I gave two papers at UCO’s Gender and Sexuality Studies conference this year, having found two Netflix shows worthy of discussion. Little did I know that this conference and this paper would coincide with the Brett Kavenaugh confirmation hearings and thus become doubly triggering and relevant in equal measures. Writing such a paper as a survivor of assault during the current political climate has been nearly unbearable, but I found Netflix’s adaptation of the Jessica Jones story so delicately nuanced on the matter that I refused to back out of the talk. Below, you can find my paper (as I read it at the conference) and the Prezi that accompanies the text. As always, I enjoyed the discussion with my fellow conference participants following this panel. What’s more, the Supreme Court decision came down during the conference, and I have never been so thankful for this academic community and the support shared between us on that day. As a conference paper, this piece is relatively rough; I welcome all helpful feedback!
Jessica Jones and #MeToo: The Pressure to Report
Spoilers and Content Warning: sexual assault
There is no question that Netflix’s Jessica Jones, a film-noir-style adaptation of the Marvel comic Alias, is a deliberately feminist show with women, their relationships, and their stories at its center. Additionally, the show is run, written, and directed by women. While the series can be (and has been) read from a variety of feminist perspectives, what I find most striking is reading the show against the backdrop of discussions about sexual assault, especially in the age of Me Too. Even before the movement went viral with the hashtag, Jessica Jones used the popularity of the superhero genre to tackle the complexities of surviving sexual assault, approaching the topic both through allegory and head-on. Yet instead of falling into a trap of feminist proselytizing, the show’s creator, Melissa Rosenberg, explores questions surrounding sexual assault in a nuanced manner. Rosenburg puts the titular hero’s trauma at the show’s center, empowering Jessica as a survivor while neither ignoring her PTSD nor falling into the trap of rape-revenge story that fetishizes sexual violence. As Tim Rayborn and Abigail Keyes note in the introduction to their essay collection on gender, trauma, and addiction in the first season of Jessica Jones, “[the show] immediately earned praise from a variety of sources, not only within comic fandom, but also from counselors, therapists, women’s rights activities, scholars of women’s studies, and other related disciplines” (6).
The show’s first season focuses on Jessica’s PTSD following assault by the mind-controlling villain Kilgrave, and I am far from the first to write on rape allegory in this series. However, my analysis focuses on Jessica’s struggle as she feels obligated to save others from the same trauma. This theme in the show’s first season anticipated the collective social pressure of #MeToo, and its continuation caused Shirley Li to call the show’s second season “prescient” (Li). Even though both seasons were written and filmed before #metoo became a prominent part of national dialogue, I argue that the show is deliberately structured to shed light on the difficult position survivors find themselves in as they process their trauma.
I want to preface this paper by emphasizing that neither I nor the show intend to reach a conclusion regarding the issue of reporting sexual assault. Myself a survivor who never reported, I find this show’s approach to the issue to be delicately nuanced, embodying two major sides of the debate in its main characters, Jessica and Trish. Trish represents the pressure (both societal and personal) to report assault, insisting repeatedly on the responsibility of the survivor to help other potential victims. Jessica, however, insists upon her right to cope with her trauma in the way she needs to heal; for her, this means privately (…and with a lot of whiskey). While I cannot speak for other survivors, Trish and Jessica reflect the frequent debate in my own head. Additionally, with the explosion of the #MeToo movement in the past year, Jessica and Trish’s arguments (filmed months before the hashtag went viral in October 2017) became prophetically representative of much dialogue surrounding the movement. The question of survivors’ perceived obligation to report is, I argue, deliberately ambiguous and incendiary, designed to spur dialogue. I believe the need for such dialogue is evidenced by #WhyIDidntReport that went viral in the last few weeks. Actually, this paper has become increasingly harder to write during the horrifying treatment of Dr. Christine Ford. But the events of the past few weeks only further evidence the difficulty of reporting; like Jessica, Ford dealt with her trauma privately until she found the internal pressure to protect others too great to ignore. Both women found themselves in a unique position to confront their assaulter for the good of others, and both were exceptionally brave to do so.
In this paper, I first explore Jessica’s trauma as Kilgrave’s victim and as subject of a medical experiment, the first a prolonged assault with a clear sexual component and the second a representation of non-consensual medical procedure as metaphor for sexual assault. I then analyze the conflict between Jessica and Trish as embodying personal right to privacy versus the pressure (both societal and internal) to report assault. The paper’s final section considers the role, both positive and negative, that popular media plays in discussions around sexual assault.
