Marvel’s Jessica Jones emerged as one of the most important shows for me in the last couple of years. While I went in expecting to enjoy it simply as a fan of female heroes and of the world that was being built in the fictionalized New York of Marvel’s Netflix shows, what made it such a fulfilling show for me, and many other women I’ve spoken to about it, was its stark depiction of a woman who was overcoming a severe trauma in her recent past. Jessica is a stubborn, angry woman who has a tough time asking for help. She hides from her problems in a bottle, self-medicating. Despite her outward physical strength, and the exterior she struggles hard to present to those around her, Jessica is vulnerable in a way we don’t often see from superpowered characters, but we see in ourselves more often than we care to admit or even feel permitted to admit at times.
Similarly, on Game of Thrones, we’ve seen Sansa Stark’s character deal with frequent abuse, manipulation, and assault. At times these depictions have upset viewers, and the show regularly crosses the line into sensationalizing or glorifying assault in a way that deserves the criticism it gets. At the same time, there are those out there who see themselves and their history in Sansa, or even in Cersei, who, especially for readers of the books, is a much more complicated character than the evil queen archetype she regularly slips into, often of her own will with a smirk and a sip of wine.
While depictions like these can be troublesome, even triggering at times for survivors of assault, there is a great deal of healing that can be found from them. Representation is a frequent refrain from audiences in search of genre fiction that feels more nuanced and reflective of the world on which it attempts to comment, and yet if we can glean anything from the recent #metoo moment, and the responses that Turana Burke’s movement has garnered, it’s that given the undeniable scale of those victimized by assault, abuse, and rape, genre fiction characters as a whole seem remarkably spared from such histories.
On a simple level, this could simply be another argument for the need to diversify the voices of creators in genre TV and filmmaking, that the lack of survivor stories is merely a consequence of having fewer voices present that would vocalize such. Given the number of people who have come forward with their own #metoo stories, it’s amazing just how little this affects the characters that inhabit the fictional the worlds we consume, especially when such worlds are often depicted as even harsher or more frequently violent than our own.
What #metoo showed very clearly was that this is an epidemic that spares very few of us, and even in many cases, is one that we’ve rationalized or buried away. There could be immense power in seeing more characters who themselves have struggled with these same things, who themselves may be questioning events, unraveling the damage it may have had on them, and most importantly, functioning and healing from them the way we and overwhelming numbers of people in our lives do every day.
The abuse Jessica Jones suffered informs a great deal of her narrative. On Star Trek: Discovery, an unfolding plot arc focuses on Lt. Ash Tyler, a male POW whose imprisonment left him scarred by the sexual and physical abuse of his Klingon captors, and in at least one instance we’ve seen him broken down entirely by the shock of a PTSD trigger during an away mission. Notable in both cases, the actual abuse is not shown explicitly onscreen, which allows the story to remain focused on the survivor and the effect it had on them rather than the assault.
These are also both threads that dominate the story of their respective shows, and while they’re extremely valuable for their own reasons, no one, least of all survivors, wants to see every genre story suddenly weighed down by the struggle of victims to even cope with the realities of life.
But what we do need to see more and more of is depictions of characters, especially female characters, for whom sexual assault is simply a reality of their lives, who may or may not have had therapy, who may have coped with it in their own way, who may still cope with it in realistic ways.
We need more representation on screen of the way real flesh-and-blood people have had to cope with and overcome these same events in our own lives. We need stories of survivors that cross racial lines, cross the lines of sexuality, to destigmatize histories, to give us characters we can truly relate to. And in the same way in which superheroes give us that sense of hope that we can stand up against immense odds, maybe having more characters who have suffered the things we have and keep fighting could even possibly help us believe that we too can do the same.