Jessica Jones is a lot of things. She’s complex and fascinating, a mix of caustic cynicism and reluctant hope. She is the first superpowered female character to get her own property in the MCU. She’s a Defender. But, in characterizing Jessica Jones, would “strong female character” be an apt description?

If one goes off surface descriptions, Jessica Jones is the strong female character. She is a female character who is literally super strong. But “strong female character” has certain connotations that make it a complex descriptor. Let’s break it down!

Strong Female Character™

The description “strong female character” doesn’t literally mean a female character who is strong. It’s a phrase used to describe a woman in fiction who is, ostensibly, well-developed and three-dimensional. In theory, it’s a term of praise. In practice, not so much. “Strong Female Character” has become more of a term of derision.

What we usually get when given Strong Female Characters is a one-note character who rejects femininity (in socially acceptable ways), is physically combative, and typically has little impact on the plot. “Trinity Syndrome” is another phrase used to describe this negative phenomenon. Named after Trinity from the MATRIX movies, it refers to a character who seems cool and tough and badass, but in reality, takes a backseat to the all-important male protagonist.

Jessica Jones
Hark, A Vagrant” by Kate Beaton

The Strong Female Character is supposed to be a response against the Damsel in Distress trope. She should be someone who young female viewers can look up to. She should be a heroine. But in reality, she is often just as problematic as the Damsel in Distress, if in different ways.

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What makes the Strong Female Character problematic is that she is usually one-dimensional. “Strong” is her only descriptor. Equally problematic is that she is usually coded with masculine traits as if the only way a female character can be strong is to reject the “female” part. She is the epitome of “I’m not like other girls — I’m cool.

Reclaiming the Term

That is not to say that all strong female characters are Strong Female Characters™. In recent years, especially, we are seeing a boom of female characters who are more than just strong. We are seeing female characters who have depth, are allowed to be emotional and complex, and are just plain interesting.

Jessica Jones
Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger

In the MCU, we can see this in the gift from the gods that was AGENT CARTER. Peggy Carter was close to Strong Female Character territory in CAPTAIN AMERICA, but when given her own show, blossomed into a truly interesting character. Facets of her character that CAPTAIN AMERICA only hints at now get a full opportunity to shine.

In CAPTAIN AMERICA, Peggy was the only woman with any sort of character. She was a token female, more or less — another problematic SFC trope. She takes back seat to Steve Rogers, which, fair enough, the movie is literally named after him. But, for as amazing as she is, Peggy wasn’t really given time to shine.

In AGENT CARTER, on the other hand, Peggy has nothing but time. In the (lamentably short) two seasons of the show, Peggy becomes a fully developed character with an interesting backstory. The show is all about her and her development into the leader of SHIELD. Peggy is not the only female character; Rose in season two is amazing. Yet they are different characters — because being strong isn’t just being one thing.

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More characters like Peggy Carter allow us to deconstruct the problematic nature of the Strong Female Character™. As Marvel moves forward with properties like CAPTAIN MARVEL and with characters like the Dora Milaje in BLACK PANTHER, we can reclaim the Strong Female Character and make her an example of what good writing can do.

JESSICA JONES

So what about Jessica Jones? Is she a Strong Female Character™? Or is she actually a strong, well-developed, interesting character who just so happens to be female? In my opinion, Jessica is firmly the latter.

Jessica Jones

On the one hand, Jessica does encapsulate some of the problematic aspects of the SFC. In THE DEFENDERS, she is the one female hero in a group of men. Jessica rejects a lot of notions of femininity. And, quite simply, Jessica is strong — it’s seemingly her defining trait.

But if you delve deeper, Jessica Jones is a lot more complex than that may seem.

Multi-Dimensional

What makes Jessica so interesting is that she is not just one thing. She is a complex, often contradictory mix of traits that reflect what human beings are actually like: multi-dimensional.

Jessica Jones

Jessica is a cynical person. She has little faith in her fellow human beings. Her primary language is sarcasm. She never hesitates to use violence when she feels it is necessary out of any fear of hurting someone. Yet, Jessica cares. She cares more than perhaps anyone else in THE DEFENDERS. She is willing to sacrifice herself to achieve the best possible outcome.

Think of the issue with Hope in season one. Part of this is her guilt, to be sure. Jessica feels guilty that Kilgrave is using Hope to manipulate her. She feels that if she had just taken care of Kilgrave properly, Hope would not be in this situation. But Jessica takes the case before she knows Kilgrave is involved. She wants to make sure that she can help a young girl get out of a tough situation.

