'Jessica Jones,' 'Game Of Thrones' And Why TV's 'Charming Rapist' Trope Must Change

The lack of understanding about "Jessica Jones" proves some major change is needed.

Late yesterday (December 1), Yahoo! posted a listicle breaking down the stages of being uncomfortably attracted to David Tennant's "Jessica Jones" villain Kilgrave. It's nothing we haven't seen before, either, as the Internet is replete with breakdowns of bad boys we find bae.

The difference is, Kilgrave is a rapist.

To Yahoo!'s credit, they did put a note in the article recognizing that he's a rapist in the show, but snarkily adding, "We are talking about a TV show. Thanks." But that's exactly why it's not okay, and why the trope of the "Charming Rapist Villain" perpetuated by modern television needs to change, and now.

It's something we've discussed extensively here on MTV News before, from the overwhelming debate regarding Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) rape by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) on "Game of Thrones," to Jamie Fraser's (Sam Heughan) rape by Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) on "Outlander."

On the first, we fell on the side of the show not responsibly depicting the rape or its aftermath, with some viewers spouting erroneous facts like "that was the times" (Westeros, where the show is set, isn't a place that exists), to "she can't be raped because they're married" (rape occurs regardless of wedding vows -- in fact, according to RAINN 82% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger).

On the second, at least on the victim's side we were able to see the short term effects of the violation, with a promise that it will continue to affect the character next season.

That said, the thing that connects Ramsay and Black Jack is that they're both played by charismatic, handsome actors. The act of rape aside, they're everything we look for on screen in brilliant, evil madmen who test our heroes, letting the good guys' ultimate triumph prove that virtue can conquer all.

Helen Sloan/ courtesy HBO

Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton, Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark

But you can't put the rape aside. Rape, or any sexual assault is such an unforgivable act that it becomes the dominant trait of their characters. They're not lords or Captains, bastards or sadists. First and foremost, they're rapists.

"Jessica Jones," on the other hand, with an entire season razor-focused on the main character dealing with the man who violated her, does the best job of the three of exploring rape in all its forms, and its aftermath.

Yes, David Tennant the actor is a charming, handsome man. But Kilgrave is an entirely unsympathetic rapist. Every time we learn more details about him, we only discover more the depths of his selfish, horrifying, manipulative ignorance to his own madness.

In case you're not totally caught up, Kilgrave has the power to control minds with his voice. If he tells you to jump, you'll literally jump. If he tells you to smile, you'll smile. And if he wants to kiss you or have sex with you, he can make you do that, too.

But it's not what you want to do, and that's rape.

A key moment takes place in episode 8, "AKA WWJD," when Jessica finally confronts Kilgrave, and out loud, for the first time in the series, says, "You raped me!"

His response? "I took you to five star hotels!" as if going to a fancy hotel makes what he did not rape.

But that's what Kilgrave thinks! He's so unable to see from Jessica's -- or anyone else's -- perspective that his "grand romantic gesture," buying and rebuilding her childhood home, down to the CDs on her shelf and the room her brother lived in right up until the day her whole family died in a car crash, isn't seen for what it really is: actually (well, figuratively) raping her childhood.

Take that, fans complaining about every rebooted franchise.



Similarly, when he shows Jessica a tape of his own parents experimenting on him as a child later in the same episode, it's not a way of eliciting sympathy for the character on the part of the filmmakers. On the surface, perhaps, but he's presenting his own pain as a reason why it's not SO bad he violated Jessica for months, or any number of other men and women over time.

Two wrongs don't make a right, and we should know that. Later, by the way, it turns out he was lying: his parents were actually trying to cure him of a rare disease, and in the process unlocked his mind control powers. But that's for the later -- until that information is revealed, for a moment we, as viewers, might waver.

For that moment, Jessica wavers, too. She convinces Kilgrave to use his powers to save a family taken hostage, and grapples with the same problem the viewers are wrestling with: if he saves people every day for the rest of his life, can that balance the scales? Can he become "good?"

The answer, of course, is no. He's not the "bad boy with a heart of gold" trope (more on that in a second), he's a rapist. So by episode's end she kidnaps him and tries to force him to confess to his crimes.

This leads to the second moment some viewers seem to have mistaken Kilgrave's situation for one that's supposed to elicit sympathy. Locked in an airtight cell, Jessica starts beating up Kilgrave, using her super-strength to almost kill him before an onlooker steps in.

