LUKE: Being a hero just puts a target on your back.
JESSICA: Yeah, been there, done that.
LUKE: The hero gig?
JESSICA: I gave it a shot once. […] It didn’t work out.
In the coming days and weeks there will continue to be articles fervidly discussing the merits of Netflix and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. There will also be, and already have been, articles analyzing some of the show’s clearly intended themes of trauma, rape, exploitation, addiction, psychopathology and victim empowerment—all timely and important themes that the show does enough justice to merit deep analysis.
But the show also touches upon the theme of heroism in some interesting ways that are different from the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. This article will use the show as a launching pad to discuss what it means to be a hero despite having an uneasy relationship to the very idea of heroism. It will also argue why, sometimes, it’s necessary for the very sake of heroism to shake off preconceptions of what heroism is. Perhaps you wish to be heroic in some way but don’t think you’re capable of being so. Or perhaps you’re so taken by the romantic idea of being a hero that you sometimes fall into the trap of chronic identity reinforcement (something I’ll describe below). Either way, this article’s for you.
Jessica Jones (both the show and the character) follows the stylistic conventions of the hard-boiled detective genre while eschewing common superhero genre tropes like costume, secret identity and fights (yes, there are a few but they are downplayed). Not only does Jessica not have a superhero name and costume, she practically wears the same jeans, hoodie and leather jacket every day. You can’t get more plain than that. In a number of episodes she vocally rejects the label of a hero. Indeed, her crude language, heavy drinking and disdain for social decorum seem to back up her disavowal of hero status. And yet there’s no question that she does things that anyone would consider heroic: standing up for the exploited and fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. She is a model for what, in this article, I will call transheroism.
By transheroism I mean two things:
• Heroism that may not appear to be particularly heroic on the surface, is less noticeable, or does not have the conscious intent of being heroic, but nevertheless gets to the heart of what heroism is.
• The rejection of heroism as a self-identity while still managing to be heroic. When I say forget about being a hero, I don’t mean to really forget about being a hero completely. What I mean is to loosen one’s attachment to the mental construct of being a hero.
‘I’m still not the hero you wanted me to be’
“Hero” and “heroism” are concepts, and anytime we get overly caught up in concepts we risk the danger of losing sight of what those concepts are really about to begin with.
Religious fundamentalists, for instance, are a good example of this danger of becoming overly preoccupied with concepts and prepackaged identities. Close observation of the rhetoric and behavior of fundamentalists (not all but certainly many) reveals that essentially it seems to be the idea, the identity, of being a good Christian/Muslim/Hindu that they are in love with. To what degree they are also in love with the practice of unconditional compassion and refraining from judgment, taught by those whose teachings they purport to follow, is on the other hand up for argument.
And we’re all guilty of this to a certain degree. Let’s face it: identity is gratifying. It is gratifying to adopt identities that please us, and it is also gratifying each and every time we are able to reaffirm that identity in visible ways. I do this as well. I am in love with the idea of heroes and always have been. I love it anytime my efforts to make a difference are seen and recognized, and I love it even more when someone uses the word “heroic” to describe me or something that I’ve done. I do this, you do this, we all do this with our favorite identities. Is there anything wrong with this? No. But is there a certain danger to it? Yes, a little.
The danger of becoming overly enamored of our identities and mental constructs is that it can lead to actions that are not true to the very values we hold dear out of fear of doing something that might appear to conflict with our self-image. For example, a mother who is held up in her community as being the paragon of self-sacrifice may someday want to make a choice that is in her own greater interests but will not out of fear of what this choice would do to her image and identity.
Another danger is getting so caught up in the need to advertise our self-identities that we waste energy on petty, insignificant “problems” that might otherwise be better spent on actually living our identities in deeper ways. (Help the poor, cold and hungry this holiday season? Not when there are diabolical red cups from Starbucks on the loose! #StarbucksRedCup)
Just as I believe that we shouldn’t get overly caught up in the mental construct of heroism, I also believe that we shouldn’t get too caught up in any mental construct: hero, antihero, villain, warrior, pacifist, Christian, Muslim, liberal, conservative or whatever else. Jessica Jones herself at times almost falls into the trap of overly believing in her self-created idea of being, in her own words, a selfish “piece of s**t.” And throughout the series we’ve seen how that can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Positive or negative, any self-image can become limiting in certain situations. Concepts just in general, including the ones in this article, can be limiting at times.
This is why even as I love the idea of heroism, and even as I think a lot about what the word means and contemplate how to best live by it, periodically I will intentionally reject the hero identity. I don’t actually stop doing what I normally do; I keep doing those things. The rejection of the word is just a mental exercise in consciously detaching from an identity that I normally aspire to, and to see how much I can do the things I believe are right without having to use those actions to bolster my sense of self.
