Netflix’s new heartfelt romantic comedy Juanita is based off Sheila Williams’ Dancing on the Edge of the Roof: A Novel. The Juanita of the novel is 41. Alfre Woodard, the absolutely stellar actress who plays the lead character Juanita Lewis in the film, is 66. Woodard is wonderful, but in taking this role she has erased a particular black woman from a story that has long needed to be told.
“On the surface, ‘Juanita’ is a fantasy that gives its older black heroine permission to chase her happiness, whatever that may be (the narrative wonderfully portrays it simply as elsewhere). But even more than that, the film is a testament to how necessary and urgent it is for black women to embark on purely selfish adventures in order to rediscover themselves.”
The original Juanita is in her very early forties with three grown children and a grandchild that she cares for. And her age is important to the story conveyed. Because the Juanita of Dancing is a woman who did not get to enjoy a rebellious and adventurous adolescence and young adulthood because she was too busy fulfilling the obligations of being a mother. And now here she is at 41, the last of what she believes to be her youth and vibrancy slipping away, and she is stuck repeating her narrow, tiny life with her grandchild as she did with her children. That is what drives her to pick up and go. Somewhere. Anywhere. To be something other than what she has always been.
A Juanita in her early sixties who waited until she was well into her thirties to start having children—the Juanita that Woodard plays—would have had ample time to “live” in the space between her youth and her maternal obligations. And we are given no information on what Juanita did during that span of time and why it was not enough to satisfy her. And I believe that information is necessary. I think devoting more time to Juanita’s phobias regarding travel and open spaces and how it had limited her would have helped to make sense of these glaring gaps.
I enjoyed Juanita thoroughly, but the stretched timeline that went unaddressed became an elephant in the room over the course of the film. I would love to see more romances involving women in their forties and in their sixties that address the particular roles these women play in our society and culture. Altering the script of Juanita to address the particular concerns of Woodard’s generation instead of “playing it straight” from the novel would have improved an already semi-solid romantic comedy.
I believe that there is a point during the grieving process
when the individual who is grieving comes to the realization that if he
continues to grieve as he has been grieving, he will die. This realization
doesn’t put an end to one’s grief. This realization doesn’t even ensure that
one will put a stop to existing destructive behavior. It is merely knowledge
that one did not possess before. If I
continue to carry this pain in this manner, my life will degrade to a point
that it will cease. Am I okay with that?
Often? One is okay with it. One is not only okay with it but
deeply angry at the length of the process—frustrated at the amount of time that
stands in the way of reunification. Each morning is a nightmare one cannot wake
up from. Life is a sentence with no reprieve. You must do your time. And there
is so, so much time, each second of it nearly unbearable.
I cannot imagine how much more painful grief is to endure as
an atheist. There is no comfort of an afterlife. But there is no fear of one as
well. How are you driven to continue without the specter of Hell looming? How
do you take comfort in the end of your loved one’s suffering if you believe
nothing lies beyond the pain and agony of the body?
Our religious beliefs shape how we grieve. They dig deeper than the surface rituals of burial to show how we deal with absence—or if we consider there to be an absence at all. If you believe the ancestors are always with you and speak to you, then death is not a separation. It is merely a change of form.
I’ve been watching After Life on Netflix and it is a fascinating look at how one grieves when one has no fear. The lead, Tony, is white, male, straight, middle-aged, cisgender, and of an economic class that is comfortable. He is also an atheist, fairly recently widowed, and devastated by loss. The absolute emptiness and cessation of interest in life is spot on and so familiar. However, Tony’s behavior towards authority figures, those in the service industry, and his family and friends is abominable. Grief has not made him retreat from the world, but defiantly remain a part of it and abuse others so that they feel the pain he feels. As someone who belongs to multiple groups expected to put aside their own pain to serve others, the idea of inflicting that pain on others instead boggles the mind. What kind of person makes others hurt because they hurt?
At one point during the series, a nurse who cares for Tony’s
ill father chastises Tony for his behavior and questions why he cannot adhere
to basic social graces for the sake of getting along. Later on, Tony acquiesces
and apologizes, but I can’t help but feel that had Tony not been born with
certain privileges, he would have never considered rejecting the behaviors
society expected from him in the first place. Because for Tony there are no
repercussions for being—and I am using this term wholly in the British sense—a
complete and utter cunt.
