Jessica Jones and Power

It’s been a while. I wish I had a good excuse, but, mostly, I’ve been writing like hell.

It’s funny. Even on this blog, I hesitate to label myself a romance writer. But that is what I am, and, at this point, I’m pretty damn good at it. My books are doing well enough that I don’t need a twice month angst outpouring.

No matter what I do, as a romance novelist, I will never command the respect of a writer from another genre. No one writes AV club reviews or think pieces about typical romances. Is this disinterest or subtle misogyny? A little of both? No matter how much people pay lip service to strong female characters, women’s fiction is still considered inherently less worthwhile than men’s.

From a different angle, Jessica Jones is women’s fiction. The title character is suffering PTSD after being kidnapped and raped (by a man with mind control powers — not the most subtle metaphor but it never pulls a punch). People don’t believe her story. She copes by drinking and pushing everyone away. She’s capable and smart but she’s not a good tactician.

The villain is not out to destroy the world, the country, or even the city. He’s out to get Jessica back under his thumb. He’s dangerous because he’s impatient and petulant and willing to do whatever it takes to fuck with her.

Jessica Jones is a Marvel show. It’s funny looking at the comments on the AV Club because most of them are through the super hero lense– they compare it to Daredevil and discuss other Marvel characters. The show is cool in ways Law and Order SVU will never be cool, despite the similar subject material (that’s not sexism, of course, Law and Order will never be cool either). It’s Marvel, so it’s part of geek culture, and it gets all the neat pluses that come with being part of a culture that is somehow mainstream and indie cool at once.

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But Jessica Jones is not about superheroes. Not the way The Avengers or even Spiderman, a much closer relative, is. Jessica Jones is about power, specifically power imbalances between men and women, white people and minorities, the super human and the average.

The stakes are personal. And they should be personal. People without power feel the imbalance in personal ways every single day.

I don’t like most super hero movies. They are too abstract with their missions to save the world, too unrelatable with their super powered heroes, too empty with their generic evil villains. But they are taken much more seriously than equivalent genre fiction (like romance) because of their geek culture status.

There’s nothing wrong with a good escapist super hero TV show with no deeper meaning. But it’s not for me. The world is destroyed– so what? We’re all dead. What does any of it matter?

I want stakes I understand. And I understand a woman wanting to punish the man who abused her.

Jessica makes terrible decisions because she’s so caught up in using the legal system to find justice. She’s not willing to kill her abuser, because that means she won’t be able to prove he manipulated an innocent girl to get to Jessica. She’s unwilling to get additional treatment for her PTSD (partially because of cost). She drinks too much. She doesn’t have any good friends.

She is not some fantastical rape survivor who is magically okay. She is not some tragic rape survivor who is horribly broken. She is most the same woman she was before she was abused, only with PTSD and a less under control drinking problem.

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There is a divide when people talk about “strong female characters.” They focus on stereotypically masculine modes of strength or shove women into the “feisty bad ass” box. They talk about how a female character is cool because she acts like a man, as if a woman could never be cool, powerful, or strong.

But there are other ways a person can be strong, more stereotypically feminine ways– caring for the people around them emotionally and physically, using words, charm, or sexuality, using the admiration of others, and Jessica Jones highlights many of these.  Jessica exhibits stereotypically masculine strength. She nails the wisecracking PI trope to a T. But she is not stronger for her lack of feminine traits. She is weaker for her inability to deal with her emotions. Her untreated PTSD causes her to make all sorts of bad decisions. Her insistence on doing everything herself causes all sorts of trouble.

Trisch is a smart, caring, and supportive friend (feminine) who is learning self-defensive (masculine). Malcolm is a wannabe social worker who tries to help people (feminine). Killgrave uses pleasantness and manipulation (typically feminine traits) and super powers and blunt strength (typically masculine traits) to get his way.

It is not a perfect show. There is some spotty plotting. The show occasionally hits cliches (when you hear the police detective announce he’s two years from retirement you know what’s coming). It is lacking in women of color considering the NYC setting. But, overall, it’s a great psychological thriller super hero crossover. Without going into spoilers, it never excuses the villain, Killgrave for his actions. He is a real life abuser– charming enough to convince us he is not all bad in one breath and despicable in the next.