And even there, he's controlling her! She's got him locked up and over-powered, and Kilgrave is still using his power -- not superpower, but the figurative mental control he has over her -- as a way of eliciting sympathy. Again, the viewer might start to feel for Kilgrave... But you're being tricked. He's trying to get Jessica to beat him so that he'll be freed later by an onlooker. It's all manipulation. And more than that, a rapist getting beaten nearly half to death does not make them any less a rapist. At the risk of repeating myself: two wrongs still don't make a right.

The issue, then, isn't how the central, villainous rapist is treated on the show. "Jessica Jones" and its team of writers and directors do a superb job of walking this thin line, and never forget to remind the viewer that Kilgrave is toxic masculinity personified.

No, the problem isn't with "Jessica Jones," or "Outlander," or even "Game of Thrones." The problem goes straight to how we, as viewers, have been conditioned over decades to root for the villain. Gone are the mustache twirling world conquerors of old movie serials. Instead, we're given complex villains who believe in their own motivations. They're bad boys, but secretly deep down the heroes -- and the viewers -- hope they can change.



Which is wonderful for drama! It makes a richer, more complex viewing experience. But when translated to the real world, and with sexual violation in particular, there's a disconnect happening between how the dramatists present the material, and how the viewer is perceiving it.

When multiple Tumblr posts, Twitter users, and even a journalist for Yahoo! can say, "maybe this entirely reprehensible rapist isn't so bad because he's cute," something is severely broken in our system.

And no, "it's just a TV show" isn't a valid excuse. Entertainment's primary responsibility is to provide a mirror to our world, to see our triumphs and faults through the lens of the camera. At its best, genre television provides beautifully pointed metaphors, using monsters like Kilgrave to underscore why it's not okay to tell a woman to "just smile," cloaked in the mask of super-powered throwdowns.

In fact, I'll always contend that fiction is a far more powerful way of getting these ideas across than non-fiction. The people who need to receive and process these messages about sexual assault are far more likely to watch 13 hours of "Jessica Jones" than listen to a 13 hour long lecture on rape culture... So in some way, in some form, these types of explorations must continue.

I'm not saying someone would watch a TV show and totally change their minds about rape culture in America. But like the virus Kilgrave emits when he speaks (see that little brilliant metaphor they put in there?), an idea might catch hold. It might plant a little seed, and create some doubt about how that individual viewer has thought about and approached the discussion about rape in our country. And the next time that viewer encounters a well reasoned argument, whether on TV, in a movie, or in real life... That idea might grow, and grow until real change is made in that viewer's mind.

What's broken in the system, though, is that even with "Jessica Jones," that message isn't getting across. That seed isn't getting planted. People aren't changing. It's not the fault of the TV creators, and I don't even blame the viewers -- or Yahoo!'s writer, who I'm sure thought she was being funny and just wanted to get her byline published.

But something needs to change. Is it getting rid of the "charming racist" trope? Casting ugly men written as one-dimensional, evil characters isn't the solution, because then you lose the rich, real to life (despite, or perhaps because of the superpowers) portrayal of a rapist in "Jessica Jones."

You also lose the context. As mentioned above, most sexual assaults are committed by a non-stranger, with 47% of rapists being a friend or acquaintance, and 25% with someone the victim is intimate with. The "disturbed stranger" trope is clearly inaccurate, then. And perpetuating a culture that allows people to be "okay" with rapists because they either know the victim, or "don't look/act like a rapist," as Kilgrave seems to at points in "Jessica Jones," can inhibit reporting, or result in rape survivors not being believed by both the public and authorities.

No, you can't stop presenting these portrayals through entertainment, because then the anti-virus, the seed that eventually leads to viewers understanding that rape can happen in marriage, that male on male rape does happen, and taking someone to a five star hotel doesn't mean they owe you sex -- won't get planted.

But right now, the seed is not taking root, and something has to be done. We can't have the one-dimensional villain, and a complicated portrayal like Kilgrave isn't getting through either. We need a third option, something new that will let that beautiful synergy between entertainment and real world issues take hold once more.

Personally? I don't know what needs to be done to change this. It's a discussion, one that needs to be ongoing between viewers and television creators until we figure out a solution, what that third option is.

Until then, though, here's an indisputable fact: Kilgrave is a rapist. He is not sympathetic. Just because a monster is dressed in human clothes, does not make him any less of a monster.

And just because someone is handsome doesn't make them any less of a rapist.