* trigger warnings: rape, child abuse, post-traumatic stress, suicide, controlling asshole fuckheads, and, you know, if you have triggers, they’re probably here, sorry *
I could probably add more to the list. A spoiler alert is warranted, but painfully banal. No, this isn’t an easy essay to write. But maybe it’s time, time to at least start a conversation about all the myriad ways that our lives are enmeshed in systems of control and abuse, in desperately inequitable power relations. And what that really fucking means.
Because that’s what Jessica Jones is ultimately all about. Now, to be plain, I highly recommend this show. It’s one of the most strikingly feminist works of art around, and it’s certainly the most feminist work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The wonderful diversity of the cast and roles, the plethora of female interactions, and the subversion of certain hyper-masculine tropes, this is all window dressing. It’s credentials. They’re not perfect, but they’re still excellent. That out of the way, let’s get to the nitty gritty. At its core, Jessica Jones metaphorically examines the dynamics of controlling relationships, primarily personal relationships. Which is just a starting point of the conversation, a way to contextualize issues of control that permeate all facets of “modern” life. And that isn’t an easy conversation to have. It’s a depressing and complex conversation to have.
At the center we have Jessica, a woman with superpowered strength, pitted against a serial rapist whose superpower is mind control, an ultimate Ubermensh. She kills him. Very satisfying. How she gets there, though, is more the point. She is, in herself, a very interesting character. Jessica Jones is a private investigator firmly in the mold of the noir anti-hero, which extends not just to her character traits (hard-drinking, tough-speaking, sarcastic, cynical, wears a lot of black) but to the discourse of the show around her – be it certain grimy set designs, stark lighting, moody music, voice-over narration, what have you. Now sure, the noir anti-hero isn’t anything new, but it’s still an awful lot of fun to see Krysten Ritter playing the part. Especially because anytime we get a woman playing a stereotypically “male” role it helps to undercut the claim to masculinity of such roles. Just her presence helps to untangle the tropes of “anti-hero” from an aspect of masculinity to a response against systems and people of power and control.
Her superpower certainly plays into the tropes of hypermasculinity. She’s super-strong. Brute strength. Lethal. Interestingly, though, it’s a power borne of trauma. Sure, it’s handwaved away as an intervention on the part of a mysterious corporation (more on this later), but narratively speaking the birth of Jessica’s power is rooted in the loss of her family and ending up in a new family environment defined by a controlling mother. Brute strength, we should note, is a significant tactic of rapists, not to mention certain social institutions. It’s also the primary tactic of rebellion. But the problem that rebels face is that exercising brute strength alone will never suffice against entrenched systems of power; they are better armed, they have more resources, and the deck is stacked against you. Not that brute strength isn’t valuable; on the contrary, it can certainly help to even the odds, to exercise basic self-defense.
Opposite her is Luke Cage, the man who owns the bar, whose skin is “unbreakable.” In an intersectional feminist text, I really love that Luke’s skin is a source of his power. Again, though, this is only a certain kind of power, and in context one that’s associated with certain stereotypes. But Luke isn’t just physically strong. He’s level-headed, attuned to Jessica’s emotions, yet firm and reasonable in the boundaries he’s set for himself. Like Jessica, this is not sufficient to ensuring his success.
Did you know the Wikipedia page on this show documents how much muscle mass these actors gained to play their roles?
So brute strength in itself it isn’t enough. But dammit if I don’t love that fact that this is Jessica’s superpower. Because this is a power that is often wielded by rapists. Violence. And she’s able to fight back in this regard. It’s a very desirable superpower. However, even though this is how Jessica ends up killing the rapist, it was never sufficient. It takes more than brute strength to defeat systems of control, and as a woman, it takes more than brute strength to overcome a bigger, stronger rapist.
This kind of understand of power also drives the plot around the police sergeant, Will Simpson (he of the simple will). He’s the cop who assaults Jessica’s best friend and sister, Trish Walker. It’s very distressing that she ends up continuing a relationship with him after he demonstrates a contrite and apologetic manner. Like, no, don’t do that! But it’s a facet of controlling relationships. It’s a mistake, but it’s so often true – we want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We believe in second chances. In forgiveness (probably because we all need it; I certainly do).
