Jessica Jones: Power, Privilege and Patriarchy

Exam season is the perfect time to binge-watch Netflix shows. Not only is a single episode just short enough to give myself a mental break, it’s also just really entertaining. What’s really great is when a tv show illuminates real-life in the most unexpected ways. I didn’t think a comic turned tv show would be able to do that for me so well.

Krysten Ritter describes this Netflix-original as a dark, psychological, character-study. Although the essence of Marvel is clearly visible, real-life doesn’t seem too far off. And don’t all the best stories seem to be that way?

*spoilers ahead*

I’d like to focus particularly on the villain in Season 1, Kilgrave, or “The Purple Man.” Basically, he has mind control. He can make anyone do anything he wants, just by speaking his commands. I encourage you to watch the show to learn more (even if you aren’t a typical action or comic-book fan).

Although Kilgrave is a “villain” (which could be argued, quite interestingly) and possesses mind-control, which is something supernatural and possibly not part of our world (?), Kilgrave’s behaviour, responses and results are rooted in reality.

The Patriarchy in General

One of the key themes in Jessica Jones is the patriarchy (well, let’s just admit: it’s everywhere). I guess I wanted to introduce this theme because it relates to all the subsequent concepts I’ll be covering. Not only that, but it’s time that something so obvious and evident in our society is called out in the media. Mainstream media has been dominated by a patriarchal conscience for far too long. Jessica Jones is feminist at its core. And I’m so happy about it.

“White, cis-gendered, middle/upper-class men have always had the upper hand.”

The patriarchy is driven by power and privilege. White, cis-gendered, middle/upper-class men have always had the upper hand (posessing social and economic capital). Kilgrave embodies the sense of entitlement the patriarchy possesses; but to the extreme. His mind control is used as a tool to illustrate how entitled the patriarchy is.

The most obvious example is when Kilgrave buys and decorates Jessica’s childhood home to look exactly as it did when she was younger. Intended as a romantic gesture (albeit, extremely creepy), Kilgrave throws a tantrum when Jessica doesn’t respond the way he wants her to. Her stay at this creepy dollhouse is punctuated with sarcastic replies such as when Kilgrave says to a neighbour, “I can’t get [Jessica] to wear a dress for the life of me,” and she responds, “I’ll wear one to your funeral.” Big moments such as Kilgrave killing people who get in the way of his “love,” and even the small pieces of dialogue, show intense backlash at patriarchy.

Kilgrave is a mastermind, his intricate plans to get what he wants (hint: Jessica), seem flawless to him, and perfectly valid. He believes that after all he’s done, he deserves Jessica, as if she’s a prize. This mindset is shockingly recognizable in the way some relationships exist today. Jessica Jones tears down any assumptions we have about entitlement; especially being entitled to women. Nobody owes anyone anything. Although we do owe David Tennant a million awards for his acting capacities.

Abuse (Violence Against Women)

Now that we’ve got patriarchy out of the way (if only this were actually true), let’s delve into one of the other themes in Jessica Jones. Domestic abuse, or Violence Against Women. This term in particular is used because, “males commit the overwhelming majority of all violent crimes, and usually against women or girls” (Hobbs and Rice 506). 1 in 3 women will be abused in their lifetime. Jessica Jones exposes the truth of this reality.

“Approximately 75% of women who are killed by their batterers are murdered when they attempt to leave or after they have left an abusive relationship.”

Abuse is all about power. Kilgrave’s mind control serves as the perfect way to illustrate how abuse perpetrators are obsessed with having power over another person. Of course, Kilgrave is unable to see the danger of his motives.

Psychological/Emotional Abuse

The range of emotional abuse behaviours is extensive, you can check out a pretty compact list here, but Jessica Jones does a good job at laying out some of the common behaviours.

