Kate Stephens Fall 2019 Capstone I 11 December 2019


Jessica Jones, a Netflix/Marvel television series, debuted in 2015 as “the first television

series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) both to be made specifically for an adult audience

and to feature a female superhero as a lead character” (Green). At the time, fans and media

were critical of the MCU for its treatment of female characters and for not producing a Black

Widow feature film starring Scarlett Johansson, arguably Marvel’s biggest start besides Robert

Downey, Jr., (D’Addario). Marvel hoped Jessica Jones would change this narrative (D’Addario).

Jessica Jones’ status as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to feature a female lead and

to be headed by a woman created feminist credibility (Press). Additionally, “to mirror the

heroines onscreen,” showrunner Melissa Rosenberg “ensured there were a lot of women in the

crew” (Press). The show’s nuanced “take on PTSD, sexual abuse and rape,” surprised audiences,

and in fact, “Jessica Jones made gender politics its centerpiece, diving into the messy subject

matter via an equally messy female lead and a noir tone completely unlike any comic-book series

then on the air” (Li). The centrality of a feminist perspective was not accidental. In an interview

with Vanity Fair, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg expressed an intention to make a feminist show,

saying “All of us walked into that writing room as feminists, so that’s always going to color our

point of view” (Sperling).

Jessica Jones is indeed a “messy female lead” (Li). While some critics call her “a complete

mess, chronically hung over and prone to compulsive hookups with bartenders and obsessing

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over the show’s villain” (Fear), others compare the portrayal of Jessica’s self-destructive behavior

to how “mid-twentieth century cinema used its anti-heroes to reflect war-damaged and other

marginalized masculinities” (Green). Jessica Jones is a feminine “take on the classic noir persona

of the hard-drinking, unsentimental detective” (Green). The show also draws from classic film

noir style and themes (D’Addario, Li, Press). Television’s Jessica Jones inherits a noir sensibility

from its source material, the ALIAS graphic novels. Jeph Loeb, executive producer for Marvel

Television, calls ALIAS “comic book noir.” He elaborates, saying “in the 1950s, these stories were

called ‘Film Noir.’ They were tales of bad men – and often worse women – who started out at the

bottom of the well only to find there was much further to fall” (Loeb).

Loeb’s comments leave the impression that classic noir is a defined genre, but scholars

disagree about whether classic film noir is a genre, a cycle or a movement. They do agree that

the classic film noir period encompasses a selection of films between 1940 and 1960 (Porfirio

“Strange” 295). In “Notes on Film Noir” Paul Schrader states film noir “is not defined… by

conventions of setting and conflict but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood”

(516). Since tone and mood are too amorphous to categorize definitively, many

characterizations of classic film noir focus on cultural, thematic, or stylistic motifs.

Culturally, film noir characters and narratives grew out of the “hard-boiled school of

writers” (Schrader 519). The protagonists of hard-boiled fiction, often private investigators, have

“a cynical way of acting and thinking that separated one from the world of everyday emotions –

romanticism with a protective shell” (Schrader 519). These protagonists with their “narcissistic,

defeatist code” perfectly suit the existentialist themes present in film noir (Schrader 519). In “No

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Way Out” Robert Porfirio argues that “an existential attitude towards life” is the thematic

unifying force that corrals such a diversity of films under the moniker of film noir (134). Porfirio

separates the existential theme into motifs. First is the “non-heroic hero” whose “world is devoid

of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero” and who projects

“vulnerability and a sense of loss” despite his hard shell (Porfirio, “No Way Out” 136, 139). The

private-detective protagonists experience alienation and loneliness, another motif, “by keeping

emotional involvement to a minimum” which produces “a degree of power over others but pays

the price in terms of loneliness” (Porfirio, “No Way Out” 140). Porfirio combines chaos, violence

and paranoia into another motif, calling the world of film noir “a corrupt, chaotic world where

the detective’s greatest asset was the sheer ability to survive with a shred of dignity” (“No Way

Out” 143). He identifies “an undercurrent of violence which could literally strike a man at any

moment” and elaborates that “the familiar is fraught with danger” (Porfirio, “No Way Out” 144).