Tony is cruel to his friends and cold towards his father. He openly ridicules his brother-in-law/employer. He threatens to terminate the job of the nurse who cares for his father. He smokes heroin! My God! Even in the deepest depths of grief and depression I managed to make sure my vehicle registration was up-to-date because I am that fearful of breaking the law. The fact that Tony is so cavalier about a much greater transgression shows that not only does he not care about himself, but he also has zero fear regarding the results of his actions and how they harm others in his community. It is not unusual in grief to stop caring about one’s life, and this is illustrated well in After Life. Tony does not care for his body—getting little food and sleep to sustain it. However, it is unusual to stop caring for others. Wanting to die doesn’t give you carte blanche to be mean to the waitress—unless you were raised to believe you never had to be nice to her in the first place if you didn’t feel like it (and that she was only lucky you felt like it for so long). That is privilege in action.
Is Tony irredeemable? God, no. He’s grieving. He’s in pain. And when pain gets to be too great, one retreats or attacks. The conditions of our birth coupled with our experiences push us towards one option or the other. Our religious beliefs determine how we engage with our selection. One who is a devout Muslim would likely not retreat into a bottle. A strict Catholic is wary of suicide. Tony, an atheist, has decided to attack—but merely with words. Does his atheism drive him to cherish and respect the physical existence of others more than most? Is that what stops him from engaging in the physical violence that he admits to his therapist that he fantasizes about? Heavy questions for a comedy, I’m certain, but so far After Life doesn’t seem afraid of tackling them. However, I doubt it will tackle one unspoken and painful reality of grief—that sometimes people do remain irrevocably broken. Tony will likely return to some semblance of the man his wife fell in love with, giving viewers an upbeat ending worthy of a sitcom. But like the privileges Tony enjoys, that is not always an option available to all.
Ghost in the Shell is an irritating instance of racism.
To use the term racism seems harsh, but to use the other term that has been bandied about—whitewashing—doesn’t seem correct. I don’t believe that taking a notable work and changing the setting or race of the characters is an issue if you are using said change to make a point about a specific culture or spotlight a particular aspect of said culture. That applies to white people as well as people of color.
The Handmaiden, a Korean drama which pulls its plot from the novel Fingersmith, does not use Korean actors for a Victorian tale. It does not put an Asian face upon a European cultural product. Instead it reassembles a new work upon a neutral frame and uses it to tell a fascinating story about Korea during colonial rule as well as explore Korean-Japanese relations in the past to shed light on relations today. It is a commendable work of art.
As is The Wiz, which borrows from The Wizard of Oz to showcase African-American culture in an amazingly beautiful way. I would also add the tale of Cinderella, which takes the basis of the Chinese Ye Xian and places it in a European setting. And one cannot forget one of the most modern successful examples in the show Friends, a white American version of the African American Living Single.
But the upcoming Ghost in the Shell is not like the projects listed above. It is an embarrassment, for its attention to detail simply results in Asian cultures being used as a backdrop for a white ingénue. It sends a sinister message—that the cultures of people of color are acceptable, but the autonomous presence of people of color is not. It sends the message that white Americans can reproduce foreign cultures more skillfully than said foreigners because they are inherently better than them.
The movie’s one potential saving grace is that it might handle race and culture in the same manner as Blade Runner, in which predominately white characters maneuver through a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly culturally Asian and Latino. Blade Runner told a story about race, about whiteness—perhaps inadvertently—through its near lack of characters of color. It touched upon the paranoia of poor and working-class white people through their placement in a fantasy world where they are subjected to the inhumane treatment and alienation that immigrants and abductees of color once faced (and currently face) in the United States.
However, I think the two movies that Ghost in the Shell could have been would have been infinitely more effective and important to our society than the movie that has been produced. A Ghost in the Shell featuring Asian characters in a culturally Asian city would have allowed for Asian American actors to have the opportunity to showcase their talents in an industry that often ignores them. It would have given Asian Americans a chance to explore what it means to represent oneself as Asian and American in a world increasingly impacted by technology, augmentation, and globalization—and share that with American people.
