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Opinion ‘Jessica Jones’ and the pathetic side of misogyny

David Tennant in Netflix’s series “Jessica Jones.” (Photo Credit: Myles Arnowitz, courtesy Netflix)
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This post discusses the first season of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” in detail.

“Jessica Jones,” which premiered on Netflix on November 20, made a giant leap forward for the genre not simply by featuring Marvel’s first female superhero, but by devoting thirteen episodes of television to a probing exploration of sexism and sexual violence. Writers have explored everything from the way showrunner Melissa Rosenberg weaponized male requests that women smile for them to the series’ treatment of what it takes to survive trauma. Through the first four episodes, I was struck by the way “Jessica Jones” mixes up super-powers with our conversations about consent.

And now that I’ve finished all thirteen episodes of the show, there’s another aspect of “Jessica Jones” that stands out as particularly powerful. Jessica Jones’ (Krysten Ritter) battle against Kilgrave (David Tennant), the man who stripped her of her free will, raped her, and made her commit murder, is terrifying. Kilgrave’s ability to make people do whatever he says, including slitting their own throats or pushing gardening sheers through their heads, is astonishingly ugly, and it’s right for both us and Jessica to be afraid of him. But part of the power of “Jessica Jones” is the way it makes Kilgrave disgusting and pathetic, too. The hatred for women (and contempt for everyone else) that Kilgrave represents is dangerous; it’s also more than a little embarrassing.

In “Jessica Jones,” Kilgrave uses his powers not just simply to get whatever he wants, but to avoid confronting any unpleasantness or disagreement in his relationships with others. In “AKA WWJD,” Jessica learns that, in a twisted courtship gesture, Kilgrave has bought her childhood home and restored it exactly the way it was before Jessica’s parents and brother died. She agrees to go and live with Kilgrave so he will stop threatening the other people in her life. And her stay there turns into a debate over the nature of the period when Jessica was under Kilgrave’s control that eventually probes his rawest insecurity.

“Come on, it wasn’t all bad,” Kilgrave insists over dinner when Jessica tells him she drinks to deal with what he did to her. Later, he recalls wistfully that: “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.”

Part of what’s chilling about the stories that Kilgrave and Jessica tell about the time they spent–or were forced to spend–together is the way they don’t match up. “It was a cold, clear night. When I came across a young beauty being savagely attacked down a dark alley…I saved you. Dried your tears. Fed you dinner. And later we made sweet, sweet love,” Kilgrave tells Jessica in the ninth episode of the series, “AKA Sin Bin,” recounting what for him was the start of a great love, and for her was a period of enslavement and degradation. “What part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever you wanted is rape?” Kilgrave demanded of Jessica during the previous episode.

Kilgrave’s version of events may be enhanced by his super-powers, but it’s a refrain I’ve heard before in discussions about dating: he believes that because he gave Jessica the material things he thought she should covet, she ought to have bought into his vision of their relationship. There’s no actual connection between taking a dress, or a nice dinner, or a hotel reservation and agreeing to have sex, but it’s an easy rhetorical slide to present them as part of a package deal.  “I didn’t want to do any of it,” Jessica tells Kilgrave during that argument. “Not only did you physically rape me but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my g—— head.”

Jessica’s experience is a more extreme version of what happens to any woman who goes out to dinner and finds out that her date expects that he’s paid for more than a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. And Kilgrave has an advantage on any man who wants to press that part of the bargain; he can force anyone to comply with him. But compliance and consent–much less compliance and real desire–are different things. Kilgrave spends much of his time looking away from the difference.

So it makes sense that one of the most striking moments in the whole thirteen-episode run of “Jessica Jones” comes when Kilgrave acknowledges that he’s aware that there’s a gap between what he wrings out of others, and what it would be like for things to be freely given to him.

“How was I supposed to know? Huh? I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to,” Kilgrave says petulantly in “AKA WWJD.” “You have no idea. I have to painstakingly choose every word I say. I once told a man to go screw himself. Can you even imagine? I didn’t have this. A home, loving parents, a family.” It’s certainly true that it would be unnerving if people just did whatever you suggested to them, particularly as a child. But if Kilgrave doesn’t know the difference between free will and command, it’s in part because he never seems to have tried to learn. Even if Kilgrave’s voice is weaponized in a way he can’t turn off, he could still shut up and learn to listen to what people are telling him. Jessica is justifiably disgusted by this. “You blame bad parenting? My parents died. You don’t see me raping anyone,” she tells him with great contempt.

In keeping with his disinterest in what other people actually want, Kilgrave has a tendency to think that his intentions are all that matter. “That is not what I was trying to do,” Kilgrave tells Jessica when she accuses him of rape, as if that’s what distinguishes consent from assault. Later, when Jessica has him in captivity and is interrogating him, he tries again, insisting that “I loved you,” and “This is new, Jess. We were happy. Whatever you think I did to hurt you, I’m sorry.” In Kilgrave’s experience, speaking something makes it happen. But his powers don’t extend as far as erasing his victims’ memories or altering their experiences of what he did to them. He can force things to come to pass. But he can’t make his feelings true for someone else.

Kilgrave may look the part of a sophisticated, adult man: he wears great suits, has wonderful taste in food and wine, and he likes high culture. (Among his targets is a classical musician who he forces to play for him.) But while he’s a formidable opponent for Jessica, he’s not exactly a worthy one, in the sense of being in any way admirable. Kilgrave holds other people responsible for making him good, whether it’s the parents who abandoned him in terror when he was ten years old or Jessica herself. He holds ridiculous double standards, claiming it’s immoral for Jessica to have deceived him when he forces people to do his bidding constantly. He believes that because he doesn’t commit murder himself, despite ordering others to do so, he’s not a killer or a rapist. In some scenes, he’s even disgusted by the language Jessica uses to accuse him, as if telling her not to use the word “rape” means he can’t possibly have committed the act.

These aren’t the actions or ideas of a commanding alpha, a man who’s truly in control of himself and confident in his relationships with other people. They’re the acts of someone who’s terrified about what would happen if he tried to work for money; whether he could actually have a fulfilling consensual relationship with a woman whose needs he might actually have to meet; or how he would handle the inevitable friction that comes from everyday contact with other people. He has one superpower, but none of the ordinary social or professional skills that someone living in the world has to acquire to survive.

Kilgrave’s ability is frightening. But the terror that lies behind his constant exercise of them is deeply pathetic. And the power of “Jessica Jones” is the way it strips Kilgrave down to the studs. It’s not wrong to be alarmed by him, but by the end of the series, we have contempt for him, too. That repugnance is the basis for Jessica’s eventual rebellion against Kilgrave–and for ours, too.