Sex & The Female Superhero

The beginning of episode three of Jessica Jones is a sex-a-thon. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), having discovered that they both possess super strength, go at it with full force. It turns out sex between two consenting superheroes is awesome. In CBS’s Supergirl, no one dares bring up the sexuality of the Kryptonian protagonist, except for a radio shock jock, who wonders, “How would it even work with an alien? Is everything the same down there? Are we talking tentacles?” Sure, Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) has potential love interests, but given what we've seen of the series so far, it’s hard to picture her actually getting hot and heavy with anyone. That these two shows — one on Netflix, the other on CBS — exist at all is a blessing, considering Hollywood's well-documented reluctance to make superhero movies starring women. And both programs not only feature kickass women with special abilities, but are also unabashedly feminist. How they wear their feminism, however, is vastly different. Especially when it comes to sex. Sexual dynamics are at the root of Jessica Jones. The show’s central villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant) has raped Jessica repeatedly. He's an amoral sociopath who has the power to make people do whatever he says. Jessica was under his control for a time, and is still dealing with the lingering trauma. As Willa Paskin wrote in Slate: “Killgrave [sic] is a walking consent metaphor: His power is to extract consent from people who are, in fact, helpless to give it. His victims appear willing, but how can you be willing, when you have no free will?” Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg didn’t want to “mince words,” she told Refinery29. “Rape is rape and I wanted to say that,” she said. “I wanted to approach it in a very honest, very direct way.” Frustrated with seeing the trope of the “naked, tied up, raped dead girl with her underwear around her ankles” on TV, Rosenberg wanted to focus on the aftermath of rape, rather than rape itself. Though Kilgrave’s objective is mysterious at first, he states what he desires in the seventh episode: Jessica. He’s in love with her. He's even shocked and confused when she tells him that he raped her. “He’s always told himself, in fact I think he says it in one of the episodes, ‘I am just giving you what you wanted all along,’ ” Rosenberg said. “It’s the old ‘Well, she was wearing a really short skirt’ metaphor.” But Jessica’s experiences with Kilgrave do not make her a ruined woman. Jessica enjoys sex, and her explicit scenes with Luke — something new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — are evidence of that. “I really always want it to be very visceral and real and true to the reality of women and their sexuality,” Rosenberg said. “We are sexual beings, and what a revolutionary idea that we can actually enjoy sex. It was just part of this character that, while she avoids intimacy for myriad reasons in her past, that is not necessarily connected to her sexuality.” Jessica understands sex and all of its pleasures and perils. Does Kara Danvers, a.k.a. Supergirl? Right now we don't really know. We don't even get to see her reaction when the aforementioned DJ — Leslie Willis, who turns into villain "Livewire" — talks about her genitalia. The reason Willis wonders about how sex works for a Kryptonian like Supergirl is because the show's writers have been asking those questions too. “[Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa] got to pose some of the questions that we’re all asking about Supergirl in the mouth of this shock jock,” showrunner Ali Adler told us. Adler also explained that the show will explore how Kara has acted upon her desires and the limits her powers impose on her. (Apparently, freeze breath and French kissing don’t mix.) “We definitely address the question of what kind of romantic history she’s experienced in episodes to come,” Adler said. “I don’t think that was an easy fit for her. Yes, there’s the physical component — she is the Girl of Steel. You can do the math discussions on that; we definitely have them in the writer’s room. The bigger issue is when you’re not at ease with yourself emotionally, it doesn’t translate sexually. Whether we’re at 8 p.m. on CBS or not, she’s a person who's [coming into her own], and we absolutely embrace that storyline.” (Executive producer Andrew Kreisberg told EW that the show is more focused on Kara's emotional issues than the "aerodynamics of superhero nookie.") Now, Supergirl is never going to be as graphic as Jessica Jones. It is the cheery network series to Netflix's dark, existential drama. And that's fine. But the fact that these two feminist shows about superheroines explore a primal, key facet of womanhood so differently is striking. Supergirl expresses its feminism through one kind of empowerment, asking, how can Kara defy expectations and become a fully-realized woman and a superhero? Sex, for now, has taken a backseat to world-saving and leaning in at work. Jessica Jones, meanwhile, explores how women cope with the men who want to control their minds and their bodies. Positive cheerleaders and brutal realists — in this world, we need both.

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