5 Reasons 'Jessica Jones' Is Way Darker Than You Realize
This is not going to be a particularly cheerful article, and it is certainly not full of my usual gum-popping, young-drunk-mess bravado. Also, if you don't want to or can't hear about sexual assault, just click on this link and get away from this tab.
OK! Let's just get the uncomfortable part of the article out of the way: Five years ago, when I was 16, I was groomed and raped by a predatory 23-year-old, Mark (obviously, not his real name). Our "relationship" lasted a whole five months before it was cut short by the police getting involved over child pornography concerns. Starting about six months after that hideousness, he stalked me for two years.
Violence against women is so sexualized and/or casually depicted on TV shows (heeyyy Game Of Thrones) that finding something entertaining that isn't also sort of triggering is hard. There's a limited number of times I can watch Jim and Pam fall in love again, so mostly I end up watching a lot of shows about cupcakes.
"So, adult (televisi)onset diabetes it is."
However, after multiple women recommended binge-watching Jessica Jones on Netflix because of the way it depicted abuse, I decided to watch the first episode.
Jessica Jones is a story in the Marvel Universe, and I know next to nothing about any of that outside of the show, so here is the most basic of background information: Jessica has super strength and works as a private investigator. As we learn about her backstory in the first few episodes, the bad guy, Kilgrave, is introduced. His superpower is mind control, and he uses it to kidnap Jessica for months, forcing her to do whatever he wants, which includes sleeping with him and killing people. She eventually gets away, but he comes back for her. Traumatic!
(I'm so sorry if you're really into comics and my description is about as nuanced as calling Lord Of The Rings a story about hungry little people on a road trip. Bear with me.)
After finishing the first few episodes, I sat in silence, alone in my room, crying. I was so goddamn excited about this show that it brought me to tears. It's really hard to be an abuse survivor and see no accurate representations of what it is like, but goddamn does Jessica Jones deliver.
Abusers Genuinely Think They Love You
I'm going to write this article while being as vague as possible about actual plot points from the show so I don't fuck it up for you if you decide to watch it (which you should). I'm also telling the condensed version of my three-year abuse/stalking saga because, in terms of word count and emotional shit I want to be sharing with the Internet, this is a Cracked article and not a diary entry.
Someone being obsessed with you is terrifying, but it's even more terrifying when they think they're doing it out of love. There is no reasoning with them, because their assessment of the situation is so warped. You're the bad guy because you won't let them love you.
Throughout the whole first season, Kilgrave makes multiple comments about how he never did anything to Jessica. He was literally controlling her mind, and yet he never physically made her do anything, so he decides it was all on her own volition. He deludes himself into thinking that her forced reactions in a traumatic situation are proof not only that she has feelings for him but that he was a caring and loving partner.
His understanding of the situation is twisted enough that his fond memories of their "relationship" together are her nightmares and PTSD flashbacks of his abuse. In that line of thinking, he gets incredibly angry when she denies she loved him and angrier still when she calls what he did to her rape.
On the show, Kilgrave's reasoning seems genuine and also batshit insane, which is pretty much how it goes in real life as well. Mark believes, probably to this day, that I am the great love of his life and that no one will ever love me like he loved me. He absolutely denies he did anything wrong, because I was the age of consent and he never physically forced me to do anything. He refuses to see how it's inappropriate for there to be a relationship between a college graduate and someone who was young enough to think a Panic! At the Disco tattoo was the height of cool. I could show him emails and texts he sent me with all the red flags of abuse highlighted, and he would think it's romantic.
When I first got away, he wallowed in self-pity and sent me long emails about how he wanted to kill himself (oh, look, a red flag, dickbag). Then he got angry that I wouldn't speak to him. I was the cause of his misery, and I was telling people he was abusive and a stalker. I was taking him to court when all he wanted to do was love me. How dare I be so ungrateful.
Whoa, shocking, rapist stalkers are obsessive? Wild, I know. Except that people don't really seem to grasp exactly what it means to be on the receiving end of attention that will not stop, ever, regardless of what you do.
Do you have any idea what it's like when someone literally will never leave you alone? I don't mean like Sallie Mae calling you constantly about your student loans or that guy from work who, for some reason, thinks you two are friends and keeps inviting you out for drinks. I mean, no matter what you do, no matter what you say to them, they are hellbent on being in your life.
It's a no-win situation: The more you reject them, the harder they fight for you. We're used to seeing movies frame that crap as romantic (Fifty Shades Of Grey, anyone?) Kilgrave's obsession with Jessica stems from the fact that she's powerful and won't take his shit. There is nothing she can do to make him see the truth. Telling him she hates him only makes him want her more. When she tries to kill him, he thinks it's interesting.
"Oh, this so ... us."
In one episode, Jessica finds a room where Kilgrave has photos of her tacked to every available surface -- recent photos of her, just out living her life. He breaks into her apartment at one point. He creates situations where she has to interact with him, mind-control aside. He makes it clear that he will die before he ever lets her go.
