Kilgrave: “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.”
Jessica: “Yeah. It’s called rape.”
Kilgrave: “What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?”
Jessica: “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head.”
Kilgrave: “That is not what I was trying to do.”
Jessica: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do. You raped me again and again and again—”
Kilgrave: “How am I supposed to know? I never know if someone is doing what they want, or what I tell them to.”
Jessica: “Poor you.”
Kilgrave: “You have no idea, do you? I have to painstakingly choose every word I say. I once told a man to go screw himself—can you even imagine.”
—Jessica Jones 1×08 “AKA WWJD?”
Marvel’s Jessica Jones is about rape. There’s no way around it. The comic book series Alias, in depicting the villainous Purple Man and his ability to make you follow his every command, skirts the issue. But the Netflix series tackles the subject matter head-on, using the word “rape” unflinchingly, asserting in nearly every episode what Kilgrave did to Jessica. How could it not? 2015 has been the year of rape in fiction and real life, from watching Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carry her mattress around campus to the triumph of Mad Max: Fury Road’s Wives using their own chains to escape Immortan Joe—witnessing survivors of repeated sexual assault and slavery take back their control.
But Jessica Jones isn’t just about a survivor getting retribution for her rapist’s crimes; it also presents us with her rapist, over and over, and his belief that he did nothing wrong.
Spoilers for Jessica Jones season 1 and Alias issues #22-28; content warning for rape and gaslighting.
In the Alias series, Jessica makes it clear to Luke Cage that the Purple Man never physically raped her, but he tortured her all the same: He made her watch him fuck other girls and cry while he did it; he made her beg him to fuck her every night, for eight months. He forced her to use her powers to kill innocent people and attack other superheroes. He eroded her identity, removed her sense of self. The TV series’ showrunners, led by Dexter’s Melissa Rosenberg, decided to make the rape physical while retaining the other mental and emotional abuse, and Jessica’s resulting PTSD. As Rosenberg explained in a recent interview:
Playing them as honestly as possible was very much the objective from the beginning. The tone is meant to be very grounded and real, so you have to be very grounded and real with whatever subjects you’re dealing with. So there was no glossing this over. It was really an exploration of a survivor and her healing, to the degree that she does, in facing those demons quite literally.
From the outset, it was really wanting to treat the matter as directly as we could.
I don’t even remember which episode Jessica first uses the word “rape,” because it’s there from the start—never a euphemism, never undercut or understated, but a direct, matter-of-fact statement. To be honest, I don’t know if the show would have been as successful if Jessica weren’t a survivor of sexual assault. Just as Jessica’s status as a survivor makes her the only person who can get through to Kilgrave’s mounting list of victims, TV audiences also need to peg that experience on her. Especially because Kilgrave’s character arc is so devoted to denying the truth of Jessica’s words.
I was going to title this article “Rape Apologists Need to Watch Jessica Jones,” but they already have. Various online discussions (which I’m not linking to, but will paraphrase) deride her as a one-dimensional heroine who can’t get past her identity as a rape victim and uphold the sympathetic, humanized villain. The latter part is what grips me with the greatest fear—the idea that people will see themselves in Kilgrave.
“AKA WWJD?” is one of the season’s most bizarre episodes, in that it has Kilgrave and Jessica playing house in her childhood home, eating breakfast on the porch and sharing tidbits about their respective childhoods. But after he uses his powers to humiliate a nosy neighbor and (by his reasoning) protect Jessica from the other woman’s judgment, Jessica explodes in the argument I’ve quoted at the top of this article. And Kilgrave has the nerve to play the victim—he acts like he doesn’t realize when he’s using his powers, as if we should feel sorry for him because he doesn’t know when someone genuinely wants to be with him. Stunningly, it brings to mind the defenses from men accused of rape: I didn’t know she didn’t want it. She didn’t say “no.” We were drunk. How was I supposed to know?
These men try to deflect and redirect blame, denying or failing to recognize their own power and responsibility—not mind control, but intimidating nonetheless: overpowering physical size or strength, the figurative upper hand in pressuring women to be sexual creatures, the expectation that sex is something to be cajoled out of a woman rather than granted by her consent. Much of this is privilege, but not all of it is recognized.
