How Jessica Jones Absorbed the Anxieties of Gamergate

And turned them into riveting TV.

Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones.
Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones.

Photo by Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones is many things. It’s possibly the biggest surprise spotlight grab by a B- or even C-list comic book character since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s one of the grimmest, darkest, boldest shows out there: a TV show that’s essentially 13 hours of PTSD related to the aftermath of sexual assault. This is even more remarkable in light of the fact that the show is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that Jessica Jones’ graphic sex scenes and shivering junkies and dour musings on futility coexist in the same world as the massive alien invasion of The Avengers or the wacky heist in Ant-Man.

And it’s a huge feminist achievement. This is a show in which rape is a core theme, but one that pretty much entirely avoids feeling exploitative or male-gazey. It’s a show with a female showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, who’s done her homework about depicting sexual assault and the associated PTSD realistically and responsibly and who knows all the standard tropes for strong female characters and deftly avoids most of them. But perhaps most interestingly, Jessica Jones is our first identifiably post-Gamergate thriller.

The villain in Jessica Jones is the utterly repulsive Kilgrave (the “Purple Man” from the comics), played by geek hero David Tennant, best known for his tenure as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who. The Doctor, as portrayed in the modern-era Who canon, is pure geek wish fulfillment. He’s unapologetically eccentric, always snappily dressed, going to great lengths to satisfy his eclectic tastes and burning curiosity. He takes delight in sticking out a like a sore thumb, never adapting to the dress code or etiquette of the strange places he finds himself in, forcing them to adapt to him instead. He’s a hit with the ladies, picking plucky young people—almost always beautiful women—to be his sidekicks, the adoring audience to his genius showman act.

Most of all, he is free. He’s ageless and very hard to kill. He has access to TARDIS, a device that lets him go anywhere in time and space at will; his sonic screwdriver lets him unlock any door. There is no barrier that can stop him from going where he wants and doing what he wants. Even in Doctor Who, there’s a quiet menace lurking behind the Doctor’s jovial façade—we can envision the tyrannical “Time Lord Victorious” he might become if he breaks his own moral code.

Jessica Jones takes the menace a lot further. Kilgrave—who talks like the Doctor, acts like the Doctor, picks out Jessica to be his “companion” the way the Doctor would, and even dresses kind of like the Doctor (albeit with a purpler color scheme)—is a complete monster. His power is to ignore social boundaries rather than physical ones, to automatically obtain consent for any demand he makes, however ludicrous or destructive, because his mind control literally makes it impossible to say no. With this power, he demonstrates the old adage that as fun as it is for nerds to dream about having absolute power, in reality absolute power turns you into an absolute asshole.

Many nerd fantasies are rooted in the idea of freedom: of the ability to break down walls, to crack open locks, to do whatever you want without repercussion. That’s the core theme of the movie Jumper, probably the No. 1 example of a film that was supposed to be a young male wish fulfillment story but that instead convinced me that the protagonist was a selfish monster who needed to die. The naughty thrill of being able to violate other people’s rules is at the heart of the fictionalized, romanticized “hacker.” And it’s the exact fantasy that has governed some of the more noxious behavior of Internet harassers who violate other people’s boundaries and force their way into other people’s lives against their will.

Today, looking up information about people, getting in touch with them, and even stalking them is clearly easier than ever before. To the extent that the barriers that really matter are social barriers, not physical ones, we are increasingly living in a world without walls, in what Foucault called a “panopticon,” a world of data brokerages and location tracking and crowdsourced intimidation and harassment. And it’s especially scary for women. The fear Kilgrave represents and exploits in Jessica Jones is hardly a modern one—it’s a fear that’s existed for as long as we’ve had cities big enough to have crowds filled with anonymous faces, any one of whom could be an enemy. But he looms so much larger as a threat today.

A recurring theme in Jessica Jones is the inability to hide, the uselessness of walls and doors and locks. The first episode shows Jessica shattering the glass in her office door and shrugging it off when people point out this means her door can’t be locked—the enemy she’s most afraid of isn’t much bothered by locked doors. Kilgrave can obviously literally get past locked doors easily: If there’s a person he can ask to let him in, he gets let in. But he can also get past other kinds of barriers. If you’re in hiding from him, your secret is safe with no one, as even the most trustworthy friend will spill the beans to him instantly.

He may be just one man, but he can act through an army of servants, of which he has a limitless supply. He can “be” anyone in a crowd, turn anyone from a small child to a police officer to a close friend or lover into an agent for him to act through. Jessica realizes that Kilgrave has compiled an accurate photographic record of all her movements simply because there’s no way for her to walk around New York City and avoid everyone with a smartphone. In other words, Kilgrave’s power is an analog, low-tech, “meatspace” version of a power that some men in the Gamergate crowd seem to dream of having: the power to be anyone, be anywhere, and do anything without social repercussions. It’s a power that, in our world, can be acquired by any determined troll with basic computer skills and an Internet connection.

The frightening thing about Kilgrave, after all, is we see people who act like him and get away with it all the time in the real world despite the real world not including genetic mutants with psychic abilities. People who, despite their failure to emit infectious brain-altering viral particles into the air around them, are able to make other people do horrible things. A guy who crowdsources sexual assault by making random calls to fast food restaurants pretending to be a cop and instructing managers to strip-search female employees. One deranged troll—who went to prison and got a swastika tattooed on his chest—can flood a woman’s inbox with death threats by making up blatant, obvious lies that an angry misogynist mob wants to believe.

And, of course, in the case that feels most eerily parallel to Kilgrave’s motivations in Jessica Jones, a vengeful ex can systematically destroy a game developer’s professional reputation, social network, and overall sense of safety by writing a blog post designed to push all the buttons that make gamers angry, sparking a massive culture war that’s still going a year later. As Rowan Kaiser put it in an early review of the first two episodes of Jessica Jones, it would be fair to describe Kilgrave as a “living, breathing harassment campaign.” He is a guy who sees the whole world as a game, himself as the player, and everyone else as nonplayer characters—and he is willing to try over and over again at the game until he wins.

At the height of his powers, Kilgrave commands a whole hospital full of people to attack Jessica simply by flashing her photo on the hospital’s CCTV network and then telling them on the intercom that she is, literally, the source of all their ills. It seems ridiculous that ginning up a mob against somebody could be that easy and yet, as Jon Ronson explored in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, hate mobs online emerge regularly on grounds that are just as weak or weaker.

The writers of the show may have created a fantasy contrivance to explain how one creepy obsessive nerd can open all doors and wear all faces and be everywhere at once, but the repeated scenes highlighting how Jessica’s whole world is filled with the possibility of Kilgrave’s presence—represented by that eerie purple background light—felt real to me.

Jessica Jones illustrates how living in a world like that rubs your nerve endings raw and destroys your ability to trust anyone—and how this can turn you into a short-fused jerk. It shows Jessica’s fruitless attempts to find some kind of “safe space” for herself, by fleeing the city, by going into hiding, by acquiring a huge hermetically sealed cage to lock Kilgrave in so he can’t get to her. It shows how living a life deprived of a feeling of security is a hell that never fully fades even if the bad guys are eventually “defeated.”

My favorite episode is the fourth, “AKA 99 Friends,” in which a woman who attacks Jessica turns out to not be controlled by Kilgrave at all, but attacking her of her own volition, because she hates all superhumans after the damage they did to the city—because she believes the rise of “gifted” individuals with “abilities” is irrevocably changing the world, making it a place where no ordinary human can ever feel safe. Safe spaces may be the subject of many a mocking recent thinkpiece, but these days they are legitimately hard to come by. And Jessica Jones is showing us the frightening consequences.