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‘Jessica Jones’ Boss on Increasing Diversity On-Screen and Off: ‘It’s Still Not Enough’

Netflix’s and Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” has already won critical acclaim — and a Peabody Award — for its nuanced portrayal of female characters in its freshman season, but showrunner Melissa Rosenberg doesn’t intend to rest on her laurels when it comes to empowering women, both in front of the camera and behind it.

“Four out of 13 of our episodes are directed by women — it’s still not enough,” Rosenberg admitted during a recent For Your Consideration panel for the superhero hit, moderated by Variety‘s Debra Birnbaum. “Our goal is half and half; our goal is diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it.”

The statistics on female directors in the industry remain damning — on the studio side and in independent projects — and Rosenberg cites stagnation in the business as a possible cause.

“I think the challenge that we face in terms of diversifying the writing room or the directors’ chair is that there hasn’t been a lot of movement over the last 20 years, so there aren’t a lot of people far enough up the chain to have the credits that get you on a Netflix show,” she explained to a full house at Paramount Studios’ theater. “That’s so much of the work that we as a community are doing and have to do, and [are] certainly not doing a good enough job of yet — trying to find more women. If you have a list of credits that gets you on a Netflix show, you’re working – you’re one of 10 women or 20 women — so the challenge is to give breaks to more people, to bring them up, to keep them in the world and in our business, and that is the work that we have to do. We’re incredibly committed to it, and Netflix is as well, I’m proud to say.”

The series has been embraced by fans and critics in part because it makes a space for women’s stories that often still go unexplored in mainstream television, positioning Krysten Ritter’s titular heroine as a self-sufficient survivor, not a victim — while still allowing Jessica to be fully realized instead of a stock “Strong Female Character.”

Rachael Taylor, who plays Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker, said that she was attracted to the role because she “relished the depth and complexity between these two women on the page, and it’s so rare. We’ve all read and tested for and auditioned for a bunch of pilots, and this is the first one that really jumped off the page with its understanding of female friendship and the female condition. It’s a really nuanced, complex portrayal of what it’s like between two women that have the history that Jessica and Trish have.”

Likewise, the show’s dedication to exploring the aftermath of rape and abusive relationships without being exploitative has struck a chord with viewers, which Rosenberg attributes to their character-centric approach.

“One of the things the comic book gave to us was the history between Kilgrave (David Tennant) and Jessica; it was altered slightly – in the book she hadn’t actually been raped. We just felt like that was a much more immediate experience and also felt more grounded in some ways,” she said. “We didn’t walk into the room going ‘we’re going to tackle the issues of rape or abortion’ or any of the other issues that came up in our storytelling. It was, ‘here is a human being who has gone through this experience. What would her choices be, what kind of decisions would she make? Who would she be now?’ She’s a survivor, and that’s so much of her driving life force and so much of what we love about her as well. It came out and we started getting all these incredible responses — beautiful thinkpieces written about it; social media, people talking about how they were victims of abuse and assault and they felt empowered by this representation, and it was absolutely mind-blowing and humbling and gratifying to be able to contribute to that conversation in any way, and so surprising that we were able to do it in the context of a superhero story. This is a character-driven story, it’s that first and foremost, and it just has this wonderful milieu of being genre.”

Season 1 of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” is currently streaming on Netflix. The show was renewed for Season 2 in January.

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