For the briefest of moments in that episode, I did sympathize with little Kevin Thompson, lab rat at the mercy of his scientist parents. His powers come as a side effect of their experimentation, with his first super-powered command captured on video for Jessica to see. He claims not to have understood the power behind his words, but a few episodes later, his parents corroborate that he clearly ordered them around like slaves, that he turned his tantrums into torture. Those tantrums continued into adulthood, as demonstrated by his interactions with Jessica—especially the flashback to Reva Connors’ death and the bus accident, where Kilgrave screeches, “Come back, Jessica. NOW, JESSICA!”
And the truth is, before and after this conversation, we’ve seen Kilgrave’s power at work. We’ve witnessed the incredibly specific, impossibly sadistic commands he gives: “Everybody, QUIET!” “Walk over to that fence and stare at it forever.” There’s no way he couldn’t know what he was doing.
Kilgrave: “I didn’t have this—a home, loving parents, a family.”
Jessica: “You blame bad parenting? My parents died. You don’t see me raping everyone.”
Kilgrave: “I hate that word.”
—Jessica Jones 1×08 “AKA WWJD?”
Nearly a throwaway line, but one very telling of the writers’ intent to tie to current issues: A study in early 2015 found that men were more willing to admit to sexual assault if it isn’t called rape.
The thing is, Kilgrave’s question of “How am I supposed to know?” is rhetorical; he’s unwilling to find out the answer. Fear of rejection? Fear of handing over control to someone else? Until, that is, he started stalking Jessica again.
Narratively, episode 8 is about a halfway mark for the season, as Kilgrave reveals why he’s been compelling Malcolm to keep near-constant surveillance on Jessica, why he’s left a trail of victims for her to find: He loves her. And he wants her to be with him—but this time, he wants her to choose. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from employing all manner of manipulation to nudge her into the mindset he wants—most notably, buying her childhood house and recreating every detail, down to the CDs in her teenage bedroom. (“I used a magnifying glass on old photos”—the meticulousness of that is so creepy.) It’s worth noting that the house is the rare instance in which Kilgrave resists using his powers; he buys it for twice its worth as an incentive to get the homeowners to leave—all above-board. It’s meant to be a gesture of a genuine desire to change, but it’s offset by the fact that he keeps Jessica from wandering too far by forcing his staff to slit their throats or stand at the window unblinking if she doesn’t return.
If that’s not bad enough, the people on the other side—the cops, even Simpson and Trish—doubt Jessica when they learn she’s moved in with Kilgrave. It doesn’t matter if it’s only for a few days; it doesn’t matter if it’s all part of some grand plan. They just see a woman returning to the man she claims raped her… so, is she back on his side? In any other series where the heroine tricks the bad guy, her supporters would know it to be a sham; but because mind control and rape are involved, suddenly Jessica’s every move is questioned. (Emmet Asher-Perrin delves more into how the series handles gaslighting in this stellar piece.)
Jessica: “You’re a lot of shitty things, but I never thought you were delusional.”
Kilgrave: “Oh, I see things very clearly.”
Jessica: “Not if you think I could ever feel anything for you other than pure disgust.”
Kilgrave: “Well, that’s crap.”
Jessica: “I never, not for one second.”
Kilgrave: “No, not one second—18.”
Jessica: “In what universe?”
Kilgrave: “Ours. On that rooftop. You remember. It had been 12 hours. I timed it. I hadn’t told you to do anything. And then, for 18 seconds, I wasn’t controlling you, and you stayed with me. With me, because you wanted to.”
Jessica: “That’s why you thought you had a shot with me?”
Kilgrave: “You can’t tell me you don’t remember.”
Jessica: “I remember it vividly. I had waited so long for that moment, for one single opportunity to get away from you.”
—Jessica Jones 1×10 “AKA 1,000 Cuts”
Despite the fact that episode 9, “Sin Bin,” has Kilgrave locked in a hermetically-sealed room, the most compelling exchange of that arc happened not when Jessica was beating the shit out of him, but in episode 10, after he’s escaped: He appears at her apartment, and they debate an 18-second moment from their “relationship.” This was also one of the series’ more difficult exchanges to watch, because it reminded me of debates I’ve had to have surrounding the Emma Sulkowicz case. When the lawyers defending Paul Nungesser—who was ultimately cleared of rape charges—brought forward Facebook Messenger conversations between Paul and Emma from before and after the night of the alleged assault, more than one of my male friends didn’t understand what they were reading. “If he raped her,” they asked, puzzled, “then why did she have sex with him at least one more time after the assault?”
