Power Dynamics in Jessica Jones

Okay, so lots of people have talked about how amazing Jessica Jones is, and I don’t want to rehash too much of what’s been said. Like about how the Bechdel test was flipped on its head, or how this is what a female driven show looks like, or how it is an amazingly realistic portrayal of abuse survival, and how its hero doesn’t act like a perfect survivor or hero, and how awesome that realism is.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record of how absolutely amazing this show was in regards to female characters and their portrayal. I’d like to talk instead about how Power Dynamics are handled, because they are one of the leading forces of the show (and not just because Kilgrave has the power of Mind Control).

Spoilers abound

Jessica and Kilgrave

More than the past abuse Kilgrave inflicted on her, the show focuses on power struggle happening between them now. Kilgrave doesn’t just show up near Jessica and say “hi” to announce that he’s back and wants to prove his love to her. Instead, he takes a young woman under his control, abuses her, makes her do things against her will, and then sends her parents to Jessica for help when they come looking for her.

What he does to Hope has nothing to do with Hope herself, or anything that Kilgrave wants outside of announcing his presence to Jessica. It’s a power play, at the expense of other people. It’s a way to try to force himself back into Jessica’s life and regain power over her. At first it doesn’t seem like more than a further attempt to traumatize her, until it is later revealed that Jessica is immune to his powers. Kilgrave resorts to actual manipulation when he can no longer mind control, and his use of everyone around Jessica to do so is a wild attempt by him to regain the power he used to have. The truth is though, Jessica is now in control, even though she doesn’t realize it at first. The power dynamic between the two has shifted completely.

Patsy and her Mother

First off, Trish Walker is the real MVP of the show. I found myself perfectly okay with the fact that they did not make her a superhero (Hellcat in the comics; they have more seasons to turn her into one, I’m sure) because Trish is the normal, everyday version of an incredibly strong woman. She sets up defenses and starts studying Krav Maga in order to protect herself as soon as she knows Kilgrave is back, she saves Jessica a few times instead of just being saved by Jessica, and is herself a survivor of abuse.

Trish is a wonderful mirror to Jessica and is another example of the long road to recovery that happens after abuse. In the few interactions we see between Trish and her mother, we see that she is still trying to overcome the hold her mother had over her. Dorothy Walker comes back into her life, but it’s a classic case of an abuser continually trying to manipulate, even after the victim has escaped. “See, I’ve changed, I’m so different, give me a chance…which you’ll have to do if you want to find out this incredibly secret helpful information about Jessica. Looks like we’re spending time together now just like I wanted!” Trish is still, after all these years, doing her best to maintain control over her own life now that she is free from her mother. I have a feeling we’ll see more of this power dynamic in seasons to come.

Robyn and Ruben

The twins upstairs, Robyn and Ruben, are an interesting power dynamic because they are representative of the idea of controlling someone for their own safety. Robyn seems sure that Ruben is unable to care for himself, and meticulously controls him to protect him. The reason Jessica is a threat in Robyn’s mind is that she has put cracks in the control Robyn had over her brother, and has possibly shown him that he could function without his sister. Unfortunately we don’t get to find out if Ruben would be better off out from under his sister’s thumb, because he crosses paths with Kilgrave…which never ends well for anyone.

Malcolm and drugs

In my eyes, Malcolm had one of the saddest, realest struggles in the show. An all around bright future, a desire to help people, a family he cares about, all ruined by the drugs that took control over his life. The show does a good job of showing how addiction can grab a hold of anyone, even people with drive and potential. Really, I don’t think it was just Kilgrave’s mind control that drove him to spy on Jessica, and I believe he says as much himself at one point. All Kilgrave had to do was exploit the power of drug addiction, and Malcom was his to control.

With a slight push from Jessica, though, Malcom is able to go from being a slave to drugs to taking back his life, and in turn also trying to help others. The “Kilgrave Support Group” is as much a help to Malcolm as it is his attempt to go back to what he had wanted to do before drugs; help others. Malcolm is another survivor overcoming abuse, by both Kilgrave and drugs.

Will Simpson

The hot mess that is Will Simpson gets his own category, all by himself. At first, I wanted to really like Simpson. He’s a victim to Kilgrave, he struggles with thinking he killed Trish, and once he discovers he didn’t, he does his best to make it up to her and try to gain her trust. I was even okay with them starting a relationship, because he seemed like an okay guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and fell victim to Kilgrave (like lots of other people on this show).

But after a few episodes that all went out the window and I started to hate him almost as much as Kilgrave. Simpson continually tries to take control of every plan made to take down Kilgrave, and eventually just does his own thing (which ends horribly). He doesn’t seem to trust that Jessica and Trish are capable women, and so he needs to be in control of every situation. And then, he tries to completely take over everything by taking battle drugs. Really, this takes him from everyday hero/cop, to borderline villain (which I do think they are hinting they will be turning him into, since this seems to be similar to the origins of his comics character, Nuke).

His power dynamics shift with everyone, constantly, and in the end I would say he loses the battle with himself, since he gives in to his need for revenge and stoops to “bad guy” tactics to do so. Basically, he’s an example of what not to do when trying to take back control of your life after abuse.

Kilgrave and his Parents

Part of what makes the power dynamic between Kilgrave and his parents so complicated is that when the audience is first introduced to their past, it’s by way of an unreliable narrator: Kilgrave. As far as we’re told, Kilgrave was experimented on, brutally abused by scientist parents for their personal gain. And for a while, the audience feels (reluctant) sympathy for him. Maybe it’s not wholly his fault that he is the way he is?

