Battle of the female leadsIn which Head Geek Nicholas Yong, Opinionated Geek JM Wong and Grumpy Geek Bryan Huang sit down and talk Agent Carter, Supergirl and Jessica Jones: Which of these geek TV series impressed most in 2015? The battle of the female leads is on….

SPOILERS AHEAD

The Bechdel test

The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. 

JM: Agent Carter definitely passes. Because of the period she is living in, Peggy is living in what is essentially a dormitory for single women, who talk about things other than men. One of my favourite scenes is when Peggy is talking with the others about how best to smuggle food up to their rooms during mealtimes. Conversely, at work, she’s surrounded by men.

Bryan: Jessica Jones definitely passes too. It’s not just pandering just to the female audience – she’s trying to get on with her life after a huge trauma. There’s abuse against women, but it’s neither trivial nor there just for the sake of exploitation. The Bechdel Test is meant to see whether the portrayal of women is up the criteria that they set. But with Jones, it’s a non-issue.

Nic: Supergirl spends a lot of time talking about how she has to live in Superman’s shadow, but to be fair, part of that angst is down to the mission her parents gave her: Coming to Earth to protect Kal-el. Plus, she’s constantly being compared to Superman.

Snyder’s Superman is very angsty and constipate, and Supergirl has a comparable level of angst. She’s constantly questioning herself: can I be a superhero, am I good enough, can I live up to Clark’s example? It does feels like she’s whining. She makes one mistake and then spends the rest of the episode going on and on about it to her sister. But a female friend did say something interesting: She likes Supergirl because it gives people a good insight into women’s insecurities.

Jessica Jones

Marvel's Jessica Jones
“I need to be the strongest female lead, Trish.” ©Netflix

B: I really think that the best thing about Jessica Jones is how she deals with her past trauma. That’s very important, because I haven’t really seen that fleshed out in other characters. She’s strong, but she’s not infallible. She has to deal with the consequences of her actions. I’m thinking of the scene where Kilgrave says that he didn’t tell her to kill Luke’s wife. She hates Kilgrave because he made her do things against her will, but at the same time, she also blames herself. That struggle feels very real.

JM: What strikes me about that is that she wants to believe Kilgrave is a monster and evil incarnate. So when he reminds her of how he told her to take care of Luke’s wife, she’s struggling with how she interpreted his order. She’s afraid that she has the potential to become a monster just like him. And with all the talk of how his parents’ experimental treatment made him into a monster, you begin to wonder that if the circumstances had been different, she might have gone the same way. She’s fighting against that.

N: Jessica is obviously a very dark character. She’s very flawed and that is refreshing. But she is very much a hero – she’s always trying to help people because that’s her first instinct. But she is hardly a Trish. Trish has her own trauma, but everyone loves her and she’s blonde and blue-eyed and pretty, which makes for a great juxtaposition.

Jessica, at least on the surface, is not the kind of person you wanna hang out with, but she proves herself. Despite the trauma of what Kilgrave did, she wants to protect other people. What really showed to me her inherent goodness was when Hope shot her parents. She could’ve cut her loose, but she’s going out of her way to prove her innocence. I suppose it’s a metaphor for the abuser and the abused: She’s not going to let this man define her life, she’s going to stop him.

Marvel's Jessica Jones
The Shiba sideeye always worked. ©Netflix

JM: We are also given a whole range of women on the moral spectrum. Robyn is a control freak, albeit badly-written and shoehorned in to make a point about how women can control men too. Trish is the person who looks perfect on the surface, but has a lot of depth. She reminds me of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl – a woman whose public facade hid her personal issues, and because of her fame, people expect her to be a certain way. And Jess is very real and modern – there’s no way she could exist in say, Agent Carter’s time.

Also, I think the whole of point of gender-swapping Jeri Hogarth is to try and have more women with depth. I like that they are deliberately making her unlikeable, because women are usually not allowed to behave like that in mainstream media.

B: But I’m just wondering what the point in making her lesbian was. I have no problem with the way the relationship was portrayed, but to me, it would have worked even if her partner was a man. It’s one thing to portray a diverse range of female characters – it’s another to put in female characters for the sake of it.

Jessica Jones
She was wondering what her sexuality/gender added to the plot. ©Netflix

N: But Jeri is behaving like a man, albeit in a very cliched manner: She sleeps with her secretary, leaves her wife and is motivated by money and power. But to be fair, she’s simply doing what powerful and influential people who are overcome by hubris would do. It’s just human nature, whether man, woman, straight or lesbian. But I do agree with Bryan – how does her sexuality add to the story? Is it just pandering? If Kilgrave were a lesbian woman, then maybe it might be different.

JM: Conversely, look at the men in Jones – they are largely ineffective. Malcolm is a recovering drug addict and controlled by Kilgrave. Jessica’s neighbor, Ruben, is controlled by his sister, while Detective Clemons is basically another Ben Urich! But in any other media, Clemons would have been played by a disposable female character.

So to have a female character like Jeri be a figure of authority in a show like this speaks volumes. The fact that we feel the character with this story line would have the same impact, regardless of the gender, is the whole point.

