“I Was Never the Hero that You Wanted Me to Be”
The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice and Self-Preservation in Jessica Jones
Taylor J. Ott
While the classic superheroes of comics’ golden age—for instance, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman—functioned as predictably salvific Christ-figures in their stories, the title character of the Netflix series Jessica Jones fits squarely within the deconstructive tendencies of the so-called “Third Age,” or postmodern era, of superheroes (Oropeza 2005b, 7–18). Cynical and abrasive, Jessica not only introduces personality complexities to the archetype but causes her audience to reframe the questions that superhero stories are expected to ask. Her journey is characterized by the complexities of human problems instead of primarily by super-human ones as she deals with themes of trauma, addiction, and a general sense of emotional turmoil; so rather than analyzing how a character’s heroism provides a parallel to biblical stories like that of Moses or Jesus, Jessica’s troubled navigation of her world causes us to ask “does having superpowers mean that one is obliged to act like a hero?” (Pg.26)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1895 that “men think that self-sacrifice is the most charming of all the cardinal virtues for women, and in order to keep it in healthy working order, they make opportunities for its illustration as often as possible” (1993, 84). An imbalance in how the burden of self-sacrifice is placed on men and women is not new, and it also seems to have a perverse staying power despite regular criticism. (Pg.33)
Women are expected to submit to the expectations of men, and often suffer because of them, for the sake of the well-being of the family or in order to live into the standard set for an “ideal woman” (Abraham 2014, 99).
The impulse created is for women to devote themselves to the development of others to the detriment of their own well-being. Andolsen therefore concludes that the virtue of self-sacrifice has limited normative power for women, since in a culture shaped by patriarchal expectation, self-sacrificial virtue is more likely to degrade women’s personhood than to fulfill it (1981, 74–75). (Pg.34)
The over-emphasis placed on self-sacrifice by patriarchal theologies, especially with regard to feminine virtue, creates the impression that there is nothing more to the gospels than dying for the sake of others. But with a more accurate understanding of Jesus’ ministerial vision as enacted through his life, the imitation of Christ becomes a life-giving practice focused on what Williams points to as ethical principles, healing, resisting evil, faith, prayer, and compassion (2013, 148). (Pg.36)
In other words, the goal of Christian ethical action is survival and flourishing, not death.
Rather than falling back on self-sacrifice as the ultimate “feminine virtue,” Abraham offers the gospel theme of resistance as an alternative “feminist virtue” (2014, 105). By fostering an ethos of resistance, women are able to reject the burden of passivity in the face of oppression that is put on them by a patriarchal system and instead “reclaim their subjectivity and agency” by challenging structures of power that are based on domination (Abraham 2014, 104). Importantly, while a feminist ethic uncovers ideologies which degrade women’s personhood and make up the basis of oppressive systems, those ideologies do not operate at a purely intellectual level. Employing resistance means pushing back against real physical, psychological, and spiritual violence. If women are to really live into the vision of survival and wholeness that God wills, then resistance against the violence that threatens their well-being, and too often their lives, is essential. (Pg.36)
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRIST, A DIFFERENT KIND OF WOMAN, A DIFFERENT KIND OF HERO
Given that these feminist and womanist thinkers reveal the harmful ways that self-sacrifice has been required of women, it becomes clear that in the case of Jessica Jones, Trish Walker’s version of heroism—a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for the possibility of helping others—is the voice of (especially white, heteronormative) patriarchy. It may seem ironic that a woman is representative of patriarchy in a series that so explicitly deals with themes like sexual violence at the hands of its male villain, but as Shawnee M. Daniels Sykes points out, patriarchy is often re-inscribed on the bodies of women by other women (2014), and in the case of self-sacrifice, it has not infrequently been women who accept the ideology for themselves (Daly 1985, 100). The character of Trish functions as the internalized expectations of patriarchy, pushing Jessica to give all of herself to others and then trying to make her feel guilty when she pushes back. But if Trish’s idea of a hero is someone who focuses on saving others to the point of neglecting her own survival, it is ethically right that Jessica responds to her with, “I was never the hero that you wanted me to be” (“AKA Ladies Night,” 1.1). It also becomes troubling that Trish’s voice is the one that offers the most definitive judgment in the series on the question of whether Jessica is acting heroically or not. This is especially evident when Trish insists that the only moral choice for Jessica is to kill her own mother, putting her in a position that is clearly psychologically damaging when there are in fact other options.
Rather than an ethical norm of self-abnegating self-sacrifice, womanist and feminist theologies offer an alternative norm of survival, wholeness, flourishing, and resistance that is able to allow women to reclaim subjectivity while incorporating regard for others, especially those most marginalized. So while this alternative ethic does not hold Jessica responsible for saving others in ways that harm her physically or psychologically, it also does not let her off the hook. If Jessica is obliged to reject Trish’s brand of self-annihilating heroism, she is also obligated to find an alternative to Alisa’s focus on self-preservation at all costs. Attention to one’s own survival does not imply that flourishing may ethically be bought at any price. The God who gives life wills that women flourish, and so it is Jessica’s right to ensure the preservation of her own well-being. But the pursuit of whole life cannot come at the expense of others’ wholeness, particularly that of characters of color. Jessica’s ethical responsibilities, then, include healing her brokenness, accepting help from others when necessary, resisting those forces which degrade her personhood, and living so that her own flourishing also leads to the well-being of others around her, especially those most marginalized in the community.