The other movie that has been lost is a purely American adaptation featuring an American cast in a culturally American city—a futuristic one with elements of dozens of subcultures. This movie still could have featured Scarlett Johansson in the lead role and allowed for a fascinating exploration of what it means to be white in a world where one’s image is wholly changeable. What does it mean to be white in a world shaking off the last vestiges of white supremacy? So many American movies center white people and whiteness without any examination of it—a lost opportunity to create powerful life-changing art. A project that centers whiteness sans examination is a celebration of it. To have all projects center whiteness sans examination is dangerous propaganda.
However, there is still a chance for those two lost movies! And though they would not be able to assume the benefits of an internationally known brand, they would still have an opportunity to be successful. Who knows? Perhaps one of those movies is already here.
“San Junipero” cracked me open. The fourth episode of Black Mirror’s third season, a period piece set in 1987, ticked nearly every box on my checklist for what makes a work of art personally moving—rich purple hues dotted with vibrant splashes of neon, an ethereal score from Clint Mansell, stunningly angst-ridden lovers, and ocean views. I adored the episode, and while I was elated to encounter a happy ending after watching the bleak love story “Be Right Back,” I couldn’t help but lament the lack of a San Junipero of my very own. Would I pass over? Dear God, immediately. I’d spend forever in Tucker’s 2002 without question. Though I do have so many questions! Was the bartender a non-playable character? Was Greg simply a tutorial that allowed tourists to slowly become acclimated to the city? Were there other cities that appealed to residents of different regions and members of various subcultures? After all, San Junipero was decidedly white and Californian. What did the Quagmire of 1980 look like? 1996? 2002? Why were so many people single? Did anyone work? If a San Juniperan wrote a song or designed a building, who would own it? TCKR Systems? Next of kin? Did individuals have to pay to own a digital plot as they do in Second Life? Did rich consumers have access to better digital content—luxury cars and beach houses? A sobering thought—did poor individuals elect to work for eternity in San Junipero to obtain cloud access? After all, every party town needs diligent workers to run efficiently.
I suppose the answers to many of the above questions will be solved via fanfiction, but I still think the premise for “San Junipero” would make for an excellent romantic series akin to The Love Boat or Fantasy Island. Then again, the musical budget alone would keep such a series from ever getting off the ground!
I am not happy with the casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist. While the choice of a Caucasian actor for the role adheres to the character’s origin, I think the selection of a biracial actor to play the part of Daniel Rand would have improved upon the story told and enhanced the overall quality of the cinematic Marvel universe (and Hollywood in general) in multiple ways.
First and foremost, depending on the actor’s phenotype, a biracial actor of European and Asian descent would have provided a visual signifier of Daniel Rand’s existence as a warrior trapped between two worlds—that of a modern Western city and an ancient Asian village. To watch billionaire adventurer Wendell Rand and the Chinese businesswoman who captivated him enough to become his bride work to build a life for Daniel that included both of their cultures would excellently foreshadow Daniel’s later struggles as an adult to do the same. The existence of a biracial Iron Fist would also act as a bridge, tempering the woefully appropriative nature of the Caucasian martial artist Daredevil and paving the way for the later introduction of well-known Chinese hero Shang Chi. (One could even argue that Daniel Rand’s presence was not needed in the Marvel cinematic universe at all, for every role he plays could have been neatly divided between Matt Murdock and Shang Chi.)
A biracial Iron Fist, hot on the heels of the black Luke Cage, would have provided instant (though minimal) racial diversity to Marvel’s overwhelmingly white line-up of leading men. Given that we are at a point where Marvel has been repeatedly and publicly admonished for its non-existent efforts at diversifying its slate of films, one would think that the selection of non-white leading men would be a priority. And yet an Arab actor is not playing Doctor Strange and a biracial actor was not chosen for Iron Fist. This is a shame.
The substandard depiction of men of Asian descent in American films is a longstanding problem and has driven many to seek proper representation in foreign films. But why should Asian Americans have to look outside of their country to see Asian men shown as masculine, heroic, and sexually desirable? This is absurd—and must be terribly frustrating to young Asian American men. Not only is there a dearth of material in which one is mirrored, but one must endure a glut of projects showcasing white male action stars playing dress up in costumes cobbled together from the culture of one’s forefathers.
