TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual assault and harassment, verbal and psychological abuse. Also, light spoiler alerts.
WHEN I SAT DOWN TO WATCH JESSICA JONES, I had no idea who she even was. I enjoyed the show, but realized it was operating on a much higher level than I expected. The titular gumshoe has survived horrific abuse, but endures lasting effects. The villain represents harassment and gender-based violence. And the entire show highlights women’s day-to-day experiences in a world where the good guys and bad guys all look alike.
The manipulative Kilgrave’s power is mind control. One year after abusing Jessica, he returns — seemingly from the dead. He taunts her with a case that’s identical to their “relationship,” and dares her to get close in order to save the victim. As Jessica struggles to manage her PTSD with hard liquor, sex, and recitations, one of Kilgrave’s commands keeps coming back: “Smile.”
Smile. I almost screamed. How long have feminists been saying it? Stop telling women to smile. Here was a villain who was doing exactly that, and — here’s the best part — the audience cannot, in good conscience, agree with him.
Most of the time, when we see a man on-screen telling a woman to smile, he’s just a Nice Guy trying to cheer up a nameless, sad woman. It’s easy to excuse the harassment, because the audience is supposed to identify with the harasser, not his victim. And we are often led to understand that the Nice Guy’s target actually needed him to tell her to smile in order to cheer herself up on a bad day. It wasn’t street harassment, but a selfless act of concern.
Not so with Jessica Jones. The audience understands how Kilgrave’s power works, and they know he is not a man who does anything out of kindness. He’s cold and manipulative, and the only reason he wants Jessica — or any other woman — to smile is because it puts him in control of her. After seeing harassment portrayed in such a way, it’s difficult to unsee it. The catcallers on-screen aren’t Nice Guys anymore; they’re Kilgraves.
Similarly, when Jessica finally confronts Kilgrave about his abuse, we see another common manipulation tactic play out. He gaslights her. Kilgrave asserts that he never raped her, that everything was a consensual part of their “relationship.” This opens up the conversation on consent.
When we see one of his victims lying helpless in a hotel bed, we know she was raped. We know she cannot have given consent because he makes that impossible. We know that it doesn’t matter whether she agreed to go to dinner, accepted the lingerie he gave her, or had too much to drink — because Kilgrave’s power turns any no into a yes. Rather, it gives every no the appearance of a yes. Kilgrave’s victims, then, represent all the women and girls who don’t fight their attackers and abusers, because they can’t.
They’re also the victims who stay. In the real world, abusive partners can use a dark variety of means to keep their victims close. In Jessica Jones, Kilgrave doesn’t need any of that, because he has the most extreme version of it all: total control. He suggests self-harm, even suicide, and his victims follow his commands, because — for that brief moment — they believe him. He compels them, even when they recognize that the compulsion is abuse. The audience never questions why Kilgrave’s victims don’t leave him; we know they can’t.
When one of Kilgrave’s victims turns up pregnant, she grows desperate for an abortion. She cannot bear to wait months to see a physician— “Every second it’s there, I get raped, again and again.” — so she commissions an assault in hopes of inducing a miscarriage. When that fails, Jessica sneaks her a medical abortion, which she downs immediately.
By telling us this story in the victim’s own words, the scene highlights how unconscionable it is to require that a rape victim continue with a pregnancy, as well as the fact that TRAP laws do nothing but risk women’s lives. No one watching can question the woman’s refusal to carry to term, because we all know how monstrous Kilgrave is.
The entirety of Jessica Jones is told from a woman’s perspective. This grants viewers the rare opportunity to see how abuse operates, as we’ve seen here, but it also offers a peek at how women process trauma and make decisions. We don’t call Jessica’s PTSD and alcoholism into question, because — while we would not wish those afflictions on her — we recognize them as understandable responses to trauma.
Jessica Jones is far removed from what we expect in a mainstream series, and that’s exactly why it matters. Jessica is the hero survivors need, and her new show sheds light on what choice and survival are like for women living with the consequences of rape culture.
Image credit: Netflix