An analysis of Jessica Jones through a lens that is informed by feminist and womanist ethics is limited by the ways in which the series works in metaphor. In many ways, within the world of superhero symbolics, Kilgrave functions as an embodiment of patriarchal violence. As such, is Jessica obliged to resist him? Feminist and womanist ethics would argue that the answer is yes, since it is a matter of justice for society to work toward the eradication of patriarchy, and the story as metaphor should reflect that. Furthermore, Jessica’s struggle to do the right thing regarding Alisa can be read as a metaphor for the way anger can control a moral agent instead of enlivening the struggle for resistance. If this is so, the decision to destroy Alisa can be understood as resisting the temptation of anger as a controlling principle. But within the literal terms of the story, it is difficult to argue that anyone, no matter how powerful, being encouraged to think that they are obligated to kill a family member, even for the sake of others, is a good. And if Kilgrave is seen literally as a murderous, powerful person who causes Jessica real personal harm, is it her moral duty to hunt him down? In light of the feminist and womanist thought discussed in the previous section, risking one’s life and well-being cannot be considered an ethical norm given that it runs counter to the norm of survival, wholeness, flourishing, and resistance established by these thinkers. If she really is the only person capable and it is the only way to preserve the good of others, then it might at least be seen as a good or admirable choice to stop Kilgrave (and certainly Jessica comes to see it as good for her to do).
However, the (understandable) inclination to see stopping a villain as a good action needs to be tempered by a self-awareness of how social pressures create undue burden on certain kinds of people and resistance to a utilitarian ethic that views some kinds of sacrifice as acceptable if done by certain kinds of persons (mostly women and people of color) for the sake of other kinds of persons (mostly men and white people). In the case of Jessica Jones, the challenge forwarded by these womanist and feminist thinkers is to imagine a way to value the life of Jessica as well as the lives of others, to resist thinking which posits her flourishing as expendable, and to view actions which lead to the preservation of her own life and well-being and that of those around her—rather than self-sacrifice—as heroic.
Precisely because a series like Jessica Jones externalizes and literalizes good and evil, violence and suffering, more emphatically and metaphorically than our everyday reality, the audience is given insight into the effects of patriarchy, the damage wreaked by a sexist implementation of an ethic of self-sacrifice, and the depths of the effort required for survival that is experienced by women, especially when impacted by violence, and those who struggle with mental illness. For women, life is dangerous. This is where Jessica Jones can also offer something to theology, both to feminist and womanist theologies and to the field as a whole. The series presents theology with a detailed picture of what it means to be an imperfect woman attempting to navigate an imperfect world by showing that themes of trauma, poor choices, striving to do what is right, violence, patriarchy, and resistance are deeply intertwined.
Jessica’s flawed decision making is inseparable from trauma, which is inseparable from patriarchy and violence, but it is also not completely accounted for by what evil forces have done to her. Her resistance to Trish’s heroic expectations of her is connected to her refusal to become ultimately self-serving like Alisa, but the alternative to those paths is not always clear. Jessica Jones demonstrates that is it is possible to recognize the forces of good and evil, yet still be steeped in ambiguity. What might it look like if theology—and not just feminist theology—took the realities of sexual violence, the social sin of patriarchy, and mental illness as seriously as this Netflix series does? If theology on the whole understood these themes as deeply as Jessica Jones does, what theologian would dare to engage victims of violence and tell them to sacrifice themselves more? The way in which specific, gendered forms of suffering inform Jessica Jones has led to a series in which women are able to see their experience represented in all of its complexity. By utilizing methods which proceed from women’s experience in the world, theology can create spaces in which women can see themselves complexly—and therefore truly—reflected, too.
So is Jessica a hero? She certainly may become one, but we as an audience should want her to be in a way that adds to her flourishing as a person rather than taking away from it. The ethical vision of heroism offered by Jessica Jones problematizes the expectations of what a hero—and thereby what a moral person—should be. As a character who is inseparable from the messiness of the world, that might mean that we need to re-evaluate how we expect a hero to look and act along the same lines that womanist Christologies offer a re-evaluation of what it means to look and act like Christ. The characters of Trish and Alisa offer two ways in which the values of self-sacrifice and self-preservation can become distorted, but by searching for an ethic in which neither value is overlooked for the sake of the other, Jessica Jones offers the possibility of a heroism that is not judged by a standard of self-sacrifice, but by an evaluation of how the hero furthers her community’s wholeness and flourishing without negating her own. (Pg.39)
“Theology and the Marvel Universe (Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture)” by Gregory Stevenson, Matthew Brake, Jr. Dan W. Clanton, Daniel D. Clark, Austin M. Freeman, Amanda Furiasse, Kristen Leigh Mitchell, Levi Morrow, Kevin Nye, Taylor J. Ott, Tim Posada, Jeremy E. Scarbrough, Andrew D. Thrasher, Andrew Tobolowsky
WE&P by: EZorrilla.