Marvel’s Jessica Jones is an excellent example of what is possible with both long-form storytelling and the superhero genre. Getting beyond the standard “Let’s you and him fight” narrative of so many stories of people with powers, Jessica Jones focuses on the emotional journey of its characters as Jessica and the others try to come to terms with the trauma in their pasts. The brutal fights and action hero moments are all there, to be sure, but the meat of the story focuses on relationships and healing; on what it means to be a victim and what it means to be a survivor.
But once we look away from Jessica Jones herself, we get into even more interesting territory. It’s in the side characters that we can find some important lessons about abuse, about toxic relationships, about support and about what it means to be a true ally to someone.
Let’s take a moment to dig into what we can learn from the supporting cast of Jessica Jones.
Warning: From this point onwards, thar be massive spoilers.
Will Simpson makes for an interesting character, and one who generates no small amount of controversy. Over the course of the show, Simpson goes from being Kilgrave’s unwilling puppet to a man seeking redemption for his crimes to becoming – if not a villain in his own right1 to something near as dammit.
What makes Simpson interesting is how he fits into the abuse narrative. Simpson is the classic definition of what is known in various circles as a bad ally. The first time we see him, he’s trying to murder Trish Walker while under Kilgrave’s mental whammy. The second time we see him, he’s seemingly overcome with guilt over what he’s done and – in the course of trying to make amends – works his way into Trish’s bed. But it’s what happens afterwards that makes him significant: he makes the quest to take down Kilgrave all about himself. From the moment he’s brought into the circle by Jessica and Trish, he attempts to take over. It doesn’t matter that Jessica and Trish know far more about Kilgrave and what he’s capable of; Simpson’s convinced that he knows better than both of them and constantly bucks, questions and undermine’s Jessica’s authority.
Despite the fact that his experiences with Kilgrave – a temporary tool versus Jessica’s months in hell – his manpain makes him the authority and the “natural” leader. Even knowing that Jessica needs Kilgrave alive in order to save Hope’s life, Simpson repeatedly interferes with Jessica’s plan, even going so far as to be willing to murder innocent bystanders in the attempt to bring him down. And when Jessica gets in his way… he beats the ever loving shit out of her and Trish. In the name of the greater good, of course. He’s incredibly sorry that it happened! But, y’know. She should’ve just listened to him.
In real world terms, he’s a classic case of someone who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Simpson makes a lot of noise about wanting to be an ally and to make up for what he’s done, but when push comes to shove, he’s the one doing the pushing and the shoving. He talks over people who know better and doesn’t hesitate to use anger, threats and, ultimately, violence to get his way, even against the people he’s supposedly trying to help. His narrative is so archetypal that it’s almost impossible not to see it in terms of real world figures like Hugo Schwyzer, who used his “reformed misogynist” redemption story2 to leverage his way into being a Male Feminist thought leader… and used that branding to sleep with his students and slap down his critics. The profound mea culpas serve less to show that he wants to make amends and more that he just wants those annoying critics off his back so he can go back to basking in the adulation of being The Hero.
Now let’s contrast him with…
Malcom, in many ways, is Will Simpson’s polar opposite. Like Simpson, Malcolm is an unwilling pawn in Kilgrave’s campaign of terror against Jessica. Unlike Simpson, on the other hand, once he’s been freed from Kilgrave’s control, Malcolm goes out of his way to actually help.
Instead of hairy-chested, dick-swinging “I’ma keeell him” tough-talk, Malcolm is very quick to acknowledge that he’s far out of his depth. He knows he has neither the knowledge nor the ability to handle Kilgrave the way that Jessica does, nor can he confront his abuser in the way that she can. What he can do, however, is help heal the others. Instead of trying to be part of the inner circle taking down Kilgrave, Malcolm devotes his time to working with Kilgrave’s victims. In trying to pick up the pieces of his own life, he leads the support group and quietly works behind the scenes to help Jessica… even if it means saving Jessica from herself. He never seeks credit for doing what he believes to be the right thing; he does it because it’s what he can do and he believes it just needs to be done. Even when he goes to the extremes of disposing of a dead body, he doesn’t look for credit; he’s just trying to make the world a little better and keep Jessica from making mistakes so that she can be the one to save other people.
In MMO terms, Malcolm is playing the support class in contrast to Simpson’s Leeeeeeroy Jeeeeeeenkins-ing all over the place and ruining Jessica’s plans.
Malcolm is a giver and a nurturer, another example of positive masculinity that doesn’t depend on being the biggest, baddest ass in badassdom.
Obviously, if we’re going to talk about relationships and abuse in Jessica Jones, we’re going to have to talk about Kilgrave. But rather than talking about Kilgrave’s beliefs or what he says about misogyny, I want to talk about what he represents. See, one of the ongoing stories of how people relate to Jessica Jones is the appeal of Kilgrave and his burgeoning female fandom. And despite being the sort of abuser who unleashes an anonymous army to get his revenge on someone who rejected him he does have his fans. As Maddy Meyers shows us, Kilgrave sits on the same continuum of Draco-In-Leather-Pants villains and abusers like Christian Grey and Edward Cullen.