Agent Carter

Battle of the female leads
“Who you looking at?” ©ABC

JM: The show is a bit too mainstream and a bit reductive in terms of female relationships, especially in light of Jones. I do like that there’s a female villain, but we don’t know anything about her, other than the fact that she’s from the Black Widow programme. So she’s a big bad that is very one-dimensional. Agent Carter airs on ABC, which is owned by Disney, so it’s all about friendship and finding your own surrogate family. In comparison to the types of characters we see in Jones, every other female character is flat, but it still does a pretty good job.

B: But do you think that’s because of the period it’s set in?

JM: That might be the case, but it’s also because of the network it’s on, and the kind of audience they are gunning for. This results in relatively flat characterization, especially when compared to Jones. And Peggy is defined by the men around her, but that is only when she is at work, and even that is something she is fighting against. What I do like is that they made Jarvis her Man Friday, and he’s a bit of a beta male. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

She’s also allowed to be ‘feminine’ – wears dresses, make up – while being badass and using stereotypically feminine objects like lipstick as weapons, which is not what Jones does. Jessica is fighting against how people expect women to behave. To a certain extent, Peggy blends in with societal expectations because she recognizes that if she doesn’t, she won’t be allowed to function or fight against those who expect women to behave a certain way. But who knows, if Agent Carter had been set in a modern era, it might be different. So I see it as an evolution of the way Marvel writes its female characters.

Battle of the female leads
“How many useless men will you be taking out today, Peggy?” ©ABC

N: For Peggy, what I like is that she manages to be vulnerable without looking weak. It’s like JM said before – she’s lost the love of her life, but she’s pushing on. But one thing that’s constantly being overplayed is that she is the smartest person in the office, and all the dumb men around her can’t keep up. Although I think Haley Atwell pulls it off very well – she looks like if you stick a gun in her hands, she’ll get things done.

JM: What I like most about Carter is that there is no romantic element so far. That would have distracted from the story line and made it very predictable. It wouldn’t have given her space to evolve as a character. The show is cheesy and fun and light, but the problem is that it’s meant to be a cog in the MCU machine, whereas Jones is a microcosm. 

Supergirl

©CBS
©CBS

N: I’m really glad they removed the more skank-like elements of Supergirl’s costume. I think the leggings really make it a more practical costume, and she looks classier. She just looks more authoritative. I also think they cast the right person, because Melissa Benoist is very likeable, so when she’s being angsty and talking about all her insecurities, you’re more likely to sympathize with her. Having said that, I hope to see her mature and become more assertive as the season goes on. You tend to compare her to her sister, who is the mentor figure and more in control.

Cat Grant is very fun as an Anna Wintour-type character, and they also have a lot of fun with her constant name-dropping. Even though she’s a bit of a caricature, her compassionate side still comes through. She’s almost abusive to Kara, but then her mentor side comes out, and she gives Kara good advice.

One thing about the show is that Kara does seem to be defined by the men around her; Superman for one. She also has a crush on Jimmy, and the love triangle between her, Wynn and Jimmy is kind of predictable and distracting. But what’s also good is that she has strong female mentors in her life, starting with her sister, and then her mother, and also, her aunt when she comes back into the picture.

B: I just find her sister being a part of the DEO a bit too cheesy. Again, it seems like her character and her role was written in such a way that it’s too convenient. I don’t think the character is bad, but when you compare her to the characters in Jones, they just seem more well-rounded, and easier to relate to.

JM: In the end, it’s still on network TV and the writers have to cater to a more mainstream audience, just like Agent Carter. The fact that it’s more fun and light than the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel movies is its selling point. And in the DC movies, the women mostly tend to exist only to be rescued, killed and provide some sort of motivation for the protagonist, or are villains themselves.

I think a show like this is a step in the right direction, so we’ll see what happens when Wonder Woman makes her entrance in Batman vs Superman, and when her own movie is released in 2017.

Our verdict

Battle of the female leads
“No, Jess, really, we like you best.” ©Netflix

N: It seems we all agree that Jessica Jones is the most compelling character among the three, and also has the most compelling supporting characters?

B: Yes. The best thing about Jones is that you don’t look at the show and go, oh this is such a win for women. The fact that there is a female lead becomes a non-issue, because the characters are so relatable.

JM: It’s the first time I’ve seen a show where the victim’s point of view is accepted. In real life, the victim is blamed a lot of the time – their judgment and view of how things transpired is questioned. In fact, in Jones, you see both Kilgrave’s and Jessica’s view of the same incidents, and they both remember things very differently. It’s a great show for the general public, but for women, there is an additional layer of social commentary that resonates with them.

B: I totally agree with you. It’s a very good show that discusses issues of abuse, and the fact that there is a female lead is less significant than the fact that these issues are discussed.

If I were to tell someone to watch Jones, I wouldn’t say, oh because it has a female lead. I would say, watch it because it discusses these issues and the characters are relatable. The female lead is not a selling point for Jones, unlike in Carter or Supergirl. Jones is a lot more thought provoking, and the issues that it covers are a lot more adult, whereas Carter and Supergirl are very fun shows.

N: For me, I like that Jessica is not bright and shiny. Supergirl is very fun, and she’s a role model, whereas Jess doesn’t care about being a role model. But she cares about doing the right thing, about protecting people to the point that she puts herself in danger. You see what a good friend she is to Trish, and you’re rooting for her.

Which of the female leads do you like most? Tell us your thoughts!