Jessica Jones, Kilgrave and Addressing Sexual Assault

By Zoë Mikel-Stites

In November 2015, floating in the sea of TV releases of comic book based shows, we saw the emergence of Jessica Jones. This is in my opinion singlehandedly one of the most important media portrayals of sexual assault, abuse and the life of survivors.  It managed to be honest, uncomfortable and unflinching, without resorting to the shock value of showing us rape and abuse. When I started watching Jessica Jones I knew what I was getting in to. My partner did not. As we watched Kilgrave come in to view I watched shadows fall over my partner ‘s face as he got more and more uncomfortable and heard quiet utterances of disbelief as he watched David Tennat’s portrayal of the manipulative, abusive Kilgrave unfold. When we watched episode 8 “WWJD”, where Jessica addresses directly to Kilgrave what he did, the fact that he abused her, forced her, manipulated her, and raped her repeatedly in no uncertain terms, Kilgrave’s response is to list all of the things that he did and places that he took her.

Kilgrave: “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.”

Jessica: “Yeah. It’s called rape.”

Kilgrave: “What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?”

Jessica: “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”

Kilgrave: “That is not what I was trying to do.”

Jessica: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again and again—”

Kilgrave:How am I supposed to know? I never know if someone is doing what they want, or what I tell them to.”

Jessica: “Poor you.”

Jessica Jones, Season 1, Episode 8, AKA “WWJD?”

The uncomfortable, skin crawling response was every justification for assault I have ever heard. It was “she wanted it” combined with the mental manipulation in the “I did all of these things for you” mentality that so often infuses intimate partner abuse. This particular scene also held a sense of wish fulfillment for victims who I have heard say that they would just want to confront their assailant about what they had done, to look them in the eye and make them understand, beyond a doubt, what they have brought on their victims. Watching this show with my partner has allowed me to have a much more in depth conversation about being a survivor of sexual assault than I have ever had before and it is thanks to the way that multiple aspects of how this show were put together.

Casting of Kilgrave

David Tennant was previously best known for his role as The Doctor in Doctor Who and the succession of that role by Kilgrave was absolutely brilliant. There is often an overlap in geek related franchises, and outside of Tennant being a phenomenal actor, his casting as Kilgrave played on the trust that was built between the audience and the doctor for five years. As the Doctor we learned to trust his voice, his intentions, we knew that hearing his voice and seeing his face were good things. It meant that we were safe and we would run as long as he told us to. We were then immediately presented with David Tennant’s voice and image attached to a character whose ability to make us want to do just that makes him one of the most dangerous men you will ever meet. His supernatural ability to command people to take an action, with the result that they will not only do it without thinking, but want to do it because it would please him, is one of terrifying implication to men and women alike. This affect landed squarely across both male and female audience members because the Doctor was not an intrinsically romantic character, was not sexual, and did not attempt to appeal to that in our nature. If anything it was his honesty and his purity that made us fall in love with him and it is the exact reverse in Kilgrave that makes us so uncomfortable to see Tennant portray him. We intrinsically trust, just as Jessica Jones did under Kilgrave’s influence. This underlying emotional response in the fans was brilliantly exploited to create an intense sense of empathy for Jessica, even for those who have no real world experience with her situation.

Portrayal of Coping Methods

The show makes no attempt to shy away from Jessica’s alcoholism and her various attempts to numb her internal pain through the substance. What they also show is her repetition of the names of streets where she grew up, a tactic taught to her by her therapist to try to give her control when she felt she was losing it. She clings to it, even when she decries it to others, even using it with Hope Schlottman, one of Kilgrave’s other victims to help give the younger girl comfort. Jessica has unhealthy coping methods, but she grasps to every chance she has to regain her mind from her abuser, even if she doesn’t whole heartedly believe that it will work. The desire to use any mechanism possible to regain yourself is a feeling that many assault victims feel, especially those who have been psychologically and emotionally manipulated.

Subtle Presence and The Every Man 

In the comic books, Kilgrave’s skin was purple, hence his name “the purple man”. This makes him stand out, even if he can make people forget his presence. While I am normally a huge advocate for canonically accurate details, I am extremely happy that they left Kilgrave’s skin color alone. Throughout the show, his presence in the world around Jessica is subtly suggested through the use of purple shades and lighting in the backgrounds, stronger use of the color when he or someone who is being controlled by him is close by, even the color of clothes of those surrounding her. His ability to be nondescript allows him to blend in to the background even more as an individual, while his presence is still seen. Survivors of assault often avoid places that remind them of the place where they were assaulted, but with Jessica’s ongoing mental manipulation, the entire city is slightly tainted. Allowing Kilgrave to blend in to the background gives him a sense of the Every Man, with Jessica’s constant watchfulness mimicking the way that I and many other women have discussed living day to day. Pay attention to the guy on the train, don’t walk down the dark alley, keep pepper spray in your purse because you never know. When you don’t know who your assailant is, you have to always be aware, just as Jessica must always be aware of Kilgrave’s potential influence in those around her.

A Realistic Survivor

So often female survivors are portrayed as strong for other people: A mother who has to be strong for her kids and husband or a cop who wants to act like its okay so that they can get back to work and keep up the confidence of their partner. Jessica is strong for herself. She attempts to go back to being a private investigator — her chosen and very solitary profession — in an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, one that keeps her intentionally at arms distance from anyone who could even potentially be considered a person on whom she could lean. She radiates independence, and makes no show of it for anyone; it is simply the way that she is. For once we have a survivor who survives for no other person or cause but themselves. There are moments where she uses her strength for others or pushes her own worries away because she has to help someone, but she as a character stands alone, flawed, struggling and resilient for herself only.

In addition to this inherent individualistic strength, the show incorporates something in to a sexual assault survivor’s story that is often directly kept out. Jessica has a sex life. One that she engages in enthusiastically even. This is something that not all survivors are able to do after their assault, but many are. Too often we see the now frail survivor flinching from the touch of others like a kicked dog but Jessica takes ownership over her sexuality when that has been so directly stolen from her.

The portion of episode 8 in particular that is worthy of applause is Jessica’s denial of Kilgrave’s response to her confrontation of her rape:

Kilgrave: “That is not what I was trying to do.”

Jessica: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again —“

This stalwart, straightforward battering ram to Kilgraves’ defenses, lays out the most important thing about rape: It doesn’t matter what you intended. If the other person didn’t want it, it is rape. This fact alone is so often shied away from, concealed in the shadows of the larger conversation, and Jessica Jones put it out on the table in front of us, dressed and waiting on a silver platter. It is this direct, upfront and most importantly unapologetic conversation about rape that needs to be had and that needs to be okay to have. There are many other aspects to this show that make it well worth the watch, and the comics more than worth the read, but the proliferation of the show has provided voice and a place for a discussion that is incredibly difficult to initiate from any side without a catalyst. Being able to sit male friends down in front of this show and then have a conversation with them where they can even begin have the potential to understand the mentality of an assault survivor is an achievement that is worthy of commendation beyond what I can bestow.