I was excited but nervous when Marvel and Netflix announced their Jessica Jones series. I knew the source material, knew sexual violence was central to the story, and I was worried about what the adaptation would be.TV has not had a great track record with stories about rape – often featuring gratuitous scenes and victim blaming storylines – and the world of superhero comics certainly hasn’t been great on the subject, either. But I held out hope for a show about a complicated retired lady superhero, despite my subject matter concerns.
Binging the series with my girlfriend this weekend, I was stunned by what I saw. Yes, this is a “superhero” show with a female lead, but Jessica Jones is so much more. The show does what we all got excited about Mad Max: Fury Road doing this summer: it’s a story about the aftermath of sexual violence that doesn’t include gratuitous rape scenes, one that takes on issues of violence and patriarchy head on without replicating harmful tropes. ButJessica Jones goes further than Fury Road by making survivors the central characters, and making their trauma and recovery the meat of the show.
Far from a drab, depressing treatise on patriarchy, Jessica Jones does all this while being an entertaining, tightly paced and expertly told superhero show. The writers – led by Melissa Rosenberg (it’s no surprise Jessica Jones‘ showrunner is female, and an example of why it’s so important to have greater diversity in who gets to tell stories in Hollywood) – build a tense, engaging narrative that finds drama in the process of trying to rebuild after trauma and the ways the world treats victims. Kilgrave is a terrifying villain because we are initially introduced to him through Jessica’s PTSD – we know the impact he’s had on her, making him a much more compelling bad guy than those featured in any Marvel movie. And we’re presented with characters unlike any we’ve seen in mainstream pop culture before – especially Jessica, who isn’t just another all too rare example of a complicated, messy female lead – her complexities are incredibly true to life because they’re clearly informed by psychological and interpersonal realities faced by survivors.
As Alexandra said Monday, “she’s the superhero [we] have been waiting for.”
Some minor spoilers follow.
The first episode plunges us into one of the most powerfully accurate depictions of PTSD I’ve ever seen. Jessica wanders, drunk, through her own life, always on edge, feeling disconnected and alone, memories flooding her consciousness at the worst times, pulling her into the past. Our superpowered hero (super strength in Jessica’s case) is trying to move forward after an intense experience of trauma: before the events of the show Kilgrave, another “gifted” individual with mind control abilities, became obsessed with Jessica, forcing her to stay with him and do whatever he told her. She’s escaped, but she’s still very much in her past, and over the course of the season Jessica must confront her own trauma directly.
Mind control is often used in superhero stories as a baddy-of-the-week conceit. After all, if you really center mind control and take it seriously, it’s extraordinarily dark and disturbing. And that’s what Jessica Jones does. The show is very clear that everything about mind control is wrong – that it is fundamentally taking away another person’s ability to consent. Fluffy pop action hero fare this ain’t – this is the best of magical realism, using a twist of reality to get at real world issues. Mind control serves a a metaphor for sexual violence, to be sure, and the show uses it to elucidate a number of common experiences survivors face in victim blaming patriarchy. Jessica knows no one will believe what Kilgrave has done to her. She struggles to let herself off the hook for actions she took while under his control, as do many other characters. And she knows the official avenues for taking action – like the police and prisons – can’t be relied on to stop this violent perpetrator.
The show is packed full of survivors of mind control, all of whom struggle with this violation of their consent. They’ve had a range of experiences with Kilgrave, but there is never a hierarchy of victims: a man who gave Kilgrave his coat when told to has just as much place at a survivors meeting as someone who was under his control for extended periods of time, and this is never questioned. Speaking of male survivors, there are a number on this show, and they all get to have moments of being emotionally open about the trauma they’ve experienced.
Sexual and relationship abuse doesn’t get to be just treated through metaphor, though. It’s clear from the beginning that Kilgrave used his mind control to abuse and rape Jessica and Hope, another character he uses to get at our hero. It’s not until more than halfway through the series that Jessica states outright that she’s been raped, though. This feels in no way like avoiding the subject of sexual violence. Instead, it feels like we’ve followed Jessica to the point where she’s able to name and speak her trauma. Further, we’ve spent a number of episodes with her, seeing the aftermath of the abuse she experienced, understanding her terror at the very real depth of Kilgrave’s evil, seeing this powerful superhero try to escape rather than jump into revenge mode. So when rape is mentioned it doesn’t get to be the sensationalized plot twist or ratings grab it has been on many other shows – it’s real. We know what Jessica’s talking about. We know her experience through watching her fight to survive. And there’s no need for a gratuitous rape scene to communicate this reality to the audience.
The most disturbing flashback scene to me is a brief moment where Jessica is not under Kilgrave’s control and is unable to escape, which Kilgrave tries to convince her means she wanted to stay with him. This is perfect use of the mind control trope, letting the audience see Jessica’s struggle to escape and her own difficulties parsing that moment, and seeing Kilgrave try to force his version of reality on her. Through the conceit of mind control, the show gives us a moment that perfectly represents someone trapped in an abusive relationship without being exploitative.
There are so many ways in which Jessica Jones depicts realities of trauma that fly in the face of TV tropes. Abusers are so regularly given second chances on TV (it seems to be a trope based on wanting to keep characters likable and on the air, and it’s sick). There are a number of moments on this show where characters could give abusers (not just Kilgrave – everything on this show is about trauma and abuse) a second chance. We do see Jessica struggle with this in some ways, showing us the depth of Kilgrave’s manipulation, gaslighting, and victim blaming. But no abuser gets that second chance, no matter how compellingly they argue they’re a changed person – the sort of thing that often gets TV characters off the hook.
Like Supergirl, Jessica Jones has no problems regularly passing the Bechdel test because it’s a show with a female lead who’s surrounded by other powerful women who are all actively engaged in their own stories, none of which are just about a man (it also features scenes with multiple black characters interacting on screen – something that’s still all too rare on shows not executive produced by Shonda Rhimes). But the show goes well beyond this very low bar, featuring survivors – male and female – supporting each other and working together. It takes place in an unflinchingly horrible world, but it’s full of people struggling to be their best and support each other in this context, which I find especially hopeful and inspiring because it’s so accurate to reality.
Jessica Jones is not perfect, and I’m sure the fact it does some things so well and is currently being praised for that means there will be a wave of critique as well. But the show gets so much right in ways I’ve never seen in mainstream pop fare like this. And it does all this by being excellent TV – in fact, it’s probably the best example of a narrative designed specifically for binge watching that I’ve yet seen. The one-two punch of this and Masters of None has this anti-capitalist very excited about the new paradigm where Netflix has enough data to know there is an audience hungry for shows that deal with racism and gendered violence in real, powerful ways.
In a pop culture context that’s full of shows and movies reproducing and perpetuating rape culture, Jessica Jonesthrows down the gauntlet, demonstrating how TV can be used to address sexual and relationship violence, trauma, and PTSD in real ways that treat survivors with respect and give no purchase to abusers. It’s frankly stunning to see a story like this produced by Netflix and Marvel, and I hope the praise the show is currently getting means we get more stories like this in the future.