If the internet has taught us anything it’s that if something exists, then someone’s wanking over it. A woman consummated her marriage to the Berlin Wall, men pay £500 a pop to sniff second hand shoes, erotic Harry Potter fan fiction happens. Human sexuality is a vast, surreal plain and no matter how disgusting something might seem if it exists, someone’s wanking over it. Imagine the worst thing your genitals could come into proximity. An industrial blender, an oozing gangrenous wound spurting juicy, red-eyed maggot and necrotized lumps of flesh. Donald Trump’s mouth. Whatever. Someone’s wanking over that. They are.
When Andrea Dworkin chronicled and released her experiences of sexual assault, she wrote in the most graphic, grotesque and harrowing terms imaginable. There is nothing sexually suggestive in her prose whatsoever. And yet, some men contacted Dworkin after her publication to tell her they were wanking over that. Maybe it was analogue trolling, the latter day equivalent to MRA activists filling feminist’s Twitter feeds with their masturbation schedules. But she believed that they were totally sincere. And that is, in a nutshell, why it is so difficult to do rape properly on television. No matter how sensitively it’s framed, no matter how graphic and wretched it is made to appear – someone will find it titillating, someone will wank over it.
Marvel and Netflix’s Jessica Jones takes rape as one of its central themes but manages to side skirt the tricky issue of the actual imaging of rape by starting the story after the abuse is over. What we see instead is a story of recovery and the dynamic between the abused and the abuser rather than the sensationalised portrayal of the details of abuse. It works fantastically.
Much has already been written about the wonderful characterisation of the titular character, Jessica Jones, the ‘feminist anti-hero’ (which is ironic because if she was a male character, then we’d be calling her a ‘hero’). Jessica Jones is a modern re-imagining of the classic film noir protagonist – a bitter, alienated, whiskey slugging private eye. She also has super-strength and can fly a bit, because you know, Marvel. She does what she wants, she says what she wants, she has absolutely zero time for your shit but behind that rough persona lies a heart of gold.
Her nemesis is a guy called Kilgrave, a supervillain with powerful mind-control abilities who once took Jones under his control, made her do his bidding inside the bidding and out and turned her into a murderer. Played to creepy perfection by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a monster – but such a pathetic one. He is a grown-man locked in a state of arrested development, prone to throwing murderous toddler temper tantrums at the pettiest of provocations. He would be risible if he weren’t so gratuitously violent and terrifying cold. And his motivation? It’s all for love.
Kilgrave with his enormous capacity for self-pity, his insatiable entitlement not only for Jessica’s body but for her love while completely oblivious to who she is as a person and what her feelings are towards him, bears the classic psychological imprint of an abuser. For a fantastical superhero story, Jessica Jones gets uncomfortably close to the bone.
Jessica too, for all her superhero trappings, is a solid portrayal of a survivor of sexual abuse. She is not the rape victim we are used to seeing on television – all unstreaked make-up and picturesque Disney Princess glitter tears. Jessica suffers from PTSD and it is an irritation to her. She is far from the model of mental health and yet refuses stubbornly to collapse under her pain. Best of all, Jessica Jones doesn’t fall into the classic, tiresome trope where a woman is raped, she meets a new man, she is unable to trust, he is lovely and patient and saves her from herself etc. No, Jessica meets a new man, bangs his brains out, has a great time, deals with her experiences on her own terms and saves herself and the rest of Hell’s Kitchen in the process.
The message Jessica Jones gives to us is that he may have been his victim but the abuse was temporary, he will always be a tragic and pathetic figure and when they finally face off, he is weak and she is superhero strong. She walks away from him damaged but he is left totally broken.
Jessica Jones is available now on Netflix.