Move over Bruce Wayne, there’s an actual post traumatic superhero in town and she doesn’t need your billions of dollars, fancy belt, or confused goals. Marvel’s newest Netflix series, Jessica Jones, is a breakthrough in the representation of post traumatic stress disorder. Everything, from its characters, to its dialogue, to its themes, builds the bingeable noir/superhero genre mashup into a stigma-busting example of how one of the most invisible mental illnesses affects those who suffer from it.
For nine years, I have dealt with PTSD in my own life, having been traumatized as a teenager by an incident of gun violence. During that post traumatic time, I sheltered myself in media and pop culture, a sort of bright and all encompassing security blanket of stories. I, like many people my age, relate to the world and my life through the stories I see on TV and film, but after I was traumatized I found most of that media alienating. Every character seemed to be experiencing violence in their fictional lives and yet nothing seemed to be affecting them in the same way. As I wrote in a previous article, Batman’s Disease: Searching For a Post Traumatic Hero, there where certain shows I was able to at least use for allegorical comfort, but never did I feel truly, earnestly represented on screen.
Last week, when I watched Jessica Jones in its entirety, all of that changed. I didn’t realize how badly I needed a hero until I found this one. I could fill a book detailing the many ways that Jessica Jones is the best representation of PTSD on TV, but here are the big four:
1. Jessica Jones actually has PTSD
The most important aspect of PTSD representation in the media is naming it, and Jessica Jones does this in episode one. This is a change from the comic books, which as Dork Shelf’s Julia Gillespie noted in her recent retrospective of Alias, never explicitly state that Jones has PTSD. When she begins to panic that Kilgrave has returned — a seemingly irrational fear given then the man seems to have been dead for some time — her sister Trish blames Jones’ anxiety on the super detective’s disability. It turns out that Jones has stopped seeing her therapist, despite having been equipped with the cognitive behavioural tools to help her through times of crisis.
From that point forward, it becomes clear that Jessica’s mental illness is more than just a label or a justification for her to be a dark and gritty antihero. Jones experiences actual symptoms: She has flashbacks, survivor’s guilt, and she self-medicates with self-exile and booze. Krysten Ritter plays the symptoms with empathy and understanding, having done extra work specifically focused on representing PTSD.
In a recent interview with Abraham Riesman for Vulture, Ritter explains that she spent days working with her acting coach to properly capture the agony of the flashback and panic attack scenes:
PTSD isn’t just a memory. It’s not like you can rely on, Oh, the camera’s gonna push in on you and the music’s gonna swell and you have a memory and the audience is along with you. PTSD is a very different thing. PTSD is when something feels like it is actually happening. You are back in that spot. For me, the heavy lifting came in building Jessica’s backstory, all the stuff that happened to her, her trauma, who she is before we even meet her on screen.
2. Jessica Jones is not defined by her PTSD
Jessica Jones is a hard drinking, smartass, sarcastic woman with a heart surrounded by a nigh impenetrable wall. When we see these traits in other heroes that ostensibly have PTSD, it is framed as a tragic side effect of their tradition. Batman, for instance, owes his entire persona and identity to witnessing the death of his parents. His motivation is to strike fear into the hearts of those who would traumatize innocents, internalizing his mental illness to the point of weaponization.
From the perspective of a PTSD sufferer, I find Batman to be a brooding and attractive fantasy — of course I would love to save others from trauma by using my disability as a tool — but the life of a dark knight would be unsustainable and unhealthy. It is no coincidence that readers, writers and critics so often return to the “Batman should be in Arkham” trope. Bruce Wayne is wholly consumed by childhood PTSD to the point where he has become its living symbol, paying forward his trauma to those who would otherwise shell shock the innocent.
Jones, refreshingly, doesn’t owe much to her illness beyond its symptoms. Yes, her agonizing struggle against its effects does make her strong in many ways, but her overall personality, her powers and even her proclivity for alcohol was defined before the trauma that disabled her. For the popular narrative of PTSD, this sort of relationship between disorder and victim is essential. My mental illness doesn’t make me violent or humourless — in fact, beyond the physical and mental symptoms, I am very much the same person I was before my trauma, just like Jessica Jones.
