Disclaimer — This piece discusses adult themes and the plot to Jessica Jones season 1; If either of these things disturbs you please turn away for: Here There Be Dragons.
So I am currently working my way through ‘Luke Cage’. I am about halfway through, at the end of episode 7 there was a fairly pivotal moment of character development that I found quite personally confronting. I was going to talk about that here today but decided to wait until I had the entire series done to reflect on it. It did, however, get me thinking about a very comparable moment from the slightly older Marvel offering of ‘Jessica Jones’ and a point in that series that radically recontextualized a behavior of mine earlier this year. This moment was almost unassuming in nature and I think that is what made it so emotionally devastating to recognize it from my everyday life.
For those who are not familiar with the plot – The villain, Kilgrave, has the power plant ideas in people’s minds. They must execute on these ideas, it is explained as a form of ‘Super Pheromone’. This places the restriction on Kilgrave’s power that he has to be physically present when he gives the command for it to have any effect. Jessica was once under his spell and now hates him for all the things he made her do -she is seeking to see him incarcerated or killed. Relevant plot details explained.
The scene I want to discuss kicks off about halfway through the episode. So the moment in question comes when Kilgrave calls Jessica and threatens to force someone she cares about to do terrible things (through the use of his power) if she does not send him a photo of herself every day. The scene then cuts away to more pressing action elsewhere and we do not get any pay off from this until the last shots of the episode when we see the image Kilgrave receives. It is a fairly plain image of Jessica, not sexual at all in framing or presentation – but her face, her face says more than I could hope to capture here about the revulsion and turmoil and anger she feels about sending the image. The episode then ends. Occasionally throughout the remainder of the season we see the next daily photo but not one character addresses it for the rest of the season.
This moment floored me. It hit right at the core of a behavior that I had previously thought was acceptable and showed me something that thousand of words and many presentations in the workplace had failed to. It for the first time illustrated to me the real effect of indirect patriarchal and societal power around sexting culture.
I am a young man, who has had his fair share of casual relationships begin on or around social media apps like Tinder, POF or Snapchat. Throughout the course of these casual relationships, usually in the formative or early stages, I have asked for, received and/or exchanged sexts. I had thought that this was ok – that it was healthy. I had thought that it was emotional and physical intimacy utilizing modern technology to maximize the ability we had to connect with our partners. I never applied any pressure beyond conversationally requesting these images or offering to ‘trade’, I had never threatened any one or even gone so far ask to ask twice in any meaningful way.
In all of this I considered myself a fairly reasonable human, egalitarian – if not feminist in my views on a woman’s right to choose whether or not to engage in this type of behavior. I’d never been demanding or indignant about the way I approached the subject, I offered to trade if it seemed appropriate. But I really hadn’t ever been shown or been able to internalize to types of pressures my partner might feel about her body and the concepts of worth that are attached to that. I had never really seen an example of how soft power, that I wasn’t even responsible for, could make someone do something they were fundamentally uncomfortable with.
It was the conflux of Jessica’s face in the photo and the intentionally ‘distant’ way in which Kilgrave exerted his control that brought me to my new view point on this phenomenon. I can never know in a casual relationship what type of body image issues a my partner might have with their bodies and the way it is objectified by people outside of their skin. I can never know if the last person they saw was an absolute asshat that made them feel worthless except as an objectively attractive piece of human art – or if those issues stem all the way back to childhood or some other early life trauma. Basically I can never know when society or another individual has ‘Kilgraved’ a person into feeling like they have no choice – no way of affecting their outcome or demonstrating their worth other than to comply with my wishes.
So I decided from then on not to sext casually.
Now obviously this same peril can be read into a great many facets of the early stages of any romantic pairing – and the point here is not to make a grand overarching rule about completely avoiding tapping into residual effects of patriarchal abuses or tendencies. But rather to illustrate one small way I think we might be able to move into a world where we treat each other with a bit more empathy, dignity and kindness.
I think that perhaps sexting has it’s place in committed long distance relationships where a deep and abiding care an understanding exists between partners and you can know fairly conclusively that you aren’t exploiting a pressure in order to get ‘something’. Or perhaps even early in a relationship – but after a discussion about this subject matter has been had and couched in terms of respect for the other’s body and sexuality – rather than just desire but Jessica Jones showed me that in a world where I want to truly be respectful of my partners, I have to pay attention to power that I may not be able to see.
So; that is how Jessica Jones proved to me a picture really is worth 1000 words.