The Rhetoric of Jessica Jones

Important note: if you have any intentions of watching Marvel's Jessica Jones (currently available for viewing at Netflix.com), you may want to skip this post, because SPOILERS.

In the midst of our holiday preparations, with the menorah flaming and the Christmas cards as yet unaddressed, Kelly and I took the time to plow through the thirteen episodes of Jessica Jones, Marvel's second Netflix-only series. As a dramatic experience, it is intense, which slowed us down from making a full-on watch-it-over-a-weekend binge, preferring to take it one or at most two episodes at a time. Like its predecessor, Daredevil, it is dark, gritty, and very unlike the bright Kirbyesque adventures seen in the films based on Iron Man, Captain America, and the various other Avengers. 

And boy, does Jessica Jones ever Provoke Thought.

That "boy" is only partly accidental, because there's no question in my mind that show creator Melissa Rosenberg was out to provoke thought in boys, particularly those boys who have not yet given a lot of thought to the topic of womanhood. Or perhaps more particularly, those boys who think they HAVE given womanhood a lot of thought, but haven't. As a result, I find the series fascinating not just on a dramatic level, but on a rhetorical level, because it sets up its arguments about men and women with remarkable care, awareness, and effectiveness--not something I really expected from a TV show about a former superhero who's taken off the tights and become a hard-drinking private eye.

But Jessica is more than that quick summary might suggest. Played by Krysten Ritter, she's a woman who has been through wringer after wringer, repeatedly forced to examine the worst behaviors humanity has to offer, and thereby stripped of her ability to tolerate bullshit on any level. Despite her superhuman strength, she has nothing like Superman's invulnerability, so she resorts to a variety of defenses: anesthesia (the aforementioned drinking), armor (a wardrobe of jeans, boots, leather jackets, and scarves which exposes as little skin as possible), and distance (pushing away nearly everyone who might care about her, or about whom she might care.) It's not long before we realize why she uses these tools: she's pathologically unable to leave a victim unsaved.

This isn't just the garden-variety Great Power/Great Responsibility guilt that lies at the core of Spider-Man's behavior, either. Jessica says it herself: "I can't help it." Driven to save the innocent at any cost, she not only opens herself up to hideous damage, but risks damage to everyone around her. She wrestles with moral complexities that get brushed aside in a single caption in most comics, and her wrestling leads those around her to jump into the ring as well--whether they want to or not.

Jessica's origin is left to simmer a good long while in the reader's mind, but we very quickly learn about her defining experience: an indeterminate length of time in the thrall of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a cultured Briton with the ability to control others' minds. Having managed to escape, Jessica lurches from gig to gig, drinking away her memories of slavery, along with the profits from every missing persons/cheating spouse case, right up until the point when she realizes that Kilgrave wants her back. And then she's hell-bent to catch him and kill him.

The horror that Kilgrave presents, however, isn't as simple as him showing up and commanding Jessica again. It's far more terrifying than that. He uses his powers to control the people around her: her clients. Her neighbors. Her allies. Her lawyer. The man she might be in love with. And perhaps worst of all, the various strangers she encounters, any of whom might be Kilgrave's unwilling agents. Jessica is strong, and smart, and a pretty good detective, for all that she's not much of a superhero, but she's very much the brawn in this contest, and Kilgrave is the brain. He has to keep her in check, or she'll tear his head off; meanwhile, she has to keep herself in check, or innocent people will suffer--such as Hope, Kilgrave's latest conquest, whom he instructs to perform an unspeakable crime that puts her on trial for her life.

If it's not obvious, this is a series about consent.

Or maybe it's not so obvious, if you're the kind of MRA (Men's Rights Activist) who finds it deeply unfair that women can say no to sex. Yes, such men are out there, as hard as that may be for some to believe; they believe that when a man has fulfilled enough of a woman's desires, or at least enough of what he IMAGINES a woman desires, he has earned the right to have sex with her. For a woman to withhold sex in these circumstances, the MRA believes, is both unreasonable and a clear example of the way our society denies men their rights.

I leave the task of finding the sentence where John Locke or the U.S. Constitution lists the right to have sex with any desired individual as an exercise for the reader. In Kilgrave's case, however, his powers turn his belief in that right into a reality: he CAN have sex with anyone he wants, but never with their consent. That paradox explains his pursuit of Jessica: she is the only woman who's been able to escape him, and that makes her the most desirable woman on earth.

The rhetorical brilliance of this set-up is that any MRA viewing it will see Kilgrave's behavior as entirely reasonable: he lavishes attention on his women, putting them up in luxurious hotels, showering them with gifts, and treating them to the best meals NYC has to offer. In this light, Jessica SHOULD be willing to sleep with him. But while his pursuit of her involves no direct attempt to control her, he exercises control over those around her with the most callous kind of abuse: forcing his household servants to watch for her, not allowing them to blink until she appears; forcing people to stand and stare at the wall, soiling their pants during their long vigils; and most horrifyingly, severing the trails to him by commanding those he uses as couriers to commit suicide, often in the most gory and expedient fashion--or sometimes the fashion most likely to send a message to Jessica. The MRA who tries to view Kilgrave as a role model cannot avoid seeing what his role model does when consent is not an issue.

But for all this, the word that would send MRA viewers fleeing is not heard until roughly halfway through the series. We get to see what it means in the face of every person Kilgrave has controlled, even though it is never explicitly stated until Hope finally says the word aloud: "rape." Jessica herself does not utter it until she's in Kilgrave's presence, spitting it at him and sparking an instantaneous protest that it's not rape if she never told him no. He hasn't committed any crimes, either; it's not robbery when people just give him the things he asks for, nor is murder when they kill the people he wants dead. And if everyone around Jessica is ready to commit suicide should she refuse to cooperate? It's not his fault that everyone does his will.

In one harrowing sequence, Kilgrave actually buys and reconstructs Jessica's childhood home, desperately hoping this will show his good faith. (The horrifically stalker-like aspects of this plan do not cross his mind.) Having blackmailed her into a visit, he asks Jessica to stay with him and teach him right and wrong--basically to devote her life to the task of turning him good. It's a terrifying possibility. We know Jessica's devotion to saving innocents is strong enough to leave her tempted; we also know that, when she's not around, Kilgrave is using his powers to wreak havoc around the neighborhood, so her intervention might be the only thing that stops him. In the end, however, she's still under duress. In a legal and philosophical sense, she can't consent to this--but in a personal sense, she can. And she's entirely willing to suffer; indeed, she's pretty thoroughly convinced that she deserves to suffer--but she is not willing to be complicit.

At her core, Jessica Jones will not say "yes" to a rapist because her doing so would transform him; "yes" is the magic word that would allow him to see himself as a suitor, a seducer, a lover. It is the kiss that would transform him from the frog he is into the prince he has always imagined himself to be. It is a testament to the power of the show that Jessica finds a way to cut through this Gordian knot in her own inimitable style--and that when she did so, I was not merely happy at the result, but actually proud of her for resisting. There are plenty of heroes who will protect the innocent, but it's satisfying to see one who cannot be forced--who will not be forced--to submit to the guilty.

Jessica Jones can be rather gruesome, and it occasionally takes a little too long to get where it's going, and sometimes spends too much time making connections to the rest of the Marvel TV Universe. But none of that really matters, because this is a show that delivers one of the most powerful and well-constructed messages I've ever seen on television: that a hero is sometimes defined not by what she does, but by what she will not do. It's fitting, then, that the show's rhetorical approach is in some ways defined not by what it says, but by what it refrains from saying.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on December 14, 2015 6:15 PM.

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