Am I in control? Do I have any power in a seemingly powerless situation? How can I possibly “move on”? Is it possible to mentally survive a cycle of abuse? Most victims of physical and/or psychological abuse continuously ask these questions long after the actual acts of abuse have ceased; the lasting effects can and often do continue to chip away at victims, some more slowly than others. Abuse, whether physical or psychological, is a hard topic to broach, whether talking about it in person or watching it play out episode after episode on TV, because more often than not, it can be too real, too hard to swallow. Thematically, this is what Marvel’s Jessica Jones tackled with it’s highly anticipated first season, which premiered on Netflix on November 20th, 2015.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) Jessica Jones is based on the string of Alias comics written by Brian Michael Bendis. Jones is a misanthropic private investigator with a penchant for alcoholism. Oh, and superhuman abilities. Jones has superhuman strength — originating from an as-yet-to-be-determined source, though it was hinted throughout the course of the first season that perhaps it’s connected somehow to the car crash that killed her parents and younger brother — the ability to “fly” (though Jones dismisses this as the ability to jump really far), and she can heal more quickly than your “average Joe.” It was indicated that, through a series of jobs and careers she tried out, she also tried the whole “superhero” thing after the alien attack on New York City in the MCU’s The Avengers, but ultimately decided that an altruistic life wasn’t right for her. It’s a bit murky how she came to that decision, though it’s assumed more of her past will be explored in season 2.
Jessica Jones premiered hot off the heels of Marvel’s Daredevil, which garnered critical acclaim for it’s gritty, more down-to-earth, “street” take on the MCU. Each Marvel property part of the MCU has it’s own unique tone, except arguably the Captain America franchise, which shifts it’s tonality to show the difference in ideals and morals between 1940s World War II mentalities and the tech-ridden insidious nature of the aughts; Thor is rooted in norse mythology; Iron Man employs terrorism and real world commentary on weaponry, marrying sharp comedy with slick action; Ant-Man is a heist film; Guardians of the Galaxy is a rag-tag journey film, a space opera in the vein of Star Wars; and the Avengers, as a set of films, and as characters individually, carry a lightheartedness; Daredevil is gritty and bloody and moody in tone; and Jessica Jones is no exception. The noir detective tone is uniquely Jessica Jones; it’s somewhat akin to Daredevil, but way more haunting on a psychological level, making one of Marvel’s only female-led projects one of, if not it’s most cerebral experiences.
That’s the other thing: Jessica Jones is not defined by it’s female protagonists (yes, the amount of badass women on the show far outweigh the amount of men, a refreshing first for Marvel.) Jessica Jones (played by the immensely talented Krysten Ritter) is relatable on a human level, a gender-defying “super”hero for the everyday viewer who has ever felt any morsel of pain. It’s clear that Jessica lives in a patriarchal society, dominated and controlled by corrupt men; it’s a part of what colors her character, and what colors every accurate female character on the large and small screen (though some are more blatant than others). It’s the acknowledgment of that, but not the focus on it, that matters here. And it does matter. Why? Because at it’s core, superhero fiction always accurately reflects the time during which it was produced; those ideals and standards are what make hero fiction so incredibly powerful.
The superhero genre is ripe with allegorical content; from the marginalization of minorities to outright discrimination, to war and the effects of PTSD, to altruism and egoism, heroes are, at their very core, examples of “the other.” They are outcasts, even with all of their various awe-inspiring abilities. They grapple with humanity from a different perspective. They often have to cope with their “gifts” while also navigating the world and what that often vicious world thinks of them. I teach a lit course around superheroes, who have provided entertainment for generations, but there is much more to these fictional characters than what first meets the eye. Superheroes have come a long way since the “Man of Steel” was introduced in 1938. Early superheroes represented fantasies about stopping Hitler during World War II; sophisticated and socially oriented publishers used superheroes to encourage American participation in World War II and this echoes a similar narrative of the symbolic strength of these “superhumans” and how they’re so much more than just masked vigilantes. Their stories often mirror the horrors, tragedies, and “the unknowns” of the society during which they were created, and continue to communicate startling truths about social injustices, even – or especially – in 2015. From the very first episode of Jessica Jones, viewers are shoved into Jessica’s world, one riddled with PTSD-like effects of a harrowing ghost-like figure. Jones is a survivor of abuse, both mental and physical perpetrated by a sinister figure viewers come to know simple as “Kilgrave.”
Her visceral flashbacks are purple and dark blue, meant to reference the villain, Kilgrave’s comic book alter ego Purple Man. She’s haunted by him; he floats in and out of her consciousness, and she survives by the sharp wit of her tongue, throwing herself into her work as a PI, and dulling her senses with bottles of whiskey for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Jessica Jones is a walking survivor.
The show’s villain, Kilgrave, is perhaps Marvel’s most sinister, most well-rounded, and most terrifying to date. He has the ability to control minds, but unlike that of Charles Xavier from X-Men, Kilgrave tortures his victims. He invades their minds and controls their actions. It can be something as simple as instructing a stranger to deliver a cryptic message to someone they’ve never met, or as dastardly as suggesting sexual favors or inserting a pair of hedge sheers into your mouth and then falling on them in the middle of Central Park. The worst part? Many of Kilgrave’s victims don’t even realize what happened to them. They’re aware, but they’re not in control. Jessica Jones was one of his victims, whom he held captive for eight months. When he told her to smile, she smiled. When he told her to kiss him, she kissed him. When he told her to submit to him, she submitted. She didn’t actually want to be with him, but she couldn’t escape him. Unlike the Batman’s, Superman’s, Captain America’s, or Hulk’s of the world, Jessica Jones is a survivor. Thor may be a God who helped save New York City from an alien invasion, but Jessica Jones is living her personal hell every day, fighting a very real battle that many women — and men — battle in secret: rape survival. In episode 8, “AKA WWJD,”Jones confronts Kilgrave in one of the most breathtaking rape discourses on television today:
Kilgrave: We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.
