The Importance of Jessica Jones
CW: emotional/physical abuse, sexual assault, slight spoilers
Jessica Jones, the Marvel series produced by Netflix, is one of the most accurate, affirming and empowering depictions of abuse/assault I have ever seen on screen. I have only watched Season 1, but this first season follows the titular character, one of the ‘darker’ marvel character’s, as she tries to live her life hiding from her dark past, which ultimately hiding from her real self. Played by Kristen Ritter, who gives an incredible portrayal of survivors’ experiences, Jessica is a survivor both from near-death and severe emotional and sexual abuse. She spends her days working as a private investigator, using her powers to take pictures of cheating spouses, or other banal PI jobs. She hates people, and the world, and drinks a bottle of whisky a night to get to sleep. She has one adoptive sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor), who is her life line, and luckily Jessica’s attempt of staying away from Trish to ‘protect’ her doesn’t last long, and they support and save each other in many ways throughout the season.
The season begins with an unstable Jess only just managing day to day life, and we steadily learn the secrets of her past. It is revealed early on, through Jess’ attempts to save another one of his victims, that Jess was under the powerful control of a manipulative, evil villain called Kilgrave (played by David Tennant). Kilgrave is the super-sized form of many cases of abuse; he has the power of mind control and can get people to do whatever he asks them to, even though people are still cruelly conscious of what they’re being forced to do; he is emotionally manipulative and physically abusive (but he just gets other people’s bodies to enact that abuse for him). We learn that Jessica, due to her super-human abilities (the origins of which are basically unknown), managed to escape Kilgrave’s clutches, and she is now immune to his attempts of control. She spends the season trying to take down Kilgrave and protect others from his abuse, alongside helping those closest to her who she (begrudgingly) loves.
I will say that Jessica Jones can often be a hard watch, as Jessica’s survival is raw and real, and although she may be a super hero/human, her experiences of recovery and dealing with the aftermath of abuse/assault are highly representative (and triggering) of the real experience. She is angry, but ultimately wants to do good and help people who have been through the same is her. She drinks a lot and sleeps in, she’s moody and struggles to relate to anyone, including those closest to her. She has casual sex but refuses any emotional attachment and avoids opening up to her partners (i.e. Luke Cage) as much as possible. Although she singularly runs a PI company, the structure of her days, at least earlier on in the season, look similar to how some of mine have looked living with PTSD – not getting out of bed, doing the bare minimum, and generally having a pretty dark view of the world around me. Jessica also experiences flashbacks throughout her journey, and they often come at unexpected times, or times when she needs to get something done. The flashbacks consist of the worst images and sounds replaying in her head time and time again – she is often momentarily frozen, taken right back to those moments that she wishes could be erased. The series gets all these basic sorts of traits that many experience after being sexually assaulted pretty spot on.
There is one specific scene that I see as important in the series, especially after reading more on it. The scene takes place late on in the series in a flashback when a controlled Jessica managed to escape Kilgrave’s hold for only about 20 seconds - when he discovers her trying to 'escape', he tells her to seriously harm herself, but stops her before she manages to and says 'I'm here, I'll always be here'. I found it an interesting exploration of how abusers can reinstate their control long after the initial abuse, by gas-lighting survivors into questioning the reality of what happened. The scene is analysed in a Guardian article:
I really like the use of her undercover work as ‘alias’ investigations, and how she is quite clearly seen as both figuratively and literally running away from her dark past. This subtle use of how denial often works in survivors’ lives was interesting, as it overarches a lot of the series, as denial tactics do in real life too. One thing I did not like, however, was during one of these early scenes of explicit denial, when Jessica decides to run away once she learns Kilgrave is back and controlling people again. Her sister, Trish, says something along the lines of ‘you can’t run away, you are the only one who knows how to stop him blah blah blah…’. In the Marvel universe, this fact may indeed be true, but in no way is Jessica under any obligation to have to save other people from what Kilgrave does. She does decide to stay and fight him, which is amazing and strong, but the enforced obligation felt very wrong to me, and the message it sent out to viewers could have been damaging. Survivors are not there to interfere when their abuser is still operating in their abusive ways. They can do if they feel strong and safe enough, but if a survivor is too scared and feels they cannot interact with their abuser, and if they need to run away to help keep them safe and sane – then let them!
Ultimately, the most important thing that Jessica Jones explores for me is the guilt, the doubt and the shame Jessica feels, even though her abuse was at the hands of one of the world’s most evil super-villains. She knows, objectively, that she is not to blame for the control Kilgrave had over her and the abuse she suffers. But, that fact doesn’t stop her from doubting whether it was her ‘choice’, and it is shown that her path to accepting herself as innocent is a long and arduous one. Jessica suffers from a lot of guilt, from not being strong enough and for harming people when she was under Kilgrave’s harsh control. It was never her fault, just like it is no other sexual assault/rape survivors fault, but I was grateful for the more accurate representation of how survivor’s thought patterns and self-esteem can fluctuate so quickly after assault. It was also therapeutic to see Jessica, who was abused by a categorically evil supervillain, have exactly the same sorts of doubts that so many survivors can have, especially when some cases are deemed as just ‘blurred lines’ – Jessica reassures us that these thoughts happen, and that’s ok, but we have to ultimately strive towards a place of accepting we did nothing wrong.
Jessica is a good person who wants to stop the evil in the world that harmed her and changed her forever. She is superhero-strong, both physically and emotionally, and wants to protect whoever she can, so they won’t suffer the same fate as she has. Although she is a superhero, she is more real to me than many other ‘survivor’ depiction I have seen on screen. There is also extreme catharsis in how she fights back against Kilgrave's force, and changes the world for good in her pursuit for justice. For me, Jessica Jones is the most represented I have felt in the messiness of what surviving after sexual assault/abuse can be like. It is not easy, and it is not pretty, but it is strong and incredible how people always keep surviving after the turmoils they have been through.