Marvel Comics has long used the medium of super-hero stories to examine societal issues like institutional racism, radicalism, and sexual discrimination. Magneto and Professor X are (perhaps wrongly) embedded in the public consciousness as ideological stand-ins for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: the X-Men (and mutants in general) have served as a civil rights parable since their inception in 1963. Captain America is a vehicle for exploration of American politics. Iron Man dissects addiction and the military-industrial complex.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones continues this tradition, but focuses on something a little more microcosmic: sexual violence and childhood trauma.
J.J is more Watchmen than Avengers; the story of a hard-drinking, misanthropic, super-powered P.I. (Jones – Krysten Ritter) who is forced to hunt down the mind-controlling serial-rapist (Kilgrave – David Tennant) who previously held her captive.
It’s one of those rare shows that understands that abusers very rarely look or sound like abusers. Kilgrave is a charming, intelligent man with whom it is dangerously easy to sympathize: he spins a tale of being subjected to invasive surgical procedures and experimental drugs from a young age, and seems so genuinely forlorn that, for a moment, you almost forget he’s a sociopathic sex-criminal.
J.J also demonstrates an unusually sound knowledge of victimhood. Our heroine never assumes the foetal position and bawls her eyes out. She’s not afraid of the dark or of men or of the outside world. Which isn’t to say that these aren’t all incredibly common features of trauma – they are. That’s why SVU and a host of other shows have latched onto them as a cheap way of showing the individual effects of sexual abuse and violence.
Jones doesn’t cry. She engages in self-destructive behaviour, abuses alcohol, and isolates herself from society. Momentary flashbacks to her time with Kilgrave are peppered throughout each episode, often appearing with little to no warning or trigger – an uncomfortable fact of life for many people dealing with sexual trauma.
J.J. is particularly fascinating because of how it interfaces with – and subverts – established Marvel motifs. Returning to the original point, super-powers have always symbolised something – be it sexuality, race, gender, etc. Anything that has the potential to set one aside from the majority. In this case, super-powers are used as a metaphor for the abuse our characters have suffered.
Both Jones and Kilgrave had their powers inflicted upon them in unfortunate circumstances at a young age. Jones is involved in a car accident. Kilgrave is repeatedly violated – injected with experimental drugs. These experiences, and the abilities that come with them, shape their separate worldviews. Kilgrave goes from abused to abuser, using his powers for evil and giving us an uncommonly detailed look at the victim-offender cycle. He’s touched against his will, a deeply unpleasant experience, and comes away with a lack of respect for personal boundaries. Jones’ super-strength allows her to hurt people without putting in much effort and makes ‘regular’ human contact difficult – mirroring the long-term effects of her treatment at the hands of Kilgrave.
Jessica Jones is difficult to watch. But Jessica Jones is important to watch. It understands the emotions and feelings at play, but never exploits them. It shows trauma, but never hovers over it. It’s the ideal representation of a situation that is in no way ideal, and it continues that long-standing Marvel tradition of viewing difficult subject matter through the lens of super-hero fiction. Here’s to a second season.