I was floored. Here were decent, smart, liberal-minded guys, and they couldn’t wrap their minds around a notion that came second-nature to me, a woman: Of course she had sex with him again. Maybe she was trying to reclaim the experience; maybe she thought that if they had sex on her terms, it would erase the assault; maybe she didn’t feel safe enough to reject him immediately. I watched these guys cast aspersions on Emma’s motives, not unlike Kilgrave’s argument of “You had the chance to leave, and you didn’t.” Poor Jessica could barely take stock of where she was! She had absolutely no time to make a rational decision before Kilgrave caught her up in another command to come inside. Look at how limp and disengaged she is in his arms. And this is what he convinces himself is love, is desire, is a choice.
“With rape, I think we all know what it looks like,” Rosenberg explained to The L.A. Times regarding her decision not to actually depict rape on the series. “We’ve seen plenty of it on television and I didn’t have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does.” Yet I couldn’t help but compare her words with one of the most damning aspects of sexual assault: the fact that no one outside of the room, so to speak, knows what happened. (In many cases, even those in the room have conflicting or hazy accounts.) We have nothing but Jessica’s word to go on, and at first that isn’t even enough: Luke Cage, with his unbreakable skin, has trouble believing in a gifted individual with mind control, until he has his mind taken over. In fact, the only way for Jessica to convince people is to make them experience Kilgrave’s powers firsthand—effectively, to allow them to be violated, to join the survivors’ club.
Kilgrave: “What revisionist bullshit!”
Jessica: “I remember everything.”
Kilgrave: “You didn’t jump.”
Jessica: “Because I wasn’t fast enough. Getting you out of my head was like prying fungus from a window. I couldn’t think.”
Kilgrave: “I know your face. I saw you.”
Jessica: “You saw what you wanted to see.”
—Jessica Jones 1×10 “AKA 1,000 Cuts”
Let’s talk about Kilgrave’s favorite command: “Smile.” It’s a constant refrain from him to Jessica, to all of the women he takes under his wing—show me you’re enjoying this—and the way that she first identifies one of his victims. Of course, Kilgrave commanding one woman to smile isn’t that different from commanding another to play the cello until her hands bleed: He purports to be celebrating female beauty in various forms, when really he wants to capture it and dictate exactly when and how it gets expressed.
As in most rape narratives, it’s not about the sex, it’s about the power. It’s about the knowledge that you’ve been violated, that the person who has taken control leaves a part of himself inside you. In Alias, Jessica explains that you can’t differentiate Kilgrave’s command from your own thoughts; you believe that you want the same thing, because his command is so clear and pure. Again, the series tinkers with this detail, by making the victims of Kilgrave’s control struggle against his imperatives. Even though he claims that he’s only enhancing their preexisting desires, it’s clear from their tortured expressions that they don’t want to do this thing, that they are gripped by a compulsion larger than themselves. When Kilgrave’s women smile, it’s an act of self-preservation.
And when it comes to power, Kilgrave isn’t content with puppeteering people within just a few yards; he wants to project his voice, and his control, as far as it needs to go to reach Jessica. We witness Kilgrave send messages through a chain of couriers to hide his location; set an entire hospital on a manhunt for Jessica; and channel it through a microphone in a music hall. But none of these work, because Jessica has broken his hold.
In Alias, striking Scarlet Witch (when she’s instructed to kill Daredevil) jars Jessica out of Kilgrave’s control; in the TV series, it’s punching Reva Connors so hard her heart stops. It’s the thing she most did not want to do, and while she can’t stop herself from killing Reva, it forcibly disconnects her from his command.
It’s ironic that Jessica Jones season 1 builds up to Kilgrave projecting his voice, because that actually mirrors the conversation around rape culture, steadily growing louder and louder. Emma Sulkowicz carries her mattress across the stage at graduation; Imperator Furiosa snarls “Remember me?” before killing Immortan Joe; New York Magazine publishes “35 Women and #TheEmptyChair.”
And yet, I’m still scared that men will watch Jessica Jones and side with the victimized man with all the power. To them, I say—please look at this man who twists gifts into weapons, who claims to misunderstand his control over others yet exploits it at every opportunity. Recognize that nobody always gets what they want, that just because you can force someone to do something gives you no right to demand it. Believe Jessica Jones and not Kilgrave.
Natalie Zutter thanks everyone who read this article through to the end. Poke her about Jessica Jones on Twitter!