Finally, Porfirio names sanctuary, ritual and order as another existential motif. In this motif,

“there are still a few restorative rituals remaining to the film noir hero, in particular the private

eye: sometimes they are little things like rolling a cigarette or pouring and downing a drink:

sometimes bigger like taking a beating or facing death” (Porfirio, “No Way Out” 145).

In addition to thematic motifs, certain visual and stylistic motifs bind classic film noir

together. Just as the hard-boiled tradition paved the way for film noir’s existentialist themes, a

resurgence of realism and the influence of German expressionism combine to create film noir’s

distinctive look (Schrader 517-519). In “Some Visual Motifs on Film Noir” Janey Place and Lowell

Peterson describe the noir photographic and directorial styles. Anti-traditional lighting and

camera work characterize the noir photographic style. “Noir lighting is ‘low-key’…creating areas

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of high contrast and rich, black shadows” (Place and Peterson 112). Cinematographers placed

lights in unusual configurations to produce unnatural shadows and highlights, often leaving

actors in the literal dark and creating “the typical noir moods of paranoia, delirium, and menace”

(Place and Peterson 112). Noir photography used wide-angle lenses to create greater depth of

field leaving the audience to determine which part of the frame most deserves attention (Place

and Peterson 112). The noir directorial style was also anti-traditional and “designed to unsettle,

jar, and disorient the viewer in correlation with the disorientation felt by noir heroes” (Place and

Peterson 113). Commonly, compositional balance is askew with “figures placed irregularly in the

frame, which creates a world that is never stable or safe” (Place and Peterson 113). In addition,

“claustrophobic framing devices such as doors, windows, stairways, metal bed frames, or simply

shadows separate the character from other characters, from his world, or from his emotions”

(Place and Peterson 113-114). These devices sometimes even bisect the actors, leaving the

actors partially obscured and in virtual pieces for the audience. “Camera movements are used

sparingly in most noir films,” trapping characters in the frame and mirroring how they are trapped

in their world (Place and Peterson 114). In addition to these visual stylistics, film noir also

employs voice-over narration and a “complex chronological order” to create the sense of “an

irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness” (Schrader 521).

While not a complete list of the characteristics of classic film noir, this is a representative sample

of the significant techniques and themes.

In conclusion, Jessica Jones is a feminist work, an opinion supported by critics, at least one

academic paper (Green), and by the showrunner herself. Additionally, Jessica Jones engages in

the traditions of film noir, particularly classic film noir of the hard-boiled detective tradition,

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according to critics, at least one academic paper (Green) and the show’s comic-book source

material. Finally, film noir has existentialist motifs and employs certain stylistics to create the

distinctive noir tone and mood. This capstone investigates, how does Season One of Jessica Jones

engage a feminist perspective and how does the show employ the themes and stylistics of classic

film noir in the creation of that feminist perspective?

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Literature Review

In her seminal work, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey applies the

techniques of psychoanalysis to investigate the pleasures derived from viewing narrative films.

She argues that the pleasure of film is in looking and that the mechanisms and characteristics of

filmic looking are anchored in the patriarchal order of our society. She states “pleasure in

looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze

projects its phantasy on to the female figure,” and “women are simultaneously to be looked at

and displayed” (Mulvey 624). Further, the pleasure found in looking can be classified as

fetishistic or voyeuristic. Shots that fragment women’s bodies, for example close ups of legs or

torsos, characterize the expression of fetishistic pleasure or scopophilia. Mulvey associates this

with the “over-valuation” and “the cult of the female star” (627). On the other hand,

voyeuristic pleasure is found in the limited frame of the camera and the isolating darkness of a

theater (Mulvey 623). Mulvey associates voyeuristic pleasure with sadism and “asserting

control” (627). She also conjectures that sadism “fits in well with narrative” as “sadism

demands a story” (Mulvey 627). Mulvey also argues that “an active/passive heterosexual

division of labour has similarly controlled narrative structure” (625). Narrative is structured

around a (usually male) protagonist who is “a controlling figure with whom the spectator can

identify” (Mulvey 625). By identifying with a male protagonist, the spectator’s gaze is further

defined as male and provides a narcissistic pleasure as the spectator gazes at more powerful,

more in control version of himself (Mulvey 623). Mulvey’s criticism of the male gaze in cinema

is rooted in a desire to change “the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions”

and make way for new conventions (631).