Jessica’s caring nature pervades everything she does. She acts as though she doesn’t care about anyone, but she goes out of her way to be kind — if the person deserves her kindness. In THE DEFENDERS, she doesn’t want to be a part of a team, but she becomes attached to her team members anyway. She cares about Luke, Matt, and Danny. She comes back to help them, even when it became too weird for her tastes.

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Jessica may seem contradictory, but that’s a good thing. Real human beings are contradictory. We change our minds, act against our own interests, and make mistakes.

Weakness

One thing that makes the Strong Female Character problematic is that she must be strong. In all aspects of her life, she must react with strength and fortitude. She is not allowed to show emotions — unless it pertains to her male romantic interest. Jessica blows this one out of the water. Jessica Jones is a truly damaged person.

She has been through hell, and the fact that that has had a lasting impact on her is realistic. She is a reflection of how real people react to severe trauma. Seeing her struggle, work hard, and process her trauma really shows how strong she is.

Jessica Jones

Think about it. Jessica Jones is a rape victim. The show is very clear on this front. When confronted with her rapist, she reacts very negatively — like a real person would. Jessica was held against her will, forced to do things that go against her nature, and stripped of all agency. For a person who is naturally strong-willed, this is a real struggle to overcome.

The show actually shows Jessica struggling to overcome. That’s a big deal. Oftentimes, trauma survivors in pop culture — especially women — are not allowed to struggle as the overcome things. They either overcome it easily or not at all. JESSICA JONES shows that recovery is a process. The show demonstrates actual therapeutic techniques. Jessica overcomes her trauma by working hard, struggling, and seeking help.

But Jessica isn’t perfect. Perfection is boring and veers close to SFC territory. Jessica turns to alcoholism and rebuffs her friends’ attempts to help her. She reacts to trauma in realistic ways, painful as it may be to watch.

Not a Token Female

For all that Jessica is the only female superhero in the Defenders, she is far from being the only female in the show. She avoids the pitfall of being a token female thanks to the amazing characters in THE DEFENDERS since the show pulls in female characters from all the Marvel Netflix shows. The climactic battle at Midland Circle even demonstrates how powerful female characters can be without powers through Claire Temple, Colleen Wing, and Misty Knight.

jessica jones

In JESSICA JONES, this gets even clearer. Female characters drive the story — not just Jessica. Trish Walker, Jeri Hogarth, and Alisa Jones are all complex characters who just so happen to be female. And each of those characters’ relationship with Jessica is a major plot issue.

Jessica’s relationship with Trish is, in my opinion, the biggest story in JESSICA JONES. Trish is Jessica’s lifeline when her life goes to hell. The flashbacks in Season 2 show that Jessica and Trish need each other. Watching Trish go off the deep end in Season 2 is made all the more painful because of how it will affect Jessica — who is losing her closest friend and anchor.

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Alisa’s storyline is also important. JESSICA JONES neatly sidesteps the Dead Mother trope that plagues pop literature. While, initially, the death of Jessica’s family weighs heavily on her, it’s her whole family, not just the mother. Then, when Alisa comes back, it really shakes things up. Jessica must face the truth of her past and find a way to connect with an important female figure in her life, for better or worse.

Is Jessica Jones a Strong Female Character?

Jessica Jones is not a Strong Female Character™. She avoids most of the pitfalls that come along with that description. In a time when too many properties — MCU among them — focus primarily on men’s stories with maybe a lone token female, JESSICA JONES stands out as an example of what to do to get it right.

Having said that, though, Jessica Jones definitely is a strong female character. She is an excellent example of how to write a strong, well-developed, three-dimensional female character. Jessica can be more than just one thing. Strong doesn’t define her — even with her super strength, it’s only one facet of her powers (rapid healing, “flying”).

jessica jones

What does JESSICA JONES get right? It allows its protagonist to be a fully realized character first and foremost. Jessica is a real human being. She makes mistakes, she struggles, she’s contradictory. Take away the super strength, and she could be any random woman you meet on the street.

The way JESSICA JONES handles its heroine is vitally important. Women can see a reflection of a real woman on screen. Jessica is a rape survivor — and she is able to actually process her trauma. Jessica is able to have important female friendships. She can be anything and everything, all at once or not at all. That’s what really makes a strong female character.

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