‘Kinda Rapey’ Part 2: Jessica Jones saves power, sex, and violence in 2015


kilgrave and jessica

Last week I wrote about the problem of rape in serial television this year — in particular the hoopla surrounding Sansa’s rape on Game of Thrones* and Jamie’s rape on Outlander. A friend on Facebook also commented on “glamorized” rape in American Horror Story which I must say I’ve had several water cooler conversations about with fans who find it borderline unbearable this season (emphasis on the borderline!). If, as I suggested, a flooding of sexualized rape and violent sexuality is desensitizing viewers to discerning the difference between the two, is there any place on television where this is not happening? And can we learn from it?

[* GoT showrunners announced last week that they will be toning down the sexual violence on the show following Internet backlash to this scene.]

In comes Netflix/Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which follows a young, hard-drinking New York P.I., played by Kristen Ritter, with superhuman strength and flying abilities. In it, the series villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant), uses mind control to hold Jones as his captive and lover while using her abilities to do his bidding. We don’t really see any of this — at least not at first — since that story unfolded prior to where the series begins. And so we meet Jessica post-Kilgrave, post-rape, post-okay, with the news that he is not in fact dead and has returned to kidnap and control yet another young girl which Jessica must save.

Without rehashing the entire season (especially for those that haven’t seen it, and because it certainly is worth watching), there are two plot points which, together, point to a responsible, entertaining, and effective use of rape and sexuality. Jessica’s sexual relationship with a fellow “mutant” — the impermeable Luke Cage — is not a soft and cuddly one. They break walls and beds when they go at it. It’s kind of their thing considering their superhuman strength and all. When Jessica and Luke have sex, no matter how violent it may be, they are both equally emPOWERed, in their agency and physicality and there is no submissive party. At least not consistently, as both enjoy, initiate, disturb, and embrace their sexuality with one another in equal measure. When juxtaposed with Kilgrave’s explicitly dominant (and curiously non-violent) power over Jessica, the mutual sexual agency between Jessica and Luke serves as a fantastic example of a hard and defined line between “violent sex” and “sexual violence” that is so hard to find on television, and so blurred by fetishized power dynamics.

jessica jones luke

Here’s another line — one rarely crossed: use of the word “rape” without Lifetime Channel tones of shame or self-victimization. Jessica Jones addresses Kilgrave directly as a rapist over and over again throughout the series — a term which disturbs him and he refuses to accept (“You know I don’t like that word”, he says). In this manner, Jessica takes control of the situation by accepting what has happened and calling it like it is rather than victimizing herself simply because Kilgrave’s mind-control-induced rapes were not necessarily a violent ones. This is an important complication on the question of consent and one far more common and uncomfortable to discuss for the victim. In doing so Jessica is asserting that while she did not have power while she was being raped, she has power and she will assert it courageously despite her fear.

Libby Hill at The LA Times wrote a thought-provoking piece which touches upon the subtlety of male power that I really liked called “Smile! How a villain’s phrase in Jessica Jones exposes modern-day sexism“. In the best summation of the problem from her article, Hill writes, “Telling a woman, particularly a stranger, to smile, presumes unearned familiarity. Worse, it implies a right to dictate behavior.” Dare I say most women have been told at some point or another in their lives to smile by some strange-ish man. Guys, if you don’t understand or believe this, I ask you to trust me. Of course, asking a woman to smile is not rape, and in bringing it up within a post about rape, I do not mean to imply that the two are the same. However, the question of power and control over a woman’s body and her actions, for the sheer benefit of the man requesting those actions, is rooted in the same story of male gaze that positions the man as deserving spectator. Kilgrave’s constant request for Jessica to smile (and worse, his requests for smiling selfies from her in exchange for keep his nefarious activities around town to a minimum) is a parallel reminder of commonplace male power and privilege, and one women instantly recognize.

That’s right: a series with a sexually aggressive couple AND a non-violent rapist got the violent sex/sexual violence thing right and real. Sounds backwards at first, but then again, it makes perfect sense.


One Comment

  1. Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:56 am | Permalink | Reply

    this topic is interesting. This information is very useful to me. I hope there will be many post or like this blog. Thank you for sharing.
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