Like so many people, over the weekend I obsessively watched (and sometimes re-watched) Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix while tweeting and texting and yelling at whoever happened to be in earshot. I had already raved about the first seven episodes, but the next batch was perhaps even better — especially in their realistic and complicated exploration of rape and trauma through the eyes of a woman.
There are major spoilers ahead for the entire series.
Jessica Jones has no interest in subtlety. While the first couple of episodes dance around the specifics of what occurred when Jessica was under the mind-control power of Kilgrave, that wasn’t because the show didn’t want to explicitly state what happened so much as because Jessica wasn’t ready to get into details. But when she does confront Kilgrave, there is no question about it. Jessica tells him, straight up, that he raped her: “Not only did you physically rape me but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”
The conversation that ensues is a horrifying mirror of what often happens in real life: She is right about the rape, but he denies it, claiming that their “relationship” didn’t include any rape. He took her to nice dinners and he put her up in fancy hotels. He blames the fact that he doesn’t know when he’s controlling people’s minds. He blames the fact that he didn’t have a nice home or childhood — trying to justify his actions by passing the buck to his mother and father. “You blame bad parenting?” Jessica replies incredulously, “My parents died. You don’t see me raping anyone.” Jessica doesn’t let Kilgrave make excuses, and she doesn’t forgive him.
Kilgrave is able to control anyone he wants to by simply verbally commanding them, whether he’s telling women to smile or telling someone to put a bullet in her head (Trish, unable to control herself, cries on the floor while jamming a bullet into the side of her head, desperate for it to go inside). But despite its supernatural feel, it’s uncanny how much of this storyline mirrors real-life rape cases and reflects the subsequent trauma of a survivor. As I wrote last week, using mind control to explore the abuser/victim dynamic is a darkly brilliant strategy: Deep down, Jessica knows that she’s a victim of Kilgrave’s abuse, even though her brain keeps doing what she doesn’t want to do. She’s stuck — literally — but she’s also figuratively stuck, the way real victims of abuse (sexual, domestic, verbal, emotional, etc.) are.
There’s a reason why asking a victim of abuse, “Why don’t you just leave?” is such a harmful, offensive question. They can’t, for a number of a reasons that vary from person to person, even if they want to. With Kilgrave, even after he realizes that his mind-control powers no longer work on her, he uses other people as pawns to get her to stay; if she leaves, he’ll kill innocents. The threat of danger (whether to yourself, or to friends or family) is a common occurrence in abusive relationships; Marvel’s Jessica Jones takes this and makes it more explicit. The series doesn’t want to hint at the trauma of abusive relationships — it wants to put it front and center, to practically yell about horrific things that men can do to women, to start a dialogue about the intricacies and gray areas surrounding consent, and to make sure that we’re all hearing it loud and clear.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones also explores the ripple effects of trauma. When she first escapes Kilgrave and it’s believed that he’s dead (and when we first meet her as the series begins), Jessica’s drinking too much to combat bad memories and suffering from nightmares about him. She feels his presence when he’s not around, absolutely convinced that he’s behind her. When she ends up in the restaurant they used to go to, she descends into full panic. When she realizes that he’s still alive and sees what he did to Hope, Jessica becomes completely obsessed with trying to prove to people that his powers are real. Once again, this is mirroring the experience of rape victims: the desperation to get someone to believe that this actually happened, that a rape occurred (especially when there isn’t much, or any, evidence), when it’s your word against his, and the subsequent emotional deterioration, exhaustion, and frustration that come along with being told repeatedly that you’re wrong.
Yet Marvel’s Jessica Jones doesn’t insist on having Jessica’s trauma define her. She is deeply affected by her time with Kilgrave, of course, and it’s what drives much of her rage and revenge obsession, but it’s not the only thing about her. And most of the time, it’s not even so much about her — it’s about saving Hope, about Malcolm, about reconnecting with Trish; getting Kilgrave is just a step towards solving these other problems.
Refreshingly, the series also doesn’t portray Jessica as a woman so deeply traumatized that she can no longer enjoy sex. On the contrary, her sex scenes with Luke Cage are some of the best, most sex-positive and titillating sex scenes on current television. It’s important that we never see an actual rape in Jessica Jones: We meet both Jessica and Hope in the aftermath. Television is full of depictions of rape, often seen through the eyes of a man, but Jessica Jones only wants to show the good parts of sex. It shows Jessica’s healing and enjoyment with Luke; it doesn’t show her horror with Kilgrave.
It’s all heavy, heavy subject matter for any kind of art, let alone a comic book adaptation, but it’s ultimately brilliant and necessary. Comic books provide an escape for many readers, solace in finding a powerful narrative that helps them in their real life; Marvel’s Jessica Jones goes a step further and provides a realistic, cathartic narrative for survivors.