In “Jessica Jones,” Marvel takes on the biggest villain of them all—the patriarchy

Girl power.
Girl power.
Image: Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
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In Netflix’s new superhero series Jessica Jones, the patriarchy is the enemy.

No, super-strong private investigator Jones (Krysten Ritter) doesn’t organize political campaigns for reproductive rights. But her enemy in the series, the supervillain Killgrave (David Tenant) is a one-man system of oppression, sexual violence, and domestic abuse. (Warning: spoilers below.)

Killgrave’s power is mind control; people do literally whatever he says. The backstory of his relationship with Jones includes the 18 months he held her psychologically (and physically) captive, making her to do his bidding, raping her repeatedly, and finally forcing her to kill another woman.

Killgrave’s torture of Jessica, both when she is living with him and in its aftermath—the beginning of the series—is an obvious metaphor for domestic violence and abuse. He stalks her and threatens those close to her—both in person and through proxies—including, notably, a young college student named Hope (Erin Moriarty), who ends up functioning as a kind of surrogate child.

He is also insanely jealous; when Jessica’s dopey upstairs neighbor admits he loves her, Killgrave forces the guy to kill himself. “Men and power,” Jessica’s best friend Patsy (Rachael Taylor) says, “it’s seriously a disease.”

But Killgrave isn’t just a single domestic abuser and rapist. He’s a one-man system of hierarchical violence—a disease that can spread to, and control, others. When Patsy taunts him, Killgrave orders a policeman to go after her and kill her. Law enforcement, which is supposed to serve and protect the weak, actually works for the abuser—a phenomenon hardly unknown in real police departments.

Similarly, when Killgrave wants to stalk Jessica, he doesn’t follow her himself—instead he orders one of her neighbors Malcolm (Eka Darville) to track her and photograph her. Malcolm is black, and Killgrave also gets him hooked on drugs, the better to control him, a surely intentional comment on the way black men serve, and are destroyed by, white power structures in America today.

The insidious part of Killgrave’s power is he doesn’t just make people do what he says, he makes them want to do what he says. Killgrave’s victims talk about how one of the most traumatic parts of being under his control is that they yearn to do whatever he says. Killgrave tells a man to abandon his infant son, and he wants to do that. He tells a woman to smile, and she wants to smile. When Patsy is being stalked by the cop, she shouts in desperation, “You don’t want to do this!”—to which he replies that, yes, he does.

Patriarchy is more than just a script for action—it’s a set of desires. By becoming part of the cultural fabric, patriarchal systems become so ingrained, they seem natural, necessary, and even beneficial.

Nor is it solely Killgrave’s victims who fall under his influence. Because his powers are so hard to see, so hard to prove, people don’t want to see their existence. Even without his direct intervention, people don’t believe Jones when she tells them about him, just as people often don’t believe women when they talk about abuse and rape. Killgrave is misogyny embodied, but he also benefits from casual misogyny. There is no clear line between his superpowers and every day rape culture.

Killgrave’s powers are also seductive. Jones’s high-powered defense lawyer client, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) tries to obtain Killgrave’s mind-control abilities for herself. Hogarth is someone who (without Killgrave’s prompting) chooses for herself a patriarchal script. Career-driven and ruthless, she wants mind control so she can force her soon-to-be ex-wife to sign divorce papers. Power is a disease that beckons to women as well as men.

The series carefully, and cannily, discards the idea that the villain embraced a life of crime because of parental neglect (Daredevil already went down that overdone path.) Killgrave isn’t pushed into patriarchy by a controlling father, but he is nonetheless controlled by it.

Killgrave has managed to convince himself that, with Jones, he is following a conventional romance script. “I’m not torturing you,” he assures her. “Why would I? I love you.” He took her to 5-star hotels, he lavished attention and affection on her. Someday, he’s convinced, she’ll realize that he, her rapist, is the right one for her. With all his control, Killgrave still wants more—more complete obedience, more total acquiescence, a more convincing performance of love. No matter how much power the patriarch has, the patriarchy is never satisfied.

Jessica Jones ends, of course, with our hero victorious. It’s a superhero story—the villain can’t win. But while Killgrave may be dead, he leaves behind a lingering disquiet, a disturbing vision of a world in which, contra the superhero tropes, there is no one villain. People hurt each other, and themselves, at the behest of cruel orders issued by no one. The patriarchy isn’t something you can defeat by hitting some convenient monster out there. Killgrave is inside you.