Two very different pieces of art—Tom McCarthy‘s film Spotlight and Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix—are intricately crafted dramas that deserve all the praise that they are receiving. But they’re also advancing pop culture discourse of sexual abuse by featuring strong characters who either are victims and are imperfect, but still functional people, or they are characters who listen to victims and ask for more to come forward.
Pop culture has the ability to help goad people into thinking about their own actions or missteps. Recently, we’ve a wider array of LGBTQ stories in film and television that have helped hold society’s hand and move many people forward in acceptance, while also assist in making more individuals feel safer to self-identify to their families, friends, and co-workers. When dialogue is being pushed by pop culture for any marginalized group, it can help self-actualization. Of course, on the other side, when Hollywood shows itself to be resting on progressive laurels, they often expose themselves as being behind the times. For example, in the past month we’ve seen a movie studio apologize for casting almost exclusively white actors to play Egyptians in Gods of Egypt. An apology is a rarity, but it was necessary. As we’ve become a more connected society, there’s an opportunity for more representation, with more people having the voice to say they’d like to see themselves—or others—in pop culture.
In each case, one of the powers of pop culture is a back-and-forth dialogue, with films and television speaking to audiences, or audiences scolding films and television for not representing them. Though Hollywood is often labeled as a den for bleeding-heart narratives, there are still many areas where it’s still reinforcing some cold-hearted stigmas. One area that you’ve probably never considered—unless you’ve been directly affected, or know someone who has—is its portrayal of sex abuse victims. If that misfortune has entered your life you might be attuned to the fact that most sex abuse victims in cinema and television are presented solely as jittery, unhinged people who cannot have relationships, cannot hold down a job, or whose only narrative reason for being is either as a red herring potential suspect with strange peccadilloes or for murderous revenge.
That might not seem like a huge deal to you, but chances are you do know someone who’s a survivor of sex abuse and just don’t know it. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s most recent data report shows that one in five women have been raped—and more than 1/3 of women who were raped before they were 18 will be raped again in their adult life—and one in six boys are sexually abused before they are 18 years old (28 percent of those were first victimized before they were 10 years old). Still, even though only 12 percent of any of these instances are reported to police and taken to trial, sexual abuse is the most costly violent crime in America at $127 billion per year. Of course, on top of all this data is the varying personal toll it takes on individuals and their loved ones.
Whether you’re aware that you know someone who’s a survivor of rape or sex abuse or not, most likely you are. It’s something so many are quiet about, particularly men, who are most likely to have been abused in childhood and stay silent most of their lives. As this is uncomfortable arena, film and television have often stuck to simple narratives regarding such abuse: as presenting shadowy suspects in a new case or their revenge.
In Mystic River and Prisoners, the survivors are mumblers with uneasy smiles who have penchants for night-walks—making them very easy suspects when a daughter goes missing. In the case of Prisoners—with multiple former-victim suspects!—they’re also total weirdos who keep snakes in wardrobe trunks and draw creepy mazes all over their house; their whole life being only a hard-to-understand clue for the detective to unravel.
Firstly, both narratives follow the myth of the abused becoming the abuser when studies have shown that only 12 percent of abused boys become sexually abusive men. Yes, these movies are mysteries who need suspects, but when survivors are only shown as lurking in the shadows—and the big reveal is just that they aren’t the big baddie either after they’ve been killed or beaten half to death—it can become harmful for anyone who’s a survivor or knows a survivor.
The other most popular narrative for survivors is to murder their abusers. This might be thrilling, but it can be equally damaging because most frequently—in films such as Sleepers, Ms. 45, I Spit on Your Grave, The Brave One etc.—these films reinforce the idea that the only way to move forward is to be silent about your abuse and kill the abuser. Ray Donovan, although thoughtfully showing a family of men who were abused by their Boston priest, also presents the two known survivors as incredibly damaged men. One burns their house to the ground and the other has difficulty with a potential love interest; both are defined by their dysfunction, and one is entirely defined by his family only as being abused. Therefore, we are supposed to be shocked when the more outwardly-composed brother (Liev Schreiber) reveals that he too was abused. What could’ve been a compelling and thoughtful reveal immediately becomes a murder, as Schreiber guns down the priest for telling his brothers how “special” they all were, the exact moment that his brothers find out his secret. If most of our pop culture portraits of abused boys are about them growing up to be murderous men to silence their predators, or totally wrecked humans who cannot engage with society, it does no service for creating an environment for real-life victims to come forward and increase dialogue about abuse and survival.
