Though representation of women in the media has come a long way, it is still far too common to see women appearing in television, film, video games, and comic books as nothing more than eye candy meant for mass consumption. That’s a shame, because women can and do enjoy these mediums just as much as their male counterparts. This is highlighted best by the simple fact that 47% of all comic book fans are female. Why don’t the depictions of these characters reflect that fact?
For too long women have been unfairly depicted, and that failure is often dismissed casually as part of the equation. Rather than being treated as equals in the action, women are often restricted to background roles, romantic interests, and damsels in distress. When they are included, they feature too-tight outfits while simultaneously promoting images of unrealistic bodies and unrealistic expectations.
What are we losing when we perpetuate these damaging depictions of women?
Professors at the University of Southern California conducted a study of the top 100 films of 2014, only 21 featured a female lead or co-lead, and a mere 3 of those were from minority groups. Women (especially women of color) are underrepresented in leading roles, most noticeably in action films.
(Infographic Courtesy of USC Annenberg School of Communication)
Very few films in the past 5 years can claim to even have a balanced cast. This is dangerous because it represents the silencing of an important demographic. Withholding women from acting, writing, and directing in films inhibits the growth of new ideas and fair representation. One notable exception is the latest Star Wars film, featuring new cast members like Lupita Nyong’o and Daisy Ridley (with Ridley arguably cast as the main character in an ensemble).
Television suffers from the same problems as its big screen counterpart, yet one recent addition to Netflix’s lineup stands out as another exception - Marvel’s Jessica Jones.
Krysten Ritter stars as the protagonist Jessica Jones. Her role in the show is remarkable among superhero properties because of the way she is depicted. An innate aspect of her character is that she rejects all objectification and calls for conformity. She swears like a sailor and handles her liquor better than Jack Sparrow - and she owns it. She even rejects her spandex comic costume, and that decision is authentic to the character’s new depiction.
The villain of Jessica Jones possesses the ability to compel anyone to obey his commands. He sees Jessica’s strength and determination, and he wants to humiliate and possess her by bending Jessica to his will. His purpose is to strip her freedom by forcing her to act, to think, and to dress as he commands. She breaks free of his grasp, and he will stop at nothing to have her back again. This tug of war between her own fierce independence and his other-worldly abilities of control comprise the compelling narrative of the first season.
Kilgrave is the representation and personification of a victim blaming and objectifying culture, and she fights him head on. She is a survivor who confronts and demolishes the negative stereotypes we are taught about women. Jessica will not be stopped, will not continue to be enslaved, and will not conform to your ideas of how she should live her life. She falters as we all do at times, yet she is heroic because her setbacks never surpass or subdue her human right of self-determination.
(Infographic Courtesy of University of New England's Online School of Social Work)
This is particularly important because of the show’s focus on the real world themes of abuse and addiction. Stories of abuse and violence are not uncommon, and it lends humanity and depth to Jessica. She suffers terribly at the hands of Kilgrave, and has to work through the consequences of her traumatic experience.
Her best friend Trish is another strong character who has faced oppression and the expectations of others, becoming another analogue for women in the process. She is an accomplished martial artist, driven by the desire to neither become a passive victim nor rely on Jessica’s abilities to protect her. Her experiences as a victim of domestic violence do not rob her of her self-worth or innate strength.
The fact that this is depicted in a big-budget Netflix series gives me hope. These are the kinds of stories that can cultivate greater empathy, establish fair representation, and combat objectification all at the same time. Women deserve to stand center stage as equal partners instead of eye candy.