Jessica Jones is coming back to Netflix this weekend, and she’s the perfect heroine of the #MeToo era.
She’s always vulgar, always in your face, sure she’s right, and has nothing but sarcasm for the, I guess, the system. She’s perpetually angry at America, because America is the worst place in the world (and in world history at that), but she’s also deeply American and feels entitled to all the rights and freedoms of America, which would be unrecognizable in most of the world. She’s empowered and better than everyone else, but also very vulnerable. Her sarcasm is the narrative equivalent of Twitter activism, where speaking truth to power has been reduced to making pained jokes in a vacuum of indifference and hopelessness.
For Jessica Jones, life is trauma and she has to cope with it. But also, she’s amazing and fabulous and knows how to have fun. She’s miserable because of suffering you get to learn about more than you’d like throughout the first season. And also she’s the coolest thing in the coolest city in the world in almost every scene. She’s self-destructive and it’s all your fault, but you’re never going to bring her down and she doesn’t need you anyway. She’s every sophisticated liberal on Twitter who is soulful and humane until the NRA comes up, or he brings it up, at which point foaming at the mouth insanity is de rigueur, and, if you disagree, you have blood on your hands.
All that said, the show is also a unique, if not admirable, achievement in storytelling and a phenomenon we have to try to understand. Thus, your friendly movie reviewer is back with updates from the world of Marvel-Netflix, the dark, gritty urban world where the fantasies of children and liberals play out to the adulation of the press and considerable success with audience. It’s race-class-gender ideology with ninjas! Hooray!
I’ve already written about the coming together of the four major heroes in “The Defenders” (also, here). And about the addition of a fifth hero with “The Punisher.” Now it’s time to talk about the next stage, heralded by “Jessica Jones” Season 2.
Maybe let’s start with the release date. It’s March 8 — International Women’s Day — because the times they are a-changing. Remember Valentine’s Day, which used to be about chocolates, roses, and rom-coms? Well, rom-coms are dead and the most successful Valentine’s Day release of our times was “Deadpool.” Is that a big win for women? Well, it’s certainly a big win for teenage boys who love the most vulgar R-Rated humor they can find in theaters. So also IWD is now supposed to be useful for clever marketing, bringing you our first female superheroine who doesn’t care what all you middle-class people who don’t even live in New York City think about her hard-drinking sexually-promiscuous ways of dealing with trauma. Who are you to judge her?
To fully appreciate the achievement of introducing feminism into mainstream storytelling with “Jessica Jones,” consider just how much more anti-feminist American entertainment is than politics or the press. The most obvious issue is abortion, which has been the center of feminism for at least two generations, but which has never made inroads into entertainment. Every tough woman on every show you’ve ever seen, if she gets pregnant, she’s suddenly pro-life, however rhetorically she may have been pro-choice before. There are things liberals dare proclaim in the Senate or in the press, but not on any screen. There aren’t even Oscar or festival movies about abortion. And yet, it is the law of the land! Apparently, not even the laws or the First Amendment are as strong as public sentiment!
This is the benchmark, and “Jessica Jones” deviates from it in very intelligent ways. The prestige of Netflix and Marvel, the specialized audience, and the help of a loving press have made for the first really feminist show, where the accusation against the patriarchy is unceasing, because it is dramatized. The plot of the first season and the emotional drama were the same: Male domination is rape. The patriarchy is invisible to most people, even when it turns them into puppets. New York City, seemingly cosmopolitan, freewheeling, and very sophisticated, is a place where monsters violate women with impunity. There is no one a woman can trust and there is next to no claim on her loyalties, because of the evils of this nightmare version of America. The audience has swallowed all this stuff up without a word of complaint!
This is nevertheless not the usual thing in Hollywood! The Marvel heroine, Jessica Jones, was created by Brian Michael Bendis, who also wrote “Daredevil,” and is one of the very influential writers of the last two decades. But once this story went to screen, the tough super-heroine private investigator was embedded in the hell of male privilege. Creator Melissa Rosenberg, until recently underestimated as the screenwriter of those five silly “Twilight” movies, took the chance to deliver something new by use of the old modes of the thriller. The cold, dark color scheme, the jarring sounds, the camera work that very often suggests stalking and threats — all very effectively depict the world as seen through the broken or at least bruised mind of a victim of terrifying abuse.
She has super-powers, sure, but not even that can protect a woman from the evils of men. The more powerful the woman, the more the evil patriarchy wants to break her! It’s like “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” but R-Rated.
The world she inhabits fits the perspective of #MeToo activism as well as the way it’s depicted. Everyone is at one point or another complicit in the harassment, abuse, rape, and violence. They were all under a spell, under the mind-control of some male! The villain himself thinks he’s entitled to be loved and thinks all he’s doing is making love work better than it would otherwise. As you may have already guessed, the madness and the harm should make for a perfect Harvey Weinstein story! Let’s mythologize systemic discrimination!
Of course, it neither has been nor will be anything of the kind. The hierarchies of power are actually untouched, unmentioned. You get the standard secret government conspiracy experiments that result in super-powers and a story of marginal people New Yorkers don’t even know exist. Sometimes, you wish these writers were outright Marxists, because then they’d at least get some villains right some of the time and stop wasting time with urban fairy tales …
Finally, the storytelling itself feels familiar in this age of prestigious serials. You see various kinds of technical excellence and very relatable, attractive characters. (Feminist storytelling hasn’t gotten around to allowing women who are less than supermodel-beautiful to play the heroine, or even get near her…) It’s very watchable. It also exhibits, unfortunately, the common tendency towards the most absurd escapism in the plot lines, the result of paranoid intentions mixed with cowardice of execution.
All the liberal preening about the issues of the day is of course also here. But more importantly, there is a certain astuteness about the feminist symbols and structures of the story. Thus, attacks on America appear at every level, as I’ve mentioned, some more plausibly than others. And above all, there is a coherence and a design that persuade people to go along with what is on the face of it thinly-dramatized hysteria.
This is how we got a heroine who ended up saying to her audience that anyone who lives in New York City is a hero, just because. It’s that hellish there, but, you know, it’s better than anywhere else in America, which is mere nothingness. I know what you’re thinking: This is going to be hard to follow up! My suspicion is that all the really interesting stuff is in this upcoming season. I’ll write on that next.