Warning: mentions of sexual assault
Superhero movies and television shows have been gaining wild popularity throughout recent years. Film directors are eager to get their hands on a script with action, secret identities, masks and capes—and, unfortunately, a male lead. Movies like The Dark Knight and Spider-Man: Homecoming have attracted millions of male viewers, leaving girls feeling unrepresented. However, Netflix and Marvel’s television show Jessica Jones is beginning to change that stereotype. Although geared towards an older audience, Jessica Jones not only contains a strong female lead but also centralizes around the dangers of rape culture within modern society.
The term “rape culture” is “designed to show the ways in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes male sexual violence.”With over 600 cases of rape a day within the United States, it’s no surprise that modern society has found ways to normalize this heinous crime. However, the writers of Jessica Jones take steps to address this issue by making it an integral plot point within the show. The female lead, Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter), suffers from intense PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted. Her abuser, Kilgrave (played by David Tennant), uses mind control to force her to comply with his desires. When confronted about his actions, Kilgrave says to Jessica, “‘Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?’” His character truthfully believes that Jessica accepting material possessions from him is equivalent to providing sexual consent. This false idea of consent has become wildly glorified throughout popular media; however, in Jessica Jones, Kilgrave is written as exactly what he is: a rapist. No showrunners or writers have tried to argue against this fact. Even Jessica herself says, “Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my head.” Not once does the show take the side of Jessica’s abuser or attempt to minimize the pain of her past.
Jessica Jones is also one of the few shows on television that features a heterosexual relationship with power split equally between both members of the relationship. Within the first few episodes of Jessica Jones, Jessica meets brooding bartender Luke Cage. The two quickly engage in a romantic and sexual affair. Despite how much Jessica trusts and cares for him, she is never truly dependent on him. The two act as a team rather than a codependency. For example, Luke says to Jessica, “You don’t have to face him (Kilgrave) alone.” Jessica replies, “Yeah, I do.” Luke doesn’t question her choice or further attempt to insert himself into her battle, because he chooses to respect her boundaries and recognizes her independence. This scene was a strong example of how romantic relationships can be executed in a way that doesn’t deny a female character her own personal strength.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
This theme of Jessica’s inner strength is also majorly present within her relationship to Kilgrave. She not only recognizes and fights against his emotionally and sexually abusive behavior, but is also the only character on the show who becomes immune to his powers of mind control. Her anger and disgust towards his actions were strong enough for her to break free from his captivity. Rape culture often puts blame on a victim of sexual assault rather than the abuser, essentially limiting all of the victim’s power. Jessica Jones has willpower strong enough to fight against a seemingly undefeatable villain—all while wearing combat boots and a leather jacket.
Although Jessica’s choice in clothing may seem irrelevant, her wardrobe is actually another step forward against defeating rape culture. In an experiment conducted by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, 82 undergraduate students watched films with women as sexualized victims and women as sexualized heroine characters. The results of the survey concluded that “superheroines in superhero films may, at least, temporarily, lower body esteem for female viewers” and that damsel-in-distress characters may “influence female audiences to endorse more traditional gender role beliefs.” Jessica Jones challenges this character trope by presenting a female heroine who wears jeans, combat boots, a scarf, and a leather jacket. She expresses often throughout the show that she has no desire to wear something incredibly form-fitting. This creates a confident character who is not overly sexualized. On the other hand, the show also introduces character Trish Walker, who is almost always seen in high heels and a dress. She learns to fight just as well as Jessica, and constantly radiates confidence. Therefore, Trish is setting the example that girls can also wear something traditionally feminine and still be strong and successful.
According to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, one in four women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. The prevalence of rape culture within popular entertainment almost guarantees that most of these women will not report the sexual assault. Jessica Jones is taking a step in the right direction by recognizing completely that Kilgrave is, in fact, a villain. Even though he spends most of his on-screen time arguing that his actions are justified, not once does Jessica even begin to consider that his decisions are morally correct. She, with the emotional support of her best friend, boyfriend, and another one of Kilgrave’s victims, takes him down with her power of super strength. But it's the context of the show that proved her physical strength was not her strongest weapon—it was her mental strength and resilience that pushed Jessica Jones to victory.
Jessica Jones seasons one and two are available to watch on Netflix.