I love Marvel. Like really love Marvel. I’ve spent countless hours watching movies, television shows, debating the powers of superheroes and villains, and just generally being a huge dork. But if you would have asked me last week if I thought Marvel, the people who have yet to give a female superhero her own movie, was going to handle rape and domestic violence in not only a nuanced and respectful manner, but so well that it could help show the nation what it’s actually like to be a victim of these crimes, well I would have told you that Scarlet Witch must have fucked with your mind because that is craziness. I would have been wrong, and here is why. Note: there are some spoilers, and a scene from the 8th episode is discussed at length.
Just quickly I have to give a shout out to Krysten Ritter, who might have been put on this earth to play this role. I first saw her in The B- in Apt 23 and thought she was an incredibly talented and hilarious actress, but here she shines even brighter as our flawed, yet honest hero. She is an alcoholic, she pushes people away, even when they are trying to help her, and she trusts virtually no one. And we understand why because of the trauma she has endured. Even if her actions don’t make sense to those around her, they make sense to the audience. Her actions, while not always wise or healthy, always make logical sense for her character. We know she is not crazy, which is vitally important in a world where victims of sexual assault are often labelled as liars or sluts. This is clearly not a case of hysteria. We even know that she can’t go to the police, which I thought was an amazing touch, considering that rates of domestic violence are significantly higher in law enforcement than the general population, and these victims can not go to the police for obvious reasons. There are a multitude of logical reasons why women do not go to the police, and it’s very refreshing to see that on screen, without the woman being chastised or shamed for it.
The way her PTSD is portrayed, speaking from my own experience with it, is breathtakingly accurate. Flashbacks aren’t used as a plot device to explain what has happened in the past, but rather as a way to show how she is constantly reliving the worst moments of her life. The show doesn’t have to show her being brutally raped a la Game of Thrones for the audience to understand to what extent she has been violated. I believe the lack of explicit sexual violence provides a much needed examination of how human beings deal with trauma. Rape isn’t used as a cheap plot point, or to inspire a male character to action, it’s the central theme. She spends most of the season dealing with her rape, and in a pivotal scene which I will explore in more detail she even has the strength to tell her rapist to his face that he raped her. And speaking of strength
Just for a moment I want you to appreciate the fact that a woman, who was a victim of rape and domestic violence has superhuman strength. If there was ever a case of someone likely to be victim blamed, it’s Jessica. She has the ability to literally kill her rapist/abuser with her bare hands, yet she is unable to because of the mental hold he has on her. If this isn’t a big fuck you to the “why didn’t you fight back?” club I don’t know what is. We know what she is capable of, yet we also know why she was unable to use her tremendous strength to prevent her abuse. Again, we believe her, we understand her, we are able to empathize with the fact that she was put in an impossible situation and she did the best she could.
Remember this image?
This woman’s story is not unusual, and it speaks to how the reality of rape is often vastly different from the cultural narrative we are used to. By cultural narrative, I mean the idea that rapists are black men in ski masks who hide in bushes and jump out at innocent white girls in dark alleyways. Rape is about power and consent, and the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone that the victim knows, and likely trusts. Rapists don’t come with a warning label, that’s what makes them so terrifying. They also don’t always call what they do rape. In a study with 1882 participants, college students were asked if they had ever:
1) Have you ever attempted unsuccessfully to have intercourse with an adult by force or threat of force?
2) Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who did not want you to because they were too intoxicated to resist?
3) Have you ever had intercourse with someone by force or threat of force?
4) Have you ever had oral intercourse with someone by force or threat of force?
Note that these things all meet the legal definition of rape/attempted rape, yet do not use the word rape. And 6% of the participates said yes to one or more of those questions. This is why it’s so incredibly truthful and poignant to me when Kilgrave dismisses Jessica’s rape, even saying “I hate that word”. This is a guy whose superpower is essentially rape. He’s SuperRapist (TM). But he doesn’t see himself as a rapist. More importantly, the audience knows that he is rapist. But we also know he is a victim in his own right. It’s hard to watch the Kevin videos without feeling some amount of sympathy for the child that would become Kilgrave. And that’s good, because in the real world rapists are still human beings who are complex and have lives and fears and needs. He is still shown as a human being, he even does some good acts every once and a while. From the standpoint of a victim advocate this is huge because it allows people to see a more realistic (well, as realistic as we can get in the Marvel universe) portrayal of a rapist. The problem with viewing rapists as inhuman monsters, is that when someone says they are raped, and the person they accuse isn’t an inhuman monster, we are often less likely to believe them. Our expectations for what a rapist looks like aren’t met, and therefore we discredit the victim. By showing a much more nuanced view of what a rapist can look like, we give more credence to those whose abusers are seen as “good guys”.
It is my wish that after binge-watching Jessica Jones people will have a different outlook on sexual violence. One of my least favorite things about talking about rape on the internet is that inevitably I get asked “why is rape so bad?”. There continues to be a section of the population that doesn’t see rape as a traumatic event that negatively affects your life for years to come. Even with the ACE study that shows the health outcomes for those who have suffered abuse significantly reduces one’s lifespan, there are going to be people who just don’t “get it”. Now that we finally have a popular TV show that portrays the aftermath of rape and domestic violence in a brutally honest way, I have hope that it will increase empathy for survivors of sexual violence. By focusing on the story of one very strong woman, instead of statistics or charts, the issue is humanized in a way I didn’t think possible, especially not from the often male-centric Marvel. For as much as Jessica Jones doesn’t want to be seen as a hero, she is one to me.