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In “Is the Gaze Male?” E. Ann Kaplan addresses several assumptions inherent in

Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and discusses how cinema might express non-

male gazes. While Kaplan agrees that “the dominant cinematic apparatus is constructed by

men for a male spectator,” she questions if the gaze is “necessarily male” (211). She concludes

that a dominance-submission structure is present in the gaze and that “the gaze is not

necessarily male (literally), but to own and activate the gaze, given our language and structure

of the unconscious, is to be in the masculine position” (Kaplan 216). This creates uncertainty

about whether a female gaze is even possible. Kaplan questions the sentiment that films with

female protagonists who control the action and attractive male actors presented as sexual

objects constitutes a female gaze. Instead she sees this as an exchange in which “women have

been permitted in representation to assume the position defined as masculine, as long as the

man then steps into her position, so as to keep the whole structure intact” (Kaplan 215).

Additionally, this female protagonist “loses her traditionally feminine characteristics… of

kindness, humaneness, motherliness” and becomes “cold, driving, ambitious, manipulating, just

like the men whose position she has usurped” (Kaplan 215). One of these traditional feminine

characteristics, motherliness, is Kaplan’s suggested entry point for a new way of gazing. She

posits that focusing on mothering as a universal experience would allow “us to reformulate the

position as given, rather than discovering a specificity outside the system we are in” (Kaplan

218). This highlights a key difference between Mulvey and Kaplan in addressing the male gaze.

Mulvey wants to destroy the pleasure gained from it; Kaplan sees the need to maintain

pleasure by finding another way of gazing.

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In “The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window” Tania Modleski questions Mulvey’s

argument “that classic narrative film negates woman’s view” by examining Hitchcock’s Rear

Window, one of the films Mulvey used as a case study in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative

Cinema” (Modleski 632). Modleski argues that “for patriarchal interpretations to work, they

require her (the woman’s) assent: man’s conviction must become woman’s conviction” (639).

However, Rear Window “increasingly stresses a dual point of view” as Lisa begins to participate

in Jeff’s voyeurism (Modleski 639). As a participant in the voyeurism, Lisa becomes a surrogate

for the female spectator and allows us to “ask if it is true that the female spectator simply

acquiesces in the male’s view or, if, on the contrary, her relationship to the spectacle and the

narrative is different than his?” (Modleski 640) Using close analysis of Lisa and Jeff’s

interpretations of what they view through the window, Modleski argues that Lisa does not

acquiesce to Jeff’s view and instead brings her own interpretations based on identification with

the women they observe (640). In other words, Mulvey’s patriarchal reading of Rear Window

has flaws given that Lisa shares viewing with Jeff, but she does not share his interpretation of


Although Modleski does not mention Kaplan, she also engages in arguing against the

necessity of the gaze as male. Modleski uses the idea, which Kaplan argued, that society

associates the male with activity and control and the female with passivity and submission.

Applying this to Rear Window, Modleski questions whether the gaze is always male, that is

whether it is always active and controlling. In Rear Window, there is a “relentless insistence on

the male gaze” (633). However, the male protagonist, Jeff, is wheelchair-bound which puts him

in a passive, submissive position, which is associated with the feminine position. By contrast,

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Lisa is active, even moving between Jeff’s apartment and those across the alley. Furthermore,

when Lisa is caught by the murdering Thorvald, Jeff can do little more than watch helplessly.

Modleski argues that at this moment “Jeff himself – and, by extension, the male film viewer – is

forced to identify with the woman and to become aware of his own passivity and helplessness”

(641-642). Thus, Modleski shows that even in a film “about the power the man attempts to

wield through exercising the gaze,” the viewer, male and female, are forced to identify with the

female (644).

