TW for rape
Spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road
Jessica Jones has been out for two days and already you can find fan fiction of her and her rapist as a couple. Dig a little deeper and you can see real people say that they love Kilgrave. Love him.
For those of you who don’t know, Netflix’s Jessica Jones series is a Marvel show about a former superhero (Jessica) becoming a private detective and tracking down the man who imprisoned and raped her (Kilgrave). The show deals with the themes of rape, abuse, and PTSD in a way that is by no means easy to watch.
I haven’t watched it. I have no intention of watching it. Thanks to guides such as this one however, I could if I really wanted to.
The thing is, I understand that for some people stories about overcoming the traumatic experience of rape is important. As a Creative Writing student, I am aware that sometimes we write what is uncomfortable in order to understand it or to educate others.
In general though, I hate rape as a plot device. I think it’s lazy writing used for the shock factor and to add conflict and pain to a story. Television has this fascination with turning rape into an obstacle for (almost exclusively) female characters to overcome. It’s a punishment for characters who need to be broken down. It makes the audience pity them and then cheer when the characters builds themselves back up again. Rape becomes a tool to empower women in the most absurd way. Characters like Sansa Stark from HBO’s Game of Thrones are needlessly given this plot in the name of “historical realism” so that they can be moulded into something stronger later.
Narratives such as this force away rape and sexual abuse survivors. The shows like Jessica Jones that are meant to show us we can get past this experience often fail to do that. I understand that the writers probably didn’t mean for this. The aim of their show is, I believe, to highlight the topic of PTSD, rape, and sexual violence in a way that doesn’t do a disservice to female characters. My issue is that the show is inconsiderate to the actual survivors it’s trying to talk to.
When it comes down to it, it’s not the characters I care about – it’s rape survivors: It’s the people who have anxiety attacks watching TV shows, or the people who start crying in the cinema because they hadn’t been warned about an upsetting scene. Triggers are horrible things that take a person back to the moment they felt most unsafe and – in the case of anxiety attacks – make you think you’re back in that situation. Your body doesn’t know how to cope. It reacts to a threat that isn’t there and suddenly you can’t breathe properly. Suddenly you’re shaking and your heart is thudding and the tears run thick. Different people react in different ways, but this is not an uncommon experience.
The summer blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road was a fantastic action film that featured six rape survivors and Max himself in a two hour long car chase. The audience knew that these women were all rape survivors, that’s never made unclear, but the film handles itself in a much better way than Jessica Jones does. Watching Mad Max, I was never afraid for these women. That is to say I never thought that they were going to be raped again and I never genuinely thought they might have to go back to their rapist. The film is about the rapist pursuing his “wives” relentlessly through the desert and yet there is nothing in those 120 minutes that would trigger an anxiety attack. People didn’t come out of the cinema and write guides warning others on how to avoid being triggered. That didn’t happen.
I suspect that’s because it was a story about rape survivors, and not a story about rape. The women escape, support each other and never go back to their rapist. That is a story survivors need to hear.
Jessica Jones is a different matter.
So hearing people say “You should watch Jessica Jones! It’s about rape but-” isn’t enough for me. Sure, it’s good to know that Jessica’s rape wasn’t a cheap shot used to develop her characters, but that doesn’t make the show any easier to stomach. Marvel has a terrible history of refusing to let women be protagonists and I wanted to support this. I really did. But when even non-survivors are warning others of the content of this show, I know it’s not safe. Jessica Jones is too upsetting for those triggered by rape and it’s as simple as that. No matter how good a show is, no matter how much I want to support a female protagonist, it’s not worth the constant state of fear that will come with watching this show.
I’m faced with the next few weeks of watching my Tumblr dash, Twitter timeline, and Facebook feed all react to this show and recommend it to each other. Every post will remind me of myself. Every tweet will exhaust me. There are ways of writing about characters who have been raped without triggering a rape survivor. Jessica Jones doesn’t do this. All I can do – all any survivor can do – is wait for the hype to die down.
Until then, I’ll be rewatching Mad Max.
by Emma Ward, Feminism Society President