3. Her nemesis, Kilgrave, is mental illness incarnate
Moving into the realm of allegory, the primary antagonist of Jessica Jones in season one is the embodiment of PTSD. Emphasized by the fact that he is responsible for Jones’ debilitating trauma, Kilgrave is a walking, talking, purple-clad mental disorder. He literally has the ability to make other humans do any absurd, violent, or depraved thing he wants. David Tennant’s terrifying villain, for anyone who’s read a self help book or been to therapy, is essentially a worst case scenario of negative self-talk.
Kilgrave, in many ways, can be seen as an avatar for all of mental illness. On an individual level, symptoms of his viral power can range from staying in bed forever, self harm, and even episodes of euphoric mania (as seen in the aftermath of the police station stick-up). Further developing the comparison, we see through the entire thirteen episodes that the Purple Man’s true power and freedom comes from his ability to stay invisible to the public at large. There is a stigma to having been used by Kilgrave, and he uses that to his advantage. Victims are silenced by their own guilt and embarrassment, as well as the incredulity of others.
His relationship with Jessica Jones, however, cements Kilgrave’s role as the incarnation of PTSD (at least in this story). Accepting Jones as the narrative perspective, Kilgrave is most manifest in his ability to make her feel unsafe everywhere. In episode two, Jessica distilled how she feels in a post-Kilgrave world.
“I’m not safe anywhere. Every corner I turn, I don’t know what’s on the other side. I don’t know who’s on the other side. It could be the cabbie who’s gonna drive me into the East River, okay? It could be the FedEx woman. It could be the talk show host who is my best friend.”
It was in hearing this line spoken that I understood exactly how well represented PTSD was going to be in Jessica Jones. Having post traumatic stress disorder can be described in a number of ways, but thanks to the popularity of this show the easiest one can now be, “It’s like knowing that Kilgrave from Jessica Jones wants to torture me.”
4. She represents the unrepresented
I am not a veteran or a paramedic, but I have PTSD. This is one of the most difficult things about my disability, as it promotes self-stigma in me. As I mentioned the first time I wrote about post-traumatic heroes for Dork Shelf: it is not lost on me that worse things have happened to less deserving people than me. I have not fought in a war and I don’t see mutilated bodies on a regular basis. In short, I feel like I haven’t earned my illness.
Jessica Jones, like me, was traumatized by an unfamiliar element entering her life and causing a punctuated incident of violence. She regularly avoids the Kilgrave support group she started because she feels guilty about her PTSD, comparing her experience to the pain held onto by others. Again, we see silence manifesting an a pro-stigma, anti-Jessica way.
The misfit guilt is dispelled, if not for Jessica then at least for the audience, through an episode six exchange between her and Malcolm (Eka Darville), who is the primary character used to explore themes of recovery:
Jessica Jones: Look, I don’t want to talk about my shitty story, Malcolm. Because there’s always someone who’s had it worse. Someone’s life who was ruined worse.
Malcolm: It’s not a competition.
Perhaps the most important piece of representation Jones stands for, though, is one I don’t share, but haunts me even more. Jessica Jones is the only example of a woman in all of popular culture I can think of who definitively has PTSD, which is traditionally characterized as a man’s affliction. Sure, I feel alienated by representations of my disability in film and on TV, but at least I feel like I’m the right gender to experience it. For women with PTSD, Jessica Jones, I hope, is at least an adequate first step in feeling less alien.
It is through representation in media, after all, that we can find acceptance. The stories we are told serve as lessons and instructions for life, and we can’t know what to do with our own personal Kilgrave if we aren’t even sure he exists. The creators of Jessica Jones have finally told us the story that the PTSD community needs: it’s smart; it’s compassionate; it is inclusive of all trauma, no matter how unbelievable. But most importantly it’s given us a champion under whom to rally, the reluctant Jessica Jones, flashbacks, panic attacks and all.
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