Catharsis Is a Superhero

Jessica Jones gives abuse survivors someone to believe in

Photograph courtesy of Netflix
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.

Like many people who have a penchant for binge watching, over the weekend I took in the entire first season of the new Netflix series Jessica Jones. Created by Melissa Rosenberg, and based on a Marvel Comics character of the same name, the show focuses on a superhero turned scrappy private investigator (Krysten Ritter) and her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after being held captive by a mind-controlling sadistic supervillain (David Tennant.) Thinking her abuser Kilgrave is dead—which of course he’s not because they never are—Jessica is depicted as barely managing to rebuild her life. Living at rock bottom, she makes herself hard to love, hitting cheap bottles of bodega liquor to blot out her bad memories.

I admit I went into the viewing blind. Not only did I have very little knowledge about Jessica’s comic-book origin story, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on pop culture superhero narratives in general. I do however have an interest in how victims of sexual violence are depicted on television (i.e., mostly poorly), and how that violation is too often employed as a convenient plot device. The rape of a woman is commonly used to motivate men’s actions (à la True Detective), or as a dirty, dark secret in a tough female lead’s back story, designed to reveal her vulnerability (How to Get Away with Murder, for example). But the early buzz on Jessica Jones suggested that it offered reprieve from lazy depictions of mainstream narratives, and went deeper and more authentically into the process of survival for victims.

Turns out, thirteen episodes later, Jessica Jones is one of the more horrifying and upsetting television shows I’ve ever watched, a designation that has little to do with its degree of explicit violence or level of exploitation. (It’s worthy of note that no one is raped on screen, and the sex depicted is primarily centred on female agency.) Beyond some pretty gross dismemberment, blood splatter, and a few epic fistfights, the true terror is almost entirely psychological, rooted in Kilgrave’s ability to manipulate and persuade not only his victims, but everyone around them. His control also extends far beyond the history of forcing Jessica into sex slavery, and into preventing her recovery once she has physically freed herself from him.

I’m usually reluctant to use the word “triggering,” but if there was ever a show that deserved that designation this would be it. The precise reason the portrayal of Kilgrave is so hard to bear is because, if you’re a person who has experienced abuse, he feels disturbingly familiar. Played with incredible nuance and insight by Tennant—and made all the more jarring because the actor has played our beloved Doctor Who—Kilgrave’s onscreen time directly pushes the most painful emotional buttons. He’s the subtle psychopath, reminiscent of that high-profile, charming, well-loved “nice guy” who fools everyone into thinking he’s not an abuser. (Think Jian Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby. Allegedly.)

In fact, Kilgrave is a much more disturbing TV villain than, say, Hannibal Lecter, because instead of using inventive and absurdly grotesque carnage to terrorize his victims, he engages in the hyper-real, pervasive practices women endure on a regular basis. His menacing tool kit includes breach of consent, manipulation, stalking, and gaslighting. He garners the trust of everyone around him to ensure he maintains control, and conveniently rewrites narratives at every turn, despite Jessica’s screaming assertions of what he’s actually done.

“Jessica, I knew you were insecure but that’s just sad,” he tells her when she suggests he’s driving her to suicide. “I’m not torturing you. Why would I? I love you.”

Because Kilgrave is used to having people literally do whatever he wants—at one point, he actually forces a woman to smile for him, a not-so-subtle nod to street harassment—his rage is stoked by Jessica’s refusal to be with him out of her own free will. “You made me feel something I never felt before. Yearning,” he tells her. Ever the archetypical terrifying ex-boyfriend, he claims to be her perfect match, that he would do anything for her, and that he aims to “prove it.” Under duress, he forces her to agree to being with him, and in the process pulls her away from those who love her. (Isolating her in her childhood home, no less—the very place she’d said she felt happiest in the past.) There’s even a deceptive episode devoted to his possible redemption, fleshing out a back story that could potentially excuse his cruel behaviour, and reminding us how often we do that very thing with real-life abusers. These are pages ripped directly from the domestic violence playbook, and though depicted in a comic-book universe, it couldn’t be more accurate for those of us who have endured it.

Not only does Kilgrave do impossibly awful things to Jessica, the woman he claims to love, he fills her with the punishing self-doubt that any of it ever really happened at all. He lives by a mantra of “you did that to yourself,” scolding her for blaming her drinking on him, and insisting that he’s never directly caused anyone harm by his own hand. Jessica is forced to get “proof,” even though no one who watches on our side of the screen thinks she needs it. The amazing trick of this show is that—unlike true-crime narratives of high-profile abusers—everyone is firmly in the victim’s camp from the moment the accusation is revealed, and painfully channel Jessica’s frustrations as she pursues “justice.”

It’s also no small feat that at no point during this story do we feel sorry for Jessica Jones. Though she’s clinging to a bottle, even getting tossed into a pile of garbage outside of a bar after a particularly bad self-punishing binge, we understand her self-medicating in the context of what she has experienced. She’s imperfect, makes bad choices, and throws herself headlong into harm, but she’s far from the messy/sexy heroine TV has long depended on. We are invested in her even when we don’t necessarily agree with her actions, and we understand that she’s capable, beyond just her superhuman abilities. Damaged yet tough, faltering yet coping, she’s just like so many survivors I know who are doing the best they can with what they’ve been forced to contend with.

At its core, Jessica Jones is a show about how we so often don’t believe women who tell us they’ve been violated, and how we put the onus solely on them to convince us. Perhaps more vitally, it’s a timely representation of a charming, well-spoken man in a good suit getting away with far too much, for far too long. In using Kilgrave’s superpower to highlight the near-inescapable control abusers have over both victims and bystanders, the show has done a remarkable service. It’s relayed the very real, complex experience of long-lasting trauma, and it is a different kind of rape-revenge work, one that focuses more on moving forward than the impossible fantasy of retribution.

Despite how disturbing the show can be for abuse survivors, so much of the process of watching Jessica Jones is one of catharsis. In believing and rooting for this heroine, you are forced to believe and root for yourself.

Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May Fowles (@MissStaceyMay) is a novelist and essayist. She curates baseball feelings from across the league into a weekly newsletter called Baseball Life Advice.