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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Parks and Rec

I had a rant planned, but I’m putting it aside in favor of a little praise.

Parks and Rec is not the greatest TV show in the world. It isn’t revolutionizing the medium. It doesn’t get great numbers. It’s so sweet it could make you sick. But it’s well into the “good” territory, it’s characters are well-drawn, and it hits most of its laughs.

And the show is unapologetically feminist.

It’s feminist and it’s not a big deal. Leslie Knope is the closest thing to a great role model for girls who don’t realize they can be leaders. Leslie is a obnoxious and overbearing (it is a comedy, after all), but only because she cares too much. No one ever puts her down for being a woman. No one can stand in her way when she wants something.

Her friendship with Anne is as important to her as her romantic relationships, even when those romantic relationships get serious. She chooses her career over love (but ends up getting both). She tries hard. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she fails, but she always picks herself up and brushes herself off again.

It’s sad how rare this is. I can’t think of many other shows on TV with developed characters of color, female leaders/role models, and women who care about their friends as much as they care about their boyfriends. I should need to praise Parks and Rec for meeting this very low bar, but I do, because so few movies and TV shows meet this bar.

Still, it’s nice people watch and talk about Parks and Rec. There is plenty in the show to talk about besides its feminist leanings. It is feminist and it’s a lot of other stuff too.

We should all aim for our writing to be like this–it can just happen to espouse the ideals we need