Last Thursday, the University of Tulsa’s Institute of Trauma, Adversity and Injustice and the department of Women’s and Gender Studies hosted a discussion over the Netflix series Jessica Jones and trauma. Dr. Jennifer Airey, associate professor of English, along Jim Scholl (PhD candidate in Psychology) and Carlos Acosta-Ponce (PhD candidate in English) hosted.
When the show picks up, Jessica is working as a private detective after a short stint as a superhero, where she met Kilgrave. Kilgrave, the main antagonist of the series, controls others through his voice. For a considerable amount of time, he controlled Jessica, making her do and say whatever he wished.
Airey said her interest in the show arose from it taking “the traditional narratives of rape and exposing them as constructs.” Jessica is a rape survivor, and others in the show are suffering from other sorts of trauma. Notably, her friend, Trish Walker, was abused as a child by her mother. Scholl said the show was a “fairly accurate portrayal of the experience and reaction to trauma.” Acosta-Ponce, who was interested in the comic book side of the show, found it a “strange case in terms of popular culture.” Jones is a relatively new hero, debuting in 2001, with little established nemeses or backstory.
Several students in attendance expressed a belief that the show redefined heroism for men and women. Kilgrave relies on manipulation to exert his will, and has no physical strength. Jessica, by contrast, has super-strength, along with a slight flying ability. Luke Cage, her lover, has a primarily defensive power, his invulnerable skin, but Jessica overpowers him in terms of strength. Jessica’s role as a detective also reversed the common setup of traditional noir detective roles, which has a damaged male character as the lead.
The topic of Luke Cage was brought up at many points during the discussion, as well. Cage began as a “Hero for Hire,” which Carlos said was, at the time of his creation, a reflection of ideas about Black males. This incarnation, however, saw him portrayed as more passive, which Carlos believed is a response to a new type of Black masculinity. “This is a guy who’d be happy with a domestic life,” he noted, which differs from his original portrayal, in which he was only in it for the money.
Cage also served as a portrayal of trauma; his wife was murdered. Scholl argued that his response to this event resembled avoidance. One student questioned if Jones was further victimizing Cage; she stalks him and conceals that she murdered his wife, under Kilgrave’s influence. Because Cage is a “hulking Black man,” another pointed out, viewers might not question the morality of Jones’ actions. But his reaction to Jones’ betrayal, when he finally learns she knew she killed his wife, shows the unbreakable man finally break.
Unlike many superhero movies or TV shows, Jessica Jones also features several sex scenes. One student pointed out, however, that in these scenes, she has the most control. Carlos agreed, saying that the show had “moved beyond [flight and tights]” and didn’t need the nudity of Jones.
Redemption and forgiveness of Kilgrave was not a part of Jessica Jones, which all involved felt was important. “The show was about redemption and forgiveness,” one student said, “but not having to redeem or forgive the abuser.” Airey said society often pressured people, especially women, to forgive their abuser, citing “The Beauty and the Beast” as a classic example. Forgiveness narratives make people feel more comfortable in what rape is, she added.
Carlos viewed Kilgrave as “every rape apologist ever,” who doesn’t think he’s a rapist because he made his victims enjoy it. Making rapists into monsters is an easy task, so many applauded the show’s portrayal of Kilgrave as a charming, attractive British man.
Throughout the discussion, a repeated theme was the ambiguity of the show. Kilgrave tells Jones he was abused as a child; it’s unclear whether he was telling the truth. Other characters are shown in behaviour that could be viewed as abusive or controlling.
“The show doesn’t allow you to make blatant statements about any of the characters,” Scholl concluded. But, students noted, while Jones may not be a perfect, good person, what happens to her is inexcusable. In this way, the show fights against the “good victim” narrative, which allows sympathy and saving only for the pure.
Those with ideas for future discussion topics for the Pop Culture & Trauma series should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.