“Men and power. It’s seriously a disease.”
The superhero genre has stuffed women into the fridge as long as we can remember. This fridge was opened in 1999 by comic-book writer and graphic novelist Gail Simone who, peeking in, saw next to the mangled corpse of Kyle Rayner’s dead girlfriend—killed for shock value and literally stuffed into a refrigerator in the now infamous Green Lantern #54—an extensive history of fictional women who had been sidelined, de-powered, brutalized, killed off, or otherwise put on ice.
Coining the trope “Women in Refrigerators,” Simone drew up a list of tragedy-stricken women to highlight the disproportionate amount of violence and trauma that they (sisters, romantic partners, as well as female superheroes) suffer in the superhero universe. Simone’s concept of the WIR points out that such violence reduces women to plot devices in stories that revolve around men, and that female characters rarely get the opportunity to deal meaningfully with, or recover from, death or loss.
This is not the case for men.
As one of Simone’s supporters, John Bartol, suggests through the related concept, “Dead Men Defrosting,” male superheroes who suffer loss, victimization, or impairment do so in ways that exaggerate their heroism and further their story lines. They also often get to recover from these experiences—even sometimes acquiring enhanced abilities or new identities, as some kind of compensation or reimbursement for their troubles. Thus, while women are violently dismissed from comics, men benefit from tragedy. It turns them into courageous overcomers who conquer loss (see Spiderman), disability (see Batman) and even death (see Superman).
Perhaps the most potent feminist superhero story since the original Wonder Woman, the Netflix series Jessica Jones offers us a depiction of violence, trauma and recovery that upends the fridge of comic-book misogyny—both figuratively and, as we’ll see, literally. There is at the heart of the show a powerful critique of the traditional male superhero narrative of recovery as one that romanticizes white male victimization and that legitimizes men’s attempt to (re)claim forms of power and agency they imagined to have lost. The show also reveals the way in which the courageous male overcomer projects onto women the vulnerability he cannot abide, and, in so doing, perpetuates experiences of powerlessness, undermining the very mission he claims to uphold: to serve and protect.
The series explores this critique through Will Simpson, who represents, as the show’s spin on the comic-book supervillain Nuke (a twisted version of Captain America), superhero masculinity in a dark mirror. Simpson begins, like many male “heroes,” with an original experience of vulnerability. Like Jessica, he falls prey to show’s main villain, Kilgrave, who uses mind control to weaponize him in an attempt to kill Jessica’s adopted sister, Patricia “Trish” Walker. The loss of control leaves Simpson, a police officer and former special ops soldier who’s “always been the guy saving people,” feeling remorseful, powerless and deeply wounded. He “tried to fight it. But couldn’t.”
Simpson initially address this wound through a process of recovery that is not typical for men in the world of superheroes. He reaches out to Trish and develops a relationship with her in which he acknowledges her need to feel empowered and safe. In a scene that reminds me of Tea Cake and Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic American novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Simpson provides Trish with a gun, one that she can (as Janie does) use against him in case he once again becomes a mindless monster bent on killing her. The relationship eventually flourishes into a romantic and recuperative intimacy. In two sex scenes, Trish and Simpson reclaim possession of their ideal selves: she is on top and he gets to serve.
But Simpson embraces being a bottom only for so long. Over a short period, his desire to serve collapses into a preoccupation with murdering Kilgrave and reclaiming his role as hero, which he attempts to wrest from Jessica, whose powers and standoffish attitude he finds increasingly threatening. “She probably scares guys off,” he says.
The show suggests, in this way, how easily wounded men surrender to a compulsion to overcome vulnerability by eliminating its source. It also suggests how this kind of male triumphalism requires repudiating the strength and self-determination of women, on whose dependency self-proclaimed male heroes rely.
Simpson’s attempt to displace Jessica reaches a dramatic peak when his vulnerability becomes exacerbated by physical injury, after a bomb that he plants in attempt to assassinate Kilgrave detonates in his face. Simpson survives, but with considerable wounds that push his compulsion to seek power in the face of loss into the terrain of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal thirst for vengeance. In the hospital, Simpson tells the mad scientist Doctor Koslov that he wants back in the “program”—what we’re supposed to understand is a super soldier program. What ensues is a familiar scene to any comic-book fan or superhero moviegoer: the experimental scientist, Koslov, imbues the injured and weak Simpson with super abilities, administering to him red, white and blue combat enhancement pills that help him to get hard, making him stronger, more indestructible, and thus endowing him with the hyper-masculine body of patriotic male superheroes like Captain America—heroes, we should bear in mind, who have been put on ice only to be preserved and eventually thawed out.
In this way, Jessica Jones addresses a masculinist narrative of recovery that has a long and continuing history. Trauma—early injuries, wounds, experiences of vulnerability or tragic loss—has always played a central role in male superhero narratives, as a formative part of the hero’s origin, identity and mission. Such trauma was often incarnated in the weak-alter ego, which represented an original condition of impairment, disability, or general weakness that the hero continually and, in some cases, permanently overcame.
This was, as disability studies scholar Jose Alaniz suggests, a hallmark of the 1940s Golden Age. The clumsy Clark Kent took off his glasses to become Superman. The ineffectual child Billy Batson disappeared into a bolt of lightning that made him into Captain Marvel. Runty Steve Rogers was pumped up with chemicals that forever transformed him into Captain America. Hyper masculinity was a cure for male vulnerability, a fantasy corrective to men’s deflating feelings of agency and power during the depression and in the face of the Second World War. This fantasy was also a corrective to the vulnerability many men experienced as an effect of the increasing economic and social agency of women, who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time and shaping a burgeoning modern rights movement.