Jessica & Kilgrave
For those unfamiliar with Jessica’s place in the Marvel Universe, the character made her debut in the 2001 graphic novel Alias, named for Jessica’s private investigation business. Jessica was a former Avenger named Jewel who was enslaved for 8 months by the mind-controlling Purple Man (Kilgrave). Jessica ditched her superhero costume after her comrades failed to notice her absence. The character appeared as part of Marvel’s new Max series, a darker, adult counterpart to the more child-friendly heroes who have existed for much longer and continue to dominate the Marvel Universe and box offices alike. Comic book Jessica was designed to show a darker, gritty world on the fringe of the superhero world, and the series was correspondingly character- rather than action-driven.
The Netflix show, dropping its first season in November 2015, maintains the film-noir atmosphere of the comics, minus the misanthropic hero’s spandex-suited past. Like her original incarnation, Jessica’s PTSD following Kilgrave’s mind-control is central to the narrative. As in the comics, Jessica was held prisoner by Kilgrave, creating a “romantic” couple’s life together through his mind control. Melissa C. Johnson analyzes the changes made from comic to screen, noting, “…that Kilgrave’s sexual exploitation of Jones is used for titillation in the comics, while the television series carefully avoids that” (9). The show demonstrates that it is perfectly easy to represent a victim’s unwillingness without depicting assault or rape on the screen. Jessica here is clearly not consenting to this relationship, an image in stark contrast with her very active sex life that is shown on screen. She is also not sexually ‘broken’; she enjoys rough sex and is far from the common film image of a rape survivor who has to struggle to rediscover physical intimacy. [slide-repeat] The representation of Jessica’s trauma is compelling and empowering because it refuses to fetishize the sexual element of Kilgrave’s control, and, more importantly, never shows it. Many women-centered stories use sexual assault as a character-building plot device (see Outlander especially, or half the films on Lifetime), and Jessica’s relationship to her trauma is more complex as the sexual element is only one part, not the focus.
Indeed, there are many victims of Kilgrave’s control, only two of which include a sexual element. Because the show reduces the direct focus on sexual assault, it avoids the fetishizing or polarizing traps many similar stories fall into, and is therefore free to more deeply explore the debate on responding to assault through the metaphor of super-human mind-control. Justin Wigrd applies Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope to the show: “By viewing Jessica as a product of her historical position and cultural influences, we find that she acts as a champion of feminism. In response, the villains at work within the show operate as and represent agents of patriarchal oppression, suppressing Jessica’s agency and identity” (10).
The villain Kilgrave is essential to the show’s metaphorical exploration of sexual assault, and not only because of David Tennant’s brilliantly compelling performance. Kilgrave is THE cis het white man, par excellence. This is, at least in part, a deliberate choice by Rosenburg; in the comics, Kilgrave is known as The Purple Man (the chemical accident that bestowed his powers also turned his skin purple) and is originally from Croatia. However, Rosenburg removes the purple skin, not only to better align with the show’s more ‘realistic’ take on the superhero genre, but also to focus on a clearly white male. Kilgrave is also now a posh, upper-middle class Englishman, quite intentionally the very image of global privilege, patriarchy, and colonialism. His mind-controlling powers are the simplest metaphor of all: Kilgrave is not a supervillain trying to dominate the universe or even the city (like Fisk of Daredevil, season 1); he just wants his little corner of the world to bend to his will and cater to his every whim. Rayborn and Keyes describe the show’s Kilgrave (who gained his powers as a young child) thus: “He has always had everything that he wanted, and so has no empathy or compassion, and cannot form any kind of realistic view of the world” (6). Anyone who threatens (or even slightly inconveniences) his control is seen as antagonist in his mind – you know, like the poor persecuted white male of today’s America. Kilgrave’s need to control exists on all levels, from the nefarious (forcing his mother to kill herself) to the trite (forcing a beautiful young woman to simply smile at him for hours).
