Much has been made of the sexuality in Jessica Jones. It’s true, Jessica and Luke Cage are Marvel’s poster children for enthusiastic (repeated, loud) consent, and Trish Walker gets to be the first Marvel heroine to have a guy go down on her onscreen. But one interesting thing is that in all the talk of how raw and realistic the sex scenes are, they are also shockingly dry. There is no fluid, there isn’t even much sweat, there are no stained sheets or post-coital showers. I have an idea about this…I think it’s that Jessica Jones, for various brilliant reasons, has focused all its attention on a different liquid entirely. I’ll have to ask you all to go with me into a fairly uncomfortable area, because we’re going to have to talk about piss.
But wait, let me back up.
[Beware of: spoilers for all of Jessica Jones; the ending of Daredevil Season 1; a graphic discussion of bodily function.]
In Jessica Jones’ sister show, the fantastic Daredevil, the link between physicality and control was paramount. When Matt Murdock lost his sight, he retaliated by sharpening his other senses, training his body through intense workouts, training his mind with meditation, and, one could argue, training his soul with a particularly hardcore Catholic moral code (well, except where girls were concerned….). Matt embodies the profoundly male and American ideal that when something terrible happens to you, you turn it into a strength rather than a weakness. We get the sense that Matt is able to use his body in this way, despite his lack of superpowers, because of the tight control he has exerted over it. Matt’s blindness is what allows him to become Daredevil, and over the course of the first season we watch his body get battered over and over again, as he uses his various types of training to steel himself against pain and get up again and again. By the end, even the incredibly metaphorical stab wound to his side isn’t getting the best of him anymore, and he’s able to defeat Fisk through sheer will.
Jessica Jones is all about the loss of control. Jessica is not a hero who trains or meditates, and she’s not a woman who plans. She doesn’t clean, she doesn’t hang her clothes up, and the only thing she’s responsible about is picking up steady amounts of bottom shelf whiskey. One of the first times we see her working, she’s lying to a woman on the phone to get information. But rather than seeing her sitting at her desk, she’s sitting on the toilet while she makes the call. She gets the info she needs with no problem, but then realizes that she’s out of toilet paper, and yells Shit! as she bangs her hand down on the naked roll.
Bathroom scenes quickly become a theme – both times she visits Luke Cage’s apartment she goes into his bathroom after sex, not to clean up (again, lack of fluid), but to snoop. She finds Reva’s picture tucked away in the medicine cabinet, an incredibly odd and intimate place to put a picture like that. Rather than framing it and putting it out in the living room or on a wall, Luke has stripped himself of his old life, and keeps one picture where presumably only he will see it. Jessica, in opening the cabinet and looking at the picture, is violating his privacy in a fairly terrible way… and the control goes back and forth between them as she invades his space, but is then gutted by the guilt she feels.
A few episodes later, she gives voice to that guilt when she almost tells Luke the truth. This scene doesn’t take place in a bathroom, at least, but Jessica does refer to herself as “a piece of shit”. Luke recoils and insists that she’s wrong about herself calling her a hard-drinking mess of a woman, but not “what you called yourself”. A few nights and a confession later, however, he agrees with her, and when he throws her words back at her, she looks like it’s worse than if he’d just hit her. In the spiral that follows she gets even drunker than usual, gets tossed out of a bar and into a pile of trash, and is informed by the homeless man she landed next to that she smells terrible. Again, we’ve been following a person who drinks constantly, wakes up at 3:00 in the afternoon, picks up yesterday’s clothes off the floor and puts them on sans shower – we can assume that hygiene isn’t on her list of priorities. But to have that stated, so succinctly, by someone who has fallen through the cracks of civilized society?
Oh, and about those showers: the only time we ever see people showering is 1.) Jessica, after an encounter with Kilgrave, and it’s clearly a “trying to scrub the evil away” type of shower, and 2.) Luke, at Jessica’s apartment, while under Kilgrave’s control, which seemingly was more an excuse for Luke to parade around in a towel than anything else. This was presumably a trap set for Jessica, because if they’d had make-up sex, Kilgrave to could claim responsibility for that, too.