In “Notes on Film Noir” Paul Schrader outlines key cultural and stylistic markers that

unify classic film noir. Schrader states clearly “film noir is not a genre” and instead posits that

film noir is united “by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood” (516). He does not position

his list of “cultural and stylistic elements” as a definition, but rather as the building blocks for

one (Schrader 516). Schrader lists four key influences, seven recurring stylistics, and one major

theme. The first influence is “war and postwar disillusionment” which Schrader attributes to

both a “delayed reaction to the thirties” when films were designed to be upbeat in the face of

the Depression and a reaction to the propaganda films required to buoy the Allied war efforts

(516-517). Film noir expressed the “disillusionment” many Americans “felt in returning to a

peacetime economy” (Schrader 517). The second influence was “postwar realism” which

Schrader points out occurred in “every film-producing country” (517). He argues that “the

public’s desire for a more honest and harsh view of America would not be satisfied by the same

studio streets they had been watching for a dozen years” (Schrader 517). The third influence

was “the German expatriates” who brought to Hollywood mastery of chiaroscuro and the

“influence of expressionist lighting” which helped noir achieved its characteristically dark

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visuals (Schrader 518). The final influence is “the hard-boiled tradition” which “was waiting

with preset conventions of heroes, minor characters, plots, dialogue, and themes” when

Hollywood was ready to engage in darker narratives (Schrader 519). The seven stylistics

Schrader outlines all help to build the disorientation and hopelessness that characterize films

noir. The stylistics are 1) “majority of scenes lit for night,” 2) “oblique and vertical lines are

preferred to horizontal,” 3) “actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis,” 4)

“compositional tension is preferred to physical action,” 5) “an almost Freudian attachment to

water,” 6) “a love of romantic narration” and 7) “a complex chronological order” (Schrader 520-

521). Finally, Schrader identifies an “overriding noir theme: a passion for the past and the

present, but also a fear of the future” (521). In all “film noir’s techniques emphasize loss,

nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, and insecurity, then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism

and style” (Schrader 521).

In “Femme Fatale, Fatally Drawn” Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward investigate the

subversive nature of the femme fatale in several films. The presence of a femme fatale, or any

other standard characters, is not addressed by Schrader, perhaps because of his insistence that

film noir is not a genre. Silver and Ward acknowledge that “some commentators have

interpreted the impressive array of femme fatales in noir as reinforcement of negative female

stereotypes” (386). However, they see “these archetypes as forces which threaten to upset the

stable order of the patriarchal world established by these films” (Silver and Ward 386). In the

evaluation of approximately ten films, they identify two patterns for the femme fatale. In the

first, a woman comes to town, disrupts “an older, well-established” man’s life, and leaves it in

tatters (Silver and Ward 387). In the second, a woman, typically looking to free herself from

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marriage, plays two men against each other, destroying both in the process (Silver and Ward

387). Despite these standard patterns for the femme fatale, Silver and Ward see these films as

subversive since the women suffer minimal or unclear repercussions from their actions. This is

different from “Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, and other noir films where they are

annihilated as the patriarchy reasserts its social control. These women leave their victims

lonely inhabitants of a world no longer secure” (Silver and Ward 387).

In “Female Stars of the 1940s” Molly Haskell explores the evolving personas of female

stars. Haskell opens by asserting that “the preoccupation of most movies of the forties… is with

man’s soul and salvation” and that “women are not fit to be the battleground for Lucifer and

angels” (424). Nevertheless, throughout the period, she finds complicated and complex women

claiming power for themselves. She argues that these women fit into two categories the

“superfemale” and the “superwoman” (Haskell 428). The superwoman “has a high degree of

intelligence or imagination, but instead of exploiting her femininity, adopts male characteristics

in order to enjoy male prerogatives, or merely to survive” (Haskell 428). The superfemale is also

highly intelligent and, “while exceedingly ‘feminine’ and flirtatious, is too ambitious and

intelligent for the docile role society has decreed she play” (Haskell 428). The superfemale lives

within the patriarchy, is charming and manipulative, and turns her creative energies towards

“the people around her – with demonic results” (Haskell 428). Haskell argues, using Bette Davis

as a case study, that it was common for female stars of the 1940s to evolve their personas from

superfemale to superwoman (432). Haskell suggests that World War II was “the major turning

point in the pattern and attitudes of working women” and therefore a key influence in the

female actors’ shifts from superfemale to superwoman (432). She also acknowledges societal

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discomfort with this shift by citing “the tremendous tension in films of the time, which tried, by

ridicule, intimidation, or persuasion, to get women out of the office and back to the home, to

get rid of the superwoman and bring back the superfemale” (Haskell 432). Since she is

interested in the actors’ personas, Haskell does not discuss the femme fatale but the

superfemale shares traits with many of noir’s femme fatales, and by tying the rise of the

superwoman with the societal shifts of the time, Haskell’s work connects to Silver and Ward’s

assertion that femme fatales upend existing societal norms, particularly patriarchal norms.