Mark chose me for reasons I'll get to later, but he began stalking me because I did something no one else had ever done to him -- I told him to fuck all the way off. Not because I'm a special snowflake or different from the other underage girls he's preyed on, but because my parents were pissed that I was doing something that had police questioning me and, at the time, I was less scared of Mark than I was of disappointing them. Feel free to reread that sentence and again realize that I was a damn child.
Once the police got involved, I shut down every channel of communication with Mark, but he still found ways to talk to me. Little stuff at first, like emailing me every six months under a different account, talking about me online or to mutual friends incessantly, using other people's Facebook accounts to look at mine.
The worst happened my freshman year of college. He was doing his master's at the same school I was beginning my freshman year at, but, as it was a huge state school, the few times I saw him on campus I was able to duck into a building or something before he saw me. It sucked and led to panic attacks every time (way less fun than disco-related panic, for the record), but it was bearable. It had been two years since I talked to him, and I thought it was over.
If your "relationship" with someone involves them saying about you, "I thought it was over,"
like a scene in a horror movie, you're probably an asshole.
Then I found out that he had catfished me. My senior year of high school, Mark made a fake Facebook profile for a kid that went to a school near me. He started chatting with me as that kid. Eventually, after six months of mutual Tumblr following and just casually talking, we exchanged numbers.
He started texting me all the time. It was weird, but I just thought he was lonely and hadn't made a lot of friends his freshman year. I talked to catfishing-Mark about actual-Mark more than once, about how it was hard for me to date or trust people after my experiences with him. He was very supportive.
I threw up when I found out who I'd really been talking to.
A girl who knew him sent me an email saying that she was at a party and Mark was talking about how he'd tricked me into a correspondence with him. He also told her that he had a friend in the registrar's office and had tried to look up my schedule.
The worst thing was that while learning that I had spoken to him for a whole year unknowingly made me want to take 60 showers and claw my own skin off, he interpreted the situation as proof that we would be perfect together if I would just be rational and give him a chance.
It Can Be Difficult To Prove They're Doing It
Manipulation is not as obvious as physical control, so many people are quick to dismiss it. Jessica spends the whole season trying to prove that Kilgrave has this power so she can get an innocent girl (who Kilgrave kidnapped, raped, and forced to do some deeply fucked-up shit) out of prison. No one believes her. You can't see mind control, so it totally doesn't exist, regardless of the fact that these people live in a world where aliens apparently attacked NYC and people have superpowers, but OK, whatever, I guess.
Predatory abusers are very good at what they do. More often than not, they're very charming. They have to be; that's how manipulation works. There are a few points in the show where the writers are almost daring you to feel bad for Kilgrave, who is played by the deeply charming David Tennant. He just wants to be loved, in his very attractive accent.
I loved these scenes, because if you're not a shitty person you immediately feel sleazy about your unconscious instinct to feel badly for him, which is what we need, dammit. We need to recognize how gross it is to feel bad for rapists and abusers, even if they're charming. People are out there writing shitty, sexed-up fan fiction about Kilgrave and Jessica right now, and we all need to realize how revolting that is.
No, there really doesn't.
Because those thoughts and feelings spill over into real life. I've spoken to (fought with?) many people who think Mark is innocent because he's just so gosh-darn sweet. He identifies as a feminist (no, really). He posts Jezebel articles as his Facebook status. There are many people who think he is a swell guy.
And just like Jessica with Kilgrave, I have a hell of a time proving who Mark really is to these people. I can't show you how the age difference meant a power imbalance in our relationship. I can't show you a slideshow of all the little moments that slowly destroyed my sense of self. I can show you samples of our conversations, but I can't put into context for you what it felt like at 16 to feel special and loved and terrified of losing that.
I've brought up Mark's rap sheet, showed it to people, and have still had them think he's a good person. While he was fighting me on stalking charges, he was also in a case involving a 14-year-old girl and people still thought I was overreacting. He's so friendly! He's just heartbroken!
Some people who hear me talk about Mark even think I'm the bad guy, that I'm lying, either because I'm crazy or because I'm trying to cover up what a slut I am by saying I was abused. No, really. That's a thing people have said to me. Like, out of their face and into my face.
Their Control Over You Is Complicated
Jessica has the strength to kill someone with pretty minimal effort on her part. She is physically so much stronger than Kilgrave, which many people would assume makes her a difficult woman to abuse. The show does a fantastic job of proving that that's bullshit. There are a million factors that can make a person susceptible to abuse, but framing it as "weakness" is common and also really, really harmful.
If someone's in your head, nothing else really matters. I was a lonely 16-year-old desperate for an adult to give a shit about me, and Mark knew that. He picked me specifically because of that. I did a lot of things for him that, if a man suggested those things before Mark or after him, I would fucking spit on them.
The fun doesn't stop once you get away from your abuser, though. Long after Kilgrave stops literally controlling her mind, Jessica still struggles with not letting him control her life.
That's part of the aftermath of abuse, trying to get back in control of your own mind.