Hell by the time you get to Episode 8 (AKA: WWJD) you can hear Tumblr stirring into life as armies of fans begin to crank out their head-canon fix-fics to explain that Kilgrave’s not evil, he’s a tragic figure! He can’t help it! Jessica can fix him with her loooove.
As long as you ignore the fact that he’s, y’know, murdered, tortured and disfigured dozens of people within the span of the series alone…
Except Kilgrave is very aware of this trope. And, in fact, he’s quite willing to exploit it. Upon realizing that he can’t control Jessica any more with his powers, he instead plays upon the same societal program that demands that women be fixers and nurturers… even to the people who’ve abused them. In fact, in Episode 8, not only has Kilgrave portrayed himself as the victim – of his parents’ cruel experiments, of the consequences of his powers, even of Jessica’s rejection of him – but he’s put Jessica in the position of having to save him and make him a force for good.
And it’s all bullshit. Kilgrave is playing the same emotional jiu-jitsu that abusers across time have performed: insisting that their victim is abusing them. That by pushing back, refusing him or even getting upset, the abuser is the one being abused.
It’s this sense of survivor’s guilt – that this is ultimately their fault, that they should have been able to prevent this, that they could fix things if they only knew how – that so often leads victims to stay with (or return to) their abusers. Kilgrave, like other abusers and predators, is well aware of this and dangles the potential of his redemption like bait and puts the blame for his very existence on her shoulders. It’s another means of controlling his victims and Kilgrave is all about the control – whether he has his powers or not. Kilgrave is the charming manipulator, the one who gets by as much on his charisma and good looks as he does his connivance.
But the danger of villains like Kilgrave is that they’re obvious – at least to us. That charm is strictly superficial; when balked even slightly, he goes into a tantrum that’s no less dangerous for being childish. The abusers that we don’t see as abusers because they’re not as obvious are just as dangerous; the ones who sneak under our radar because they’re not cartoon bad-guys. Abusers like…
Jeri Hogarth is one of the surprising aspects of Jessica Jones. She’s Jessica’s ally, one of the most respected and feared attorneys in New York… and in her way, she’s almost as bad as Kilgrave. We just don’t see it as quickly or clearly because she doesn’t explode like Kilgrave does or leave a trail of bodies the way he does.
When contrasted with Kilgrave, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that she’s just as controlling and manipulative as he is; it’s only the fact that she doesn’t reach the same operatic heights that he does. Kilgrave is very simple and clear-cut. No matter how he sells himself, he’s evil, hands down. Jeri, on the other hand, may not be evil but her black-and-grey morality hides a multitude of sins.
While Jeri isn’t making people mutilate themselves, she does continually abuse, belittle and gaslight her wife and her girlfriend. It’s just disguised by her calm demeanor that implies everyone else is being unreasonable. Where Kilgrave is volcanic and ill-tempered, Jeri is the ice queen. She’s oh so controlled and oh so collected and leverages this against her distraught – and deservedly so – wife. She’s calm and collected while Wendy is upset. She’s cheating on her wife but it’s Wendy who’s being irrational and emotional – and thus, in the wrong. It’s simply unreasonable for Wendy to expect simple things like monogamy and respect and love; look at everything Jeri’s done for the ungrateful bitch. Wendy put her through law school, but Jeri nobly puts up with Wendi’s “playing Mother Teresa” and so it balances out in the end.
But if there’s one thing that Jeri abhors, it’s being inconvenienced. She simply wants to get her way in all things; conflict is when other people make life inconvenient for her and they need to stop. Following the rules is for other people. Jury won’t go her way? She’ll bribe or manipulate them. Her girlfriend is making a fuss not just about Jeri’s wife but about being dragged into a criminal conspiracy? Don’t try to resolve the issue, just do whatever it takes to make her shut up already. A proposal is a cheap price for getting around a nagging girlfriend. And of course, since Wendy is making Jeri’s life inconvenient, it’s no matter to her to demand that Jessica make Wendy sign the divorce papers – with no alimony or settlement – by any means necessary. And if those means should include, say, holding Wendy over the subway tracks in front of an on-coming train… that’s hardly Jeri‘s fault. She didn’t say to threaten Wendy; the fact that it would benefit Jeri is a happy coincidence.
As long as it gets her what she wants, she doesn’t really care what damage it does. This comes down to being complicit in trying to team up with someone she knows is a mass-murderer… just so that she can speed up her divorce and resume banging her secretary. And what does she get for her troubles? A very, very dead ex-wife and a girlfriend on the hook for it. Which, of course, isn’t her fault.
Jessica Jones is remarkable in the way that it handles the tricky topics of relationships, abuse and recovery. But while it shows so much of the bad out there, it also highlights the good in people – from Luke Cage’s stoic nobility, to Jessica’s grudging heroism, Trish’s steadfast faith and loyalty and Malcolm’s quiet support. We see what to watch out for, but we also find a reminder of the ways that we can overcome our trauma and how to support those we love in the way they need.