Jessica Jones — played with strength and haunted panache by Gilmore Girls alum Krysten Ritter — is a “hard-drinking, short-fused, mess of a woman” with a minimalist fashion sense, private gumshoe leanings, and superpowered strength. She’s also a survivor of hardcore domestic violence that she struggles to deal with as PTSD including night terrors, flashbacks, hypervigilance and guilt plague her, so she hits the whiskey bottle as hard as she can hit.
Being a long-time follower of the X-Men‘s benevolent Professor Charles Xavier, it never occurred to me that someone would use mind control powers for evildoing, and in Jessica’s abuser Kilgrave — portrayed with demonic precision by the tenth Doctor David Tennant — we see aftereffects of a sexual predator having mind control abilities. What a horror made worse by the fact that Kilgrave doesn’t do his own dirty work: he compels other people to do it for him, including murder, mutilation and even suicide. As Jessica says, “Kilgrave leaves a trail of broken people behind him.”
Taking place in a post-Avengers Battle of New York Hell’s Kitchen, Jessica Jones follows newly licensed PI Jones as she struggles to balance the scales of her desire to be a hero and the horrors she was forced to commit by her mind-controlling abuser. Jessica’s best friend, Trish Walker, is a former child star turned popular radio host with her own story of domestic violence: a physically, emotionally and economically abusive alcoholic mother from whom she is now estranged.
Jessica’s home office life is punctuated by the shrill screaming of her verbally abusive upstairs neighbor — the female half of fraternal twins — as well as a constantly broken door that often doesn’t lock. For a domestic violence survivor to feature a broken door so prominently in her place of work and sleep would be suspect if that survivor didn’t have The Hulk’s strength within her tiny frame. Here’s where the violence inflicted on Jessica by Kilgrave comes into unique focus: with her super-strength, Jessica has never had to feel vulnerable or threatened. She was always the (hidden) threat.
Bit by painstaking bit, and through a variety of characters, Jessica Jones uncovers many of the harsh truths behind surviving domestic violence: even when absent — as is mind-controller Kilgrave during the first episodes — the abuser is omnipresent and has preternatural control even when not physically there. Kudos to Netflix’s casting department for their choice of beloved and quirky Doctor Who actor David Tennant, whose Chuck Taylors and spiky hair added a dash of modern whimsy to his version of The Doctor. So often abuse is kept quiet, behind locked doors, swept under rugs and hidden away in closets, and many times the abuser is someone well-known and even loved by others to a point where when a survivor speaks out, they are disbelieved. Most people also know, love, and even admire their own abuser — at least at the start — and this is how the cycle of abuse begins in the first place, and how quickly and deeply it entrenches the victim. Casting Tennant as not just the villain, but an abuser and rapist, was an uncomfortably brilliant choice, and a powerful metaphor for the facade many abusers maintain while committing atrocious acts of violence on others.
“We used to do a lot more than just touch hands,” Kilgrave says.
“Yeah. It’s called rape,” Jessica responds.
“What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?”
“The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”
“That is not what I was trying to do.”
“It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me. Again and again and again!”
What particularly resonated with me about Jessica Jones is, like many women, I have my own version of Kilgrave I’ve carried around like a sack of black ooze for 16 years. He was my first long-term boyfriend, and it started with moderate emotional abuse — him being mildly possessive and jealous. The relationship quickly escalated to verbal and sexual violence, a targeted campaign of physical abuse at his hands that lasted eight months and caused me still-lingering emotional and even gynecological troubles.
Ultimately, after sufficiently tearing apart my spirit and degrading my body, my Kilgrave broke up with me because I had become, quote: “Too crazy.” As soon as he was gone the fog of abuse that enveloped me began to lift and the depth of what had happened came into horrifying focus. I finally got help, and broke that noxious bond of abuse. In a matter of weeks my Kilgrave had returned and wanted to get back together: he was sorry, he would change, he couldn’t live without me, he loved me — all those empty promises I thankfully no longer believed. When I refused, the death threats and harassment began. To this day my Kilgrave still stalks me, and every so often leaves me graphic new death and rape threats on Twitter while describing various assaults in detail, gloating at how much he enjoys those memories even now.
“Oh my God. Jessica, I knew you were insecure but that’s just sad. I’m not torturing you. Why would I? I love you,” Kilgrave says.
After Jessica Jones rescues Kilgrave’s victim Hope Schlottman she reminds Hope over and over, “It’s not your fault” — just like what Jessica’s few friends continue to do for her — which can sometimes be harder to internalize for survivors than the violence already endured. And even though I know in theory what I survived wasn’t my fault — and the reasons why I stayed were a classic Rubik’s cube of entanglements — the shame of my own has been so magnificent that until this moment only a handful of people on this planet know what happened to me in 1999.
“Look, I’m not gonna talk about my shitty story, Malcolm, because there’s always someone who’s had it worse, someone’s life who is ruined worse,” Jessica says.
“It’s not a competition,” Malcolm replies.
Jessica Jones is no pity party. At her core, Jessica Jones is a figure of empowerment long before she severs the bond of abuse. Jessica taught me that I am not defined by the abuse inflicted on me: I am defined by my survival, and my thriving. Jessica never stops fighting for herself, for her sanity, and for justice. She does not give up, and in her struggle demonstrates that when abuse survivors stop fighting for our own lives, our mental health, and our happiness, the abuser wins. And those assholes have already done enough. Their violence has to stop somewhere, and a good first place is us. The shame I’ve lived with all these years doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to my Kilgrave. And the next time he harasses me online I am not going to curl into a ball and wish I were dead: I am going to call him out until he leaves me alone once and for all. Thank you, Jessica Jones, for helping me give that shit back. Thank you for showing me it was never mine in the first place.
Where The Leftovers perfectly captured life after trauma, Jessica Jones masterfully captures the insidious and taboo territory of life after domestic violence in a most compassionate and humane way, exploring how abusers are made not born, and the complex cycles of abuse that result and ripple outward touching so many. In Jessica’s case, the ripples leave behind a high body count. For the rest of us, the ripples of surviving abuse manifest in emotional, physical, and mental problems that can affect every aspect of our public and personal lives, often appearing in the toxic alchemy of addiction.
“You ever think you might drink too much?” Kilgrave asks.
“It’s the only way I get through my goddamn days after what you did to me,” Jessica retorts.
“You blame *me* for your drinking problem?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Come on, it wasn’t all bad.”
The only way to combat domestic violence and sexual assault is by lifting the curtain of silence and placing the responsibility where it’s due: the hands of the abusers, NOT the victims and survivors.
Jessica Jones is also remarkable in its total lack of nudity, and if ever there was an example of a show catering to the female gaze, this would be it — reminding us that you don’t need naked bodies to tell a meaningful story, and you don’t need to show on-screen rape to make a point.
Jessica is correct when she snarks, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stranger.” What doesn’t kill us can also make us more badass, but only when we let it. So, Jessica Jones, here’s to letting it.
This review first appeared in January 2016 on Huffington Post Women.