Five writers weigh in on this multifaceted superhero survivor—and what she means for trauma representation.
Lindsay Tessier was first. Her pitch about Marvel’s Jessica Jones arrived three days after the series had gone live. Then came Charley Reid’s. Next, Laura Bogart’s. The proposed story ideas continued to pour in about what made the show unprecedented, how it was resonating, what it meant to watch it.
While The Establishment fields a number of pitches related to television and pop culture. . . we’d never encountered a phenomenon like this before; this show was clearly doing something unique.
Created by Melissa Rosenberg for Netflix, Jessica Jones is based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name (originally crafted by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos) — a lead character not only notable for being a woman in the notoriously male-focused hero-verse, but one who openly grapples with life in the wake of trauma. Jessica Jones is both hero and antihero, a PTSD-plagued private investigator and sexual assault survivor using cheap whiskey and acerbic smarts to cope after her grievous entanglements with the insidious, mind-controlling villain Kilgrave.
Jones is moody, cutting, distant, very clearly troubled — but therein lies her power. Though she literally possesses superhuman strength, above all — as every one of the women who pitched stories on the series attested — she is an honest, realistic representation of an abuse survivor attempting to navigate the world.
In honor of the complicated, multidimensional hero, we’ve assembled our own Avengers-esque team of writers to weigh in. We posed a simple but potent question: Why is Jessica Jones important?
Here are their answers.
The Creation Of Abusers: Analyzed and Explored
By Lauren Bogart
Jessica Jones doesn’t just break new ground, it punches through the center of the earth itself and comes out on the other side of the atmosphere. The show uses the grandiosity and symbolic power of superhero stories to articulate truths about surviving abuse, and about the nature of abuse itself — including how people become abusers.
Kilgrave’s powers are a metaphor for male privilege: he can, easily and with impunity, bend the world to his whims. Kilgrave is a product of our “boy-gets-girl” world where, as Arthur Chu says, “instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to ‘earn,’ to ‘win.’” He deploys those powers, that privilege, to keep his coterie of sexual playthings because he believes it’s his right — he’s genuinely, gob-smackingly shocked when Jessica says that he raped her, because according to our culture, a rape culture to its core, women don’t have any real agency, anyway. As if this cauldron of influences wasn’t toxic enough, we add Kilgrave’s parents, who, in experimenting on him as a child, taught him that bodily autonomy and consent are negligible.Jessica Jones doesn’t just break new ground, it punches through the center of the earth itself and comes out on the other side of the atmosphere. Click To Tweet
That video of Kilgave as a pre-teen test subject, howling in agony as he’s injected with chemicals, is more than a moment of sympathy for the devil, it’s a guided tour of the hot place he comes from. Jessica Jones is in her own fresh Hell, drowning her shame in whiskey and hiding away from anyone who wants to help her. But there is also rage, the flames that crackle and spit inside her until they find release. Jessica tries to be strong in her broken places, to be valiant for the Kilgrave survivors who aren’t as (literally) empowered as she is — and yet, when she is tasked with forcing her employer’s recalcitrant wife to sign divorce papers, she tosses the woman to the subway tracks like a stuffed doll. Jessica is loosened with drink, venting her own helplessness out on a woman who has had the liberty of exerting her own will.
In the end, Jessica pulls the woman off the tracks. She is not Kilgrave; she is better than her own sad past and the dark side of her powers. And yet, for a moment, it was so easy, so inevitable, to do unto others, to break her need upon someone else’s body. This understanding gives Jessica Jones its pathos and nuance, making it one of the finest, truest depictions of abuse ever on-screen.
The Truth Of Violator/Victim Dynamics
By Tasha Williams
The episode “AKA WWJD?” includes some of the most powerful moments of the entire Jessica Jones series. In one particularly raw scene, Jessica confronts Kilgrave for not only enslaving her mind — as he did to his other victims — but for also physically raping her. Kilgrave’s splenetic response, typical of an oppressor, enrages her even more, but she doesn’t back down:
Jessica: 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.
Kilgrave: That’s not what I was trying to do.
Jessica: It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me, again and again and again.
Kilgrave: How was I supposed to know?! Huh?! I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to!
Jessica: Oh, poor you.
Kilgrave: You have no idea, do you? I have to painstakingly choose every word I say. I once told a man to go screw himself. Can you even imagine? I didn’t have this. A home, loving parents, a family.