And then we get to Kilgrave, and the show’s connection between control and bodily function becomes sickeningly clear.
Simply saying that Kilgrave is all about mind control would have been easy. Simply using the word rape over and over gets more difficult, harder to hear, harder to take as an audience, but still, we understand what the words means, and we can imagine situations and fill in the gaps. Showing rape onscreen, as some people feared Jessica Jones was going to do, would have been something completely different. As I think Game of Thrones has demonstrated over its last season, constantly showing women being brutalized pushes the audience away. At a certain point you’re just watching terrible things happen, and trying not to feel anything about it, so you can focus on the next scene.
Jessica Jones comes at physical control and violation in a different, more subtle way, and finds a new way to truly horrify its audience, and that’s though piss. From childhood we’re taught that the most shameful loss of control is related to bodily waste, and this continues throughout our lives. This becomes the focus of all of Kilgrave’s abuse. Before we ever meet The Purple Man in the flesh, when we see Hope Shlottman lying in bed – we don’t see semen stains, even though we know she’s been raped, and we don’t see blood – she tells Jessica, and us, that she wet the bed. That’s the worst thing.
When Kilgrave invades a family’s apartment, and locks the kids in the closet, the camera lingers on the urine trickling out from under the door. When he forces Laurent and Alva to stare out the window watching for Jessica, and she finally pulls up in a taxi, he orders them to “clean up that mess” – presumably their own waste, collecting beneath them on the floor while they’ve waited. When he orders a poor concertgoer to stand and stare at a fence “forever” the camera pans over him at waist height so we see the urine soaking his pants before we notice that he’s shaking from physical exhaustion. Their bodies have all given out, even as their minds remain bound to Kilgrave’s orders.
Kilgrave himself, though? During his brief incarceration Jessica thoughtfully supplies him with a bucket, but given that he’s being constantly watched through a sheet of glass, no privacy with which to use it, but it never becomes an issue, because we never see him use it. (Whether he simply doesn’t need to, or is able to exert more control than his victims, is left intentionally ambiguous.) But maybe even more telling, late in the series, when he breaks into Jessica’s apartment and starts rifling through her things, he also takes the time to use her toilet. He’s careful to life the lid with his foot, since he’s obviously too repulsed by her apartment to touch anything, but he also doesn’t flush. He’s marking his territory in the most elemental way he can. And when she and Kilgrave are holding an uneasy truce, still in her apartment, she retreats to the bathroom as a sanctuary to send texts, and yells that she’s peeing to cover the sounds of her phone.
Finally, when Hope Shlottman plays her final card and kills herself to get away from Kilgrave’s control, she doesn’t even get to have the usual dignified TV death, with cherry red blood flowing around in an artful pattern – no, when Jessica holds her head, the camera again mercilessly swings around so we see the pool of urine underneath her. Much as we could track the toll that Daredevil’s fighting took on his body through realistic wounds, in Jessica Jones death is final, brutal, and takes all social niceties with it.
Where Kilgrave’s mind control is literally him imposing his thoughts upon you, and forcing you to want things you don’t actually want, if you piss yourself, it’s your own body betraying your will. It’s your brain saying no, while your body does its own thing. It’s the ultimate split between the part of you that you think of as “you” and the meat that houses you. And so, as the show continues, what we see repeatedly are humans losing that most basic type of control because of Kilgrave’s actions. This split is not something that could ever be dealt with on Daredevil, where the soul is an absolute, and people can weigh giant issues like murder and damnation in between epic ninja battles. Here the superheroics are punctured, constantly, by fragile humans and their breakable, uncontrollable bodies. By allowing the show to take an unprecedented focus on something that’s usually glossed over, Jessica Jones’ creators have forced us to think about the loss of control, and the shame that can bring, in a far more visceral way than just showing us images of tortured people ever could have.