I had never been a fan of superhero television shows. There had been something inherently fantastical about them, indestructible, unbreakable heroes with powers that would guarantee them success and glory. The villains, horrendously, exaggeratedly monstrous, were too farcical to be believable.
Yet, in the new Marvel Comic Universe’s Jessica Jones, both hero and villain merge fiction and reality with themes of sexual abuse and victimhood that are truly terrifying. In Jessica Jones, villain Kilgrave (played by David Tennant), has a power to control the minds of his victims, not in the way they think, but in the way they do. And perhaps, that is the worst. Hope Schultman, one of thousands of Kilgrave’s victims, consciously, aggressively fights the urge to kill her parents but is forced by the physical actions, like that of an automaton, to carry out Kilgrave’s command. These are actions which victims have to face, the guilt and responsibility of what they have done, after the effect of Kilgrave’s mind control has worn off. In this way, Kilgrave’s mind control is akin to rape, both physically and psychologically invasive.
This is how Kilgrave has left protagonist and former victim, Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter) to suffer. In an incident that resulted in a woman’s death and Kilgrave’s own apparent death, we presume Jessica has escaped Kilgrave for good. But; Kilgrave has defied death and returned with a delusional, twisted devotion to the woman that was able to walk away from him, the one woman seemingly immune to his mind control. Kilgrave, in his sadistic assault of civilians and Jessica’s friends, displays his actions as a form of affection for Jessica, an affirmation of his twisted belief that Jessica will eventually love him back. He does not grasp the issue of consent, because he does not ever have to. This highlights the tension between true consent, and what can often be interpreted as merely allowing something to happen. Kilgrave can command outward appearances of obedience, seen in his fixation for victims to “smile,” but he will never be able to elicit true desire, true subjective belief and love by the victim. It is never more evident in Jessica’s meticulous memory of every act she did under the control of Kilgrave.
Her scars, literally and figuratively, are a reminder of what she did not want to do, but was forced to do. The pervasiveness of Kilgrave’s abuse, in Jessica’s imaginings of the silhouetted shadows of her abuser, in coping mechanisms of stress (“Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane,” she rattles off on loop), in the outburst, disclosed to her best friend Patsy (whose relationship needs a whole other analysis) that “I don’t know what I’ll meet when I turn the corner” shows the complexities of Posttraumatic stress disorder that those emotionally, sexually and physically abused face.
This is what makes Kilgrave a truly horrific villain. It is the reality of his power, of monstrosities and abuses that is not detached from reality, but entrenched in the very world we live in. The dark, film noir cinematography may distance Hell’s Kitchen, the Marvel Universe in which Jessica Jones takes place, from reality. But not for one second are the horrors of emotional manipulation, rape and abuse detached from reality. Those who are all too familiar with David Tenant, would be aware of his boyish charm in his role as the charismatic Doctor Who. This is ingeniously portrayed in his role as Kilgrave. Kilgrave is not an outwardly heinous, inhuman monster, because rapists and abusive boyfriends don’t appear to be. They can be charismatic, charming and conventionally attractive but abusive, violent, manipulative people. We are repulsed by what Kilgrave does, but unable to negotiate it with the man who oozes charm, who manipulates and twists our emotions so that we too, fall victim to Kilgrave. There are many who have romanticised Kilgrave, who see his actions as ‘sympathetic’. Tenant said of Kilgrave, “we can all sympathise with that sense of wanting what you can never have (Jessica’s true affection.)” But Kilgrave has manipulated people, then blamed them.
He has forced people to do things they didn’t want to do. He killed his parents, despite their efforts to save him. In a society which condones rape culture, who blames the victim as opposed to the abuser, it is unsettling to see the romanticisation of an abuser as the ‘nice guy.’ Jessica Jones has shown us the most realistic monsters, of those who emotionally, sexually and physically abuse, and also how these perpetrators are tolerated in society.