Social Justice Warriors: On the Road to "The Defenders" - "Jessica Jones"
Much has been written (and deservedly so) about the care and skill with which Jessica Jones, the second of Marvel’s Netflix series, examines gender roles, questions of toxic masculinity, and Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter) recovery from both metaphorical and literal sexual assault. Although the assault by Kilgrave (David Tennant), a sociopath who can essentially control minds, occurs years prior to the start of the series, its effects are evident in Jessica’s downward spiral. She’s an alcoholic, obsessively stalking and spying on Luke Cage (Michael Colter), and alienating anyone who tries to get close to her. While the assault was certainly what finally tipped Jessica over the edge, as the series goes on we learn that she, like many of the other characters present in the series, was already damaged by trauma long before that. As much as the series is about the violent misogyny that toxic masculinity creates – which has been explored here and here – as well as sexual assault and abuse, it’s also about the loss of autonomy that lies at the root of each character’s experience with, and attempt to recover from, trauma. In this article, I’ll be looking closely at each of the main characters in the cast; but beware, there are spoilers abound.
As a young girl, Jessica Jones gains powers as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals during a car accident that kills her family. She is taken in and raised by Dorothy Walker (Rebecca DeMornay) and her daughter, the child star Trish “Patsy” Walker (Rachael Taylor). At Trish’s urging, Jessica pursues a short-lived career as a superhero—a career that comes to an abrupt end when Kilgrave (after witnessing Jessica using her powers to stop a crime) takes control of her mind. Before she is able to free herself from his control, Kilgrave orders Jessica to kill Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a woman he views as a threat to himself. Thus, Jessica’s trauma stems from this complex and intertwined series of events. Traumas aren’t isolated events for those who experience them, and Jessica experienced trauma long before she encountered Kilgrave. The series portrays the effect of Jessica’s trauma as ever-growing (and, at times, self-inflicted) isolation. Initially, this is through events beyond her control: the death of her family and gaining powers. The abuse she suffered at the hands of Kilgrave isolated her further by destroying her ability to trust others, while the murder she is compelled to commit reinforces the lack of trust she has in herself. Isolation becomes Jessica’s coping mechanism—being as closed off and abrasive drives people away, ensuring that others can’t hurt her, and that she can’t hurt them. This is also Jessica’s way of taking back control, as it becomes her choice to be isolated. In the long-term, learning to embrace her powers, to take control over them, and reconnect with humanity is the way Jessica slowly begins to recover, albeit, to the extent the series argues such a recovery is possible.
We learn much more about the suffering Luke Cage has experienced in his own series, but Jessica Jones focuses on where his trauma intersects with Jessica’s – the death of the woman he loves at Jessica’s hands. This is another form of control being lost, as all of his strength and invulnerability did not allow him to keep his wife, Reva, safe. Where Jessica has isolated herself from people, Luke embraces them. He owns a bar and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. Ultimately, Luke and Jessica connect, but the result is damaging to both of them (ironic, given their mutual indestructibility is part of what they find appealing about each other). It’s a relationship doomed to fail because of the role Jessica played in Reva’s death. For Luke to recover from his trauma, he has to accept his lack of control, not just in being unable to save his wife, but also his inability to forgive Jessica despite knowing she wasn’t responsible for her actions.
This is, in many ways, the most subtle of the traumas illustrated in the series. Trish is a former child star, recovering from the relationship she has with her manipulative stage mom. While this isn’t “life and death” in the traditional sense, it’s the flipside, as Trish’s suffering fueled her drug addiction before changing her name and rejecting her earlier life. However, even in adulthood her trauma manifests as taking on traits that are similar to her mother’s. She pushes Jessica to become a superhero, desiring to live vicariously through her. She counters Jessica’s rejection by keeping track of what she’s doing, involving herself in Jessica’s hunt for Kilgrave, and becoming the controlling figure she rejected years ago. Even her role as a radio self-help host can be seen as an instance of “mothering.” Trish’s experience with trauma and recovery also illustrates the cyclical way in which it can manifest, both through her own traits learned from her mother, as well as trusting and then rejecting her mother’s manipulation and control once again.
One of the two major villains of Jessica Jones, Simpson is both a victim and exemplifier of toxic masculinity. He is only under Kilgrave’s control for a short period of time, but the violation and emasculation he feels as a result have lasting effects. One reason this has such an impact is because Simpson (Will Traval) is, essentially, the “red-blooded, American man.” Will can also be viewed as a reflection of Jessica – a hero who, against his will, is turned into a villain by Kilgrave. What is interesting is the way their reactions play out in relation to their genders. Jessica, as a woman in a society in which victims are often blamed for their assaults, internalizes that. She experiences feelings of guilt for something that was completely out of her control, and responds to those feelings by withdrawing and engaging in self-destructive behavior. Will, on the other hand, views his assault as emasculating, and responds by acting out in ways that reaffirm what he has been taught to believe is “manly” – becoming dominating in his interactions with Jessica and Trish, and violent, and hyper-aggressive in trying to track down and eliminate Kilgrave. He ultimately becomes a victim to his trauma, giving up his personal autonomy to be turned into a drug-dependent super-soldier controlled by others.
In many of the early episodes of Jessica Jones Kilgrave is an unseen presence. A name spoken in whispers. We see the results of his actions long before we meet the character. It’s well into the series before we learn that, before he was “Kilgrave” he was a young man named Kevin, who was subjected to a series of experiments by his own parents. As a result of the dehumanizing experiments Kevin developed powers, becoming isolated in much the same way Jessica did. This isolation is made explicit when he escapes and leaves behind the other children who are being experimented upon. When he encounters Jessica for the first time, it is the discovery that she, too, has powers – and that he is no longer alone – that draws him to her. As is the case with many abusers, he continues the cycle of abuse by seeking power over others. And, like those abusers, he believes that the victimization he suffered excuses or justifies his actions.
One of the strengths of Jessica Jones is that it doesn’t offer trite fixes. Trauma happens, and the best that can be hoped for is eventually learning to live with the effects. It’s not as simple as not letting trauma define us – all of our experiences define us. Instead, it’s about not letting the trauma control what we do or determine who we are. Jessica, Luke, and to a lesser extent, Trish are able to discover this, while Will and Kilgrave are not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two characters unable to recover are the two who embody white masculinity. White masculinity (which is not the same as simply being a white man) in our society is essentially built upon the concept of control and dominance, both of the self and others. It doesn’t allow for, or provide the tools for, the loss of control that is often at the heart of trauma. In the final confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave, it is her willingness to show weakness, that allows her to defeat him. She gives in to Kilgrave’s recurring command to smile and simultaneously lets her guard down to express to Trish that she loves her – ceding control and expressing emotions achieving what her strength, isolation, and invulnerability never could.