In truth, it’s arguably impossible for human beings to exist without some kind of mentally created identity. No matter what you do you are confirming some kind of identity in some kind of way. So the point of all this isn’t to spout some mumbo-jumbo about losing your ego and existing in a formless void. The point is to merely loosen the intensity of our grip on our cherished self-identities just a bit. Far from being self-denying, this can actually benefit the self and enable it to make choices that are for its best, liberated from the fear of not living up to cultural expectations. The wonderful news is that it is possible to make choices that are in one’s best interests that also serve others at the same time.
Imagine: the world would be a poorer place if Vincent Van Gogh had decided to quit painting and returned to the ministry out of fear that working on his art was a selfish, un-Christian thing to do. This is not at all to say that if he had chosen to stick with the ministry that would have been the wrong choice. But considering how much his paintings have lifted people spiritually I would say that painting, for him, was in fact a very Christian thing to do. And so it is that paradoxically, loosening attachment to rigid self-identities can open up new possibilities for choices that actually serve those very identities. (Remember how, in The Dark Knight, Batman was willing to become a fugitive and let his heroic image become tainted for the greater good? This was not just for the good of Gotham; it was actually for his own good as well because the Batman identity is all about choosing the greater good. Therefore had he not made that choice he would have probably been tormented by this to no end).
In Jessica Jones, Jessica’s pivotal decisions are not made purely out of self-sacrificing altruism. But they are not made out of selfishness either. They are made from a place where the line between selfish and selfless becomes less clear, in which an action is both for one’s own sake but also helps others in the process. But to reach this place she had to not care if people thought of her as heroic or not. It’s conceivable that an image-conscious hero like Iron Man could hypothetically do something that’s ultimately not in his and others’ best interests but he does it because that’s what a superhero is supposed to do. But Jessica Jones doesn’t give a s**t about what superheroes are supposed to do because she isn’t one, and not giving a s**t she is thus freed to make decisions unencumbered by fear of judgment. She does have a predisposition towards self-preservation, but when she is able to balance that with the needs of others she reaches the heights of the greatest of superheroes—as great, in her own way, as Daredevil or Spider-Man whether she wears a costume and has a fancy superhero name or not.
‘You are exactly the hero I wanted you to be’
The choice by Marvel/Netflix to create an entire television series about a lesser known, less popular character in itself is wonderfully symbolic of the idea that hidden amid the more popular and obviously recognizable heroes are heroes who aren’t recognized as such but are nevertheless heroic as well. Jessica Jones, on one level, whether it intends to be or not, is a tribute to these kinds of heroes who don’t think of themselves as heroes, who instead commit their acts of heroism quietly, invisibly, without self-consciousness. Perhaps you are one of them.
In the world of superhero fiction, there are the widely recognized career superheroes like Captain America, Black Widow, etc. The real world equivalent of such kinds of career heroes might include firefighters, police (the good ones, of course), paramedics, social workers, teachers (again, the good ones) and people who serve in various capacities oriented around public service. As a mythical archetype, Jessica Jones speaks for the idea that ultimately it shouldn’t matter whether your society or community recognizes your job description as heroic or not. Jessica’s own greatest feats of heroism are actually not done while attending to her job as a P.I. The job is for money. Heroism is a value that can be lived regardless of job, regardless of surface appearances.
In episode # 5, the cop Simpson says to Jessica, “I’ve seen heroes. You’re not even close.” Unlike other superheroes, Jessica doesn’t get the gratification of having and reaffirming a heroic identity. **SEMI-SPOILER FOR EPISODE #5** In fact, the one time she does try to adopt such an identity and tries to live up to other people’s idea of a hero, something very, very bad happens. This leads to a temporary period of selfishness born of the instinct to survive. But eventually, even without the benefit of a heroic identity, she does things that are heroic anyway. She is thus the hero for those who don’t believe in heroes. Or have tried to be heroes themselves and failed. Or who feel stifled by typical notions of what a hero is supposed to be and yet feel compelled by something deep within themselves to do good. Even if you do believe in heroes—or want to be a hero yourself—there are times when it may help to think beyond the conceptual confines of the hero identity.
And so if you ever find yourself getting too caught up in notions of heroism, altruism, etc., as a mental exercise try taking a cue from Jessica Jones. Reject superheroes. Reject the iconography, the ridiculous costumes and secret identities. Reject conventional notions of what heroes are and what they are supposed to do. Only hold on to the belief that you matter, that you have something to offer, and that you can make a difference no matter what anyone else may think. And then stop wondering about how to come across as a hero and just be one. Because you are your own Jessica Jones, a hero who isn’t a hero, who drinks and curses and doesn’t give a damn about proving anything but who stops to care for the junkie no one else cares about, who fights for the innocent girl everyone thinks is guilty, and who faces her worst nightmare so that others will not have to suffer the same. Not to affirm her identity or appear a certain way to others but because she feels the need to do it and just does it.
And if that isn’t the truest, realest kind of hero then I have no more use for that word.