar, but I don’t know that his Stepford Wives-esque personality transformation in order to give Jessica a chance at the family she’s always (secretly) wanted is all that exciting.

At the end of the day, the feminism in this series is absolutely one-dimensional. Jessica Jones is a show about strong white women who do what they must in order to survive, focusing primarily on how they are empowered or oppressed. And while the white women on the show get to deal (badly) with their issues, the people of colour are demonized for having them. There’s no room for people of colour, and I would argue, no attempt to portray them as fully fleshed out characters. 

I don’t know why Jessica Jones as a show seems utterly uninterested in treating its men of colour with nuance and care. They fumbled their way through dealing with Luke Cage and his trauma back in the first season, but I assumed that the show would’ve grown to recognize that it was a bad look. Yet somehow it got worse at portraying men of colour, and I don’t understand that.

Jessica Jones seriously needs to get a more diverse development team because Malcolm Ducasse, Pryce Cheng, and Oscar Arocho deserved better.

 

© 2018 by Zina Hutton


Back when she was a child, Zina Hutton once jumped out of a window to escape dance class in the Virgin Islands. Now she's an aspiring fantasy writer who tends to leap headfirst into new stories and worlds the second that inspiration strikes. Zina lives in hot and humid South Florida where she's never far away from a notebook and her precious Kindles. Zina currently works as a freelance editor and writer with publication credits in Fireside Fiction, The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, ComicsAlliance, and Women Write About Comics. You can find her at Stitch's Media Mix and on twitter as @stichomancery.