I don't know if you're aware of this, but PTSD is not a party and a half. Jessica has flashbacks and nightmares. She doesn't have functioning relationships, because she doesn't trust anyone. She lashes out and drinks too much. She's also not a perfect victim. Society has this idea that in order for your trauma to be "real," you have to fit a certain criteria. If you're mean, if you're promiscuous, if you're anything other than a pure good girl, then people are more inclined to not believe you. Think of any sexual assault case you've ever seen reported on. Think of the ways women were discredited -- slutty, drug user, crazy, sex worker, drunk, whatever. Jessica is an alcoholic, abrasive asshole sometimes, and 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 don't have nightmares anymore, but I'm a high-functioning mess with relationship problems.
Another thing the show gets spot-fucking-on is the lingering fear. It doesn't matter if you have superpowers; there is an extreme, all-encompassing fear when you've been abused by someone.
You can see Jessica slightly hesitating in a lot of interactions that she has with Kilgrave, even when she goes on to fuck his shit up. Someone messing with your mind so thoroughly is frightening as hell, no matter what. There's just this really primal fear of your abuser, regardless of anything about the situation, even if you have superhuman strength and are as perfect as Krysten Ritter.
You can't benchpress a psyche.
Mark is deeply unintimidating to most people. He's 5-foot-10, slightly pudgy, and has lame straightedge XXX tattoos. He has never been in any physical conflict and is a coward, hence his predilection for vulnerable teenage girls. He is much bigger than I am, but unless he literally spread out starfish style on top of me and used his weight advantage against me, I'm confident in my abilities to get away should he pop up from around the corner and grab me ... in theory.
In practice, every time I see him, I'm terrified. It feels like what I imagine drowning feels like. My first instinct is to freeze, followed by the urge to turn around and sprint away from him. That's my fight-or-flight response kicking in, just like it would if I found myself alone with a lion that wanted to rip my throat out. My brain ranks Mark and apex predators equally on the fear scale.
I don't even necessarily have to see him. About nine months ago, I got a LinkedIn email inviting me to connect with him, or whatever it is real adults do on LinkedIn. A simple email -- reading his name when I wasn't expecting it -- sent me into a three-day bender featuring a lot of me sobbing in the bath. Just his name. Just being reminded of his existence and his fucking persistence and I broke down for 72 hours.
Fear is a part of being an abuse survivor, and the show frames it in a really positive way. A lot of abuse storylines either have women being tragically broken puddles of fear or they have no fear at all because fear makes you weak. In Hollywood, women are victims or badasses; there is no middle ground. But Jessica is still a strong character while displaying normal signs of trauma, which is validation that survivors don't get from real people very often, much less the entertainment industry.
After All That ... You Still Think It's Your Fault
While you're fighting to get people to recognize what happened to you and hold the right person responsible, you also get to deal with the fact that you also kind of think it's your fault.
Jessica blames herself, not only for the things Kilgrave made her do while under his control, but for the people he hurts as he desperately tries to get back at her. She does this while telling everyone else who he controls that it's not their fault, that Kilgrave is the only one responsible. Similarly, I have said some wonderfully supportive things to abuse-surviving friends and still manage to low-key hate myself in darker moments.
Most abused women I know deal with a fair amount of self-hate. The framing of sexual abuse in the media is usually victim-blaming and hideous. It's hard to hear "Why didn't you leave him sooner? Why did you love him in the first place? How else can I blame you for an abusive man's actions?" and not start internalizing that.
If your response to an abuse victim is, "What did you do?" you're probably an asshole.
Then, as you try to deal with your trauma, answering the question of why this happened to you really sucks. It is terrifying to accept that someone robbed you of your control over your own life and body. It is terrifying to accept that sometimes people do awful, evil things and, for no reason other than random chance, they do those evil things to you.
You know what concept is way less soul-crushing to grasp? "Everything happens for a reason." Rationally, I hate that phrase. Irrationally, my brain would 100 percent rather go that route, because it hurts less. On the other hand, if everything happens for a reason and a bad thing happened to me, it must mean that I am a Bad Person and I deserved it.
There's a reason nobody ever made that PSA.
I didn't even call what happened to me abuse until I was 19 or 20. For three-plus years of my life I thought Mark was an asshole but that I had given "mixed signals" or something, that I secretly wanted it, that I'd brought sexual exploitation upon myself. It was my fault that I had a relationship with him in the first place. It was my fault because I was dirty and I wanted it to happen. The catfishing was my fault -- I was an idiot for talking to strangers, regardless of the fact that everyone makes friends on the Internet these days.
At 21, I am still kind of fucked up, but I'm also much kinder to myself. I'm much more accepting (rather than guilt-ridden) about what happened. But it's an uphill battle. There are a lot of aspects of our culture that fight tooth and fucking nail to blame women for their abuse, to police the way they process that abuse -- and that's if anyone believes them at all. To have a TV show that is well done and popular while still being accurate and validating to abuse survivors is genuinely amazing, and I am absurdly grateful for its existence.
Sure, Jessica Jones is dark, but Marvel has a history of being randomly more morbid than Airbud's funeral. See why the Marvel universe shrugs its shoulders at mass death in 5 Sad Truths You Learn Watching All The Marvel Films At Once, and learn why Jessica Jones could be the only hope for us to see a strong female Marvel character in 5 Ways Marvel Movies Keep Screwing Up Female Superheroes.
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