Once Jessica tracks down his parents, though, the audience finally gets the whole story and understanding that while what they did was horrible, they did it out of (slightly misguided) love of their child. This power dynamic had the odd effect of manipulating the audience as it plays out. Watching his explanation of what happened, accompanied by video proof, and then hearing from his parents about how his new powers were turned against them and turned them into slaves to their son… I felt my emotions thrown around like a ball being used for keep away. What Kilgrave does to Jessica and his other victims is atrocious, but getting the backstory of his life, being made to feel sympathy for him, felt horrible. As a viewer, I felt disgusted with myself, and the three of them, and I think that was supposed to be the point. Well played, writers, well played.

Kilgrave and all of his victims

Okay, for a moment I’ll get into the awesome feminism of Jessica Jones. Let’s talk about “Smile.” This was, perhaps, one of the most relatable and terrifyingly ordinary things that Kilgrave made his victims do, and every time he said it I squirmed. I would be willing to bet that at least once in her life, every woman alive has had a man, either catcalling or otherwise unwanted, request that she smile for him. I think if I had a dollar for every time I’ve had it happen, I’d already have my credit cards paid off. This slimy request comes from the assumption that women are objects for men’s pleasure, and therefore we should smile and look happy for them, and if we don’t they will demand it of us, assuming that we will do it since we are in their space and are therefore “theirs.” It is one of the most common forms of catcalling, and for me the commentary of including it in Jessica Jones speaks volumes of its abusive roots.

For me, it seemed to cement in my mind the idea that Kilgrave is the hyperbolic archetype of the “Nice Guy,” the guy who does all of these grand romantic gestures for a woman he loves and why can’t she just see that he’s so nice and stop being so ungrateful? The Mary Sue has a fantastic article about that very thing. Jessica isn’t the only one he commands to smile, either, which lends to it being an overarching issue of control over women than just abuse of Jessica.

The interesting thing to me about the victims who go to the Kilgrave Support Group is how some of them are scarred by small moments of control. For them, losing control for even a small amount of time was so traumatizing that they are all struggling to get over that feeling of a loss of self-control and power over their own lives. They are not traumatized to the point Jessica is, but they are by no means untouched by Kilgrave’s abuse. In a way, this goes to show that any level of abuse is just as unacceptable, and just as horrifying to its victims. Loss of power for anyone is a traumatizing event.

Mind Control and Abuse

The Power Dynamics of the show are certainly exaggerated due to Kilgrave’s abilities. Take those away, and this is the story of a highly manipulative abuser, his plethora of victims, and how they are all struggling to overcome his abuse and control. However, add in his powers and it becomes an amplified case of abuse, where the abuser literally can make his victims want to do what he wants them to do. Hope says so in the first episode, “He made me do things, and I didn’t want to do them… but I did want to.” In a way, Kilgrave’s mind control power is a hyperbolic representation of real abuse and manipulation. It didn’t have to be, if it weren’t for the fact that at his core, Kilgrave is an abuser.

Jessica tries to show him he could use his power for good by taking him to save a family and try out being a superhero. He seems to enjoy it (though we know it is short lived and he shows that he has a totally warped moral compass) and it shows that in the Marvel Universe, the power could have been wielded for good.

But this isn’t about a superhero, this is about a supervillain, and the reason that is is because that is who he truly is. Kilgrave is an abuser, who just happens to have the power of Mind Control. Sure, he tries to play victim to his own power. His throwaway line of, “I once told a man to screw himself, can you imagine?” stuck with me, because I can imagine having to be so careful with your words so that you don’t compel people to do things they don’t want to do (it also reminded me of Ella Enchanted, in a way). But that was me reacting as a normal person who would not abuse that power. We see time and again that Kilgrave enjoys his powers, and uses them to control everyone around him to get exactly what he wants out of them.

Final Thoughts

Every dynamic and relationship in Jessica Jones is made up of power dynamics. Even Hogarth, her wife, and her secretary are shown to be in a power struggle, each trying to gain control of a bad situation. Luke and Jessica are shown to be equals, both in terms of superpowers and how they treat each other and their relationship – up until the point that Luke finds out the truth about his wife’s death and Jessica’s part in it. Aside from the amazing feminist leanings and portrayal of strong female characters, I would say that’s part of what made the show so popular. The writing is incredibly well done, and handles a lot of delicate topics and story lines realistically, making the show nuanced and relatable. It’s more than a show about superheroes, it’s about relationships and survival.

Apologies for how often I said power, control, and dynamics.


7 responses to “Power Dynamics in Jessica Jones

  1. So to add even one more, there’s the Detective they force to witness Kilgrave’s power, so that he’ll believe them and help with Hope’s case. It’s the best they can come up with, but after so much abuse, it shows them turning to abuse themselves…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I agree that Trish is a stand-out in the show, and I loved that she didn’t have powers but wished she did so she would HAVE some power… when actually, everything she did was incredibly effective and helpful to Jessica, even without that.

    Agree about Simpson too. He’s one of those characters who seems good at the outset, but is so stubborn and thinks his way is the only right way… to the point where it can be very dangerous and unfair.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I especially love the detail with the guy who “just” had to give up his coat. It seems such a minor thing, he even says so, and yet it is no less abuse. It was more or less the show equivalent to someone who got groped a little bit.

    Liked by 1 person

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