Indeed, the “smile” theme remains prominent throughout the series, highlighting this supposedly innocuous aggression women face on a daily basis as they are told to smile. The first glimpse we get of the villain and his powers is when he tells Jessica to smile during a PTSD flashback in the first episode. Kilgrave tells Jessica to smile throughout their time together so she fits the beautiful complacent image he thinks a woman should fulfill . The final episode of the first season is called AKA Smile, and the title reflects Jessica’s last word to Kilgrave as she snaps his neck. It’s a poetic conclusion to the show’s drama, and beyond satisfying to the women who face these microaggressions every day.
Like many abusers, Kilgrave has convinced himself that his relationship with Jessica is not “rape”. He desperately needs to believe what Jessica felt was not exclusively due to his control over her, that “she wanted it”, so to speak. [[[show conversation from 1.8, 28.35-29.56min]]] Again, we see Kilgrave as representative of your typical white male, focused only on how the situation negatively impacts him, never the victim. Kilgrave persists in his delusion that if he compels Jessica long enough into the relationship, she will eventually love him for real: “No matter how long it takes, I know you’ll feel what I feel” (1.13). Accustomed to a world that bends to his every whim, Kilgrave is incapable of imagining that Jessica’s feelings could run counter to his own.
The second season is perhaps more interesting, or at least unique, as it uses medical experimentation to create super-powered humans as a metaphor for sexual assault. Once again, the series explores Jessica’s ‘obligation’ to protect others, even at the cost of reliving her own trauma. This is a deliberate decision by the show-runners as this represents a noteworthy departure from the original plot. Comic-book Jessica also loses her family in a car accident, but is doused with radioactive waste in the same accident, creating her powers. In the show, Jessica’s powers are not a fortuitous accident, but a medical experiment performed with neither her knowledge nor consent after she is severely injured in the accident. This decision maintains the emphasis on Jessica’s trauma of being the object of other people’s nefarious actions without her consent. This enables a metaphorical discussion about reporting assault and confronting trauma while leaving the explicit angle of sexual violence completely to the side.
Now in both seasons, Jessica and Trish stand in conflict with each other, Jessica championing survivors’ rights to handle their trauma privately, and Trish representing the pressure to come forward, whether that pressure comes from social movements like #MeToo, from friends and family concerned for the survivor (like Trish herself), or even from within as a survivor feels a personal obligation to report their assault. This next section looks more closely at Jessica and Trish embodying these two sides of the dilemma.
Trish & Jessica in Conflict
Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister, best friend, and confident, begins each of the series’ two extant seasons in exactly the same way, insisting upon Jessica’s obligation to report her traumatic experiences in order to help others. The first episode of both the show’s current 2 seasons includes almost identical arguments between Jess and Trish as the latter pushes the former into action. In the first season, the conversation centers on Kilgrave, and Trish insists Jessica has a personal responsibility to help because of her powers. Jessica comes to Trish for money to run, and Trish’s first reaction is to admonish her for not using her knowledge of Kilgrave’s capabilities to save the abducted college student Hope. She tells Jessica, “I know one thing: you are far better equipped to deal with that animal than some innocent girl from Omaha” (1.1). Jessica is guilted into action and goes straight to the hotel where Hope may be, despite her fears of also finding her attacker there.
Season 2’s very similar argument centers on Jessica’s “obligation” (in Trish’s mind) to pursue the medical company who experimented upon her without consent. Trish insists Jessica can protect others who may also be currently subjects of IGH’s research. Trish discovers the company is still operating and insists Jessica has an obligation to confront the group to save other potential victims. This is the conversation that rang the bell for me: [play 2.1 @22.49- 25.05]. (Interestingly, my cishet partner did not read the season 2 plot as a metaphor for sexual assault until I discussed my impressions with him.)
In Trish’s perspective, it is Jessica’s “responsibility” to use her trauma to save others. Of course, Trish is largely fueled by jealousy of Jessica’s powers; Trish therefore projects her own savior complex onto Jessica, ignoring her friend’s feelings regarding her own trauma. Trish pushes action upon Jessica based on what she would do in the same situation, never considering that Jessica may feel very differently. As a public persona (child-star turned talk show host), Trish is desperate for a crusade, a cause to champion to enact change in the world. Without her own story to tell (or more importantly that she’s willing to tell), Trish forcibly amplifies the voices of survivors (both of assault and experimentation) while ignoring their own wishes. Trish does this not only with Jessica, but with Hope and Ines as well, also victims of Kilgrave and IGH respectively. In all three cases, Trish demands they share their stories on her show for the greater good, never understanding that the stories are not hers to share. She has no right to insist someone else relive their experience if they’re not ready. I argue that it is deliberately uncomfortable to watch Trish insisting Jessica come forward when even the discussion is clearly triggering for her; I believe Rosenburg wants the viewer to share Jessica’s discomfort for two reasons: 1) to acknowledge and validate survivors’ similar experiences and 2) to increase empathetic understanding in those who have not experienced assault.
