As has been said on the internet and on this blog, Jessica Jones was an amazing piece of television. And as has been said on the internet and on this blog, Jessica Jones was an amazing piece of television in part because of the way it completely attacked rape culture. (Also several other things, but I don’t want to dissect everything at once.) This seems like a good time to succinctly define “rape culture” for those of you who might be unsure, so let’s start with that.
“A complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm . . . In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable . . . However . . . much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
-Emilie Buchwald, author of Transforming a Rape Culture
And here are some (not nearly all) fictional examples that are popularized by fandom:
- Christine/the Phantom. I remember being a teenager and all of my friends were like “Christine totally should have chosen the Phantom, he’s so much cooler than Raoul, Raoul is boring and he sucks.” (I admit I personally leaned toward the Phantom but only because I prefer the styling of “The Point of No Return” to the styling of “All I Ask Of You.” I recently rewatched this movie and came to the conclusion that while Raoul is a better choice that song is still more aesthetically pleasing to me, but it’s aesthetically pleasing in the context of a play-within-a-play.) No. Raoul is a decent person who has cared for Christine for a long time and he is not “boring,” he is stable, compassionate, and brave. The Phantom is a creepy old asshat who thinks that because the world has (yes, unfairly) been cruel to him he is well within his rights to kidnap, stalk, psychologically abuse, manipulate, coerce, and otherwise harm a teenage girl.
- The majority of popular shipping options for Sansa Stark represent this in different ways (/Sandor Clegane the brutal, violent significantly older man; /Petyr Baelish the pedophilic, creepyass even older man; /Ramsay Bolton her show-canonical rapist; /Joffrey Baratheon her canonical abuser; /almost any other man I see her popularly shipped with, with the exception of Willas Tyrell, who doesn’t really count because he’s a Tyrell and he’s only mentioned anyway so fandom has created a persona for him where he is just a nice guy who likes horses and thinking and is therefore acceptable).
- Kylo Ren/Rey. Currently the Star Wars fandom is a sea of terrible shipping opinions and Discourse, but nothing is worse than Kylo/Rey. May I remind you that in the movie, the only potential romance for Rey that is set up is between her and Finn, who is brave and sweet and loyal and hilariously smitten with her. But nope, Finn is too nice and also black, and here is a tall skinny emo boy who is ~dangerous~ and who…literally violates her mind multiple times and throws her around with his Force powers. (Never mind that this is Star Wars, a franchise that has a history of screwing over fan-favorite pairings with incest. I am just saying.) I think maybe they think because she spares him, she feels something for him? Haha, no, that scene was all about her and her refusal to take a life when the other person is at a disadvantage, but thanks for playing!
- Shipping Loki with most (not all) characters, honestly. Considering it’s canon that he is a trickster and that he will twist the truth to make himself look better, even without the potential mind-control issues there’s potential for a lot of gross shit. After Thor, two ships that I saw a lot of post-Avengers were Loki/Clint and Loki/Natasha, both of which are unsettling for different (and also similar) reasons. Clint is more obvious, as Loki mind-controlled him and forced him to do things like break into the Quinjet and kill innocent people. There’s way too many issues there to even consider the possibility of a ship that isn’t fraught with unfortunate implications. And Loki’s scene with Natasha is bizarrely sexually charged, not least with his use of the word “quim,” which I guess translates to sexual tension if you’re not left intensely uncomfortable like a regular person.
- And now it’s time to talk about everyone’s least-favorite abusive Nazi and the horrible ships he is a part of. At this point in canon, he has personally harmed a majority of the main cast (including all four of the women) as well as several of the supporting cast. There’s nothing but problems with (and canonical evidence of a one-way manifestation of) Fitz/Ward, but there’s even more direct evidence of rape culture in the instances of Ward/Melinda, Ward/Kara, and Ward/Skye-or-Daisy. In the first two instances, literal rape or at the very least dub-con took place in canon; in the last, threats and attempts have taken place. And from the beginning, a lot of Skyeward fans were weird about the ship, but they turned into an absolute nightmare after the Hydra reveal. Look, it sucks when one member of your ship is suddenly a horrible person, okay? And it’s one thing to feel bad about what it turned into in canon and ship it in an AU sense, that’s fine. But I saw way too many people insisting that Skye-Daisy would redeem Ward, that she still cared about him and wanted him to return to SHIELD. Or worse, I would see people claiming she was his redemption…while treating her like a prop. The problem with a canon where one character has literally said to another character “you disgust me” and confessed that the other character’s very presence makes them anxious and ill is that you can’t really go around trying to pretend like that character still has those romantic feelings anymore. (There’s an extra layer to this too, what with Hydra being an explicitly Nazi-influenced if not completely Nazi organization, and Skye-Daisy being a canon Chinese woman. Because shipping women of color with Nazis is great!) The Stand With Ward crowd didn’t all ship Skyeward, but a lot of the ones who did either completely ignored Skye-Daisy’s autonomy to try to make their ship work or bashed her for not being the perfect compliant woman their precious woobie deserved. Lastly, I have seen more than one person suggesting that Skyeward could still work now, even with Ward a possessed corpse. Yup, folks, we’ve arrived at necrophilia, in case you didn’t think it could get any worse.
