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Hellcat’s origin story shows the dark side of female empowerment.
This article contains spoilers for Jessica Jones, season 2.
Origin stories tend to follow a formula. Something life-changing happens to a “normal” person, and depending on their moral values, they become a superhero (Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne) or a villain (Loki, Magneto). Jessica Jones offers an unusual alternative by refusing to follow the hero/villain binary. Powers are more of a curse than a blessing, and Jessica mostly just wants to be left alone. Season 2 delves further into this idea, subverting our expectations for Trish Walker’s origin story as Hellcat.
Patricia “Patsy” Walker has a complicated history in Marvel Comics, starting off as the protagonist of an Archie-like teen romance series. She then became the superhero Hellcat, but she never reached the level of someone like Captain Marvel. Her recent solo comic Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat! nods to that backstory by making her a former teen star turned superhero, enthusiastically using her minimal powers to fight crime.
Although Patsy Walker follows a comedic tone like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, it shares Jessica Jones‘ characterization of Walker as someone who really wants to be a hero. Faced with other superpowered characters who just want to live normal lives, Patsy is determined to make use of her powers—even if that means working retail while battling Z-list villains like a guy who can control bedbugs.
Jessica Jones rebooted her as a grown-up Miley Cyrus figure, desperate to move beyond her tween stardom. Jealous of Jessica’s superpowers, she decides to kickstart her own origin story. The results are less heroic than she hoped.
Like all good superhero stories, Jessica Jones explores the clash between supernatural power and everyday power structures. Jessica may be able to lift a car over her head, but she’s still restricted by the legal system. Her life was shaped by an abusive relationship, and super-strength doesn’t help with her drinking problem.
Looking on from the sidelines, Trish enviously believes that Jessica is squandering her super-strength. From her controlling mother to her backstory as a recovering addict, Trish is sick of feeling powerless. Her breaking point came in season 1, when Will Simpson invaded her apartment. She decided to empower herself through combat training. Many shows would depict that activity as a sign of strength, but in Jessica Jones, it’s more obviously a symptom of trauma. Instead of focusing her energy on helping people as a journalist (or, say, going to therapy), Trish wants to reshape herself in Jessica’s image. She’s convinced that physical superpowers will give her life purpose.
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This storyline draws direct parallels with addiction. As Trish progresses from guns to chemical enhancers to dangerous medical experiments, her career and personal life dissolve into chaos. Motivated by a thirst for power and control, her attempts at heroism are a disaster.
In Trish’s final act in season 2, she shoots Jessica’s mom in the head, “saving” Jessica and torpedoing their relationship in the process. It’s a clear turning point for Trish’s role in the show because instead of feeling a rush of remorse, she continues to defend her actions. Unlike Jessica, who is constantly buffeted by guilt and self-doubt, Trish is sure she made the right choice.
The season ends with Trish realizing the medical experiments actually worked, and she now has enhanced reflexes. For Trish, this eclipses her conflict with Jessica. She’s finally achieved her dream.
Hellcat and the dark side of female empowerment
Trish Walker drank the Kool-Aid for the myth of the “strong female character,” where strength equates to violence. Despite her assurances about wanting to help people, it’s more about the adrenaline rush of victory. She visibly becomes a less caring, less thoughtful person, as selfish ambition overtakes her moral code. It’s one of the many ways in which Jessica Jones subverts our ideas of female empowerment. The main characters—Jessica, Trish, Jeri Hogarth, and Jessica’s mom, Alisa—all misuse their power in messy, human ways (including) their social privilege as white women) to mixed results.
As Preeti Chhibber points out in Syfy Wire, Jessica Jones has a problematic history with non-white characters, excluding women of color from meaningful roles. It sometimes feels like a textbook example of white feminism, viewing sexism through the lens of white women’s pain. We see awkward moments like Jessica angrily explaining bigotry to a Latino man, and Luke Cage’s implausibly rapid forgiveness after learning that Jessica killed his wife last season.
But at the same time as these missteps, the show offers intentional critiques of white feminism. Trish’s “empowerment” involves treating Malcolm like crap, and at one point she literally gets a rich white lady “I need to speak to the manager” scene. Hotshot lawyer Jeri Hogarth manipulates the legal system to get a superpowered healer out of jail so she can literally sap his life-force to extend her own life. If that isn’t a commentary on race, class, and incarceration in America, I don’t know what is.
Trish and Jeri are both products of their environment, with Jeri’s ruthlessness originating with her trailer-park childhood. Trish grew up as a very specific kind of female celebrity: a beautiful child star who was sexually abused and wound up in rehab. After a lifetime as the face of a celebrity brand, she wants to turn her body into a weapon. Of course, that isn’t the same as being a hero. Don’t be surprised if next season, she becomes the show’s lead antagonist.
After Killgrave, Jessica Jones made the wise choice of avoiding another superhero/villain pairing. Jessica doesn’t have a nemesis in season 2; she has a complicated relationship with her mother. The final conflict comes from Jessica’s refusal to let her mother go, which could give us a hint at Hellcat’s role next season.
It’s a very different origin story from what we expected at first. Patsy Walker could have just as easily become Jessica’s perky sidekick. But in the gritty world of Jessica Jones, Trish’s desire for power is leading her to a dark place and it could force Jessica to take down the only family she has left.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor