Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Guest writer Rosie Marks follows our previous discussion on the way in which sexual violence is portrayed in film and TV, by exploring Marvel’s new show Jessica Jones.

The time of the superhero is upon us and for the past year or so Marvel and DC have been battling for the onscreen top spot with the likes of Iron Man, Batman, Captain America and Thor.  But Jessica Jones is a breath of fresh air
for those of us who want to see a strong well-rounded female hero.  Don’t get me wrong, Black Widow is awesome, but her perfect hair, makeup and heels just don’t strike me as suitable world-saving attire.  I just don’t find her relatable.  It’s frustrating for the women who play these heroines too; Scarlet Johansson was less than impressed when, in an interview, Robert Downey Jr was asked thought-provoking questions about the complex morality of his character and she was asked about the diet she went on to fit into her skin-tight suit.

At the other end of the spectrum to this hyper-sexualised breed of heroine is Jessica Jones, a woman who’s too busy fighting evil to fuss about costume change.  Jessica is deeply flawed and therefore relatable. She’s damaged, cynical, but ultimately tries to do the right thing.

The most important thing about the new Marvel series, though, is what it teaches its viewers about consent.  The show is revolutionary in
its fearless use of the word ‘rape’; there’s no sugar coating it, and no disputing
the fact that what Kilgrave does to Jessica is indeed rape- both physical and mental.  We never see Jessica being physically raped, and we don’t need to; the psychological abuse she suffers is a far more sophisticated parallel which illustrates perfectly how damaging our society’s approach to sex and consent can be, and that when it comes to rape, its not really about sex at all, but power. Jessica Jones confronts domestic abuse head on, in a relationship where male privilege is escalated to the power of mind control.  Kilgrave tries to gain sympathy for his condition by saying that he can never tell whether people are acting because they want to or because he’s told them to.
To me, this sounds a lot like the feeble cry of the privileged male.

 Read these lines from episode 8, ‘AKA WWJD’:

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: “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 is the super-villain stand in for anyone who has ever victim-blamed, or denied responsibility for his actions by saying, ‘she wanted it’.  In the real
world, men may not have the power to control minds, but many people
underestimate the power of intimidation – which they achieve through their
threatening behaviour, superior physical presence and strength.  The damage Kilgrave does to Jessica and the rest of his victims is a sorely needed lesson to today’s society about victim-blaming and consent.

It is established that Kilgrave’s influence normally lasts for twelve hours – after that, his victim is no longer under his control and is not compelled to follow his orders.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the series, Kilgrave claims that once counted the hours he’d spent with Jessica, and she stayed with him and hugged him of her own free will when his power on her had timed out.  But one only has to see how limp she is in his arms to know that the hug is not consensual.  In those few minutes, he argues, she could have escaped, but she didn’t.  But it’s not simple as that.  When she is free of his influence, Jessica is in such a panic that she cannot act – and when decides to jump, Kilgrave calls her back inside.  To make things worse, the only way out for Jessica is to jump off the building and risk killing herself.  For her, consent is literally a matter of
life or death.

Another success of the show is how it addresses Jessica’s PTSD.
Yes, she’s damaged from her experience of abuse at the hands of Kilgrave- she’s an alcoholic, she’s paranoid, and she’s always expecting Kilgrave to be lurking around the next corner. But her PTSD doesn’t define her.
The producers didn’t reduce Jessica to a two-dimensional damaged rape
victim with trust issues- she still shares a passionate relationship with Luke Cage, with whom she has believable, messy, vigorous sex.

One of the best ways the show engages with consent is Kilgrave’s repetitive insistence that Jessica smiles.  It’s his favourite command for
all the women he controls, because if he makes them smile, it looks like
they’re enjoying themselves, and he can tell himself that they are.  In his mind, this is what keeps him from being a rapist.  When he looks back on
his victims, he can tell himself, ‘She was smiling, she enjoyed it,’ and in one
flashback to a date at his favourite restaurant, Jessica is smiling –because
she has no choice.  When you’re in Kilgrave’s company, smiling is a means of self preservation rather than an expression of pleasure.

Having said this, I hope that when people watch Jessica Jones, they learn something valuable about consent rather than identifying with the villain who claims to be the true victim of his abilities while using them to manipulate and harm others.  Kilgrave should be lesson to people that just because you have the ability to get what you want from someone, it does not give you the right to expect it from them.