In my house, superhero shows are a win-win, and usually a safe bet for a weeknight in. My boyfriend likes the ass kicking scenes, while I am engrossed in the universal human stories they tell -- full of relatable fears, epic true love and inevitable ironies that inspire thought and reflection...
...Okay, yeah, and I like a good ass kicking scene too.
Every so often, however, a superhero story comes along that surprisingly hits a little too close to home. This past season, it was Jessica Jones.
This Netflix series received rave reviews from fans for its powerful female characters and terrifying plot twists -- undeniably awesome things. But those who have ever survived an abusive relationship may have a different view.
Jessica Jones expertly depicted the themes of emotional abuse, a tragically common occurrence in which a person (often romantic partner) abuses the power they have in a relationship to control the person they love. These abusers don't have to possess superpowers like Kilgrave did; anyone is capable of a certain brand of mind control.
As of late, we've seen the heartbreaking story of Kesha unfold in the media. It appears that her alleged abuser targeted her as a young talented woman with a low self esteem, deployed isolation tactics, and over time planted seeds in her mind that she was worthless. This kind of psychological abuse is what dehumanizes someone into believing they deserve physical and sexual abuse, when that (often) occurs. Sadly, it's currently happening to millions of people all over the country.
-1 in 3 young people experience physical or sexual abuse in their romantic relationship
-Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year
-Young people who experience dating abuse are at risk for disordered eating, lower grades, PTSD, depression, and suicide
The national NO MORE campaign is engaging bystanders of domestic violence and sexual assault to help end these issues. Educating yourself and the people you love, about what abuse looks like is a first step we can all take. The folks at these wonderful organizations are constantly answering questions about the dynamics of abuse. People often wonder, "Why did the victim stay?" A frequent answer? Emotional abuse.
"Emotional abuse is often written off by the victim in the beginning of a relationship," says Sarah Colomé of Break the Cycle. "It might be clear to others that the abuser is destructively jealous, but the survivor might not recognize this as abusive, and may justify staying because they assume the jealousy is a measure of love."
As someone who has dealt with this very subject in my early twenties (and feel free to listen to my full story on Seth Everett's Hall of Justice), Jessica's character cut me to the core. Emotional abuse is a difficult thing to explain and personally, I thought the show nailed it.
So I sat down with Sarah, both as a professional and Jessica Jones fan, to explore the themes of the show its impact.
(If you haven't watched the series, spoiler alert!)
"Jesus, you're a vision. The hair and the skin. Poorly sense of fashion, but that can be remedied." - Kilgrave
When Kilgrave meets Jessica, he showers her with compliments, interlaced with little hints of disapproval. This tends to be the way victims (without superpowers!) are hooked.
Generally, a predator will find a target the victim and shower them with over-the-top compliments -- maybe even pointing out perceived insecurities as strengths. This is called "love bombing." It earns trust with the victim -- but soon becomes peppered with underhanded comments that cause doubt.
In Jessica's case, her superpower had always been a sore spot because it made her different than everyone else and therefore isolated; a real girl might feel insecure about her looks, for example. Because this tactic builds trust, the victim starts to believe the abuser when told untruths.
"When we are fed unsolicited compliments and affirmations about who we are, this breeds a sense of trust with a partner that can later be manipulated -- particularly if compliments are not the norm in our lives," explains Sarah. "If I've never been told I'm pretty before, and you shower me with compliments about my beauty, it will likely have a big effect on me when you shift to saying how ugly I am and that no one else would ever want me. It's not about being weak minded or too insecure, it's about the power of words and how a loved one can use them to control how and what you think about yourself."
"I'm the only one who matches you... who challenges you... who'll do anything for you." -Kilgrave
On the surface, it sounds romantic, doesn't it? It's amazing how the right turn of a phrase can isolate a person without them even knowing. Kilgrave says many things like this to Jessica throughout their relationship and from her perspective -- it could appear that he's just a regular guy who's madly in love with her. All of that is meant to isolate her so that his is the only voice she hears.
This is another major component of emotional abuse.
"Some abusive partners try to guilt you into not spending any time with your family or friends," Sarah says. "We know that emotional abuse can in some cases, lead to physical and sexual abuse. In a situation where the survivor is being isolated, the survivor might intentionally, or inadvertently distance themselves from their support system. Meaning, they may not have anyone to turn to when if the physical abuse begins to happen."
Gaslighting and Dehumanization
"Not only did you physically rape me but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head." - Jessica Jones
Remember those little seeds of doubt planted in the "love bombing stage"? They slowly become more regular and overt over time. The abuser makes the victim question every single move, every word -- even every thought, until a feeling of deep instilling a feeling of deep uncertainty. The victim is made to feel like a trainwreck and in total need of the abuser as a "savior." As Jessica notes in the above quote, this feeling that you've been "mind raped" is a sad side effect -- even if you've gotten out.
Sarah notes: "When a person is broken down and extremely devalued, they are treated as less than human. So when physical violence or rape is presented, they may not recognize it as problematic because their self worth may be so low. They might feel they deserve it. Plus, by this point they might be isolated and can feel like they have no one to turn to. Or they feel no one will believe them."
Like Kilgrave, abusers will often "gaslight" (or confuse) the victim into believing the past incorrectly. Kilgrave constantly tells her "You stayed of your own free will."
Sarah reminds us that the reality is that abuse is complex. "We often don't know all the factors at play and assume that leaving is a 'simple' decision someone can make. We don't take into consideration that there might be a child at risk if you threaten to leave. The partner may be in control of your finances, which also limits your ability to leave. While it's difficult to grasp, love can still be at play in an abusive relationship; someone may not necessarily want to leave, they may just want the abuse to stop. You can love someone who isn't good for you, but an abusive partner can use manipulation to make you feel guilty for wanting something that is your right: a safe and healthy relationship."
Playing the Victim
"That's my loving mum and dad, scientists bent into turning me into a freak." - Kilgrave
Like most abusers, Kilgrave uses his experience as a child to make himself the victim, perpetuating the abuse towards Jessica. "Placing oneself in the position of a victim speaks to the cycle of violence," Sarah says. "The victim sympathizes with the abuser, which is another reason they stay."
It's also important to note that the cycle of abuse is very similar to that of addiction. That's what makes Malcolm's character so tragic as well. Kilgrave mind controls him into being addicted to heroine; even after the mind control is over, Malcolm still tragically struggles with the heroine addiction. That is almost exactly what it feels like to a victim who has just left an abuser -- and why so many people go back.
In the past, emotional abuse has been completely written off because it's very hard to prove and it doesn't leave any visible scars. But most victims of domestic abuse will tell you that the psychological effects were much more painful than the physical violence. It's extremely heartening that our culture is becoming far more emotionally intelligent and shows like Jessica Jones are proof.
"One of the key concepts I take away from Jessica Jones is the resilience that a survivor can have," says Sarah. "While it is indisputable that someone shouldn't have to go through abuse, the show highlights the strength of survivors in a way that shows we can go on living. The unfortunate reality though, is that not everyone makes it out alive. I'm excited to see how Season 2 continues to show the strength of survivors."