Over the past few decades, television hasn't been shy about using rape as a plot device. Recently, we've had Sansa Stark's shocking rape scene in Game Of Thrones, a flashback scene in Scandal which revealed that First Lady Mellie was raped by her father-in-law, and an episode of Downton Abbey where maid Anna Bates was attacked by a party guest. All of these scenes have been the subject of much discussion since they aired, and rightly so. But none of them have shown the reality of many people's experience of sexual assault — and its aftermath — quite like Netflix's new series, Jessica Jones .
Although television scenes depicting rape can be important when it comes to encouraging public discourse, plot lines centering around sexual assault are often problematic in their own way — many of them feel too cynical in their shock value, often revealing themselves to be more about the pursuit of making the show a talking point, rather than truly dealing with the issue of rape itself. Jessica Jones is different. It is the first show I've ever seen which not only deals with rape in the complex and honest manner that the issue deserves, but also succeeds in empowering its lead protagonist while not letting her be defined as a victim.
The standard rape-related plot lines on TV shows often fail the survivors of actual rape by failing to understand the true scope of sexual assault. Rape is more than just the act itself — it's also the many legal loopholes that make prosecuting rapists so difficult; it's understanding terms of consent and educating on them; and for many survivors of rape, it's a psychological struggle, often fraught with issues of doubt, self blame, unwarranted guilt and the everlasting mental surprises that trauma can still throw at you ( even when you think you might have finally gotten past the worst of the experience).
In contrast, Jessica Jones depicts a survivor determined to fight back against her trauma and Kilgrave, the villain with mind-control powers who inflicted it upon her. And by facing her assailant, along with all the baggage which that can bring, Jessica also sets out to stop other women from becoming the victim of Kilgrave's attacks.
On the show, Jones is a top-notch private eye who also possess physical superpowers that leave her able to leap up fire escapes or lift cars. Her strength, both physical and mental, anchors the show, and is a beacon of powerful inspiration for those who have been sexually assaulted. It can sometimes feel as though you have superhuman strength when you're fighting through the aftermath of rape, and it's empowering to see a show which celebrates that.
My own rape story isn't as brutal as those that you usually see on television, nor was it as violent as many would have you believe it has to be in order for it to qualify as a real crime. For years, I lived in a deep denial about the act that was committed against me because of this — because it didn't fit the parameters that our culture has ill-advisedly taught women that rape must fit within in order for it to actually exist. But it happened.
My assailant wasn't a monster. At the time, he was a good friend who I adored and who I trusted implicitly. He was going through a terrible breakup with a mutual friend, and I took him out for a night of drinking to help him get through an undeniably difficult time. Throughout the night, I repeatedly had to fight off his advances and I said no to him more times than I can remember.
He was staying at my house and somewhere between watching a movie and enjoying an ill-advised night cap (at his suggestion), he ended up in my bed. I was worse for wear, to say the least, and in no state to consent to anything. I woke up bruised and naked the next morning. In a state of shock, I even kissed him goodbye. Horrifyingly, my roommate would later remark that I woke her up that night with my "screams," something which she presumed was the result of some sort of kinky pleasure rather than an act of violence.
In many TV depictions of rape, no discussion of consent follows. But on Jessica Jones, the lines of consent are smartly discussed within the narrative frame of Kilgrave's powers of mind control. In one scene, he argues that Jessica had a great time whilst she was under his power, that he took her to five star hotels and all of her favorite restaurants. She immediately corrects him, saying, "Not only did you physically rape me, you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my godd*mn head." Kilgrave doesn't think that he has raped anyone — his defense is that he doesn't know if the women actually "want" to ever be with him or whether they're being controlled — which sharply echoes the excuses many attackers give for disregarding consent.
This is the difficulty with consent. Too many people don't understand where the boundaries are, and our culture certainly fails in educating us about them. Like many other men, I'm sure, my attacker probably didn't qualify what he did to me as rape. I'm sure he saw the acceptance of drinks, our friendship, and my reputation as a party girl as being all the consent he needed to get what he wanted from me.
You don't need superhuman powers to control people; the powerful combination of alcohol and trust can be all a person needs to get into your head and make you think that nothing happened, when something definitely did.
It's also insanely difficult to prove that sexual assault occurred. Like Jessica, I never spoke up about my rape, for fear that nobody would actually believe me — or, worse still, that they'd believe that I consented but was lying about it in order to disguise an act that I'd deeply regretted.
Throughout the show, Jessica strives to find ways to prove the impossible (that Kilgrave is capable of mind control) and is repeatedly told that without solid, hard evidence, her accusations hold no legal standing. Witnesses mean nothing without a tangible source of proof to back up their statements, and in many rape cases, this is certainly the barrier which can prevent plausibility or even a conviction.
And so I stayed silent for years, because what proof do I have? I have nothing but my own perspective of an event, and as the flashbacks on Jessica Jones proved, one person can easily romanticize a moment that the other found horrifying.
In its deft handling of trauma, Jessica Jones also managed to show how the act of rape can manifest itself mentally, remaining there like an insidious splinter which can uproot and replant itself in the present, forcing you to relive the act time and again.
What many other TV shows get wrong about rape is that it's not a plot line of the week — it isn't something that can happen once to a character and then never again come up. Just like how deep wounds don't heal up the second you apply a bandage (unless you're Luke Cage), recovering from rape is an ongoing process, one which long outlives the act itself.
I've come to terms with what happened to me. I've also stopped accepting blame for it. Watching Jessica Jones has helped me realize that not only am I a survivor, but that I'm a strong one, too. It also gave me some perspective on the idea of closure; just as Jessica is the only person who can stop Kilgrave, as survivors of rape, we are sometimes the only people who can save ourselves — and know that is actually empowering as hell.
When Jessica finally rids herself — and the world — of her assailant, I realized it was time for me to do the same. I've fought through it, been through Hell, tested my mental strength to the point of breaking, and it's now time to push my attacker back into the past, where he belongs, and leave him there. As Claire Temple says to Jessica in the Season 1 finale, guilt makes people do stupid things. I'm done with feeling guilty for something that was done to me, and in true Claire Temple fashion, I'm ready to take control back over my life.