But the cop dude, he reverts back to the his hypermasculine ways even though he’s not being controlled by the rapist –he ends up seeking out the military-industrial complex to facilitate his hypermasculinity. So while it’s difficult to go along with Trish’s choice in giving him a second chance, at least this “relationship” ends up falling by the wayside. She gives him a second chance, but not a third. Blessed be. She sets a boundary; she still exercises power. And it’s especially interesting that Trish attempts to claim this power of hypermasculinity by taking the “red pill”—showing at once that while such an exercising of power may pay off in the immediate short term, over the long haul it isn’t sustainable – this is a pill that can literally kill you.
Which makes an interesting counterpoint to Jessica’s superpower. This superpower isn’t sufficient to deal with systems of power and control, but at times it may be necessary. This is important to understand. It’s not a power to discount. It’s just not enough; it alone simply perpetuates a diseased system in of itself.
So what we need to understand is that the real strength of Jessica Jones is her mind. She’s observant, she’s diligent, she relies on both evidence and her own experience… and she has a camera. The camera is an instrument of control. It’s a way to document experience. It can disprove lies. It can reveal truth. This is what Jessica does for a living. But it’s also the tool of narrative, especially a cinematic narrative. Jessica uses this tool. So too does the rapist, who has someone photograph Jessica for months. But unlike Jessica, he also goes to great lengths to erase evidence. To prevent this form of power from being used by other people. This is the power of the media. It is the tool of the surveillance state. It’s a tool. It’s a form of power. It can used by you, it can be used against you.
In case it’s not already clear at this point, I am very concerned about how we can read Jessica Jones as a way to address issues of power and control in general, even though the show itself is primarily concerned with personal relationships, especially with rape culture. But I don’t see rape culture as separate from other societal systems of control and power-over. They are interconnected.
One of the responses to systems of power-over is that of gaming the system, of trying to use the tools of the culture in one’s favor. We see this play out in the love triangle between Jeri Hogarth, her wife Wendy, and her secretary Pam. All three characters use the art of manipulation to further their agendas, and none of them are ultimately satisfied with the results, sometimes tragically so.
The real problem in this triad is Carrie-Anne Moss’s lawyer, Jeri. (Not that there’s any problem with Moss; she’s phenomenal.) Jeri is a gamer. She games the system of power and control to further her own interests. She’s a lawyer. This is what she’s good at. Jeri is a woman who goes out and gets what she wants, as evidenced by her high-power job. She’s used to getting her way. She is… privileged; of course she’s white. Just as interesting is that she embodies an age-old trope about men who leave their wives for their secretaries. (Hogarth was originally a man in the comics.)
Jeri games the system, sure. But Pam, the secretary, uses her sexuality to seduce Jeri, ostensibly because she’s attracted to Jeri’s ability to exercise power and control! And Wendy, the dumped wife who devotes her professional medical career to helping people, isn’t above using “the system” to get what she wants, using the threat of blackmail against Jeri as a form of justice for Jeri’s shittiness in their relationship.
I really, really like this whole subplot. Notice how all three women in the love triangle have their own agency, different tactics, different ways of approaching their relationships. Given they’re all lesbians, just this diversity of approach helps to break down stereotypes about gay relationships – they’re really quite different from each other. And yet they, like all of us, are concerned about their power. We see a variety of strategies for exercising power and control, and because they play out in same-sex relationships, the strategies themselves become divorced from gender politics – this isn’t how men and women relate to each other, but how people relate to each other. More than anything, this helps to demonstrate that feminism really is about, or must be about, power relationships.
Again, as with our dissection of rebellion, the power of manipulation, in of itself, is both insufficient and yet necessary to addressing systemic and personal abuse of power. In an unequal relationship, I don’t think we can discount any strategy that can create periods of liberation. Conversely, the tool itself is entrenched in creating the illusion of liberty; it’s still a form of coercion.
JESSICA: “Keep denying it…”
You know, it is so easy to just turn away from it all. Give up. Withdrawal is certainly my default response to power and domination. Turn myself off. Alcohol, for example. Suffering is easier when you’re numb. So I can’t fault the decision to simply turn away. Which we get several examples of in Jessica Jones.
First and foremost is Jessica. She regularly turns to alcohol. It’s one of her main strategies for coping with the shit she’s facing. But despite her attempts to forget, to turn away, to muddle on without really attending to the larger problem, she can’t let go. And this is a lovely contradiction. I think it’s true. We need to disconnect, to recharge, to let go. To not be in control; after all, it’s the act of power-over itself that causes the sickness. Which extends to ourselves. But this is not a Manichean position; a union of opposites is called for. We can’t stay on all the time, but neither can we be permanently switched off.
