Welcome to the next phase of Representation and Health!
I’ve taken you through a brief journey outlining the usefulness of representing diverse people in comics. We greatly benefit when we see more people represented and when diverse creators craft comics, and I hope we see these changes as time passes. Now, though, I want to take a more in-depth look at characters who help bring home those lessons from the past few weeks. So, now I introduce you to: Character Studies!
It’s serendipitous that our latest MCU series, Jessica Jones, was just released as I was planning the first Character Studies article. As I began the stellar first episode, I realized that she’d be an awesome and timely character to kick off this next part of the column.
For those of you who are unfamiliar: Jessica Jones was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in the pages of Alias. Though she has the powers of flight and super-strength, her first appearance occurs after years of being disconnected from the superhero world, save for her friend Carol Danvers. We first see her as an alcoholic private investigator, soon discovering that bottles of whiskey cover up old scars from her dealings with Purple Man. Throughout her publication, Jessica Jones has been an excellent example of the coping we adopt to manage trauma, but also resilience and recovery. She gives excellent insight into the world of survivors, PTSD, and alcoholism.
First, let’s give a breakdown of Jessica’s diagnoses. She meets the criteria for PTSD based on the following: she directly experienced sexual trauma and witnessed it as it happened to others; she has recurrent distressing memories of her time with Purple Man (Kilgrave); she avoids distressing memories and goes through steps to avoid reminders of her time with Purple Man; she has a persistent negative emotional state (guilt and fear) regarding the events and experiences detachment and estrangement from others, as well as a reduced ability to access positive emotions; she is more irritable after the trauma and exhibits self-destructive behavior.
These symptoms have occurred for longer than a month by the start of Alias and are not attributable to a substance. Jessica could also be diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder based on her increased use of alcohol through the series, strong desire to drink, and (implied) tolerance.
Throughout Alias we see Jessica manifest significant distress from trauma, which is a major part of her high alcohol consumption. She becomes isolated from her friends, save for people like Luke Cage and Carol Danvers. Her drinking and social withdrawal are adaptive given her circumstances. After experiencing assault from Purple Man, who also manipulated her into being attacked by the Avengers and put in the hospital, it makes sense that she would want to detach from the world. Many people find themselves in similar situations. Experiencing trauma with little to no support often creates a toxic paradigm in which people do what they can to minimize their symptoms, which is why it is not uncommon to see people with PTSD develop substance abuse disorders.
Yet, despite these barriers, the sexual assault from Purple Man and a drinking problem, Jessica manages to find ways out of these dark points in her life. She develops a relationship with Luke Cage and eventually marries him. She maintains her friendship with Carol, who was one of her most steadfast supporters. The most important factor in her recovery is that Jessica was able to find ways to cope with her trauma that did not involve drinking. This does not mean that everyone must pull themselves up by their bootstraps to heal, but rather that Jessica found a way to heal that worked for her.
Having these examples of recovery are important, and Jessica is an integral one. For starters, her sexual trauma, while horrifying, was handled better than many cases in comics. Her pain was not used to further a man’s story, it had a real impact on her and was not forgotten, and she developed ways to cope initially that were adaptive for her.
Characters like Jessica are vital because they have an underlying theme of autonomy rather than victimization. She is the one who makes the changes, and she is the one who decides to use her social support as one means of getting better. No one makes that choice for her. For people working through the challenges of recovery from trauma and substance abuse, Jessica could be a more real and relatable character than others. We see her work through some incredibly dire situations to where she is now.
One of the most amazing parts of Jessica is her choice of motherhood over being a superhero. With considerable strength, she could be wrapping streetlights around supervillains, but she made the choice to care for her daughter, Danielle. This is but one of many choices she could have made, and she consistently picks the one that works for her. In a world where people don metal suits and have the power of cosmic energy, she represents a choice that is one of many.
Just as women should be free to adopt nurturing or career driven goals without restrictions and gender norms, superpowered women deserve to choose whether they want to put on a costume or care for their children and families. Just because Jessica is super-strong does not mean she has to punch villains in the face if she doesn’t want to.
Jessica Jones is one of the most real-life characters to me because we get to watch her move through her struggles. Instead of her trauma or her drinking being a one-shot story with little ramification, they influence her earlier coping but also play a role in how she relates to others in the future, particularly the Young Avengers and Kate Bishop. We need these narratives to fully explore difficult subjects like addition, sexual trauma, and healing. Jessica’s story stands as one of the most powerful and evocative in the Marvel universe, and her importance should not be underestimated.
I am not a survivor, so I cannot speak to Jessica’s value for those who have experience trauma, especially sexual assault, but I can definitely see how she could help someone recover. It is important for survivors, if they so choose, to help us better understand characters like Jessica and how they can be used to help people heal. My perspective is highly clinical and idealized, one of many perspectives on these issues. Never dismiss the experiences of survivors and how they view these narratives.
What do you think of Jessica as a character, especially in the context of addiction, trauma, and recovery? What would you like to add? Did you enjoy the Jessica Jones TV series? Chat us up on Twitter now!
And here’s a brief plug: Jessica Jones related comics, which include Alias, Pulse, and issues of New Avengers are currently on sale on Comixology until 11/29. I highly encourage you to check them out, especially Alias, as they introduce one of my favorite characters in the Marvel universe.