By Dipsikha Thakur
So, it looks like Marvel’s Jessica Jones is going to be back in January.
I am gleeful about this. And not like your regular, garden variety TV-show addict gleeful. This is more like carefully reading the interviews by its entire cast and keeping up with the analyses. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Jessica Jones almost single-handedly opened a chapter in my life where I could begin to trust popular TV shows to represent some of my harder experiences in a credible, relatable way.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Last Christmas, I was alone. I was new in Delhi. I was not that keen on going home, plus the flight tickets during holidays are exorbitant, so I had settled for a fail-proof plan of staying in and binge-watching something.
A few months back, I had heard about a show called Jessica Jones. I am not a big fan of the superhero genre. So, when I first heard about it, I just thought: ‘Female super hero? David Tennant? Okay, could give it a try.’ Then my friend told me that it was also about trauma. More specifically, trauma from intimate partner violence. ‘Will it be triggering?’ She paused for a second and then replied, ‘Yes, but watch it if you can. It will be worth it.’
I should add here that my friend is the woman who held my hair while I threw up in the toilet and saw me, on one occasion, briefly consider jumping off from her terrace. She was also the person who accompanied me to one of the many ‘returns’ I had to do with my ex. During the extremely unnecessary exchange of things, he asked me to ‘come have coffee with him and reconsider’. I said no then, but nonetheless went back many times before we broke up properly. My friend was right there beside me through all of this. She never stopped me from going back and she never (to her great credit) openly judged me for all the bad decisions. She knew about his rape, his blackmail, his one-time attempt at revenge porn and his brilliantly persuasive gaslighting. By the time I had broken up, I was devoid of any sexual desire, incredibly jumpy all the time about everything and spent most of the next year hiding in the library, being a workaholic.
Eventually, I had to see a therapist at uni. I had become paranoid about going back to India. Neither the nightmares nor the paranoia was about my ex. It was about leaving the safe environment of my university (Cambridge) and spending time in a different Indian city than the one I had grown up in. Even in Cambridge, while other women ignored or shouted at catcallers, I’d panic about stepping out of my room. I’d avoid parties, unknown streets, walks after dark and for a while, even getting tipsy. The whole time I was also intermittently missing my ex and genuinely (though with increasingly relief) convinced I’d never again have a romantic/sexual relationship with anyone.
Three years later, I am still getting over Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) one day at a time. PTSD means trigger warnings are a necessity for me. But you should know, it was with my second therapist that I finally accepted that diagnosis. Initially, I was sceptical. To me, PTSD meant war veterans, bomb blasts, car crashes and brutal gangrape. What was all this about having it from going out with a guy? Particularly, (and this was hard to explain to my British therapist) a man I had had the privilege to choose? Falling in love was, among other things, a rebellion against my conservative, Hindu family with its long history of obedient, honourable and throat-slittingly bad marriages.
My aunt was beaten up and locked in by my family for seeing a man. Ma had been forced into a wedding without speaking to the man she would sleep with in a week. My grandmother was forced to give up her eating habits, go to a different place and slave for a family of twelve. And here I was, sitting in a comfy chair, being told that I, who had the luxury of Cafe Coffee Day dates, a reasonable-ish curfew of 10 pm and the prickly right to introduce a boy to my parents, had trauma.
Eventually it sunk in. The research helped. It seemed too many survivors had felt what they faced wasn’t big enough, gory enough, bad enough. Besides, all the symptoms slid right into the slots: insomnia, flashbacks, hypervigilance, depression, social anxiety. And speaking to therapists helped me realise that it does not have to be one event that starts it. That’s the neat Hollywood version. Actually, witnessing domestic violence as a child can be nicely nestled into a later experience of other kinds of violence.
Which reinforced my belief that sometimes, there is no one man to take down. Sometimes, it is just the fucking patriarchy.
These days, PTSD means, sometimes, I cannot read the news. I have days when I have to read or watch something trashy and thoughtless instead of reading a book on feminism that I actually really want to read. Or refrain from editing a piece on sexual assault that I want to edit. My wonderful, long-suffering friend knows every bit of this. And she was still recommending Jessica Jones to me. So there I was, Christmas-day afternoon, huddling in my blanket, a large plate of crispy momos on the bed, ready for the marathon.
The thing that hooked me in at once was the fact that it was so easy to like. The opening score was catchy, fading cut-outs crowding an urban landscape, people being all noir and mysterious. What’s not to like? Then a scuffle between a man and woman. Before I could get a proper jab of panic, the man’s head went through a glass door and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, PI was on the screen.
As the episodes flew by, the thing that gripped me the most about Jessica Jones is the fact that she is not very lovable. She is often a moody, unkind woman. She is an alcoholic. She is a misanthrope and not in a tastefully Byronic way – she also runs out of toilet paper. She is me on my not-great days, she is probably you on your worst days, and that is why she is a revolutionary moment in popular media when it comes to showing trauma.
Trauma is absent from most popular narratives of violence. Switch on your TV – you will see scene after scene of rape, catcalling and blackmail, but it is all aestheticized. Whether it’s Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Narcos or the frighteningly immortal CSI series, violence against a woman is almost always both about relief for men (‘oh thank god we’re not like that’) and surreptitious jerking off. The women scream, sob, picturesquely ask for mercy and occasionally kill themselves like planks of solid heroism. Or they have misty flashbacks to ease the way of our hero, who is obviously much better than such villains.
Except intimate partner violence is a lot duller in real life; dull and devastating. Abuse is often a fraught area where fighting back and being counter-abusive get blurred. I did not deserve to have things thrown at me. I did not deserve to have my own feminism twisted around to justify rape. I certainly did not deserve to endure sex without protection for years. But I was also not the ‘correct victim’. I have thrown things back. I had moments of power over my abuser and all I did with them was abuse him. So when Jessica puts Kilgrave the villain into a hermeneutically sealed chamber, electrocutes him and beats the shit out of him, I am not surprised. Nor am I surprised by Jessica’s exhausted cruelty towards other people – her lover Luke and Patsy, her best friend.
What Jessica Jones’ plot gets the best is the mostly-unmentioned fact that moral certainty is not a usual feature of abuse testimonies. Collateral damage, on other hand, almost always is. (People romanticize the narrative of trauma experienced by war veterans because patriotism plays to the crowds. Yet, as this wonderful essay by Patrick Stewart illuminates, most of the fallout is borne by others–often those who had nothing to do with the trauma.)
Then of course comes that looming, difficult subject of consent. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is real. So, so real. Most abusive people I have known are incapable of understanding abuse: what is gaslighting for the victim is a genuine hand-wringing moment for the abuser. “What?” screams Kilgrave, ‘“What part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever you wanted is rape?” Where do you begin unpick the intersecting threads of real, enthusiastic consent, polite neutrality, suppressed discomfort and unheard but nonetheless absolute refusal?
After abuse, even one’s memory is not one’s own anymore. Sometimes, it is intrusive, like Kilgrave’s voice by Jessica’s ear. At other times, it is so heavily contested and so ambiguous that it takes nothing short of an arrogant misanthrope not to doubt the other person’s narrative.
Jessica Jones is not about the superhero stuff after all. It is about managing trauma and it is about supportive, forgiving relationships that help one regain a stable identity once the worst is over. When I see Jessica breaking Kilgrave’s neck in the finale, all I can feel is relief with her relief. No sense of air punching or victory – just a sense of ‘I’m so glad it’s over’.
Which is exactly how I have felt for a long time.
Dipshika Thakur is your regular coffee-chugging, cat-loving journalist, currently based in Delhi.