A superhero is usually defined by two things: Using extraordinary powers or a specialized set of skills for good, and wearing a costume while doing so. The costume creates a recognizable identity, as well as a disguise, shielding the everyday person when he or she is not on a quest to save the world and fight evil. Things are different in Netflix's new series, Jessica Jones.
Batman is dapper in a suit as billionaire Bruce Wayne, but when he's ready to fight his enemies, he wears protective armor in the form of a sleek, caped Batsuit. Superman ripping of his shirt to reveal his "S" symbol has inspired regrettable tattoos around the world. Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel) has been known by different aliases through the years, but is recognizable by her lightning bolt or star symbols. In the Marvel comic, Jessica Jones previously did a superhero stint under the name Jewel, wearing a white-and-blue skintight bustier bodysuit with a "jewel" attached to her hip, topped off by magenta hair. In the Netflix series, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) opts out of an costume and instead wears a uniform of sorts: A worn-in leather Acne jacket and ripped Citizens of Humanity skinny jeans. In a flashback conversation with her best friend Trish, we see that Jones finds the idea of superhero nicknames and costumes repulsive, joking that the name "Jewel" is only fit for a stripper.
In the 13-episode series, Jones's lack of armor allows the viewers to see her as flawed and heroic. In addition, her unisex street clothes deflect the male gaze apparent in a lot of female superhero imagery, and represent her internal struggle with her supernatural abilities and the responsibilities of a being superhero. The costume designer., Stephanie Maslansky, recently told Fashionista:
"[Jessica] considers her clothing to be an armor and a shield and something that helps her maintain a distance from other people and privacy," Maslansky explains. "It keeps her from having to deal with the rest of humanity in a certain sort of way."
Jessica Jones brings to mind three similar TV shows featuring female heroes, though only one is an actual superhero: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Orphan Black and Veronica Mars. All of these the shows portray complex, kick-ass women with tenacity, quick wits and sharp tongues. Their nonchalant, ordinary clothing choices expose a yearning to be normal. Not wearing the get-up of an "ideal" hero makes them more human, and more believable.
Buffy Summers is fashionable, but she really just wants to be an average high school student, without the burden of always having to kill vampires and other supernatural creatures, so her wardrobe embodies peak '90s teen fashion: chokers, crop-tops and peasant tops. Veronica Mars struggles to protect herself while saving others—both emotionally and from physical harm—while clad in a lot of military jackets and army green. Costume director Salvador Perez told MTV: "I wanted her to be a warrior, so there was a militarist vibe to her clothes." Orphan Black's Sarah Manning, like Jessica Jones, protects herself by blending in rather than standing out, wearing ripped jeans, hoodies and leather jackets. They're both conflicted about accepting the responsibility to save those around them—Manning from Neolutionists and Proletheans and Jones from a mind-controlling supervillian—and they have the similar "flaw" of "caring too much."
In some superhero stories, character development is shown through costume reveal; an outfit can signal that a character has finally reached the point that he or she can properly use his or her powers. But after origin stories, this can get a bit one-note. Without traditional armor or costumes, characters can be more complex, and there isn't an exaggerated double life. Jessica Jones is the same person when she's fighting to take down Kilgrave as she is when she's spying on cheating spouses, working as a private investigator. Her development is less external, less about becoming the perfect superhero, and more about accepting her flaws, combatting her demons (when's the last time you saw a superhero address rape and PTSD?) and deciding how and when to put her powers of superhuman strength and flight to use.
Then there's the sexism Jessica Jones's street uniform does its part to combat. It's no secret that superhero comic narratives have a problem with over-sexualizing female characters, both on-page and on-screen. For years, ladies endured skin-tight, body-baring costumes, gratuitously curvy body proportions and unrealistic poses (pointed out wonderfully by The Hawkeye Initiative). There have been improvements, but generally, in this world, a woman is still incapable of saving the day without also being in a sexy, impractical costume. There's a sexy clown (Harley Quinn), a sexy alien (Starfire), a sexy warrior (Star Sapphire), a sexy magician (Zatanna), an overly sexy vampire (Vampirella)—it's like walking down a ridiculous Halloween costume aisle for women. In comics, Power Girl's costume is infamous for having a "boob window" while Iron Man's costume is known for its super cool gadgets. Last year, Marvel hired erotic artist Milo Manara to draw the comic book cover for Spider-Woman; his art was canceled after backlash.
On screen, there is less focus on female storylines, but generally, the superhero costumes are slightly more bearable—though there are few missed opportunities for showing cleavage and skin. Earlier this year, Cara Delevingne, who plays Enchantress in the upcoming movie Suicide Squad, called out superhero movies for being "sexist." She told Yahoo:
“Female superheroes are normally naked or in bikinis. No one would be able to fight like that. Wonder Woman, how the hell does she fight? She would be dead in a minute.”
Yet: Delevingne's supervillian character wears less clothing in the promo pictures than in the comic books. With Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was an effort to make sure Scarlett Johanssan's character Black Widow—whose costume is actually pretty kick-ass—had cleavage, but not much effort put into making sure she had an action figure available in stores. Ironically, in the same movie, the superhero costume that least adhered to the male gaze was the one worn by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who, like Jessica Jones, doesn't really wear one. Scarlet Witch wears a black dress, leather jacket, thigh-high socks and combat boots. Which is not to say that female superheroes costumes can't be done right. With the hero on CBS's new series Supergirl—which teeters on the line of corny, generic feminism—there was a deliberate effort made not to oversexualize her skirted costume. Even though Vulture writer Casey Cipriani questioned the skirt's practicality and wished she would "put on some pants," Supergirl's costume is practical: She wears tights under that skirt. If cheerleaders can fly in skirts and Serena Williams can win championships in cute tennis dresses, Supergirl will be just fine.
Maybe that's why Jessica Jones's street-clothes costume is such a relief. The show's decision to eschew the typical superhero garb is a way of avoiding the questions and concerns about how her body is portrayed, whether or not she's oversexualized, and whether her costume even makes sense. It allows viewers to focus on the character, and the story, to see through her eyes, and to see that Jessica Jones's strength doesn't come from a shiny, high-tech suit, newfangled gadgets or even "powers," but from inside her heart and mind.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.