NOTE: This article was inspired by “5 Reasons ‘Jessica Jones’ Is Way Darker Than You Realize,” by Alice Jane Axness. I recommend checking out the original article because it’s well-written, poignant, and thought-provoking.
I am a sexual assault survivor, and until now, I haven’t spoken about it since the day after it happened. Four years ago, when I was 20, I was manipulated, raped, and then stalked by a 31-year-old man. Let’s call him Chase. The entire ordeal lasted just three months, but its effect on me was permanent. The only person I shared the story with was a (now ex) boyfriend, who sexually assaulted me himself after we broke up.
As a result, I’m not a huge fan of entertainment that minimizes the importance of (or flat-out disregards) consent, whether in the form of “winning” the girl in spite of her initial rejection (e.g., 10 Things I Hate About You) or brutal rape scenes (e.g., Game of Thrones). So when my roommate emerged from his room after marathoning Jessica Jones and said I HAD to watch it, I was leery. It wasn’t until I read the aforementioned article that I took the plunge.
Allow me to explain the premise for those who aren’t familiar: “following a tragic end to her brief superhero career, Jessica Jones tries to rebuild her life as a private investigator, dealing with cases involving people with remarkable abilities in New York City” (Wikipedia). The villain is a man named Kilgrave who has the power to control minds. Prior to the events of the series he used his power to kidnap Jessica and force her to have sex with him, murder people, and generally do terrible things. Jessica escaped Kilgrave’s control – believing she killed him in the process – but he comes back for her. This is a major oversimplification, but you get the gist.
As an abuse survivor watching this show was difficult but oh-so rewarding. Too often I see survivors portrayed as broken little things, demure and barely able to look at bright lights directly, let alone stand up for themselves. Or they’re the other extreme – furious warrior-women devoid of emotion. Jessica is neither.
As Axness says, “Society has this idea that in order for your trauma to be ‘real,’ you have to fit a certain criteria.” She goes on to point out that if you’re abrasive, promiscuous, or have substance abuse issues, people think you’re less deserving of understanding. This obsession with victims’ perceived virtuousness extends from the news desk to the courtroom, and is made even more twisted by the fact that trauma survivors often exhibit the exact traits mentioned above as a result of their, well, trauma. Jessica’s character is realistic in this sense. She’s an alcoholic. She’s unpleasant. She doesn’t always do the right thing, or the kind thing. However, “the show never once uses that to downplay her trauma. She’s allowed to be kind of a fuck-up while never, ever bringing into question her legitimacy as an abuse survivor.”
I’m not an alcoholic, but I have similar issues. I have intermittent periods of promiscuity. I am blunt and outspoken. I am not the “perfect victim”. The biggest reason I’ve kept my story inside is fear – fear of being questioned, fear of seeing that pseudo-sympathetic look in my listener’s eyes. You know the one, where their eyebrows knit together in an understanding expression they keep perfectly frozen, as if trying to keep from raising them in skepticism. I lived with one of my girlfriends during the time I knew Chase, and I saw that expression when I tried to tell her what happened. She said it was “hard to believe,” because I was “usually such a badass.” Maybe she meant it as a compliment, but it felt like a dismissal.
Related Reading: The Importance of The First Response
Watching Jessica navigate her emotional turmoil – flashbacks, anxiety, fear – within the self-constructed safety of her tough-girl facade opened the floodgates for me. I saw myself in her, showing the world a “badass” exterior while actually coping with a hell of a lot of vulnerability. Her character reminds society that survivors are human too, flaws included. We don’t owe anyone anything. We don’t have to be warriors, nor weaklings. We are somewhere in between – sometimes both at the same time – and that’s okay.
Another point Jessica Jones illustrates is how difficult it can be to convince others that someone abused you. For example, the ex I confided in is far from intimidating; he’s skinny, walks with a hunch, and actually actively speaks out against sexual harassment and misogyny. If I spoke publicly about what he did, I have no doubt a legion of people would come down on me like crows on judgment day, calling me a liar.