In short, Trish is a well-intentioned, but insensitive, Social Justice Warrior who cares more about projecting victims’ voices than actually listening to them. To summarize the presentation of this (intentionally) problematic character, Trish is clearly wrong to push like she does, and the audience shares Jessica’s discomfort. But to muddy the waters, her point about protecting others is clearly valid, and is ultimately the argument that pushes Jessica to action in both seasons. Most importantly for my argument, Trish embodies the internal and societal pressure of #metoo: whether the push comes from a hashtag or ourselves, survivors can easily find ourselves as uncomfortable as Jessica.
Media and #MeToo
Like Trish, the visibility of movements like MeToo and #WhyIdidntReport places pressure on survivors to recount their trauma, either officially or even through social media. Despite all the positives of these hashtags in furthering accountability for perpetrators and providing support for survivors, for many, the ubiquity of the hashtags reinforces the trauma. As Sandee LaMotte described the movement for CNN, “For many victims, #MeToo is an obvious rallying cry, giving them an opportunity to break their silence in an atmosphere of acceptance and camaraderie” (CNN link). Trauma specialist and clinical psychologist Linda Curran articulates the counterpoint to MeToo’s empowerment, noting the pressure the movement puts on survivors to come forward; “Making your history public should only be done when you feel resourced enough to tolerate the effects of the disclosure… It’s not heroic; it’s retraumatizing” (WaPo). In my mind, Curran could be saying this directly to Jessica to counter Trish’s insistence that Jess is obligated to report her trauma. Sexuality educator Aida Manduley said many clients of her therapy practice found the triggering hashtag “inescapable” (WaPo). Indeed, I sincerely doubt I’m the only person in this room who has needed to step away from social media in the last two weeks because of precisely this “inescapable” feeling. …and here I wanted to say something about moving forward towards changing the stigmas around survivor status and reporting sexual assault…. then Kavenaugh and the vote yesterday and I sincerely cannot end this on the positive note of changing dialogue that I wanted to because my outlook is simply too pessimistic right now.
So.. jump to conclusions about the show. In the end, Jessica does, in both seasons, move to action for the protection of others. Does this mean that Trish wins? That the show teaches this message? I believe it does not. Indeed, Jessica must move to action or it’s a pretty boring super hero show. I argue that the “message” of the show is to open the dialogue and demonstrate how complex the situation can be for the survivor dealing with trauma. Jessica moves to action when she (and the plot) decide she is ready. At the very least, I hope such a show teaches the audience to be more patient with survivors than Trish is with Jessica. But for me, the absolute most important message of the show is when Jessica pushes Hogarth to find more victims of Kilgrave’s mind control. Jessica implores, “Change public perception, and victims will come forward” (1.3). Jessica, I couldn’t have said it better.
Bonos, Lisa. Not everyone with a #MeToo is posting their story. Here’s why some are refraining. Washington Post. Oct 19, 2017. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2017/10/19/not-everyone-with-a-metoo-is-posting-their-story-heres-why-some-are-refraining/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.47a670f24aca].
GameSpot Universe. The Comic History of Jessica Jones. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l33UXbuiQRI], March 5, 2018.
IGN. Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Comics History 101 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoswtyJSV-g], December 6, 2013.
LaMotte, Sandy. For some, #MeToo sexual assault stories trigger trauma not empowerment, CNN, Oct 19, 2017. [https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/19/health/me-too-sexual-assault-stories-trigger-trauma/index.html].
Li, Shirley. “Gritty Woman”. Entertainment Weekly, vol. 1505, March 9, 2018. Pp.22-25
McClurg, Leslie. What Happens When #MeToo Stories Reignite Old Trauma. KQED Science. Jan 23, 2018. [https://www.kqed.org/futureofyou/438664/what-happens-when-metoo-stories-reignite-old-trauma].