With the rise of the “hero with a problem” archetype in the Silver Age ‘70s, injury became increasingly integral to heroic identity. The infallible Superman gave way to more troubled characters like The Thing, for whom heroic transformation resembled less a miraculous repairing of original flaws than an installation of powers that were simultaneously problem (his grotesque rock-like hide) and compensation (his strength).
This innovation changed the game to a degree. And in some ways, we’ve enjoyed a progressive inclusion of disability in our heroes, including those, like Deadpool, whose grotesque face and body issued a challenge to the hyper-masculine erasure of wounds. But the trope of the courageous overcomer is still very much alive. And, arguably, it is more pervasive now than ever, reborn in the latest run of male superhero films that reinforce fantasies about the heroics of male enhancement: Hugh Jackman’s ever-shirtless, ever-healing Wolverine; Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, who, in the first film, gets it up—his hammer, that is—after a brief period of impotence; and Christian Bale, who also gets a rise after short struggle with a broken (back) bone. These are just a few examples of the way in which our culture continues to enshrine male bodies that don’t bleed—or not for very long.
Jessica Jones addresses the persistence of the courageous male overcomer by exposing him for what he always has been: a male fantasy that is a misogynistic reaction to the anxieties of male performance. In the show, there is no line between a hard man—the hero—and a hardened man—the villain. Popping pills, Simpson becomes a full on whacko who shoots and kills another police officer (Detective Clemens) in cold blood, hits Trish in an assault on Kilgrave’s father and murders two of Doctor Koslov’s men who try to bring him in for evaluation.
All this culminates in a final showdown between Jessica and Simpson, who shows up at her apartment under the pretense of having information on Kilgrave that Jess quickly sees through. There’s some back and forth between the super powered Jessica and the enhanced Simpson. But Jessica is injured (her ribs are broken), and so Simpson gains the upper hand. He nearly chokes her out, claiming that his violence against her is in service of a greater good. “I’m just doing what has to be done. Someone has to.” But then Trish shows up. Stealing Simpson’s enhancement pills, Trish pops a couple and fights back, buying Jess a moment to recover. The fight ends when Jess pulls Simpson off Trish, knocks him flying into the kitchen, and then bashes his head against the refrigerator twice before pulling it down on top of him.
Whether this is an intentional reference, the miraculous workings of the subconscious, or mere coincidence, Jessica’s use of the refrigerator to put an end to Simpson’s violence—and to his story arc, at least in the first season—gestures toward the shows poignant critique of misogyny. This is a show about a superhero who refuses to have her power, mission and identity wrested away from her. It is also a show about women who refuse to be victims, who drop the fridge of misogyny on the men who try to stuff them in it.
By upending the fridge, Jessica Jones also begins defrosting the dead women who have been stuffed into it by gesturing toward an alternate paradigm of the wounded superhero, one that moves away from “fixing” wounds through empowerment and that models a different, more genuinely therapeutic way of working through trauma. Consciously resisting the ableist narrative of the triumphant survivor that it associates with the toxic masculinity of Simpson, the show suggests that to deal meaningfully with our deepest wounds isn’t simply to overcome them. Rather, we must learn to live with them.
Some have taken issue with this aspect of the show, seeing, for instance, Jessica’s use of alcohol to cope with the PTSD she suffers as a victim of Kilgrave, as an implicit endorsement of dependency. Critic Daniel Murphy even goes so far as to criticize show’s depiction of Jessica as a gritty, tough-talking alcoholic as a “destructive trope” that echoes the “masculinist genres” of film-noir and detective fiction. He sees Jessica’s recurring intoxication as a stylistic device that does not meaningfully deal with addiction or survivor’s guilt, and that undermines the shows feminist ethos by reducing Jess to an adolescent misfit.
But to my mind Jessica’s alcoholism and acerbity are more than a misguided re-gendering of traditionally masculine tropes. They are the marks of an aggressive female superhero—a mean girl, a nasty woman—who refuses to smile, to paint a happy face on victimhood. Yet this does not mean that she is hardboiled. In fact, rather than disavowing vulnerability, Jess’s narrative, I would argue, moves her toward an increased ability to accommodate it. While she is initially misanthropic, she becomes, over the course of the show, more attune to the pain and difficult of others who have suffered, even those, like her drug-addict neighbor Malcolm, who are pushed toward self-destruction.
Jess’s ability to live with injury and to recognize the wounds of others distinguishes Jessica Jones in a landscape of male heroes who erase vulnerability through miraculous transformation and recovery. The final image in the first season reinforces this point. The door to Jessica’s apartment and investigation agency—the same door whose incessant state of disrepair throughout the season mirrors her psychological state of disrepair: her feeling of being damaged and prone to the invasive threat of mind controlling men—is finally fixed. Jess is no longer vulnerable. But the door isn’t closed off to others.
The door remains open—and with that, Jessica, listening to answering machine filled with the voices of people crying out for help and a new kind of hero, begins her mission.
Dr. Peter Nagy is Assistant Professor of English at Cedar Crest College. He studies American literature, gender/sexuality and popular culture. He teaches courses on superheroes, film and American fiction and poetry.