Jessica Jones and the Superhuman Power of Female Anger

Pop Culture

Jessica Jones and the Superhuman Power of Female Anger

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

There’s a remarkably powerful moment in the second season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones that serves as the war cry for the show. In a subplot that mirrors real life, its eponymous lead Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) confronts Max Tatum, the sleazy Hollywood director who sexually exploited Trish Walker, her adopted sister/best friend at the beginning of her acting career in exchange for roles. Trish was a minor then. The scene comes moments after Trish is forced to confront her own past that explores how trauma sparks unbridled rage in women.

Enraged at Max, Jessica pushes him around, pinning him to the hood of his car. Cowering in fear he asks her, “What the hell are you?” “I’m angry,” she replies, relaxed as the calm before the storm, before picking him up and punching a hole in the car. This moment crowns Jessica as the reel-life female superhero of the #MeToo movement, as the context and her words echo what women around the world have been feeling since last year (although the show was written months before the Harvey Weinstein exposé).

Just like Jessica Jones, we’re fucking angry, and not just for ourselves but for each other too.

We first met the foul-mouthed Jessica struggling with an alcohol problem and wearing a uniform of rugged jeans and combat boots almost two years ago. If the first season dwelled on Jessica’s victimhood, introducing us to Kilgrave the mind-controlling villain responsible for her trauma, then season two goes deeper into what follows the trauma – an all-consuming fury.

Despite her superpowers in the first season, Jessica was susceptible to Kilgrave’s mind-control virus, which enabled him to turn her into his kept puppet, abusing and assaulting her at will for months. Kilgrave was a sadistic narcissist whose penchant for making people do his bidding made him the personification of toxic masculinity.

Jessica Jones

When Max asks Jessica Jones, “What the hell are you?” “I’m angry,” she replies, relaxed as the calm before the storm.

Image credit: Netflix

Although Jessica took Kilgrave down at the end of the first season, the damage had already been done.

In the second season that premiered at the beginning of March, he reappears for an episode as a delusion who lives on in Jessica’s brain. It’s an apt portrayal of the fact that trauma doesn’t simply subside once the abuse stops and the abuser is gone from the picture. It’s emblematic of the life-long anger and fear that women have to bear the burden of throughout their lives. In the wake of #MeToo, this plotline strikes close to the everyday experiences of women — more than the generic superheroes with an equally generic appetite for being the world’s saviour. This makes Jessica Jones that rare superhero offering that allows space for women to be angry, scared, traumatised, strong, and weak at the same time.

The boiling rage that Jessica experiences is messy and uncontrollable, spilling over into violence. After beating up a rival private investigator, she is ordered by the court to attend anger-management classes. In a darkly humorous scene, one by one, the people in the class narrate their stories of uncontainable rage while bouncing a ball against the wall. When it’s Jessica’s turn, she narrates the show’s plotline with increasing fury – “My whole family was killed in a car accident. Someone did horrific experiments on me. I was abducted, raped, and forced to kill someone. And now some maniac says that I am here for a reason. Like some sick destiny. She’s out killing people, and I’m in here bouncing a goddamn ball!”

As she finishes, the ball breaks into pieces and the wall gives in, leaving her classmates gasping and terrified. It is obvious that anger management isn’t going to fix Jones as the real perpetrators who violated her and turned her into a “super freak”, are out living their lives. It’s a stunning scene, contrary to the victimised portrayals of abused women that we conventionally see on TV. Instead of vilifying female rage, the show attempts to understand it, if not deem it as necessary.

Jessica’s anger is accompanied by the rage felt by the other women in the show. Trish’s violence-laden anger is emboldened by her helplessness in the face of men like Max, causing her to hunt down the doctor who gave Jessica her powers and make him perform the same dangerous procedure on her.

Jessica Jones

Instead of vilifying female rage, Netflix’s Jessica Jones attempts to understand it, if not deem it as necessary.

Image credit: Netflix

*Spoilers ahead*

The big reveal of the season, however, is that the monster murdering people who are connected to the experiments performed on Jessica is her own mother. It’s then that we learn that Alisa, her mother was a brilliant mathematician who was subdued by her insecure husband. It’s evident that Alisa has harboured anger at her husband for years. Her story goes close to the bone for every woman whose talent has been curbed by controlling partners.

Like its characters, the representation of female anger in Jessica Jones is chaotic and complex, very different from sanitised portrayals of righteous female anger. The lines between good and evil get blurry by the end. For the show’s women are not just angry about the abuse they respectively faced – they’re furious about a whole spectrum of systemic injustice that includes sexism. In showcasing female anger and its different facets, Jessica Jones is one of the few shows that realistically portrays this complex emotion, even as numerous shows and films continue harping on the dangerous effects of female fury.

As Jessica Jones shows, violence may not be the answer. But anger, perhaps is.

As the second season ends, Jessica’s anger shifts and lights the way to hope and healing, in tune with new psychological research that tells us that anger can be a positive emotion. When used constructively, it can become a motivating force which fuels the drive and creativity required to set things right. In the finale, it is implied that anger has dragged Jessica out of the hellhole her life has been, paving the way for new experiences. Watching Jessica Jones, an eloquent portrait of female rage will not just make you angry, but also make you glad of that anger.

Although there aren’t any vigilante heroines like Jessica beating up abusive men to a pulp in real life, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that collective female anger was a driving force behind #MeToo. And shows like Jessica Jones highlight that it is high time that female anger is accepted as a natural response to injustice.

But the most important upshot is that anger is never just an emotion for women; it’s laced with radical potential to help bring about real change and healing. As feminist activist Mona Eltahawy says, “Angry women are free women.”