Modern television is not known for its nuanced portrayal of rape and sexual violence. Much of the recent discussion about depictions of rape on television has focused on Game of Thrones, HBO’s massively popular television series based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin. Game of Thrones has been criticized for its on-screen portrayals of rape. In Season 4, one character rapes his lover, though the showrunners claimed what appeared on screen was not rape. In the past season, another character is raped just off screen, and another character is forced to watch. Some fans of the books have been so horrified by the way the show has treated rape that they have decided to no longer watch it. Much of the criticism of Game of Thrones centers on the use of rape as a plot device: rape serves as a way for a female character to “develop.” More recently, some shows have changed course from using rape as a plot device, as more female-directed and woman-centered content emerges on our television screens. Netflix is at the forefront of this with its new show, Jessica Jones.
[Warning: mild spoilers ahead. – NC]
Netflix is proving it can hold its own against network television by offering new content for subscribers. The streaming service’s original programming, which includes smash successes House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, made its first foray into the comic book universe with Daredevil, which premiered last April and enjoyed both critical and popular success (the second season of the show will air in March). Another Marvel-based show, Jessica Jones, was released in late November 2015. Jones follows the eponymous hero, a woman with superhuman strength and the gift of flight, as she opens a detective agency in New York City. Like another Netflix original show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jones features a leading character who has survived sexual trauma.
In the first few episodes, we learn than Jones, portrayed by Krysten Ritter, has escaped from a villain with mind-control powers named Kilgrave (David Tennant). Jones is piecing back together her life after Kilgrave, and attempting to recover from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggered by the actions Kilgrave compelled her to take. In the first few episodes, we also learn that Kilgrave had repeatedly raped Jones and tried to convince her that they were in a real relationship by “celebrating” anniversaries together, for example. In one scene Kilgrave orders the staff to clear out the restaurant and bring expensive bottle of wines to him, as if their relationship was a normal, loving one. Although Jessica Jones resides in the world of Marvel superheroes, the psychological violence and manipulation inflicted on Jones mirrors what happens in many abusive and violent relationships: it is all too common that the abuser attempts to justify their actions by claiming they loved the victim.
Ritter reaches new heights in her portrayal of Jones. Perhaps best known for her contributing roles on CW dramas like Veronica Mars (as Gia Goodman) and The Gilmore Girls (as Lucy), and more recently, as Jane in AMC’s Breaking Bad, she conveys her character’s complexity. Jones is torn between her own self-preservation and her still-recovering moral compass. Much of Ritter’s work — as Jane, Chloe, and Gia, especially — has involved her playing quirky young women. But in contrast to the trope of the “manic pixie dream girl” — a placeholder role featuring a quirky or whimsical young woman who only serves to further the plot point of the male lead; (SNL did a hilarious send-up of this trope with this skit) — Ritter’s body of work provides audiences with a character who has quirks, but also substance. Furthermore, Jessica Jones is framed by the choices of its female lead, and in the end, is fundamentally a show about female relationships.
When we meet Jones, she has established a detective agency with the support of her adopted sister, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Walker is a child actress turned radio host and celebrity. With Walker’s encouragement, Jones takes on the case of a missing NYU student after her parents reach out to Jones for help. In unraveling the case of the missing student, Jones comes to understand that the young woman has been taken by Kilgrave, and that her parents were likely told to seek out Jones by Kilgrave himself. At the end of the first episode, we are given a taste of what Kilgrave is capable of: he uses his mind control powers to tell the student to murder her parents in front of Jones, which she does in a particularly gruesome scene. The arc of the season follows Jones as she attempts to stop Kilgrave and keep him from taking other people hostage, as he did with her.
Kilgrave does not actually appear in the show until the end of the third episode. As a viewer, my own fear of Kilgrave grew as I watched Jessica be torn between the desire to escape him, and the desire to confront and fight him. Kilgrave manipulates his way into Jones’ childhood home. There, he taunts her with an image of what she might have with him — using her memories as well as her desires – to convince her that she should continue to take his abuse. This scene of course has more real-world implications, since this is another tactic abusers in the real world take in order to make their violence seem normal. However, by this point, Jones is no longer under Kilgrave’s spell. Her confrontation with Kilgrave in Episode 8 is remarkable in that it shows how Jones has come to survive all that has been done to her — and her willingness to address it, head on. “Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head,” she tells Kilgrave.
Naming the act of rape on TV is important — many films and television shows that deal with sexual violence in some capacity skirt the issue. Contrast Jones’ admonishment of her rapist and abuser with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s treatment of it — sexual violation of some kind is implied, but never addressed on that show. During the trial of Kimmy’s abusive character, the word “rape” is not used once. Meanwhile, in Jones, we see her character live through abuse, her PTSD, and confront and condemn her abuser. By the end of the season, Jones has not fully “healed” — what would that even look like? — but she has taken control of her own life.
In a parallel storyline, we learn that Trish Walker is also a survivor of abuse. Walker’s mother, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay), hungry for her child to be a star, abuses her daughter in flashbacks, both physically and through intimidation. One particularly jarring scene involves Dorothy encouraging her daughter to vomit up food she has consumed. Jones and Walker model different kinds of survivorship, showing viewers that there is not one “right” way to deal with trauma. For Jones, addressing and stopping Kilgrave is how she chooses to move on with her life. For Walker, cutting her mother out of her life allows her to pursue her dreams on her own terms. Jones’ kicking-ass-and-taking-names surviving is different than Walker’s living-well-is-the-best-revenge brand of surviving. Both are equally acceptable in the space of the show, a brilliant move on the part of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, who has been explicit in her decision to develop a show that reflected her own feminist values. Rosenberg, for instance, chose not to depict the rape scenes on the show, but rather, attempted to tell the story of surviving from Jones’ point of view.
Jessica Jones ends its first season with the message that friendship — and sisterhood — is powerful. Jones and Walker’s relationship is the defining relationship of the series: it is present throughout the whole season and gives both women the support structure they need to address their problems. It is also a woman-centered plotline in a film and television universe where most plotlines are driven by men. Netflix just announced that Jessica Jones has been picked up for a second season, so we’ll get to see our superpowered — but not superhero — detective again soon.