Have you seen the new Netflix/Marvel series Jessica Jones? So many people are all abuzz about it. I have a hard time sitting down and finishing one episode of ANYTHING, let alone binge out on an entire season of something in the space of a few days.
But yeah, Jessica Jones is that good.
It’s empirically good storytelling, with a female lead writer (Melissa Rosenberg) writing kick-ass female lead characters navigating plot lines that pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. But beyond being action-packed, the series is very much a brilliant portrayal of abuse, trauma, sexual assault, violence, and PTSD survival. Which sounds miserable, I know. But it is done brilliantly. Joss Truitt, Feministing.com contributor, nailed it when she wrote:
Yes, this is a “superhero” show with a female lead, but Jessica Jones is so much more. The show does what we all got excited about Mad Max: Fury Road doing this summer: it’s a story about the aftermath of sexual violence that doesn’t include gratuitous rape scenes, one that takes on issues of violence and patriarchy head on without replicating harmful tropes. But Jessica Jones goes further than Fury Road by making survivors the central characters, and making their trauma and recovery the meat of the show.
What I appreciate most about the story is that it doesn’t fetishize rape. You do not see the sexual abuse that both Jessica and Hope experience at the hands of Kilgrave. Instead, the story begins and carries through the aftermath and the healing process. And the series is stronger for that decision.
The aftereffects of the experience are clear, and infinitely more important than the acts themselves.
I’ve discussed the shows with clients, friends, and colleagues. I think it has enormous potential to be healing, and open up avenues of discussion for many people who have experienced traumas in their own lives. Because I do so much work around trauma and PTSD, I immediately went out searching for some questions, discussion guide type articles about the show to share with my own clients and with other therapists who may want to use the show in group settings and the like.
Which meant I had to get off my ass and write some. If you think of any others, please share them and I will add them to this post. Let’s crowdsource this with all the awesomeness that is the interwebz! If you have any great experiences using the series therapeutically, I would love to hear about them (and share them here if you feel comfortable with doing so).
A couple of caveats:
While I haven’t had anyone yet tell me this show was triggering for them, it sure as hell could be. Be aware of this potential, and take good care of yourself as I hope you do anytime past memories stir up in your present life. Life is already difficult, so if you find watching this (or anything!) that causes more harm than good, it’s more than OK to take a pass.
The questions in this guide will contain spoilers. Because, duh, they are meant to be used to discuss the series after it’s been seen. If you read the questions first and realize that this study guide hits up some major plot points, do not come torch my village, mmmmkay? You were warned.
Jessica Jones Discussion Questions:
1. In the first episode, before we even know the entire backstory of Jessica’s relationship with Kilgrave, we see evidence of her PTSD symptoms. She struggles with using alcohol to medicate, she struggles with personal relationships, and she experiences flashbacks. She uses a grounding technique of reciting street names from her childhood as a way of keeping herself in the present when the flashbacks take hold. Have you ever used similar grounding technique? What has worked best for you?
2. In what other ways can you relate to how Jessica has managed her trauma? In what ways were you experiences very different?
3. Jessica is by no means the only trauma survivor in this series, and this quote from Episode 4 (in a monologue toward Audrey Eastman who lost her mother and blames all “special” humans for that loss) shows her fury with the experiences of individuals who lash out at those around them due to their past traumas:
"You think you're the only ones who've lost people? You think you're the only ones with pain? You think you can take your shit and dump it on me? You don't get to do that! So you take your God damned pain and you live with it, assholes!"
– From Episode 4, AKA 99 Friends
We all have instances of hurting others because of our own histories, and have all been hurt by others struggling with their own pain. How do you apologize when you find yourself reacting against those around you? How do you call out people reacting against you in a way that shows empathy to their experience without excusing their actions?
4. Because the show explores the many facets of the traumatic experiences many individuals face, we also get to see how individuals care for and support each other. For example, Trish was abused as a child. Her experiences brought them both closer, and they created the family each needed and were lacking for different reasons. How have you created the support networks that you have needed in your own life? How have you been able to support someone else’s healing experience because of your own?
5. Jessica continues to argue with Malcolm about attending the support group for individuals who have been victimized by Kilgrave. She states that “someone has always had it worse” as a way of dismissing her own experience. Have you ever found yourself minimizing your experiences in the same way? Had other people minimize your experiences in a similar manner? How do you find a balance between maintaining perspective while honoring what you have been through? How do you respond to others who struggle in that regard?