- And speaking of necrophilia, we come to the absolutely sparkling example of rape culture that is Twilight. This has already been discussed to death in every corner of the internet, but in essence, Edward Cullen is presented as the paragon of male perfection but is also overprotective to a frightening degree, controlling, possessive, violent when provoked, and perfectly willing to do things like remove the engine from Bella’s car so she can’t leave and climb into her window at night to watch her sleep without her knowledge. The series is really kind of the perfect storm of all the terrible rape culture cliches that are packaged to women as romantic: look how much he loves you, he’s drawn to YOU and only YOU and he refers to you as his and he gets jealous if another man so much as looks at you and he has to control himself around you because you are just so desirable. Granted, I can see the appeal of some of these, in certain contexts, but all together they start to take on a distinctive stalker flavor.
All of that is to say: Jessica Jones deconstructs the hell out of all of this (in what seemed sometimes like direct rebuttals to the MCU-related examples above [and to be somewhat fair to those examples, the support for them is often more a fandom problem than canon, as canon included some of those but never romanticized them and in many cases de-romanticized them]; in what is very likely a direct rebuttal to the Twilight franchise given Melissa Rosenberg’s role in either series). And in a culture that’s feeding this shit to people, especially to teenage girls, this is so important.
(This is not to say that there is not still some problematic fandom for Jessica Jones. I’ve encountered teenage girls who admit that Kilgrave [David Tennant] is a horrible person and an abusive rapist “but isn’t it tragic that the only thing he wants is to love her and know that she loves him too” and that… amounted to my exercising an impressive amount of self-control so as not to essentially monologue an impromptu version of this post.)
In short, a list of Kilgrave’s actions.
- Terrorized his own parents as a child, ordering them around to the point where they felt it necessary to escape their own house and abandon him.
- Gave inconsequential but intrusive orders to hundreds of people, resulting in psychological trauma for many of them (“give me your jacket,” “drive me around,” “give me a table”)
- Kept multiple women hostage over a series of weeks or months, forcing them to do his bidding (including raping them)
- Compelled dozens of people to attempt to (and sometimes succeed) maim, kill, or otherwise harm themselves and others (including but not limited to shooting, stabbing, impaling, jumping off of buildings, choking, etc.)
- Hooked a man on drugs in order to convince him to take constant surveillance of Jessica
- Fixated on Jessica to the point of buying her childhood home and compelling the realtor who sold it to give him pictures so he could painstakingly recreate it
- Targeted her friends and loved ones in order to demonstrate to her how much control he had over her life
And like any abuser, he’s got all of the justifications and excuses for himself that you could ever dream up. He plays the “poor me, my parents were awful” card, the “but I’m not a murderer!” card, the “but we’re both special” card, the “I just want you to love me” card. He’s textbook. He is straight out of the pages of a psychology textbook, and I’m not even kidding, and his “superpower” is in a lot of ways an exaggerated portrayal of what abusers do and also of what rape culture teaches us that we should react to. For a lot of people, for a lot of women, we get the message that we’re not supposed to argue with what men tell us, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. Kilgrave’s fixation on his female victims smiling, for example, is an eerily on-the-nose echo of the common admonition that women get from sidewalk cat-callers and family members alike: “smile! You’d be so much prettier if you smiled!” and the like. We as women are taught that not complying with men’s wishes, not doing as they ask, not essentially bending to their will and exerting none of our own, makes us horrible bitches. Makes us the problem. (See also: the dreaded friendzone.)
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) as a character and Jessica Jones as a show are about overcoming this. About first coming to terms with the ways you’ve been hurt and then actively working to counteract them. Jessica is a complete asshole, as I’ve mentioned before. She’s abrasive and mean and closed-off to everyone but a special few, and in the comics we have to wait until about ⅔ of the way through the series for an explanation, but in the show it’s pretty much stated outright from the beginning: this woman is an abuse survivor. Jessica spent months with Kilgrave, and when the series begins one year after that, she is just beginning to rebuild her life. She brilliantly highlights the dichotomy of abuse survivors: she tells other people who Kilgrave has victimized that it wasn’t their fault, yet she blames herself for the actions she committed while under his control. She can’t believe that she’s a good person, but she’ll fight tooth and nail for those who are. And when Kilgrave resurfaces, she deduces (correctly) that, as the object of his fixations, she’s the only one who can put an end to him. She’s determined to stop him from hurting more people and causing more pain, whatever the cost to herself. And while some abuse survivors have very different reactions to this, Jessica’s rings true as the survivor who cannot stop herself from becoming involved in order to protect others from her abuser.
One of the best things about this, too, is that she is abuse survivor, not simply an abuse victim whose character is a tragedy and nothing more. There are tragedies, and there are some well-written tragedies, but Jessica is allowed to struggle through healing and actually come out stronger for it. So often those characters who experience abusive relationships either are removed from the story before they have a chance to escape (I cry about Kara Lynn Palamas on the daily) or are returned to the relationships by the story’s end because It’s Different Now (as in the case of poor Bella Swan or the fanfictional AU of her that is Anastasia Steele) but Jessica actually escapes the rape culture relationship loop and quite literally destroys its source.
–your fangirl heroines.