 

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Let’s Talk about That Game of Thrones Episode

A.K.A. Bad writing is sexist writing is bad writing, GoT edition.

Spoilers for GoT through Season 5, Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.

If you spend any time on the internet, you have already heard of the horrible events of the latest GoT episode. The GoT showrunner’s D&D gave us extra servings of their favorite topping– gratuitous rape.

In the interest of everyone’s sanity, I’m not going to catch us up to this episode. Take my word for it–poor Sansa Stark has been suffering for nearly four seasons now. She has been humiliated publicly by her ex-fiance (the king!), almost raped, threatened with rape, forced to watch her father beheaded. Most of her family is dead. The family members who are alive are presumed dead. It’s not a good time to be Sansa.

Unfortunately for those of us who hate sexism and poor writing, D&D, our resident cackling villains, have taken Sansa on a journey of suffering where everyone is acting either illogically and/or out of character. All so that we can get poor Sansa to the point where she is raped on her wedding night by her new sadistic fiance, Ramsey Bolton.

Take creepy, flesh peddler Littlefinger. A bad guy, absolutely. But thus far, he has proven himself a shrewd and savvy manipulator. He has spies everywhere so he always has the 411. And he’s eeirely obsessed with Sansa. It has something to do with his love for her late mother and how he could never have her. Nevermind that. He would not marry Sansa off to a sadistic creep like Ramsey unless it was for truly great political gain. And he would absolutely know that Ramsey is a creep. He knows everything.

Take the creep Ramsey. He’s been a moustache twirling sadistic villain for a good season or two now. Not at all an interesting character. No shades there. He’s pure evil. We got the point when he tortured and mutilated Theon. And again when he sicked the dogs on his ex lover. There may have been a third or fourth time. I really don’t recall. Evil, we get it. Evil and sadistic. That’s about it. We don’t need the rape scene to teach us he’s evil and sadistic. We know. Sansa knows too– she got it during the awkward family dinner where he reminded her how she was surrounded by people who literally killed her family. Even his dad (the guy responsible for killing Sansa’s mother and brother) told him to STFU and show some manners.

Now, here’s the thing. It doesn’t make sense for Ramsey to rape Sansa. Yes, he’s evil, but he’s been respectful to Sansa so far. He seems to convince Littlefinger that he won’t hurt her (and lord knows Littlefinger would see through a lie). But even if is heart is full of evil, Ramsey is in a tough spot. He needs to stay in line. Once a bastard, now a Bolton, Ramsey is heir as long as he’s the only son around (and as long as he isn’t renounced). But his new step-mom is preggers. Oh noes! The sexist, lackluster writing requires that he ignore any bit of sense so he can rape Sansa on their wedding night.

Bad writing. Sexist writing. They’re all tangled up in each other and there’s no way of telling what came first. One doesn’t excuse or explain the other. Not really. The showrunners made a conscious decision to ignore internal consistency in favor of adding a rape scene that serves no narrative purpose. Bad writing all around. Sexist writing all around.

It’s that same chestnut we discussed many moons ago. Sexist writing is bad writing. Bad writing is sexist writing. Instead of doing something interesting with Sansa’s story, GoT subjects her to horrors we’ve seen before. We know women on the show are raped. And we’ve seen poor Sansa tortured by her sadistic fiance. This was lazy, uninspired writing. It was also sexist. Or maybe it was sexist and lazy and uninspired. There’s no telling which came first, really.

We know Ramsey is evil. We know Sansa is made to suffer. We know Westeros is not an easy place for a lady. There’s no reason why Ramsey needs to rape Sansa. It’s not new information and it doesn’t advance the narrative. It’s not as if the plot the put Sansa in this predicament is interesting and well constructed. It’s like the plot is written around the damn rape scene!

The scene itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sansa enters the room steel-eyed, understanding the expectations of her wedding night. it’s not like she’s excited to have sex with a weird stranger, but she knows it’s expected of her and seems perfectly willing to go along with it. Ramsey acts respectfully toward her. He asks if she likes the way the room is set up and seems genuinely concerned with her well-being. For no apparent reason, Ramsey questions Sansa’s chastity (she was technically married before. How is it she’s really a virgin?) There’s no sign that her answers push him to a breaking point. That they bring out his inner evil or something. That would be bad writing but at least there would be an effort.

