Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Line Reading of the Year

In this era of interweb content churn, amidst the current golden age of television, there’s no shortage of people online overanalyzing pop culture and looking for deeper meaning, attempting to isolate and identify the ultimate microcosmic encapsulations of the present moment. And who am I to deny myself the chance to take a stab of my own? Spoilers follow for one of my favorite pieces of entertainment of the past twelve months, Jessica Jones.

(Note: spoiler for the post itself, this is gonna get dark, as I’m sure you can imagine and won’t be surprised by if you’ve already seen Jessica Jones. But on the chance that you haven’t seen but want to hear my thoughts anyway, consider yourself forewarned. Later this week I will do my usual hilarious rundown of superlatives for 2016, if you’d rather read something lighter!)

Jessica Jones was so great in so many ways, and I’m going to drill down with hyperspecific focus on a single one of those elements because of its particular resonance, but I don’t want to give the impression that’s the only good thing about the show. The acting was terrific, especially Krysten Ritter as Jessica but not discounting the entire supporting cast, and the storyline was awesome because it was so different from the usual superhero fare, and the direction was on point and the music was perfect, etc. etc. etc. If you blew past the spoiler warning above despite not having seen the series, seriously, do yourself a favor and watch it.

Although (and here, as we get a little closer to the eventual point of this post, we start to acknowledge how complicated it is to engage with Jessica Jones as a whole) at the same time that I recommend the show so highly there is a major caveat, which is that the emotional heart of the show is really fairly brutal. Jessica Jones takes place in a comic book universe and is ostensibly the tale of a former-and-maybe-once-again super-heroine and her evil arch-nemesis, but that’s a superficial read. What it’s really about is trauma, surviving it and coping with it, or at times spectacularly failing to cope with it well. It’s a superhero story where we come in fairly late in the game and get a lot of info via flashback and exposition-laden monologues, but what’s in the past includes the super-villain getting the best of the heroine in profoundly disturbing fashion for a long time, and the heroine ultimately emerging victorious but at tremendous personal cost. And then, as the series begins, we learn that even that previous defeat of the bad guy might not have been as complete and total as one would hope.

The bad guy in question is a man called Kilgrave, played by David Tennant. He absolutely slays in this role, pun only semi-intended. (I am not a Doctor Who fan - nothing against that venerable franchise, I just never got into it and now it seems like a daunting, enormous timesink I honestly do not have the spare time for. But I am aware of Doctor Who, and aware of its fandom, and aware that Tennant played one of the incarnations of The Doctor. I’m further aware that some DW fans very vocally freaked right the heck out over Tennant as Kilgrave because how dare any silly superhero show sully the good image of The Doctor by portraying him as an unsympathetic irredeemable sociopath? Apparently these people do not understand that actors sometimes take on different roles which are not intended to be commentaries upon one another. Arguably I could have written an entire post about fan entitlement, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.) Kilgrave’s whole superpowered deal is that he can control the minds and actions of others simply by speaking to them; if he says “give me your wallet” the person he says it to will happily comply, and if he says “take this gun, put the barrel in your mouth and blow your brains out” the person will just as happily do exactly what he says. He’s utterly amoral and completely insidious and basically unstoppable and Jessica got away from him the first time because he stepped into the street without looking both ways and got hit by a bus. Jessica thought he died in that accident, but it turns out she was wrong. The series hinges on Kilgrave’s return, and his obsession with Jessica and how she deals with all of that.

The show, to its credit, does not shy away from how gross Kilgrave is. It is at times profoundly uncomfortable to watch him move through the world, constantly violating the lives of others. He knocks on strangers’ doors and tells them to invite him in, feed him the dinner they were preparing for their family, let him sit at the head of the table. And they do it. When people make him angry, he tells them to hurt themselves. And they do it. If you have an ounce of empathy, it’s unsettling. Then there’s the sex angle, because let’s be honest here, if you could make anyone in the world do anything you want just by naming it, you’d at the very least be tempted to satisfy various carnal desires, right? Anyone who’s never at least daydreamed about this must have spent puberty in a coma. But to see it play out with a grown man exploiting the fact that people are helpless to resist his superpower is (intentionally) revolting.