This… distance… is a driver of so many of her main personality traits. It’s expressed through her sarcasm, her dug abuse, her pushing people away, and ultimately her self-hatred. It’s much more difficult to be hurt when there’s no emotional investment. When there’s numbness. And yet that’s such a powerless position to take, because there’s no power with when we’re cut off from other people.
The character of Malcolm really plays into this dichotomy. He’s the guy who is introduced as the drug addict. And he’s initially portrayed as a pathetic character – Jessica doesn’t exactly condemn or punish him, but she certainly pities him. But it turns out that the power that drugs have over him isn’t a moral failing on his part; he’s been tricked and trapped by the perpetrator. Which is kind of true about the introduction of addictive drugs into communities of powerlessness – namely, communities of poverty and color, which are often synonymous.
Malcolm ends up having the power to overcome the addiction. He finds it not through his own aggrandizement, but through simply helping others. He’s actually a very sweet man. He runs a support group of metaphorical rape survivors. And though he’s abashed of his prior impact on Jessica, regretful, he doesn’t let it get in the way of making progress in his own life. He doesn’t let it impinge on being truly powerful.
MRS SHLOTTMAN: Hope has always been incredibly disciplined.
Another way we respond to power-over is to simply do what is told. To submit is to receive all the carrots, and to avoid all the sticks. Which gets us to the character of Hope Shlottman, who represents another very different exploration of power and control. She’s the one the rapist forced to shoot her parents. And of course Jessica feels responsible for this; after all, the rapist only did it as a way of communicating to Jessica. So here we have a character who’s been stripped of all her agency – she’s imprisoned, a jury isn’t going to believe her story, and in the meantime her abuser is walking around scot free. She herself has had nothing to do with this; she only did what she was told, she was disciplined, and yet this does not keep her out of harm’s way. We could say she represents the “random rape” trope, though obviously most rapes are enmeshed in pre-established “relationships” (scare quotes because mind control precludes a real relationship).
Again, though, there’s a twist to her saga. The one thing Hope wants more than anything else is for the rapist to be stopped, permanently. And the one person who has any hope of doing that, Jessica, is holding back – because she needs to feel absolved of Hope’s situation. In other words, Jessica is using Hope for her own personal, psychological reasons.
So Hope ends up taking advantage of the opportunity to get what she wants – she commits suicide, the ultimate form of compliance in a system of unequal power relationships. She removes herself from Jessica’s complicated calculus of moral responsibility, to get Jessica to comply with her wishes. Suicide, then, becomes transformed into an act of self-sacrifice, and a powerful one. And, again, I find this terribly fascinating, not only because the act of suicide has been transformed, but also because the act of self-sacrifice is laid bare. Not to say I’m advocating suicide. Not at all. But I wouldn’t judge Hope for her choice. There’s also the matter of Hope’s name. Here we have Hope being extinguished. Not that despair prevails, but rather the very act of letting go, which is necessarily letting go of control. Letting go, then, becomes a precursor to Grace, to the boon of the story’s resolution.
Control and Resistance
JESSICA: “In my line of work, you gotta know when to walk away. But some cases just won’t let you go.”
So I’m rewatching this again, thinking about the main subject, of control. I’m not going to finish the rewatch before this essay goes up, but just looking at the first few episodes again, I’m so struck at how much “control” figures into every characterization, if not every single scene. When Jessica’s taking photos through people’s windows (evoking Hitchcock’s Rear Window) she first comes across an overweight woman who is running on a treadmill and eating a massive hamburger at the same time. Just this individual shot, it speaks to the pressures we face to mediate our personal appearances against our coping mechanisms; it’s a Catch-22. Or how Hope’s father tries to fix Jessica’s broken door; so too does Trish. It’s an expression of control, through exercising power over our environment. The Russian workers locking Jessica’s door and withholding the key until they get paid.
And there are scenes of successfully and responsibly exercising power. Like when Jessica and Luke have sex. The scene is explicit, and yet not exploitive; there’s no nudity, just activity. At one moment, Jessica turns away from Luke, not a matter of rejection or an implication of powerlessness (important given the text and subtext of rape) but to change their position for her own pleasure.
