Published on November 25th, 2015 | by Maggie


Monsters and Men: The Cultural Significance of Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave

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The following contains spoilers.

Who is Kilgrave? More specifically, who is he to you? Is he simply a ladykiller with more than one method of persuasion? Is he a towering puppet master with superhuman abilities tipping the scales in his favor? Or is he a crying, lovelorn child who is simply acting out because his parents and society have failed him miserably?

Whatever lens you see him through, the facts are facts: he is a manipulator, a murderer, and a rapist. No past or future will change this.

“Just because your pain is understandable, doesn’t mean your behavior is acceptable.”

Netflix’s Jessica Jones challenges its audience with Kilgrave. It’s easy for the audience to hate an emotionless, unsympathetic character who knows better. It’s easy for the audience to hate a villain who hates our hero. It’s easy when the objective is as simple as obtaining money, power, or vengeance– but none of these are necessarily true for Kilgrave, which makes him a different brand of evil.

It shouldn’t surprise you that there are Kilgrave apologists and shippers. Between viewers who compare the Jessica + Kilgrave story to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to fans who only see their beloved doctor standing before them, the internet is illuminated with Kilgrave fans who call him their cinnamon (or SINnamon) roll. Even if these pet names and jokes are made from a place of awareness, it’s no laughing matter: the message that Jessica Jones sends is serious and real.

Jessica Jones

Kilgraves Among Us

Manipulation powers aside, Kilgrave is the embodiment of problematic masculinity. In the same sense your local jerk-off thinks he can take a woman home just for buying her a drink, Kilgrave believes his extreme efforts to recreate Jessica’s childhood will redeem him. In the same sense your local jerk-off can’t understand why being a nice guy just “isn’t enough,” Kilgrave thinks serving Jessica’s favorite meal will eventually grant him access to her. Both of these lowlifes think material goods, obsession, and misplaced devotion are the keys to true love.

It happens all the time. It happens every time a guy rolls up behind a woman in his fancy sports car, thinking his money is enough to reel her in. It happens every time a guy makes a girl a mix tape, thinking “this will get her.” It happens every time a guy calls himself a “nice guy” in hopes of receiving a medal for it. Kilgraves exist in various amounts all around us. The mechanics of abuse are in motion everywhere.

Kilgrave vows not to use his powers on Jessica; he wants her to love him willingly. But it’s these times- the times he’s not using his powers – that he becomes even more manipulative than before. The house, the dress, the meals- it’s all the same. It’s the same principle applied a different way.

He controls Jessica using her own past, her own emotions. He attempts to guilt her, “I didn’t tell you to kill her, I told you to take care of her.” He sets up the house as an “option” to keep Jessica’s friends safe under the guise that Jessica has a choice. Same with the incessant need to see her photo at 10AM each day. He uses the staff members of the home as leverage and insurance for her compliance. He cooperates with her during the hostage situation to make her believe he needs her in order to function.

Jessica feels the need to return to Kilgrave to make things right, taking the blame for something he did to her. It’s a classic scenario. I can fix him, he can change. He reveals the abuse he’s been put through as though it can be leveraged or compared. He tries to make Jones believe they are both victims in order to relate to gain her sympathy. The sheer fact that Kilgrave recognizes that he’s been abused shows his understanding. The fact that it’s not help that he seeks shows how he plans to navigate the world using his status as a victim.

Jessica Jones
Image courtesy of Geenozah

“I hate that word”

When Jessica calls him a rapist, he flinches. “I hate that word,” he hisses. This scene is important because the world’s abusers do not see themselves as such. Kilgrave tries to convince Jessica that his hands were not the ones that committed murder the same as a rapist would blame the clothing, the woman, or the alcohol. It’s everything but him and his judgment. Anything to escape accountability for his actions.

The fact that Kilgrave tells his victims to smile should send chills down your spine. Ask any woman.

Jessica Jones breaks ground by straying away from graphic scenes of abuse while also showing that the abuse isn’t simply sexual. The audience doesn’t need to see what Kilgrave did to Jessica to believe her. You see it in the way she acts around him, you see it in the way she lives her life. You see it in her constant state of fear and paranoia. The burden put on women to prove their abuse often stands in the way of their credibility or sympathy. The creative team didn’t have to show anything to make the abuse real; the implications were enough.

And just because Kilgrave has agreed not to touch Jessica does not mean he’s done abusing her.

Even selecting David Tennant worked to reinforce the message. Having been a Doctor, a fair amount of viewers associate Tenannt’s face with kindness and integrity. Fans have expressed a desire to form support groups to cope with their favorite actor’s new form. It’s hard to fully hate Kilgrave or believe he’s absolutely evil when that face has spent years of its life being a beacon of good.

It’s important to recognize the manifestation of abuse in this show. It’s important to identify its real world applications. Jessica’s obligation to send Kilgrave her photos is felt by countless women every day. The feeling that Jessica is the only one who can save Kilgrave is what keeps women with people who hurt them. The way Kilgrave uses kindness as a tool while overriding his feelings for Jessica’s over her feelings for him is a reality many people face every single day. It’s not about Jessica. The house, the gifts, the attention, they are all tools to get Kilgrave what he wants and nothing of what she does.

This is anything but love.

With recent stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey blurring the lines (no pun intended) between romance and abuse, it’s important that critics and fans alike identify signs of abuse and break free from the social conditioning that has us either acting like a Kilgrave or wanting a Kilgrave. Love is not measured in sex, attention, or obsession, as media often portrays it. Abuse isn’t purely sexual or physical, nor is it easy to prove. Jones flips the script on a tired and problematic story trope by showing the side of abuse most other stories cover up in happily ever afters.

Jessica Jones is available on Netflix.

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