On TV And Trauma: ‘Jessica Jones’ Might Be The First Show To Treat Sexual Assault Right
CC: George RR Martin.
This post discusses sexual assault and plot points for Jessica Jones, Game Of Thrones, Downtown Abby, Reign, Scandal and Outlander. You’ve been warned.
Since dropping last Friday, Netflix’s noir-thriller/superhero saga Jessica Jones is earning well-deserved props from critics and viewers alike. It’s a sharp, moody, intelligent show that doesn’t talk down to the women on its screen or in its audience. Coming from the infamous boys’ club that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a studio that routinely sidelines its often rough-hewn female characters, this is an evolution worth noting.
But there’s something else worth praising in Jessica Jones: it may have finally found the only appropriate way to deal with rape and sexualised violence on television.
Adapted from Brian Michael Bendis’ and Michael Gaydos’ Alias comics, Jessica Jones is the first truly grown-up entry into the MCU. The titular Jones (Krysten Ritter), an erstwhile superhero-turned-private investigator, is a “hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman”. But Jessica’s hard-boiled habits are merely a method for escaping a horrific past trauma; before the events of Jessica Jones, she was held captive for months by the villainous brainwasher Kilgrave (a transcendently horrifying David Tennant).
Though it’s not explicitly stated until late in the series, it’s clear that Jessica has endured a great deal of emotional and sexual trauma at his hands. The show is a unique exploration of the fallout from this trauma, while keeping a sole focus on the survivor’s perspective.
Television’s Systematic Violation Of Women
Over the past few years, sexual violence has played a major part in popular series like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Outlander and Orange Is The New Black; it’s been on teen favourites Reign, Switched at Birth and Degrassi; it’s all through Mad Men, House of Cards, Scandal and Girls. Everywhere you look, a female character is being abused to serve a story.
If these plotlines were respectful and nuanced, they could advance conversations around consent and abuse in a society crippled by a pandemic culture of rape. However, by and large the series and their creators co-opt the suffering of women to speed along lagging plots, advance ratings, or worse, punish ‘difficult’ female characters.
Game of Thrones — a series so popular its creators aren’t even worried about spoiling their own cliffhangers — has presented a slew of scandalous storylines that feed off the violation of women. In season four, Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei; an act director Alex Graves claimed “becomes consensual by the end”. In season five, Sansa Stark’s husband raped her while her childhood friend Theon looked on.
Amid the considerable public backlash to the latter, feminist pop culture site The Mary Sue decided to discontinue their coverage of the series. “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” said editor-in-chief Jill Pantozzi. “The show has creators. They make the choices. They chose to use rape as a plot device. Again.”
Game of Thrones has always been “a rape-heavy show“. Notorious for its salacious sex scenes and gory violence, the series often relies on both the threat and act of sexual violence to test or break its female characters. But the violation of Game of Thrones’ women is never about the women themselves. When Jamie warns Brienne that she’ll likely be raped by bandits, he reflects on how glad he is that he is not female. When Sansa is attacked, we experience her trauma through the eyes of Theon (though, sickeningly, we can still hear her violation).
The world of Game of Thrones is male-oriented — a fact George RR Martin has questionably drawn from The Middle Ages into his fictional universe — and it’s rendered so matter-of-factly that the rape of women is regularly used as a propellant for the male ego. The women who are raped are not even allowed to deconstruct their own experiences.
This is similar in other series too. Anna Bates’s graphic rape in Downton Abbey’s fourth season was a catalyst to push the Downton men into action. Mary’s rape in Reign was a way for the series to break apart the show’s principal couple, and to soften King Frances through the trauma of his wife’s violation. On Scandal, Mellie hides the fact her father-in-law raped her, apparently in the service of her husband’s impending presidential election.
On Outlander, as Roxane Gay puts it, “the glimmer of sexual peril” is ever-present for Claire as her love interest, Jamie, often sleeps outside her bedroom door to prevent drunken men from attacking her. When the tables are turned and Jamie is raped instead, the camera latches onto his pain: a lingering eye that’s otherwise used to valorise his strong, attractive body. The scenes are among the most disturbing and difficult things I’ve watched on television.
This — the witnessing of every painstaking moment of a character’s assault — is not necessary to grasp the impact of their trauma. Especially when the survivor is not allowed to verbalise or work through her experience later.
“When the show itself doesn’t talk about it, that’s the mistake,” explains Damon Lindelof, creator of The Leftovers. “If we don’t have that conversation on the show, that’s a disservice to the audience and the characters”.
Consent And (Mind-) Control In Jessica Jones
With shows this obsessed with women’s pain, Jessica Jones might seem at first glance like just another tiresome addition to TV’s dubious legacy. But this smart series is working from a different script: one where the survivor is the sole proprietor of her pain, and where she is allowed the space to heal.
We first meet Jessica when she’s putting a disgruntled punter’s skull through the frosted window of her apartment/office, Alias Investigations. She leans through the broken glass, lofty over the man’s large frame, and deadpans: “And there’s the matter of your bill.”
Tough as nails, Jessica is a prickly, PTSD-suffering problem drinker and insomniac. Visions connected to her months of captivity with Kilgrave flit before her eyes — hyper-intense, fleeting, and drenched in purple. She tries to banish the trauma by reciting the names of the streets in her childhood town: “Main Street, Birch Street, Higgins Drive…”
We never know exactly what horrific things Kilgrave did to Jessica, but there is so much dread in her interactions with him that we expect the worst. Later in the series, she confirms it: “Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head”.
This is heavy stuff for any series to deal with — particularly one in which the title character also lifts cars and flies off multi-storey buildings. Marvel is not generally known for its sensitivity when it comes to trauma or the experiences of women.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the show’s creator Melissa Rosenberg was deliberate about this. “We’re very conscious to treat that aspect of the story with sensitivity and responsibility,” she said. “Coming into this, the events have already happened and this is really about the impact of rape on a person and about healing, survival, trauma and facing demons. To me it’s much richer territory … If I never see an actual rape on a screen again it’ll be too soon.”
With this, we never see the sustained sexual abuse that Jessica — and Hope, another of Kilgrave’s victims — endures, but we’re intimately acquainted with its effects. We see Jessica’s panicked flashbacks, her tendency towards substance abuse to numb pain, and her general distrust of people, even those who are clearly on her side. She is, without a doubt, a traumatised woman but she’s also a resilient one — the kind who smashes an aggressor’s head through a door without a second thought.
Tenant’s Kilgrave, on the other hand, is a sinister, brilliantly rendered psychopath. Smeared with a trademark teasing grin, Kilgrave lurks in the periphery of Jessica’s life. He only rarely emerges to deal with her directly, preferring to send envoys (loved ones compelled to harm her or themselves) while he watches on gleefully.
In this way, he is a poignant metaphor for a domestic abuser — obsessive, controlling, unable to see fault in his own actions. When Jessica tries to make him understand that he repeatedly raped her, he dismisses her. It’s a stark discussion about consent, and no one’s attesting things can be “consensual by the end”. To Jessica, and the people behind Jessica Jones, consent is not cast in shades of grey.
As the only person who can stop Kilgrave, Jessica’s heroic ability and her will to overcome his abuse grow in tandem. Perhaps surviving rape has strengthened her, but we don’t need to see the abuse to know its impact. It’s in every punch she throws, every sardonic barb she slings, every bottle of bourbon she polishes off alone at home, and that makes it all the more powerful to watch.
Jessica Jones is on Netflix now.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.