That is why I’d like to commend Spotlight and Jessica Jones. The potential Oscar front-runner and the first female-led Marvel endeavor are already being commended for being great entertainment. They definitely are, and I don’t mean to say that the aforementioned titles can’t be entertaining, but their narratives reinforce a stigma of untreatable human damage that we should be moving beyond. And the best way to move beyond is through dialogue, uncomfortable as it may be. What is so fantastic for survivors is that Spotlight and Jessica Jones both put so much care into actually listening to victims.
You’d be correct if you said that it’s the reporters’ job in Spotlight to listen, but the performances from Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams create a space where subjects aren’t being grilled; they’re being heard. And even though their testimonies against the Catholic church will appear in the newspaper, the reporters create a safe environment for them to be open by using reassuring body language, eye contact, and having the resolution to hear their stories without flinching or stopping them because they received enough information. Spotlight doesn’t spend a lot of time with the victims, but the direction from Tom McCarthy is powerful because it doesn’t quickly leave them, either. He allows them to pause, to get comfortable. They are giving information, but McCarthy and his characters don’t need it to be quick. They just need it to come out in a way that the subject is comfortable.
Perhaps equally important as these scenes is Michael Keaton‘s role. Although his character is not a survivor of abuse himself, he’s a reporter who didn’t dig deep enough during prior allegations. Keaton fills the role of the most common abused male: the one who was silent for a decade before they became vocal.
When The Boston Globe prepares to print its first big expose of the Catholic church knowingly relocating abusive priests to other parishes, Keaton’s veteran reporter staffs extra help on the main floor phone lines, thinking that angry churchgoers will be flooding them with calls. In a perfect closing for the film, it isn’t the newspaper phone line that’s flooded, it’s the phone number for readers who’ve been abused—or know of abuse—that’s overwhelmed by phone calls. As evidenced by the Catholic church epidemic, the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State coverup, and the Bill Cosby allegations, once a few people are brave enough to come forward, other victims feel safe to follow. Despite being based on true events where that did occur, Spotlight is commendable for, in effect, creating a safe space for more people to come forward and help hold people and institutions accountable for abusing or allowing abuse to occur.
More similarly than its genre-trappings would lead you to believe, Marvel’s Jessica Jones‘ entire first season arc concerns the titular private investigator/possessor of super-strength’s (Krysten Ritter) attempts to get enough evidence to put the mind-controlling serial rapist, Kilgrave (David Tennant), in jail. Jones herself is a survivor of his supernatural ability of body and mind control. Given the low percent of rape that is actually reported, and the extremely-high percent of PTSD from victims, this a perfect parallel for what a rapist actually does: exert power over someone’s body and mind; and although creator Melissa Rosenberg is very subtle about this, Kilgrave clearly has no clue what consent is. Despite attempting to get Jones to fall in love with him and asking her to enjoy herself in his company, it’s either submit or receive physical punishment. His only evidence that she chose to have this happen to her? That she didn’t walk off a ledge to her death to get away from him. Choosing to live is consent enough for Kilgrave.
Jones’ friend who best knows her story (Rachael Taylor) and other survivors of Kilgrave’s control ask her why she doesn’t just use her superior strength to kill him. For Jones—and any survivor—her physical torment won’t go away simply by killing her abuser. But making sure that he can never commit it again and that he is properly punished—judicially—makes his horrors known, and could likely benefit more survivors, because such a public display could get more survivors to come forward. There are 13 episodes in the first season and Jones has opportunities to end his life, but she knows that other survivors need to know that he cannot torment anyone else ever again. Whether or not she is successful in this regard is beside the point; it’s the patience that both Jones and the program have in trying to achieve justice that’s most important. On a television show from a studio that produces films and television that is mostly watched by men, even asking what is consent and what is manipulation is a huge step forward for trauma in pop culture.
In addition to this, Jones is a P.I. which has the old-fashioned noir term of a “dick.” Routinely, noir would fixate on short-fused, lonesome men who take the law into their own hands. There are many great noir films, and we romanticize the men who led them (and are supposed to fantasize about the women who hire them). To have Jones hold that “dick” title, and be a strong-willed survivor of sexual assault—but also regularly bypass the killable moment of her tormenter in favor of the justice system—is truly a marvel.
The more positive portrayals we have of victims, and the more pop culture can help that action happen by erasing the stigma of those who survive the abuse, the better. And perhaps the positive responses to both Jessica Jones and Spotlight suggest that finally, more people are also ready to listen.
Spotlight is currently expanding theaters and Jessica Jones is currently available on Netflix.