Jessica: You blame bad parenting? My parents died! You don’t see me raping anyone!
Kilgrave: I hate that word.
This exchange makes for groundbreaking storytelling because 1) it exposes the hilt of the debate over consensual sex vs. rape, and 2) it reveals the authentic dynamics of a violator and victim confrontation.
To match our fully realized superhero, this series gives us a fleshed out villain whose toxic, predatory personality is as ominous as his superpowers. Kilgrave’s initial obfuscation tactic, claiming Jessica was wooed by a luxurious lifestyle and thus, not raped, evokes the psychological techniques of a street pimp. His rants throughout this scene indicate he believes his intent, thoughts, and desires subordinate his victims’ humanity. Jessica, our superhero, no longer under mind control — supernatural or otherwise — rejects this notion and adamantly refuses to let her rapist evade responsibility.To match our fully realized superhero, this series gives us a fleshed out villain whose toxic, predatory personality is as ominous as his superpowers. Click To Tweet
It is here we witness her true strength. And, in Kilgrave’s final comeback — characteristic of a true sociopath — we also see that, in the end, he just hates labels.
The Incredible Fallout From Intimate Violence
By Charley Reid
I was discussing Jessica Jones with a friend when I made the assertion that the show is more accurately compared to NBC’s Hannibal than to Daredevil, the only other tonally-similar part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He agreed, saying that although there is more overall violence in Daredevil, the violence in Jessica Jones simply feels more painful, more visceral. He was communicating the very basis of my comparison — intimacy. The more intimate the violence, the more powerful it is, and Jessica Jones perfectly illustrates this phenomenon.
I would go so far as to say that Jessica Jones succeeds largely due to how well it captures the human cost of intimate violence. This is a theme underutilized in most other depictions of violence in mainstream cinema and television, which tend to focus more on degrees of brutality — ranging from large-scale destruction in The Avengers, to the revenge-inspired violence of Taken, which is up-close and personal but not intimate.
When accurately depicted on screen, the escalation of violence through intimacy works incredibly well (other examples include the Hannibal Lecter franchise, and most of Quentin Tarantino’s work) because it mirrors real life; violence that violates, like sexual assault and rape, asserts control by exploiting deeply-ingrained power dynamics. Jessica Jones takes these power dynamics and personifies them in the form of the villain Kilgrave.Jessica Jones succeeds largely due to how well it captures the human cost of intimate violence. Click To Tweet
Some assert that this sets up the plot as a rape-revenge story, but that would imply that the primary motivation for the main character’s actions is revenge; this is not the case. Jones initially tries very hard to avoid getting tangled up in Kilgrave’s web of death — itself a natural product of intimate and painful childhood violence — once it interrupts the life of anonymity she has manufactured in order to avoid him. What finally compels her to fight against him is the desire to save Hope, the latest victim of Kilgrave’s poisonous words. Her anger at Kilgrave fuels her need to save the people he hurts.
The themes of sexual assault and rape are intended to cast the struggle between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave in terms of intimacy, particularly the human collateral that happens as a result of intimacy being weaponized. The fact that every action that Kilgrave and Jessica Jones take in their battle to destroy one another results in more and more death around them, is an apt analogy for the human cost of intimate violence, how it affects every part of a person’s life — most pointedly the lives of the ones they love.
An Unflinching Examination Of Life After Trauma
By Lindsay Tessier
“Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane.”
These words are spoken in the first episode of Jessica Jones and become a recurring mantra throughout the show. We hear Jessica repeating them every time she has a or panic attack. We eventually learn she’s reciting the street names around her childhood home, a grounding technique she learned from a therapist.
It’s a coping strategy so familiar to me that the first time I heard it, I started to cry.
Besides our penchant for leather jackets and owning the same Egon Schiele poster, Jessica and I have a few more things in common: we’re both sexual assault survivors and we’ve both been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s obvious from the start that Jessica is a trauma survivor. She has flashbacks and nightmares. She pushes away everyone she cares about. She’s racked with guilt, has some serious anger management issues, and drinks a staggering amount of cheap whiskey to deal with it all.
Watching the show was like looking into a mirror of my past. Over time my PTSD symptoms have lessened, but they’re never fully gone. Major life changes, anniversaries, news stories can all make them rush back.