The show itself is kind of brilliant for how faithfully it explores the central theme.
But obviously the main exemplar of control is the villain himself, Kilgrave. The other white male lead (brilliantly played by David Tennant), he’s even more problematic than the cop. He is the epitome of “power-over” – all he has to do is to speak, to command, to get his way. A religious reading would take this as an argument to kill God. I see it as rather in line with the conclusion of Sherlock’s “His Last Vow,” which condones the dispatching of anyone with too much power that’s wielded abusively. Everything he does is a way of describing what it feels like to be subject to that kind of power in the real world. It’s one large extended metaphor. And it’s infuriating.
So, look at how Jessica kills him. She uses all the forms of power available to her, in a concerted act of resistance. She refuses to obey, even as she deceives him, from getting Trish to participate to pretending she’s complying with his demands. She uses her physical strength to crush his power at its source, by shutting his fucking mouth, and then she snaps his neck.
This is quite distinct from her attempt to use “the system” to her advantage, when she rebels against his attempts to colonize her childhood (an impressively disturbing episode) by employing the tools of coercion of the state itself – when she imprisons him, tortures him, and attempts to coerce him into giving a confession, into forcing him to comply. But he’s much better adapted to the system of control than she is – after all, he’s the perpetrator. Nor can she pretend to make a hero out him, not if that requires enslaving herself to him as his “conscience” over the long haul.
No, the State isn’t going to help with addressing the problem of rape. Not when the State is so deeply invested in the same forms of power-over that are ultimately at the root of rape. And that’s what Jessica Jones so adeptly demonstrates, that rape isn’t sexual, it’s an act of power-over.
And this, I think, is what ultimately lies at the heart of feminism. Not just an identification with imbalanced power relationships, but a rage at them. That such injustice is deserving of maximum prejudice. The Kilgraves of the world deserve to die. It’s that simple. For they will do everything in their power to get us to kill each other rather than let go of their extreme privilege. A privilege that’s ultimately a virus. A sickness. And we have no qualms about practicing medicine. Ironic, then, that the villain is played by someone who played a Doctor.
Truth or Dare
As I said, this was a tough essay to write. There’s a lot more to explore in Jessica Jones than what I’ve glossed over here. The relationship between Robyn and her twin brother, for example. But it’s all so overwhelming. Just the subject matter is difficult to tackle. Having a framework to grasp it helps. I’ve used Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, by the feminist and witch, Starhawk. I can’t believe I’ve had this book for 25 years now. I’m kind of saddened that after all this time, what it describes of power and resistance is still eminently applicable. I’m glad I had it to structure this essay. That and a bottle of wine. I’m certainly not perfect, and neither is this essay, but sometime you’ve just got to let go. Like the show, this is just a place to start the conversation, not the last word or anything.
But if there’s one thing I’d like more of Jessica Jones going forward, it’s taking an even broader perspective of power and control. Something that gets into our current economic systems, and military systems, the great institutional powers under which rape flourishes. It’s all the same sickness. But maybe it’s smart to start at the personal level, at the level of our interpersonal relationships. It’s here that we can really build up our rage. It’s here that we can see how a dominant personality gets other people to buy into his worldview, a worldview that’s designed to cater to his wants, to his ego and id and everything in between. It can remind us that systems of power are run not by impersonal fatalistic forces, but by fallible men.
We can start by liberating ourselves at our most basic level of interaction, with other people with whom we are in relationship. Because we’re going to need our relationships to get through this. It’s this truth that’s juxtaposed with Jessica’s victory over the rapist – “I love you,” she says to Trish, to her friend, just as she exacts justice. They both have to get past their estrangement (Trish’s “security” system is really a paranoia system complete with panic room, and yet not unjustified) and engage with each other, depend on each other, to overcome the fuckhead, who stands for every abusive controlling “boyfriend” anyone has ever had the misfortune to endure.
I say “misfortune” deliberately. Because it’s such a matter of random chance. And to be in such a situation, it isn’t your fault, nor the fault of anyone who’s had to survive. It’s the fault of the fuckheads, the control artists, the power-mongers. They created the system. A no-win situation for everyone except themselves. Which is no relationship at all, because there’s no acknowledgement of anyone else. No agency, just puppets.
And Jessica just shuts him up and snaps his neck.
Good. Fuck him.