▲ The title character and her nemesis. Provided by screenrant.com.
A protagonist with super strength, a powerful adversary who promises revenge, and supporting characters who assure the lead that she is destined for greatness. These are the stock clichés that one can find in most installments of the superhero genre. However, the Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones (2015) uses these touchstones as a springboard to spin an unrelenting and mature tale about the aftermath of sexual abuse and trauma. The feminist undertones of Jessica Jones, along with its show stopping performances, pushes against the boundaries of the genre and turns it into a classic for the ages.
From the revelation that was Batman Begins (2005) to the critically mauled Fantastic Four (2015), installments of the superhero genre have generally stagnated when trying to imagine a reality where people with superhuman abilities actually exist. Although technological advancements allow filmmakers to envision with stunning realism how a certain superpower would affect the material world, superhero films and television series still struggle to make the experience of the superhero feel emotionally real.
This struggle seemingly ended with the arrival of the Marvel shows on Netflix. Daredevil (2015), the first show to air, was praised for embracing the grittier, more adult aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). However, the real challenge came with Jessica Jones, which tells the relatively outlandish story of the title character Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, fighting against the advances of her former tormentor and mind-controller Kilgrave, who is brought to life by David Tennant. The genius of Jessica Jones is in how it weaves the larger-than-life world of the MCU together with reality to provide pertinent social commentary and, for once, succeeds in making the audience truly feel for the protagonist.
Contrary to the audiences’ low expectations for the show before it aired, Jessica Jones is now almost universally recognized as one of the most thoughtful meditations on trauma portrayed on television. In the show, Kilgrave, a man gifted with the ability to make someone do exactly as he tells them, takes control of Jessica’s mind and lives with her for a year without her consent. During that time, he physically and emotionally abuses her, which culminates in him forcing Jessica to commit murder. If it were any other show, Jessica Jones would have glossed over the impact the time Jessica spent with Kilgrave would have on her, instead diving right into the physical conflict between the two.
However, Jessica Jones acknowledges that such an experience would scar a person for life, that it would cripple their ability to engage in a healthy relationship with others. Rather than dismissing Jessica’s abuse at the hands of Kilgrave as a mere catalyst for the action, as so many other films and TV shows do, Jessica Jones dwells on it, using it as the emotional crux. As the audience watches Jessica drink profusely, hurl obscenities at bystanders when she thinks she sees an apparition of Kilgrave, sink into an inescapable depression and generally suffer from the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it comes to empathize with her pain on a human level.
Such a portrayal of trauma could be accused of being too monotonous, but the show brilliantly sidesteps this by representing other ways in which people cope with trauma. Malcolm and Simpson, who both support Jessica on her crusade, have wildly diverging reactions to being under Kilgrave’s control. While Simpson is fueled with a desire for vengeance, which leads him down a destructive path, Malcolm shapes his experience into something that helps him mature and become a more stable person. Hope, whose life is also destroyed by Kilgrave, directs her shame and anger towards her unborn child, providing yet another look at the possible responses one can have in the face of overwhelming trauma.
▲ Kilgrave displays his powers. Provided by mcuexchange.com.
Jessica’s experience is not only used to elicit an emotional response from viewers, but also employed in a manner that elevates the show into one of the most important pieces of feminist creative works in the 21st century. Jessica Jones’ story can be interpreted as an unflinching allegory for society’s attitude toward sexual abuse, with Kilgrave standing in for male power and dominance. Due to his unbelievable abilities, the police dismiss Jessica’s story as an exaggeration, just like many accounts of sexual abuse are either not taken seriously or completely rebuffed by the authorities. His ubiquitous presence, whether it is in Jessica’s mind or in the trail of broken people he leaves behind him, mirrors the ubiquity of sexual violence in this day and age.
Even Kilgrave’s denial of and discomfort with the term rape is eerily similar to how many other perpetrators of sexual crimes defend their actions. More a vengeful ex-boyfriend than a megalomaniac, Kilgrave and the horrifying nature of his actions encourage one to reflect on their own actions and society. David Tennant’s wonderfully dark turn as the villain also helps bolster the message, as he imbues Kilgrave with enough humanity to make him just as believable as a common sex offender as a mind-controlling rogue. In particular, Tennant plays Kilgrave as a weak, pathetic man underneath all his grandiose posturing and chilling speeches, making it all the more satisfying when Jessica breaks free of his control.
Even beyond the stunning utilization of the villain, Jessica Jones is replete with feminist subtexts, especially in Jessica herself, who is a strong female protagonist done right. Unlike other superhero films that mistake physical strength for a strong character, Jessica Jones builds the main character from the ground up, actually giving her a character arc as she starts off in the worst place of her life but gradually grows into a mature, balanced person. Ultimately, the greatest display of strength for a character is not found in defeating a criminal mastermind, but in overcoming their inner demons, and Jessica Jones is able to demonstrate that its protagonist has such strength in spades.
Jessica Jones is the next step in both superhero media and feminist entertainment, showing that a story that does not water down the impact of sexual trauma can resonate with the audience, even in the guise of a superhero show. In the end, Jessica Jones speaks volumes more about the trials and tribulations of the victims of sexual abuse, even more than many lectures or articles concerning the same subject, and that is always commendable, regardless of what form it is presented in.
TV Series Information
Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Starring: Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mike Colter