What makes Jessica Jones unique is its focus on the aftermath of violence. It’s what Jessica calls “life before Kilgrave” and “life after Kilgrave” — the struggle to reconcile who you were pre-trauma with who you are post-trauma. It’s a concept I’m intimately familiar with, and that the show explores with great sensitivity.
Jessica wrestles with the same questions all trauma survivors do: How do you put your life back together after it falls apart? How do you move on? Does it get better? When exactly does it get better? How do I survive this?
The show refuses to shy away from the reality of life after trauma. We experience the flashbacks, insomnia, anger, binges, depression, guilt, and fear that are part and parcel of Jessica’s PTSD. It doesn’t pay lip service to these issues — abandoning them after an episode or two — but explores them throughout the whole series.Jessica wrestles with the same questions all trauma survivors do: How do you put your life back together after it falls apart? How do you move on? Does it get better? Click To Tweet
Jessica Jones is a show about the scars trauma leaves behind. It’s about inner strength and resilience. It’s about the very real, hard, and messy work survivors do every day in order to heal and move forward with their lives.
It’s powerful to see a superhero (even, or maybe especially, an anti hero like Jessica Jones) battling PTSD. Our brains are wired to respond to stories. Watching characters work through experiences similar to our own can be incredibly cathartic. It can even help us process and understand our own reactions to trauma.
We’re rooting for Jessica, but we’re also rooting for ourselves.
I’m so grateful it exists. Jessica Jones is exactly the hero I wanted her to be.
This Is What An Abusive Relationship Actually Looks Like
By Debbie Weingarten
In the dream, he is chasing me with a hunting rifle. I can’t see him, but I know he’s there. I’m running across a dark field, full of gopher holes and places to twist my ankle. The sloping field is familiar — it’s where we walked attempting to jumpstart my labor, where my goats used to graze.
I want to be clear — my abuser never chased me with a gun. The dreams are intersections of real and imagined — a representation of the what-ifs and the anxiety that has bloomed since leaving my abusive relationship. The memories are non sequitur; they come in flashes that I feel in the deepest part of my chest. The smell of cilantro nearly makes me drop to my knees with grief.
When I wake up from the gun dream, my three-year-old son is cuddled next to me. The bed is warm. I recenter there in the dark. I breathe. I tap below my collarbone in a butterfly hug. My EMDR therapist has helped me to visualize a safe place to go when I am triggered.
Dogwood, I whisper to myself again and again, recalling another field 2,000 miles away and days spent lying on blankets in the sun. This is where I go.
It surprises me to see Jessica Jones doing this, too. “Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane,” she repeats to herself countless times throughout the series. She’s strong enough to stop a moving car, but we also see her rocking back and forth in her apartment, staving off flashbacks of Kilgrave, her abuser. Jones is complex, imperfect, actively surviving and managing her PTSD. The entire show radiates with the one-step-forward-two-steps-back pattern that seems so common among survivors, as well as the confusion and self-doubt that comes from having been in a relationship with an abuser. It all feels so real, so familiar.
Though the atrocities committed by Kilgrave range from simple manipulations to actual homicide, his character depicts the profile of a pathological narcissist or a sociopath to a tee. He lacks any shred of empathy, is solely concerned about gaining power and sucking energy from others, and has the ability to convince anyone to do his bidding. He hops from apartment to penthouse, verbally and physically abusing people, demanding that his needs be met, and disposing of his victims after they’ve served their purpose.The entire show radiates with the one-step-forward-two-steps-back pattern that seems so common among trauma survivors. Click To Tweet
Psychological abuse ensures that a victim experiences strong inner reverberations and harmful messages that linger long after the relationship has ended. As is the case in real life, Kilgrave’s disorder creates a trail of traumatized victims floundering in his wake, desperately replaying the abuse to make sense of it.
Admittedly, there are moments of Jessica Jones that are hard for me to watch. Overall, the show is intense, gritty, dark. There’s blood and physical abuse and chase scenes reminiscent of my dream in the field. It should absolutely come with a gigantic trigger warning.
But I am grateful for this show — for the strength of the characters, for the writers who have not shied away from a real portrayal of trauma, and for the mantras that consistently present in the conversations between Kilgrave’s victims: You’re not crazy. It’s not your fault.