Finally, Haskell notes that “for the most part, the superwoman… begins to disappear in the

fifties” (437), which means that the rise and fall of the superwoman parallels the rise and fall of

classic film noir.

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The guiding question for my capstone is, how does Season One of Jessica Jones engage a

feminist perspective and how does the show employ the themes and stylistics of classic film

noir in the creation of that feminist perspective? I will use a qualitative approach and focus on a

close reading of Jessica Jones Season One. Published interviews with cast and crew will

illuminate intentional artistic choices in the making of the show. In some instances, I will

compare elements of Jessica Jones with films from the classic film noir period or with the

show’s comic book source material. Scholarly texts will provide background on feminist film

criticism and definitions of the themes and stylistics of classic film noir. I will attempt to answer

my main research question by exploring the following sub-questions.

The first sub-question is, how is female sexuality is portrayed in Jessica Jones? I will

analyze whether female characters have a well-rounded relationship with their own sexuality, if

women use sex as a method of controlling others, if women are punished for engaging in sex,

and if the camera’s gaze sexualizes the female form. My primary resources include Jessica Jones

Season One and ALIAS Volumes 1-4 by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. My secondary

resources include Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema;” Tania Modleski’s “The

Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window;” Anne E. Kaplan’s “Is the Gaze Male?” Janey Place and Lowell

Peterson’s “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir;” Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in

Popular Culture edited by Norma Jones, Maja Bajac-Carter, and Bob Batchelor; and The Routledge

Companion to Cinema and Gender.

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The second sub-question is, how is domestic life, including instances of physical and

psychological abuse, is portrayed? Studying the portrayal of domestic life will illuminate the

power dynamics at play in Jessica Jones and allow me to explore the noir themes of chaos,

violence and paranoia and of sanctuary, ritual and order. My primary source is Jessica Jones

Season One. My secondary sources include Stephanie Green’s “Fantasy, Gender and Power in

Jessica Jones;” Robert Porfirio’s “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in Film Noir;” Paul Schrader’s

“Notes on Film Noir;” and Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s “Femme Fatale, Fatally Drawn.”

Other secondary sources may include Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular

Culture by Jones, Bajac-Carter and Batchelor; “Jessica Jones, Scarred Superhero” by Christopher

Maverick; and “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir” by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson.

The third sub-question is, how is the character Jessica Jones similar to and different

from the male hard-boiled detectives of classic period noir films? I will highlight gender-based

differences between Jessica and the typical version of this type of protagonist. My primary

sources will include Jessica Jones Season One, The Maltese Falcon (1941); Farewell, My Lovely

(1944); and The Big Sleep (1947). My secondary sources will include Robert Porfirio’s “No Way

Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir;” Nicole Sperling’s “Jessica Jones’ Creator Melissa

Rosenberg on Power and Pitfall of Female Rage;” Eliana Dockterman’s “Jessica Jones Star

Krysten Ritter on Why the Superhero Will Never Wear Heels;” Fran Mason’s Hollywood’s

Detectives; and Jerold J. Abrams “From Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film


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D’Addario, Daniel. “Jessica Jones Is Marvel’s Most Nuanced Heroine Yet.” Time.Com, Nov. 2015,, Accessed 28 October


Fear, David. “Hot Anti-Superhero: Krysten Ritter.” Rolling Stone, no. 1249, Dec. 2015, pp. 50–50.



h, Accessed 28 October 2019.

Green, Stephanie. “Fantasy, Gender and Power in Jessica Jones.” Continuum: Journal of Media

& Cultural Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, Apr. 2019, pp. 173–84. https://www-tandfonline-, Accessed 28

October 2019.

Haskell, Molly. “Female Stars of the 1940s.” Film Theory & Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and

Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 424-437.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Is the Gaze Male?” The Film Theory Reader, edited by Marc Fustenau,

Routledge, 2010, pp. 209-221.

Li, Shirley. “GRitTY WOMAN.” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1505, Mar. 2018, pp. 22–25.