When I sat down to watch Jessica Jones for the first time, my friend knowingly told me it might be upsetting before we dove in. As it turned out, I didn’t need the warning. Within the first five minutes, I knew exactly what the show was about as I saw Jones’ rapist, Kilgrave, whisper in her ear. I saw him sit across the table from her and tell her to smile. It’s the most realistic depiction of the experience of rape on television.
There’s no graphic sexual violence on this show, in contrast to the rape scenes that usually play out on the screen in front of me on other shows, which represent sexual assaults as depressing, but fleeting. This is not the case with Jessica Jones. As the show continues, you see Jessica battle not only this man who comes back to haunt her, but her vicious PTSD in the form of flashbacks. We watch the predator’s ability to control not only her mind, but her emotions with his powers. I watched with her and feared with her knowing at any moment he could be right around the corner—a feeling anyone who has been in an abusive or controlling relationship knows all too well.
Rape has become a common, almost cheap trope used to propel characters' stories. The rapists are either removed from the storyline or maintain the relationship they had with their victim, and they mourn briefly before “moving on” with their lives. Marital rape is used multiple times as a power play in Game of Thrones. Similar plots are thrown casually into Mad Men, and never even picked up again. In these shows, sexual assault is used to justify a character’s coldness, or their choices, over and over. But it's never unpacked in a realistic way.
Rape depictions on television are too often gratuitous, unnecessary, and lazy. But on this Netflix drama, you never see Kilgrave rape anyone, because it’s not necessary. Jessica Jones doesn’t show a rape, instead showing realistic sexual trauma. The story gets the point across and it takes as long as it needs. It doesn’t wrap up an assault with a nice bow and move on to the next scenario. This trauma informs the show and the storyline as a whole.
And this is what Jessica Jones gets so right––it’s the story of a rape from the survivor’s point of view. It is the story of how abuse can pervade every pore of one’s body and how terrifying that reality is. Jessica Jones is a call to action for TV writers to examine the reality and aftermath of rape on the victim rather than forgetting the story line by the end of the episode. To not use rape as a plot device, and to ask if its inclusion is realistic.
The show is also unique in that it captures the manipulative and charming nature of some rapists. When Jessica accuses Kilgrave of rape, her abuser points out the five-star restaurants, the fancy dinners he took her to and asks, “What part of that is rape?” Just like many abusive partner, he doesn’t see himself as the villain.
In this way Jessica Jones is bravely doing what no other show has—forcing the viewers to reconcile the rapist with his humanity. Kilgrave is not the creep hiding in the bushes we picture when we hear about assault. He is more nuanced than the usual one-dimensional villain. The truth, which this drama captures, is that rape can be vindictive and the rapist may not even realize what he/she is doing. By glossing over and simplifying these complex realities, those who create these shows are doing a disservice to the viewer and to this crime’s survivors, people who not only have to witness their worst nightmare, but see it normalized on screen. Poorly-written shows write victims who recover overnight, when in reality it can take a lifetime.
An honest depiction of assault can reveal some deeper truth about rape culture. At worst, it forces the victim to relive the worst moment of their life. There is often no reason to depict sexual violence on television when other plotlines could stand in, or when it doesn’t need to be seen. It’s time for entertainment to take this depiction as seriously as they take rape.