There is no narrative reason why Sansa and Ramsey couldn’t have consensual sex. She seems perfectly willing to go along with it until he orders Theon/Reek to watch. And even then, she starts taking off her clothes.

But, for some reason that is not at all apparent in the scene, this is not good enough for Ramsey. He rips off her dress and orders Theon/Reek to watch Sansa become a women. The camera cuts to Sansa’s face for a few seconds then to Theon’s horrified reaction.

This is the worst of it yet.

His reaction becomes more important than hers.

What. The. Fuck!?!?!

That’s bad writing– plot doesn’t happen to main characters to motivate side characters–and it’s really, really sexist. We’ve all seen movies where the wife is killed to motivate the hero (better known as fridge stuffing).

The plot went through a lot of terrible contortions to put Sansa in a situation where she was at risk of sexual assault. All of these things were decisions on the parts of the showrunners. That is how fiction works. Writers make decisions and those decisions shape the plot, the characters, the world. GoT is not based on real life. It is not based on history. There are ice zombies and dragons and 800 foot tall walls. All of these things are DECISIONS. There is nothing inevitable about Sansa’s plot. This is not about her becoming a woman or a player in the game. She doesn’t need any more motivation– she’s surrounded by people who killed her family. That’s plenty motivation. The only possible narrative reason for this scene was to motivate Theon. That is not okay.

That’s bad writing.

That’s sexist writing.

This plot was boring. It was predictable. It was repetitive. And it was sexist.

Unfortunately, GoT has been all of the above.

(And before anyone tells me not to watch if I don’t like it. Well, one that’s a stupid argument. And two, I watch so I can take part in these conversations and because the hate coursing through my veins makes me feel alive).

Female Character Fatigue

I’m tired of you, Blogosphere.

I’m tired of these pointless, don’t quite get it articles on “strong female characters,” on TV doing female characters right, on Hollywood doing female characters wrong. I’m tired of these articles because they are irrelevant and miss the point. I’m tired because so many articles turn into a diversity checklist, as if we must have someone at every cross section. Sure, it had strong female characters, but where are the disabled, transgendered, gay female characters of color? It’s never good enough for someone, somewhere.

Mostly, I’m tired of articles trying to prove some point they don’t recognize. Why should it be an event every time a TV show or movie meets the BARE MINIMUM of quality writing–interesting male and female characters? No, I am not impressed by a single female character who isn’t a stereotype. I am tired of applauding mainstream crap for pandering  to my demo as if we’re an after thought. Women make up 50% of the population, and slightly more of the movie going public. Marketing to women isn’t progressive; it’s good business sense.

I want to see movies, TV shows, and books where female and male characters get equal screen/page time, where female and male characters are able to push the story forward and make important decisions. I want to see a world where we treat the inclusion of different races, genders, sexual orientations, and levels of ability as normal, not extraordinary.

I write things with interesting characters, female and non-female, white and non-white, straight and non-straight. I don’t need a fucking cookie to know that characters can be novel for reasons beside what is or isn’t between their legs.

Luther

I was going to write a positive post, but I am crampy and nauseous and I feel altogether miserable.

I have been watching Luther, a BBC crime drama. Despite some problems with deus ex machina and fridge-stuffing, I enjoy it. My favorite part of the show is Alice.

A genius who earned a PhD at 18, Alice goes after what she wants without concern for the law or other people’s interests. She is strong, smart, manipulative. A great, strong female character.

And she’s a murdering psychopath.

Even better.

It’s so rare we get to see a clever female killer, much less a psychopath. Unlike many “evil” female characters, Alice is not motivated by romance or revenge on an ex-lover. She cares for Luther and does what she needs to protect him, but she would turn on him in a second if push came to shove.

Women on TV tend to be moralizing forces. It’s great when women get to be bad. It’s better when women get to be worse, or even the worst. Alice is a murder, but she is always humanized. She is always presented as motivated and interesting. She is never sexualized or treated as a love interest–she never seems jealous of Luther’s ex-wife.

I hope we can see more interesting, nuanced female characters–not all good, not all bad, but somewhere in between. So what if Alice is mostly bad? She’s fun as hell to watch.