This week, Lindsey’s talking about Jessica Jones, the new series from Marvel and Netflix — if you haven’t seen up to episode 8, then SPOILER ALERT and come back afterward. If you have seen that far, or don’t care about spoilers, then read on!
Okay, before you read any further, for the love of all that is good, go watch Jessica Jones. Not only is it amazing, but if you keep reading, you are going to end up with ALL OF THE SPOILERS. I couldn’t write this in a way that is not filled with spoilers. It has so many spoilers. You have been warned.
I watched all 13 episodes of Jessica Jones within a 24-hour period. (You should all be proud of me for waiting until Saturday morning to finish the last two episodes, instead of just staying up until five in the morning. Again.) I was incredibly impressed with it. This is a woman-led show that takes a lesser-known comic character and makes her incredibly compelling. This is a comic book show that passes the Bechdel test (which frighteningly few comic book properties manage to accomplish). The tone of the show has an excellent blend between “gritty realism/noir” and “totally awesome superhero stuff.” On top of all of this, the show does two things that I haven’t seen very often in television, or in popular culture in general: it presents a villain that is an actual foil to the superhero instead of just a twisted reflection of them, and it manages to discuss rape in a realistic, respectful, and meaningful way.
I forget who said it (perhaps the fine folks at Cracked?) but I read recently that one of the things that is becoming an overly-predictable trope of Marvel movies is the way that the heroes face their equals/weird mirror images as bad guys. Steven Rogers, the result of a good person using the super serum, fights the Red Skull, the result of a bad person using the super serum. Tony Stark faces off against other tech geniuses. Thor faces his own godly brother. The Hulk fights other people who turn into giant rage monsters. Hank Pym pits one of his protégés against his other protégé. This even extends to the Marvel shows — Daredevil fights a man who also believes he is saving Hell’s Kitchen (albeit in a more explosion-y way), and the Agents of SHIELD fight Hydra, which has infiltrated SHIELD itself. Jessica Jones is different. She and her foe, Kilgrave, are in many ways polar opposites. (Note: I know that in the comics, Kilgrave’s name is spelled with two L’s. Take it up with Marvel’s television branch, not me.)
Despite my discomfort with replicating the old woman=body/man=mind split, it’s an unavoidable aspect of the show. Jones is largely about the body. Her power is super strength, giving her the ability to lift fancy sports cars while they are trying to drive away from her, or to toss clients who blame her for the bad news she’s spreading out of office windows. She’s also very un-self-conscious about her own body, and the bodily functions of others. While sitting on the toilet she uses her cellphone and laptop to chase down a lead (perhaps the epitome of multitasking) only to realize in dismay that the toilet paper roll is empty. She’s frank about her job as a PI, explaining, “I stand in dark alleys and wait to take pictures of people boning.” As Abraham Riseman points out, she’s equally frank about her own desires. She tells Luke Cage, the bartender she has been somewhat guiltily stalking, “I don’t flirt, I just say what I want.” Cage asks her, “And what do you want?” which cuts to the two having sex. When things get a bit rough she reassures him, “It’s okay I won’t break.” to which he replies “Yeah, you will.” (Spoiler alert: she doesn’t, but a couple episodes later the bed does.)
This is not to say that Jones is not intelligent, because she is. She’s incredibly perceptive, breaking down the behavior patterns of Cage in a very Sherlock-ian way, and coming up with fairly elaborate (though not always successful) plans to help those around her or to hurt Kilgrave. But her mind is also sometimes her enemy, as her PTSD from her time under Kilgrave’s control leaves her with flashbacks, nightmares, and a self-medicating alcohol addiction. Her fear of Kilgrave makes her struggle between doing what is right to help others, and doing what is right to help herself. At one point, in order to save a young woman who has undergone the same treatment that Jones has, she must essentially abduct the young woman, bodily forcing her out of the room she has been ordered to stay in. The girl’s mind, like Jones’ mind, has become the means of her imprisonment, and Jones must overpower her physically in order to actually save her.
Kilgrave, on the other hand, is all about the mind. He has the power to force others to do his will, simply by telling them that they wish to do so. He tells a waiter to force another couple away from his favorite table, and he does. In a flashback, he tells Jones she will love her dinner. She does. He tells a young woman not to move, and she doesn’t, even when it means urinating on the bed. Kilgrave can override the bodies, and the wills, of anyone he wishes. Willa Paskin writes that Kilgrave 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? Kilgrave is literally a rapist. As the show begins, Jessica Jones is a wreck, still recovering from months spent in Kilgrave’s thrall, doing his every bidding, which included copulation. But he is also figuratively a rapist. Every person he brainwashes he violates, entering their minds and forcing them to do what he wants, regardless of their desires.
For Kilgrave the body is secondary: it is at the discretion of the mind, and therefore is inferior. Yet at the same time he can recognize that his own weakness is his body, and that his mind, while powerful, is not infallible. He undergoes surgery without full anesthesia, as anything that completely knocks him out (sleeping apparently doesn’t count) means that he loses control over all of his subjects. He hires mundane security guards to augment those that he holds in his thrall in case he ever is in a situation where he loses control. He rarely does any of the dirty work himself, and instead compels other people to do things he wants, so that he has a degree of separation between his actions and their consequences. Some of his disdain of and fear for the body can be traced back to his youth, when his scientist parents forced him to undergo painful (but lifesaving) procedures that led to the development of his powers. He is fascinated by the way that he and Jessica relate to one another, telling her “I’m the only one who matches you. Who challenges you.” Jones is, understandably, less than pleased to have her rapist claim a role as someone who “challenges” her.