One behaviour includes keeping the victim from seeing their friends or family. Obviously, Kilgrave does this as he threatens to harm and even follows through with murdering the closest people Jessica has in her life. While keeping her physically prisoner, she’s refused access to the outside world and her own support system. Although Kilgrave doesn’t (or can’t?) use his mind control on her during this period, he imagines other tactics in order to coerce her into doing what he wants. He controls the people around her, such as demanding them to rip the skin from each other’s faces if Jessica and him don’t return to the house in a certain time frame.

Even the subtle things that exist in reality such as controlling what a person wears is evident in the show. Kilgrave gives Jessica a sequinned, purple dress, wanting her to wear it for him when they have dinner together. He even insults her fashion sense in the first few episodes, saying that it’s something she’ll have to work on.

Furthermore, Kilgrave preys on Jessica’s self-esteem. He constantly says that she didn’t have a life before him, that she’s sad and insecure.

One of the most obvious emotional abuses Jessica experiences is harassment. Throughout the beginning of the show, Kilgrave is barely shown, yet his presence is ominous. Representing the emotional trauma abuse victims suffer from, the show presents Kilgrave’s hold on Jessica even when he isn’t physically present. Flashbacks turn to stalking when Jessica discovers she’s being photographed for Kilgrave. Eventually, he demands photos from her every day at 10am in order to satisfy him, lest something terrible happen to those around her. Another telltale sign of psychological abuse is when someone repeatedly calls or sends gifts to someone when they have been asked to stop. Kilgrave is consistently phoning Jessica to threaten her, and even drops a “gift” off at her house.

“The idea is not to paint men as villains, but to try to understand the root causes of violence and how to prevent it” (Hobbs and Rice 506)

Physical and Sexual Abuse

Physical abuse runs rampant in the show. Kilgrave’s mind control creates an endless trail of physical assault (usually murder, in extremely gruesome ways) in order to obtain Jessica. Of course, Kilgrave never fully recognizes his actions, choosing to refer to his obsession of dominance as “love.” He justifies his violent actions as a way to capture Jessica. When Jessica points out to him that’s he’s been ruining her life by his murderrous rampages, he retorts and says, “I am new to love but I know what it looks like. I do watch television.”

Clearly, Kilgrave is an evil mastermind, but his emotional intelligence is severely lacking. His immaturity shines through when all he believes about love comes from the media, and his own twisted conscience. His immaturity regarding love and relationships is further highlighted when in the final episodes, he vows to make Jessica want him and then refuse her over and over again until she goes insane.

Kilgrave: “Dear God, I would do anything to see the look on her face when she realizes she’s helpless. I’d make her want me. Then reject her. Devastate her over and over and over until she wants to die…”

This type of emotional chaos characterizes perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse, especially in domestic relationships. Love is never the intention of an abuser.

“Many people believe sexual assault happens in alleyways. The majority happen during the day, by someone the victim knows. Only 25% of assaults are committed by a stranger.”

Kilgrave embodies a common predator; he’s charming (nice clothes, great accent, seemingly wise, engages in grand gestures of “love”), yet simulateneously abuses Jessica in multiple ways. All-in-all, Kilgrave is a rapist. Although he can use his superpowers to make someone have sex with him, it is exactly like real-life rape. It is the use of force, enacting an unequal power struggle.

Victim-Blaming and Gaslighting

Kilgrave definitely shows victim-blaming, when the victim of a wrongful act is deemed responsible for whatever happened to them. One of the greatest examples from the show is when Kilgrave tells Jessica he’s didn’t tell her to actually kill Reva Connors, all he said was to, “Take care of her.” When Jessica hears this, she’s immediately distraught. Obviously, this shows the complexity of Kilgrave’s mind control, but it shines light on the fact that the horrors done to women are sometimes blamed upon them. In fact, Jessica also experiences guilt over deciding whether to attempt to stay with Kilgrave when he says, ” I can’t be a hero without you.” If you’ve watched the whole season, you’ll know what she decides.

