Jessica Jones may be a superhero capable of bending metal in her hands without breaking a sweat, but she's become the unlikely poster child for a topic we don't talk about enough: women and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since the first season of Jessica Jones, the show has been lauded for its complex portrayals of PTSD and sexual assault, providing an entry point for a conversation that's not always easy to have. The way PTSD is generally discussed, it's easy to assume that it's mainly about men who are military veterans, but research shows that women are actually twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress.
"It's true many people mistakenly think an extreme event like war, terrorism, or a natural disaster are the only reasons PTSD develops," says Deborah Serani, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in New York. "This perpetual myth prevents many who have traumatic disorder from getting help."
In Jessica Jones' case, the lead character develops PTSD after being mind-controlled by the first season's villain, Kilgrave, who used his powers to coerce her into doing a number of awful things against her will, including having sex with him (which can only be described as rape). Given that it's a superhero show, some aspects of the plot (e.g., superpowers and mind-control) are dramatized, but the show's unflinching portrayal of how women experience sexual assault and trauma hit the nail on the head.
"Women tend to experience severe trauma on an emotional, sexual, and physical level more complicated and involved than men," Dr. Serani says. "Also, age onset for a traumatic experience is generally younger for girls than boys. Young girls tend to be more vulnerable and victimized."
"Girls who cannot process their traumas grow into women who continue to experience PTSD," she says.
For her part, Jessica has difficulty dealing with her PTSD and is resistant to seeking help. Instead, she turns to alcohol as a coping mechanism — which is sadly common, though certainly not recommended.
Girls who cannot process their traumas grow into women who continue to experience PTSD.
Deborah Serani, PsyD
While Jessica goes through some truly distressing circumstances in addition to sexual assault, like losing her family in a car accident and having experiments done on her body, Dr. Serani says that PTSD can develop under comparatively less dramatic circumstances, too — like after a car accident, being diagnosed with an illness, being bullied, or witnessing a traumatic event.
"Trauma overwhelms our mind and body," she says. "It is both a physical reaction to a threat, as well as a psychological experience."
The show also does a great job at showing another unpleasant reality of PTSD: For many people, healing is a long, arduous process. In the first season, Jessica mentions that she had already gone to therapy (though she calls her doctor a "quack," refers to therapy as "bullshit," and refuses to go back), and she suffers from flashbacks (in which she relives snippets of her life while she was under mind-control), which is one of the main symptoms of PTSD. Jessica hasn't stopped experiencing those flashbacks in the second season, and those ongoing symptoms are true to a lot of people's experiences. There's no quick fix when it comes to recovering from trauma.
"PTSD disrupts emotional and physical functioning and can make everyday life unmanageable," Dr. Serani says, adding that having anxious reactions to difficult events is normal, but time usually makes it easier. When something seriously traumatic happens, though, a person's anxiety over it might actually get worse over time, and that's when a professional can figure out whether or not someone's suffering from PTSD.
Dr. Serani gives the example of someone who was recently in a traumatic car accident. It's normal to feel shaky getting into a car following the accident, but after a few weeks, you should be able to get back in your car without too much difficulty.
"However, if after one month you cannot get back into a car, have flashes of the accident, cannot cope with the memory of it, [or] are having trouble eating, sleeping, or maintaining your daily routine, PTSD is likely operating," she says.
Fortunately, there are ways people can begin to recover from PTSD. Going to therapy so that a professional can make sense of a person's trauma is usually the most effective approach, Dr. Serani says. Doctors may also recommend medication to help with any anxiety or depression. Outside of professional help, reaching out to friends and family can also be important. Jessica might have lost her immediate family when she was a child, but she has a firm support system in her best friend, Trish Walker, and in her unsolicited sidekick, Malcolm.
Even though Jessica eschewed therapy (and most of her friends' help) in the first season, the show still examines how helpful it can be to let people know you're struggling. Last season, other characters who were under Kilgrave's control formed a support group; and in the second season, Malcolm tells Jessica that working for her and staying busy helps keep him afloat as he recovers from the addiction Kilgrave forced on him.
Perhaps most importantly, Jessica shows the world that it's possible to be a superhero on the outside and wrestling with serious demons on the inside. These kinds of portrayals, in which women can be both strong and broken, are what we need if we're going to really start dealing with how women experience PTSD in the real world.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).