Exploring the performance of trauma in Jessica Jones

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As they reign court over our movie theaters, our streaming apps, and our TV channels, it’s safe to say that superheroes of all genders, shapes, sizes, and strengths are having their “moment” in pop culture.

But as much as they show off their super skills and strength, it’s hard to remember that superheroes have weaknesses, too. At the end of the day, most are human, dealing with heartbreak and soldiering through the bad days and complexities of life just like everyone else. So, how do they deal with it? And more importantly, how is that pain being portrayed onscreen? With fancy effects and out-of-this-world plot lines, how is pop culture combining the severity of real-life trauma with the Hollywood aesthetic?

To explore this idea, Melissa Wehler, dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College, researched the portrayal of mental illness in the Netflix original series, Jessica Jones.

Wehler shares her thoughts in her upcoming lecture, “The Haunted Hero: The Performance of Trauma in Jessica Jones” on Wednesday, Aug. 8 at the college’s Capitul BlueCross Theatre.

jessica jones

Wehler used the Jessica Jones series to explore not only how fictional characters and stories deal with issues like mental illness, but also how real, documented experiences of PTSD are portrayed through on-screen effects.

She was interested in the ways the representations of PTSD flashbacks gives viewers an insight into a disorder that they may have heard about, but they maybe haven’t experienced first-hand.

“Pop culture can often mishandle sensitive topics like mental illness, but when it is able to engage in a way that is profound, respectful, and significant, it can help to demystify and destigmatize these topics and allow for real conversations about how the people in our lives may be impacted by these conditions,” Wehler said.

Wehler’s perspective is that subjects like mental illness aren’t always portrayed in meaningful ways in media or entertainment. It’s common to hear a character’s description of their trauma or pain and then see its signifiers, often displayed on TV or in movies through settings like hospitals, dream sequences or doctor’s offices. It’s also typical to follow characters at or from the point of their traumatic event and then through their journey of trying to find their new normal. But, according to Wehler, Jessica Jones handles the performance of trauma differently.

“Jessica’s post-traumatic stress disorder happens where you would actually expect it to — in restaurants, city streets, and subway cars. It’s not neatly circumscribed in a sterile, institutionalized setting, but rather, it’s all around her. Interestingly, the disorder is only named once in the first season, so the showrunners are not relying on exposition when it comes to this aspect of the character. Instead, they use lighting, flashbacks, sounds, and images to transpose the past on the present,” she said.

“Jessica often has a hard time telling the difference between the past and the present because they are both with her always.” Wehler notes that by manifesting the trauma this way, the series is able to take something that is personal, internal, and largely ineffable and make it, “public, external, and concrete.”

When I asked why she decided to research a topic that many people tend to avoid, her answer was refreshingly optimistic.

“Superheroes are having their moment in pop culture, and I think it’s fascinating to consider why we are collectively drawn to these characters who exhibit many of our most human weaknesses—isolation, loneliness, depression—coupled with these incredible, godlike abilities,” she said. “It forces us to think about what we would do if given the chance to make a difference. Would we be able to move beyond the insular ‘I’ for the good of the collective ‘we’? Viewers watch Jessica Jones go back and forth from sorting out her own trauma to helping others sort out theirs.”

“There is something really human in that need to be a part of something greater than ourselves even—and perhaps especially—when we’d rather have a drink, make a buck, and call it day,” Wehler said.

Learn more about Jessica Jones – and Melissa – during her lecture from 12:10-1:10 pm on August 8. The event is free and open to the public.

Author: Hope

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