Again, the show confronts this head-on, and forces the audience to do the same. And at a pivotal moment in the narrative, when Kilgrave has forced Jessica to spend time with him, not by using his superpower but with old-fashioned extortionate threats (do what I say or I will use my powers to make people you care about do unspeakable things), Jessica unloads on Kilgrave, demanding that he acknowledge what it is that he does, what it means and what the consequences are. She doesn’t use euphemisms. She tells him that he raped her. “You raped me,” she says, more than once. Which he did, of course, and that’s what I was euphemistically referring to above as “the super-villain getting the best of the heroine in profoundly disturbing fashion for a long time”. In the backstory, Kilgrave met Jessica Jones and told her she found him irresistible and wanted to be with him, and she did it. For months or years, she was his companion, arm candy and sex slave, seemingly willingly but in truth totally unwillingly, because that’s how Kilgrave’s powers work. He gets what he wants, despite anything anyone else might think or feel or suffer as a result.

That in and of itself could probably qualify as one of the most important themes to be addressed by a piece of pop culture in 2016. And especially now, as we seem to be at real risk of drowning in the sentiments of a small, crass, disproportionately amplified segment of our society whose credo is “we want what we want and we don’t give a fuck who that hurts or who else stands to lose”, it feels pretty goddamn prescient. But what really struck me in that scene, and what I imagine will haunt me for years and years to come, is the contrast between what Jessica is saying (and Ritter’s powerful, unflinching delivery of it) and Tennant-as-Kilgrave’s reaction.

I tried, I really did, to find a screencap or an animated gif of the exact moment, but no luck. I shall have to fall back on description. In the scene, Kilgrave is slouching in a chair while Jessica stands across the room enumerating his sins. She says “You raped me” and the camera cuts to him. He sneers and rolls his eyes. He shifts his weight in the chair with visible discomfort. And he grumbles, mostly to himself, “Gah, I hate that word.”

There it is, folks, that’s my nominee for 2016-in-a-nutshell, first prize. This past year has frequently felt like one big long fight, specifically a fight where both sides are playing by different rules and aiming for different things. On one side, people who recognize injustice and want to force others to acknowledge it so we can all move on and do something about righting the wrongs. On the other side, people who refuse to engage, who deflect by focusing on (a) terminology, (b) the ways that the argument itself makes them feel bad, which is far more important than whatever the argument is actually about, or (c) both. All of our cultural struggles writ large are present in that aggrieved, dismissive redirection. It’s the prime tactic for today’s bad guys. An athlete kneels during the national anthem to protest police brutality? That’s disrespectful to our armed forces, and I think that guy should just be thankful he lives under the freedoms they fought and died for, and he should show his gratitude by shutting the hell up! A presidential candidate brags about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it because he’s rich and famous? That’s just locker room talk and people are way too oversensitive these days! Man-made climate change is a serious problem we need to take concrete steps to solve immediately? If it still gets cold enough to snow in the winter, then “global warming” is a hoax, and I’m not giving up my 6 mpg truck! I could go on and on, except it took me like an hour to force myself to type out those three examples and if I try for four I think I might kill myself.

(And yes, I am well aware that this sometimes cuts both ways - liberals defending Roe v Wade who think the most important thing is to rebrand the “pro-life” movement as the “anti-choice” movement, or those who get caught up in arguing whether or not safe spaces are good ideas or trigger warnings are valuable while ignoring the root causes, and so forth. But my point stands that litigating semantics and/or obtusely changing the subject are both dick moves no matter which side employs them as tactics. Like a great many wrongheaded impulses, from gerrymandering to genocide, it’s a bad idea no matter whose idea it is.)

Some things - perhaps most things - which are genuine problems with demonstrably harmful effects are difficult to talk about. They make us uncomfortable, as well they should, whether it’s some form of guilt that we caused them or made them worse, through action or inaction, or just the fact that they skeeve us out. Nobody willingly grapples with pain and death. But sometimes the only way forward, the only way to make things better, is to do things unwillingly, not because they’re pleasant but because they’re right. And talking about things, honestly seeing things and calling them what they are, is the bare minimum first step for that. And yet we’ve reached the point where people balk at even that. A word makes them twitch and they somehow channel that into an indignation which gives them every right to refuse to engage, full stop. It’s appalling. And writing a supervillain who is genuinely appalling is a high achievement within the genre! But when that appalling super-villain resonates so very deeply, it’s time for all of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror and figure out if we’re going to make our feelings paramount at the expense of our future.

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