Jessica Jones: Yeah. It’s called rape.
Kilgrave: What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?
Jessica Jones: The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.
Kilgrave: That is not what I was trying to do.
Jessica Jones: It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again and again!
Kilgrave: How am I supposed to know?
Kilgrave tries desperately to shade his actions as reactionary, as human. He tries to rationalize his treatment of Jessica by claiming that wining and dining her somehow made him privy to her body and her mind. What’s startling about that interaction is that Kilgrave (played by the talented David Tennant) genuinely believes his actions were warranted, and that he was rightly granted access to Jessica’s body because, as he explains over and over again throughout the season, he only ever wanted her to love him, as if that let’s him off the proverbial hook.
Throughout the season, Jessica hunts for Kilgrave and, along the way, is haunted by him and their past at every turn. Kilgrave turns her neighbor Malcolm into a drug addict dependent upon Kilgrave for money and direction. Malcolm tails Jessica and takes pictures of her for Kilgrave to look at. In one of her attempts to find and stop him, she stumbles upon a room filled with candid pictures of her.
When she discovers Malcolm is the one tailing her, she makes a deal with Kilgrave; if he lets Malcolm go, she’ll send him daily selfies of herself. She directly put herself in his metaphorical line of sight in order to save her neighbor. Once again, she became his victim. This represents the constant struggle survivors of rape deal with, that photographic reminder that tethers the victim to their rapist, despite actively trying to heal. But Jessica Jones isn’t about healing, not entirely; it’s about fighting to live. Viewers watch as Jessica Jones spirals into darkness.
An interview with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg on the LA Times sheds light on the very real implications of the show:
The series deals with abuse, rape, and PTSD with such a deft hand. How important was nailing those elements to perfecting the overall tone of the show?
Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally
With rape, I think we all know what that looks like. We’ve seen plenty of it on television and I didn’t have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does. I wanted the audience to really viscerally feel the scars that it leaves. It was not important to me, on any level, to actually see it. TV has plenty of that, way too often, used as titillation, which is horrifying.
Jessica Jones doesn’t portray rape gratuitously, as a plot-line meant to sell in an unsettling way, the way American Horror Story has been criticized for in the past. Instead, it paints an accurate picture of rape survival. And Jessica isn’t the only survivor in the show. Her best friend Trish “Patsy” Walker (future Hellcat?) is a survivor of a physically abusive mother. She deals with the pain of her past by training with a fighter and helping Jessica hunt down Kilgrave. Still, the psychological effects of her childhood neglect haunt her, as evidenced by her relationship with Kilgrave-compelled cop Will Simpson, who was forced by Kilgrave to beat her. She follows this up by beginning a very unsettling sexual relationship with him. Trish, like Jessica, suffers from the push-and-pull of surviving emotional and physical abuse, further coloring the shades of grey that exist. Monnica T. Williams, PhD, wrote in Psychology Today that:
Confronting the totality of our painful experiences is the only way to gain mastery over the past. It allows us to objectively revisit what happened so that we can reassess it from a more mature and objective vantage point. It allows us to gain a more complete picture of the events and come to more appropriate conclusions about the cause and meaning of what happened. This understanding allows us move past the futile urge to reenact these experiences and allows us to recreate an internal understanding of who we really are in a more functional and accurate way.
It’s in this belief that both Trish and Jessica continue to fight. They fight for themselves, for each other, for other survivors. They are heroes on a smaller scale than Captain America or Superman, but they are still every bit as effective, maybe even more so for viewers. In “What It’s Like to Watch Jessica Jones as a Survivor of Abuse” on Bustle, Lindsay Merbaum wrote:
Being in an abusive relationship was like being under a spell. In the time I spent involved with an emotional abuser, I was miserable, frightened, and so full of rage and self-loathing it made me physically ill, yet I couldn’t get out. I watched myself do things I didn’t agree with. I watched myself create distance from friends and family. I was complicit to the extent that I wanted to placate my abuser, so he would stop hurting me, but eventually, I realized nothing would make him stop.
This is true to what Jessica experiences throughout the entire first season. She works methodically to stop her attacker, Kilgrave. And each moment is one step closer to total destruction, in every possible way. At times it’s hard to watch, but it’s the subtle symbolism laden throughout that elevates it to a higher plane and makes it so much more than just a show about surviving abuse. It’s an allegory for the constant battle raging within … and without. It’s about the everyday battles that exist all around us that we can’t see, can’t control, and sometimes can’t even believe because of their silent nature. The show is a frightening — and stunning — look at the human psyche. It’s maddening. It’s deafening. It’s impossible to ignore. But it’s important. Jessica is the feminist hero we’ve been waiting for, the real superhero, the one who can survive the real battle: the battle that’s all too human.
Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network’s National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
SafeHorzion: Call the Rape, Sexual Assault & Incest Hotline (New York City): 212-227-3000 or the 24-hour Crime Victims Hotline: 866-689-HELP (4357)
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)