The way that Jessica Jones handles the elements of rape in Jones’ backstory is the quality that makes me respect the show in addition to liking it. Like Carolyn Cox at The Mary Sue, I believe that “tough-female-protagonist-motivated-by-sexual-assault can be a frustratingly sexist trope.” Rape being the backstory and motivating factor for a female character is common enough that it has its own TV tropes page. As movie critic Drew McWeeney says “I must see 30 films a year where somebody needs to have ‘something bad’ happen, and the go-to impulse in almost every case is rape” — and don’t even get me started on Game of Thrones.
While some writers successfully handle this in a nuanced way, it’s frequently a cheap shortcut to force sympathy for the (usually female) character. Such stories get a lot of pushback these days, but they’re still sadly popular, most notably in the recent Mad Max: Fury Road tie-in comic that presents a backstory for Furiosa and the Wives that is chock full of “rape as a motivating tool” plot points. (Seriously, if you want to continue thinking nice, feminist things about Fury Road, try to forget that this comic exists. If someone tells you to read it, just set it on fire instead.) It happens so often in comics that Garth Ennis even skewers the idea in his very, very NSFW comic series The Boys.
The representation of rape in Jessica Jones is much closer in spirit to Ennis’s depiction than the Furiosa backstory, which is to say that it’s not empowering, it’s awful. As Cox points out, the representation of Jones’ rape does two things that are rare in representations of rape in media: it focuses on the survivor of the rape and the aftermath of the act, and it avoids graphically depicting the act itself. It feels no need to show the act of rape in order to prove that Rape is Bad or to make us sympathize with Jones. We can manage both of those things on our own. Perhaps most critically for an age where it seems like many people misunderstand consent (I’m looking at you, George Lawlor and Larry Solomon), it has two characters actually talk about consent and rape and what those words mean.
Part of Kilgrave’s character arc is his attempt to woo back Jones after she has escaped his control. (I call this “Kilgrave tries to figure out what it means to be people.”) Since Kilgrave is a mind controlling narcissist, this goes about as well as you’d expect. He buys Jones’ childhood home (the last place she was happy) and decorates it exactly as it was before her parents and brother were killed in a terrible car accident. He totally does not understand why this is a traumatizing concept, and why making a grown woman sleep in a room that was decorated by a fifteen-year-old former version of herself is an awful idea. But along with the house, comes a surprising offer from the master of manipulation. He tells Jones, “I promise I won’t touch you unless I get your genuine consent.” But this is no Beauty and the Beast tale. Kilgrave didn’t “turn good” after he experienced the love of a good woman. This is yet another symptom of Kilgrave’s obsession. His sense of entitlement is so strong that he becomes obsessively fixated on the one person (he initially calls her a “thing” and then corrects himself to “person,”) he can’t have. The one person who did not do everything he commanded of him. He needs her, not necessarily to challenge himself, as he says, but so that his control can be complete.
As the episodes continue on, it becomes clear that Kilgrave himself has little to no idea of what “consent” actually means. When Jones reacts violently to Kilgrave’s attempts to touch her, they have the following exchange:
Kilgrave: We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.
Jones: Yeah. It’s called rape.
Kilgrave: What? Which part of staying in 5 star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, was rape?
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’s not what I was trying to—
Jones: It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do, you raped me again and again and again.
Kilgrave: No… how am I supposed to know? Huh? I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to.
This discussion is fairly amazing for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the only case in recent history (or at least the only one I’m aware of) where a show actually dedicates time to showing the differences in perception of consent between a victim and her victimizer. Jones is given the opportunity to confront her rapist and actually educate him, revealing his blind spot: he truly has no idea how to differentiate consent from non-consent. When he promised Jones that he wouldn’t touch her without her consent, he didn’t actually know what he was promising. Second, as my friend E and I discussed following our respective viewings of the show, Kilgrave’s attitude is terrifyingly close to/kinda identical to the attitudes of actual men. There are people walking around right now who think that if they were not “trying” to rape anyone, then their actions don’t count as rape. There are people walking around right now who think that doing nice things for a woman (such as buying her dinner or taking part in activities she likes) means that she owes the man sex. When Kilgrave is trying to be “good” and not use his powers, he exasperatedly demands of his staff, “How do you people live like this? Day after day, just hoping people are gonna do what you want, it’s unbearable.” This sense of entitlement, this inability to cope with a world that doesn’t go exactly his way, is a trait that is shared by men ranging from frat boys to Fortune 500 CEOs. Kilgrave isn’t scary because he’s unique, a one-in-a-million result of experimentation. He’s scary because he’s representative of thousands of other men. He just has the superpowers necessary to fulfill his sense of entitlement on the large scale.
There is unfortunately currently no set release date for Jessica Jones season 2 (so far there isn’t even a confirmation that there will be one, partly because Marvel continues to get in its own way by scheduling team-up events that delay single-character series). However, I sincerely hope that we get to see Jessica Jones on the small screen again soon. This show is doing amazing things, not just for the superhero genre, but for representations of women, and women’s issues, on television. It would be a true shame for such a refreshing show to fall victim to one of the worst tropes to befall women-created and women-led shows: being discarded as a “niche” or show for daring to make audiences care about topics like consent.
Update (1 Dec 2015): A paragraph warning of potentially disturbing content has been added above.
Lindsey Hanlon is a writer and educator living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well as a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not discussing awesome representations of women on tv, she studies gender in comics and popular culture.