6. One group member states that processing his experiences has been pointless because in the end, he still hasn’t gone his son back. Long lasting or even permanent consequences are often a result of traumatic experiences. Is there a point in discussing these issues if you can’t change your circumstances? Why or why not?
7. Malcolm struggles with what it means to be a good person. As someone who had a traumatic past and was studying to become a social worker, becomes another victim of Kilgrave, he wants desperately to do things to save humanity. He mentions his upbringing, in a family that did good works and prayed for people. He asks if it’s all hopeless in the end…is everyone just out for themselves. His experience, in essence, is a crisis of faith (that shows signs of resolving in the last scene of the last season 1 episode). Have you had similar struggles with maintaining hope for the world? Was your process similar to that of Malcolm’s? How did you work through it, or how are you working through it now?
8. Some people may argue that Kilgrave uses literal mind control to manage his victims, while in real life individuals have a choice about the abuse they suffer and endure. This topic is handled exceptionally well when Kilgrave makes the argument to Jessica that he deliberately didn’t control her mind for enough time for her to be clear of his powers, but she chose to stay. Jessica countered by saying that while the control wasn’t literal, she wasn’t able to get his presence out of her head long enough to act in such a way to escape him. This is very true of many people who suffer ongoing abuse…the control feels very real and literal and escape seems impossible. Have you had a similar experience? What would be your response to someone who didn’t understand how literal abusive control can feel?
(If you are looking for a domestic violence safety plan that helps you remain safe whether or not you choose to leave, this one from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence is excellent.)
9. The show has been viewed as very sex-positive, something that Melissa Rosenberg addressed beautifully in her Los Angeles Times interview:
It's interesting, I've never thought of it as sex-positive as much as, again, real, grounded sexuality and the expression of it. I have zero interest in portraying female sexuality as anything other than empowering and as a very natural part of our makeup. I was not handling it with kid gloves. I'm not interested in these romantic, pretty, hand crawls up the back, thing. I really wanted a very visceral experience of these characters, it's another facet of who they are. Because it's Jessica's story, you're experiencing it from her point of view. Between her and Jeri Hogarth and Trish Walker, these are all characters who are sexual beings like any other women and it was very much about allowing that to be the case. Again, just being honest with who these characters are.
I love that about these characters. That they are sex positive, but in a matter of fact way that is a facet of their personalities, rather than something that is paraded by the writers through each episode. However, intimacy can sometimes be a struggle for individuals after a trauma. While sex positive, you can see all these characters struggle with their intimate relationships, and trusting their respective partners in a very real way. What are your perceptions of how sexual intimacy is portrayed in the series? What have your experiences been regarding sexual intimacy? Is there anything about how sexual intimacy is portrayed in the series that you relate to?
(For more resources on intimacy after sexual assault or abuse, check out this handout from the University of Alberta, the Sexual Effects Inventory by Wendy Maltz, and The Consent Commandments).
10. Also in the Los Angeles Times interview, Libby Hill and Rosenberg have the following exchange which I love:
The audience isn't necessarily rooting for Jessica to heal or change, so much as they're rooting for her to keep being herself and being awesome at being herself. She's not a "strong woman" trope, she just is who she is.
There is a healing process with the trauma that she's gone through. But that's still a part of who you are. You don't become a different person because you've faced your demons. And who she is, is fantastic. We never want her to change that.
Wounds heal, but scars are forever.
Jessica is so clearly a flawed hero. She struggles on a continual basis with the after effects of her experience. She questions her judgement on a minute by minute basis. She doesn’t consider herself a hero at all, stating:
"They say everyone's born a hero. But if you let it, life will push you over the line until you're the villain. Problem is, you don't always know that you've crossed that line. Maybe it's enough that the world thinks I'm a hero."
In trying desperately to free Hope, Kilgrave remains at large for weeks, much to the fury of those around her. She takes responsibility for the deaths he causes in the process, even in Hope’s eventual suicide. Jessica has to find herself and stay to true to her sense of justice, despite how Kilgrave has altered her world. She is as imperfect as the rest of his, and her scars are reminders of her experience. What kinds of scars do you carry, either physical or emotional? In which ways have you changed? In which ways have you remained true to who you are? How have your experiences led you to be stronger? What would you want people to most know about your experience?