I could show them screenshots of conversations where he used textbook examples of manipulative language and it wouldn’t matter. When I told a mutual friend about the assault, they told me I was overreacting. He had never been dumped before. He was heartbroken. Poor thing. How could I be so unsympathetic? As Axness explains, “This is because manipulation is not as obvious as physical control, so many people are quick to dismiss it.” Jessica Jones exaggerates this truth by giving the abuser a superpower – literal mind control – but the series touches upon the effectiveness of human manipulative skills as well. Kilgrave is excessively charming with his British accent, boyish good looks, and earnest manner. I caught myself feeling stirrings of sympathy during several episodes (demonstrating just how well the writers framed his character) before reiterating to myself that this man kidnapped, raped, and forced several women to kill for him. It serves as a reminder of just how easy it can be to feel sorry for abusers. By contrasting his endearing moments with the brutal reality of his crimes, Kilgrave demonstrates to society why we shouldn’t feel sorry for abusers – no matter how charming they are.
Finally, Jessica Jones addresses an aspect of abuse I’ve rarely heard discussed in support groups, let alone pop culture: sometimes an abuser genuinely thinks they love you. If you don’t know (and I hope you don’t), “someone being obsessed with you is terrifying. It’s even more terrifying when they’re convinced they’re doing it out of love.” Toss in the part where they convince you “you’re the bad guy for not letting them love you” (remember how manipulative they can be?) and it becomes confusing AND terrifying.
Throughout Jessica Jones Kilgrave maintains he never did anything wrong because he never physically forced Jessica into anything. He looks back at their relationship fondly. Where he has loving memories, Jessica has PTSD flashbacks. His rationale seems simultaneously reasonable and deranged, which is basically how it went for me in real life. Chase believes that I am his “lost love.” He didn’t see anything off about a relationship between a 31-year-old man and a girl not yet old enough to order a drink. When I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore he asked, in an injured tone, why I was “such a cunt.” If someone said that to me today I would laugh and walk out. Instead, I cried and asked him what he wanted me to do. After he assaulted me, he talked about how “exciting” it was when I resisted. He said our “romance” could only conclude one way, so I should let myself “enjoy it”. When I found my sense of self two weeks later and ended things firmly, he blew up my phone, sending over 100 texts ranging from, “How could you throw away what we have? I care for you so much,” to “you’re a fucking bitch,” to thinly-veiled threats in the form of references to his gun collection. If you asked him why things ended, he would probably tell you I was too selfish to let myself be loved.
This insistence that they do what they do out of love can destroy you. It leads to the ever-present guilt survivors suffer from, the lingering belief that everything was actually your fault. In the show, Jessica assures those Kilgrave controls what they did under his influence was not their fault. In spite of this she can’t extend the same understanding to herself. Likewise, I’ve supported hundreds of survivors without being able to support myself. I’ve been trained by the wonderful AVFTI team to validate victims, to assure them that what happened to them wasn’t their fault. Despite this I cannot shake the feeling that the abuse I’ve experienced was my own doing. I flirted. I was confusing. I didn’t scream and kick. I didn’t tell anyone about it afterwards. Every time Jessica held a victim’s eyes with her own and made them repeat back to her, “It wasn’t my fault,” it felt like the pressure on my heart lifted a little bit more. With society, law enforcement, and media constantly blaming victims of sexual abuse, seeing a popular TV show directly contradict that was like a breath of air after nearly drowning.
I’m grateful for Jessica Jones. I admire its writing and cinematography alongside its accurate portrayal of sexual abuse victims. Its popularity gives me hope, hope that viewers will walk away with an improved understanding of what it is to survive abuse, and that this understanding will change how society approaches victims of rape and sexual abuse for the better.
AVFTI offers an open platform for victims of sex crimes and their supporters to share their experiences and opinions. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, shoot us an email. Opinion pieces may not reflect an official position from A Voice for the Innocent.