Although Kilgrave has mental powers, he is using a very basic form of psychological manipulation here. It’s called gaslighting. This is when one is manipulated by another so that they question their own sanity, they fall into a hole of self-doubt. Domestic abuse victims frequently experience this. Some common examples include being told you’re imagining something or attempting to distract you from the fact that they’re actions don’t match their words. Gaslighting is clearly emphasized when Kilgrave says to Jessica, “I’m not torturing you, why would I? I love you.” He simultaneously denies what Jessica believes he is doing and provides positive reinforcement to confuse her. Manipulation at it’s finest.

All of these examples show Kilgrave displaying a dominance of power that reflects today’s rape culture, something we all need to talk more about (and subsequently, change.)

Rape Culture

Whatever means by which someone is raped (whether they are drugged, coerced, or simply not listened to when they say “no”) the reason they are raped always has to do with the person who makes the conscious choice to disregard their lack of consent. Jessica Jones illustrates exactly what feminism has been trying to express for years: rape hinges on consent. Someone who is drunk does not have the ability to consent. Someone who says yes and then changes their mind means they do not consent. The list goes on.

I used to nod my head when people said “rape culture,” when in actuality, I had no clear idea what it even meant. Throughout my studies I’ve learned to appreciate the sheer power these two words hold. They do not simply imply that rape happens, but that rape (and all the toxic ideas that revolve around it) is constantly perpetuated by current society. It is a systematic issue.

This is why I applaud Jessica Jones so much. They have embodied rape culture into a single character, resulting in not just an “evil villain,” but a reflection of a wider systematic issue. Kilgrave’s rape culture comments include, “Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?” Jessica points out the obvious lack of consent as she says, “The part where I didn’t wanna do any of it.”

Cat-calling can also be seen as part of rape culture. Although it may not occur in a “sexual” setting, it is still uncalled for, there is a lack of consent on one side. It’s all about power, and that women are expected to be subservient to men by responding as if they are flattered. One of the trademark lines from Jessica Jones is, “smile.” Kilgrave consistency commands Jessica to do this, which eerily resembles the form cat-calling often takes. Once Kilgrave’s life is finally in Jessica’s hands (literally), she says, “Smile.”

I basically had to rewind that part five times to applaud such beautiful screenwriting.

In the end, Jessica twists this misogynistic concept back on her abuser (and also twists his neck, which was very satisfying).

Jessica Jones Really Is The Best Show on TV

Clearly, Jessica Jones is a platform used to show multiple representations of abuse, and delve into the complexity of living in a patriarchal world. Although the ending of Season 1 was so satisfying, it’s crucial to remember that this isn’t always the experience of abuse victims. Whether an abuser is not physically present in the victim’s life, or even goes to jail, the consequences of abuse can be everlasting. I don’t mean to speak for all of those who have been abused, I think it’s also important to refrain from calling these people “survivors.” Even the type of victim vocabulary I’ve been using can be problematic. What I mean to emphasize is that just because Kilgrave might not physically exist in Season 2, Jessica still has many traumas to deal with.

It might be tempting to brush Kilgrave off as a super villain, he’s just part of a comic-book turned tv show, he’s just crazy right? From my perspective, the most dangerous part of this thinking is in believing that super villains (people or concepts from our imaginations) are the things we should be most afraid of. It is reality that is truly terrifying. The best part: we have the ability to change it.

Jessica Jones serves as a hero, not because she has super strength and the ability to fly, but because she attempts to dismantle the structures that reduce power to the hands of a small number of privileged people.

I hope we can all be inspired to do the same.

Sources:

“Domestic Abuse Shelter – A New Beginning.” Domesic Abuse Shelter of the Florida Keys. Florida Keys, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. <http://www.domesticabuseshelter.org/infodomesticviolence.htm#statistics&gt;.

Hobbs, Margaret, and Carla Rice. “Factsheet: Violence Against Women and Girls.” Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain. Toronto: Women’s, 2013. 503-14. Print.

Rosenberg, Melissa, prod. “Jessica Jones.” Marvel Studios. 20 Nov. 2015. Netflix. Web.

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