Home is Where the Hurt Is: A Comment on Abuse in ‘Jessica Jones’

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Daniel Smith

Abuse is not generally the purview of the superhero.

In Marvel’s Jessica Jones, however, its repercussions are present in every scene – enveloping the show’s titular character in suffocating layers of fear, guilt, and self-loathing. It is apparent in the lawyer Jeri Hogarth’s stalwart refusal to aid Hope Shlottman – a survivor of the malicious Kilgrave, and stricken by grief – until a veritable deluge of victims come forward. It rears its head again in the frantic retraction Trish Walker (Jessica’s closest friend and famed New York radio host) must issue on air following her outspoken denouncement of Kilgrave, for fear of retribution. Its crushing presence can be felt in each of Jessica’s relationships – with her friends, lovers, and alcoholism.

Too often in our society we reduce a complex, multifaceted issue into a binary proposition. In the case of domestic abuse, that proposition is the following – abuse is violent. The showrunners of Jessica Jones seek to subvert this by granting its protagonist Herculean strength while her abuser, Kilgrave, has no such power – his is wholly more subtle. Able to manipulate others through speech, any instruction he utters compels those around him to carry it out, however horrific the act or consequences. Portrayed by the remarkable David Tennant, the audience is immediately disarmed by his charm and unthreatening stature, and, despite numerous illustrations of the effect he’s had on Jessica before his introduction – panic attacks play out drenched in a shade of purple both unsettling and seductive – the series is designed so that the viewer desires nothing more than to give him a chance. He is emotional manipulation manifested in physical form; irresistible and unrefusable. This is the genius of Jessica Jones – it emphasises the oft ignored and dismissed elements of emotional abuse by amplifying them in ways other mediums don’t permit.

As the seventh episode of the show draws to a close, Jessica returns to her childhood home, faithfully and obsessively restored by Kilgrave, and now inhabited by him. In the episodes prior, she has overcome his control, a triumphant moment overshadowed by the realisation that his ability to manipulate her persists through his command of others. She has wrestled with the guilt brought upon by her actions while under his spell, torturing herself while forgiving others for the same. And yet, despite this trauma, Kilgrave remains convinced he loves her. The show is quick to illustrate the keen differences between love and obsession, differences lost on Kilgrave. Photographs of Jessica are plastered on the walls of the homes he intrudes upon and proceeds to call his own; the product of a network of spies – all hapless civilians – under his control and written off as collateral when their usefulness expires. Such obsession is also starkly apparent in his conversations with her. Read the following and tell me that such dialogue is not unique to a supervillain.

KILGRAVE: What, surprised to see me? You had to know I’d come for you. I will admit to keeping eyes on you…

JESSICA: Do whatever you’re going to do to me but let them go.

KILGRAVE: Well, I have to protect myself so…

JESSICA: Then control me, not them.

KILGRAVE: I have absolutely no intention of controlling you, I want you to act on your own accord.

JESSICA: Act how? Suicide? Is that why you’ve been torturing me?

KILGRAVE: (laughs) Oh my god, Jessica I knew you were insecure…that’s just sad! I’m not torturing you, why would I? I love you.

JESSICA: You have been ruining my life!

KILGRAVE: You didn’t have a life…

To add some context to this conversation (E07 – AKA Top Shelf Perverts), it takes place in a police station, in which Kilgrave has forced the officers to hold one another at gunpoint. Even during this short exchange, numerous elements of an emotionally abusive relationship are on full display. Emotional abusers rarely allow their partners out alone, and will often follow them or check up on them. They will tell their partners that they are insane or dangerous, implying the selflessness of the love they profess to show them, and will then play on their fears in order to manipulate them. They will attempt to isolate them from friends and family, and endeavour to generate a haze of anxiety and self-doubt to exert control. All of these behaviours are exhibited by Kilgrave, and either implied or explicitly referenced in the above conversation. Moreover, Kilgrave has orchestrated the entire twisted scenario in order to confess his love for Jessica. He genuinely believes that he loves her – a delusion shared by many abusers – and that the terror and violence he enveloped her in were simply mere illustrations of this devotion. Yet this is where I think Jessica Jones shines brightest; it examines the psyche of both the perpetrator and the victim. I spoke earlier of binary propositions, another which proliferates through our society is that abusers, along with rapists and paedophiles, are to be reviled. And while their actions are undoubtedly horrific, casting them as wholly, one-dimensionally evil fails to recognise the reality that, much like their victims, these people urgently need help.

Jessica Jones, then, is a reflection of our reality. It reverses the stereotypes of abuse, leading the viewer to the uncomfortable realisation that abuse can affect anyone, regardless of gender or stature. On the subject of stereotype and its accompanying accoutrement of discriminations, I for one acknowledge I’ve never truly faced sexism or racism – a consequence of my skin colour and gender. And yet, Jessica Jones brings into sharp and excruciating focus just how susceptible we all are to the myriad forms of abuse. My physical strength (of which there is rather little) had insulated me from that prospect, and yet as I watched Jessica Jones I came to the uncomfortable realisation that my desire to please others and gain their approval (a desire which may be balked at by those who know me as more of a profound asshole than someone particularly willing to please), could so easily be perverted by an exploitative partner to their own ends.

There is no prison more robust, more inescapable than the human mind, and the construction of such a subtle cage by the very person who professes to love you is a darkly disturbing thought indeed.  The true power of Jessica Jones though, comes from the genre it chooses to inhabit. In the last decade, superheroes have become something of a cultural revelation, with a veritable deluge of fans hotly anticipating the latest outing of their preferred man (or woman) in spandex. And yet, each year, as your favourite rag-tag group of misfits, rogues, and biceps save the world/galaxy/universe/multiverse from whatever Industrial Light and Magic has been able to conjure up, fatigue inevitably sets in. Why is it that films starring characters with essentially no limitations are so incredibly constrained? And so the real Marvel (pun both most definitely intended and shoehorned in) of Jessica Jones is not just that it tells a refreshingly engaging story. It is not, even, that it bravely serves as an examination of abuse. The true power of Jessica Jones is that it captures and enraptures a vast audience, large swathes of whom would never consider watching a drama concerning such subject matter, and guides them to an exploration of the topic more robust than most grounded media could ever hope to accomplish. And that is very much a superpower worth having.

Daniel Smith

When Daniel isn’t writing for PTL (which, admittedly, was every second of his life up until this point) he can be found feigning interest in Medical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Outside of uni, he has taken up employ in a speakeasy gin bar in an effort to appear more avant-garde amongst his peers. He can often be heard grossly overusing the phrase “avant-garde”.

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