This post contains light spoilers and triggers as related to the Netflix original series Marvel’s Jessica Jones. You have been warned.
I want to like romantic comedies. They’re movies with women leads and they’re supposed to be lighthearted and funny. In a world of triggers, a romantic comedy should be a safer choice than a gritty drama full of murder and gore. And yet, I find Jessica Jones almost reassuring for how it subverts romcom tropes.
Creepy (sexually aggressive, sexually harassing, stalking) behavior gets labelled as romantic in comedies. Sometimes it’s played for laughs. I remember the first time I watched Back to the Future as a child and avid Michael J. Fox fan, how betrayed I felt by the scene in the past where his father hides in a tree to peek in at his mother changing her clothes. I hated that she got stuck with that man for the rest of her life, raising children with him and sharing a marriage bed with him. Yet it was just supposed to be a momentary joke, a laugh, not a warning that Marty McFly was a bad man. I was able to recognize that for how wrong it was.
Yet when I watched Say Anything as a teen, I wanted Lloyd Dobbler to get the girl, or even better, I wanted to get Lloyd Dobbler. I saw a boyfriend who cared enough to make a grand romantic gesture, standing outside her house playing their song on a boom box held over his head. I didn’t see the boy ignoring her boundaries, refusing to give her space she asked for, denying her the opportunity to begin young adulthood on her own. I just saw love, and so did the writers.
Now that I’m older and more cynical, I can spot the actually-unhealthy “romantic” behaviors more easily. These days I find myself watching television with a pre-emptive cringe; do the writers know that’s unhealthy? Do they think it’s romantic? Are they going to pair these two characters up on the basis of that actually creepy behavior? For all that romantic comedies are supposed to be light and easy, I can find the “romantic” build up to the inevitable pairing painful or even downright triggering.
The villain in Jessica Jones, Kilgrave, is a fan of romance. In one of the most chilling scenes of the entirely chilling first season, he tells Jessica “I am new to love, but I know what it looks like. I do watch television.” That was the moment that let me know I could breathe easy, that I could let that particular guard down in the midst of the parade of trauma triggers that is Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Ahh, I thought, the writers know this is unhealthy – and they know it’s unhealthy even when it’s billed as romance. I can trust them to treat Kilgrave like the villain he is.
I had expected to be triggered watching Jessica Jones. I had been warned by friends that it dealt with topics of abuse and rape and PTSD, that it was hard and brutal. And while all that is true, I haven’t been triggered. The writers understand that what Kilgrave does to Jessica is abuse, not love, and that no matter how convinced of his own romantic nature he is, Kilgrave is first and foremost a predator. This makes all the difference in the world to me. By contrast, I was so badly triggered by the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, and its casual and even titillating treatment of rape, that I had to turn it off before the episode was over to be violently sick for hours.
I can’t speak to anyone else or whether Jessica Jones would trigger them or not. There are certainly numerous potential triggers throughout the show – drug abuse and police brutality and domestic murder are all going on as side stories while Jessica battles Kilgrave and the PTSD he left her with. For me, the recognition of Kilgrave as a villain, of his grand romantic gestures as emotional abuse, of his stalking as predation, is some kind of alchemical magic, transforming the shit of life as a non-man in a rapist man’s world into golden television that somehow heals wounds inside me. It’s not easy television. It’s not lighthearted. But in not being light, in not playing everything for a laugh, it almost seems to say: “I believe you.“