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On Jessica Jones, rape doesn’t need to be seen to be devastating

It’s only been out in the world for four days, but Netflix’s Jessica Jones is already one of the most talked about new shows this fall. It has the distinction of being Marvel’s first property starring a female superhero, but it’s also a great show by any metric, balancing superheroics with an honest look at how people — and women most of all — cope with trauma. Like many shows that came before it, the series uses rape to move the drama forward. But the series feels different in how it treats the subject overall.

Rape — specifically its visual depiction — figured prominently in 2015. The most visible example was almost certainly Game of Thrones, with the now-infamous rape of Sansa Stark. But there have been plenty of other instances in recent years in which we’ve watched women suffer through the violence of the experience — from Joan on Mad Men to Anna on Downton Abbey to Mellie on Scandal. Each scene has left audiences shocked, filling their Twitter feeds with righteous outrage, but rarely for very long.

At the outset, Jessica Jones is different in that it never actually portrays the act visually. Instead, it explores its effects and meaning over the course of 13 episodes in a sustained way. Rape is not just one of any number of ways Jessica could have been traumatized; the show is deliberate about the numerous implications of that specific violation. That approach is unique, and in effect makes the show a powerful, nuanced meditation on not only rape, but also on the nature of consent.

Minor spoilers ahead.

Television more often than not treats rape as a plot device

Talking about rape is necessary if we want to get better at understanding it, but rape on TV is more often than not treated as a plot device to advance the story. The vocal criticism surrounding Sansa’s rape last season had everything to do with the purpose of that scene. What point is there in inviting the audience into the room where a teenage girl is being violated? A fair argument can be made for how the scene affirms how rape is ever-present in Game of Thrones’ reality, and to pretend otherwise for the sake of a main character would be disingenuous. But the prevalence of rape culture, while a defining feature, is not Game of Thrones’ focus — power is. Rape was just another way for Sansa to be robbed of her power. Multiple television characters, especially in the last year, have undergone this plot point and acquired a new tragic dimension, but the act itself and the fallout is never truly examined.

On Jessica Jones, the fallout is the point. In an interview with Variety, series showrunner Melissa Rosenberg called TV’s current reliance on rape "lazy and dull storytelling." She offered Jessica Jones as an alternative: "[We] have this rich, complex female lead and we are looking at what happened to her from her perspective." That means relying on Jessica’s perspective to understand her experience. Her rape is why she drinks. It’s part of why she recoils from people, even those she loves. And it’s why she does everything in her power to save others from going through the same horror. As a result, it’s her need to do good while also grappling with the trauma of others that adds depth to her. And since rape is one of the show’s core themes, we never need to see it. A show like Game of Thrones needs to show rape to address it. Even if the camera looks away or opts to hold another character’s gaze, there needs to be one moment where it’s clear the act has taken place. For Jessica Jones, rape is a foundational part of the text, and its presence is constant. Even if it’s invisible, it’s always there.

Jessica Jones examines what rape means

For as much as rape has played a part in television this year — from Thrones to Orange is the New Black to Outlander, we haven’t been made to think too hard about its nature as a horrible act. The rapist is a monster, and that’s often that. Jessica Jones takes its time in dissecting how rape happens, and what it means. And yes, it’s about power, but it’s also about consent. Kilgrave, Jessica’s arch-enemy and rapist, has the ability to exert his will on others and make them do awful things to others and themselves. His powers are depicted as utterly violating, as he essentially takes his victims’ ability to consent. But Kilgrave is a victim, too; his powers were forced on him by his parents, and we eventually find out that he has no idea how to live life without making people do his bidding. This wrinkle humanizes a man who is otherwise monstrous, but it also makes him even worse. That he’s at all unsure about the rightness or wrongness of his actions — that anyone could be — is a terrifying kind of ignorance.

In one scene, Jessica confronts Kilgrave about the months he had her under his control. Kilgrave looks back fondly on their time together, and talks about doing the things she wanted to do, like staying in five-star hotels and eating at the best places. Jessica is more clear-headed about their past, and says that, since she never had a choice, he raped every cell in her body, over and over again. At this point we’ve spent enough time with Jessica to know this is factually and emotionally true, but Kilgrave can only lamely respond that he didn’t mean it that way — that he loves her, that he’s a product of his own terrible past, and can never be sure if those around him are acting of their own free will.

And that’s the problem. It’s easy to identify the monstrous, predatory rapists, and to depict them on TV. But when schools are creating consent classes because the topic is so poorly understood, the problem becomes all the more horrifying, not in spite of but because of its mundanity. Men needn’t be evil or superhuman in order to use their power to take advantage of women. They just have to live in a society that allows for it.

Men needn't be evil or superhuman to take advantage of women

Jessica Jones moves the conversation about rape forward by treating it as a complex subject worth investigating, rather than as spice for a story. It turns out that, yes, we know what rape can look like. Maybe we don’t need to see it anymore to grasp how violent it is. Maybe our energies are better spent thinking deeply about why it happens at all.