While the selection of Finn Jones as Iron Fist extinguishes yet another opportunity for a male actor of Asian descent to step into the limelight as an action hero and heartthrob, I must admit that my disappointment stems from the fact that black women of darker hues may perhaps be robbed of the rare opportunity to be seen as romantically desirable as Marvel adjusts Iron Fist’s history in order to deflect criticism by increasing the number and importance of supporting female Asian characters.
When in doubt, swap the secondary characters out. While Marvel is clearly disdainful of altering the races of its leading white male characters, the studio seems more than happy to add diversity where supporting characters are concerned. I would not be surprised to see Marvel replace Misty Knight with the biracial Colleen Wing as Daniel’s primary love interest—cribbing from Iron Fist’s histories in the House of M event and the Ultimate universe. However, it would be frustrating to lose Misty Knight as Daniel’s companion given her status as the only woman in the Marvel universe who is not fair-skinned and is also depicted as attractive and desirable. Who would be depicted as a woman deeply loved—first and exclusively. The physical changes made to Storm, Cecelia Reyes, Claire Temple, and Reva Connors would be glaring in Misty’s absence and would lead one to question if colorism were at the root of it.
Oh, so many missed opportunities! Many critics have argued that Iron Fist must be white to provide a cultural counterpart to Misty Knight and Luke Cage, but a biracial Daniel Rand would still be wealthy, would still benefit in certain ways from his father’s white privilege and mother’s “model minority” status, would still find wonder in modern technologies—providing a perfect contrast to Misty and Luke. The inclusion of whiteness is not necessary in every exploration of race relations and inequality.
But the choice has already been made and Iron Fist is white. So how does Marvel move forward from here? By taking cues from the title of this post and the second season of Daredevil as well. Jack Burton is the star of Big Trouble in Little China, but Wang Chi is the hero. Marvel could do the same with Shang Chi, inserting him into the series as a foil to Iron Fist as Punisher and Elektra initially were to Daredevil. How fun would it be to see Shang Chi as Elektra’s inverse, a weapon of the Chaste stolen and raised by the Hand, only to return to his true heroic nature! How fun would it be to see Shang Chi emerge as the star of the show as just as Punisher usurped Daredevil’s throne!
The fight for representation is an ongoing battle, and we must be as creative as possible in exploring every loophole before Hollywood can sew it shut.
In my excitement I have started this essay four times. This is the fifth. I am not certain I can do the character of the Punisher justice with my analysis. I am too giddy for reasoned observations—too enraptured with Jon Bernthal’s performance. I have a soft spot for “hard” men like the Punisher—tough men who have had almost everything ripped from them but would gladly give the little they have left for family. For retribution. For some semblance of justice.
Punisher is not alone in fitting this description. Marvel possesses other bruisers and brawlers such as Luke Cage and Wolverine (both characters I have long adored). And Frank Castle is certainly not the only character to suffer a great loss. So what makes Punisher the perfect foil and counterpart to Daredevil? What sets him apart from his peers? Why is he uniquely qualified to be a part of the upcoming Defenders team and perhaps lead his own show? It is simple. Frank Castle is white.
(I do not care how many issues of Origin Marvel produces. Wolverine is indigenous and I will continue to argue with anyone who says otherwise! But that is a matter for another time.)
That said? Marvel certainly does not want for white men. They are everywhere—from square-jawed patriots to cerebral playboys—saving the world from certain destruction as the rest of society watches in awe. For decades we have been provided with project after project of white men displaying feats of superhuman strength and uncanny intellectual prowess while women and people of color are there to provide assistance, but are rarely allowed to have their stories and desires take point.
A few years ago, David Brothers penned an excellent series on the trinity of black male representation in comics: the fantasy, the reality, and the ideal. I followed up later with one on blackfemale characters. I believe this trinity extends to other groups, its balance wholly dependent on the group’s status in society. For white men, we have been presented overwhelmingly with an ideal not rooted in reality. Moreover, we have been presented with an ideal that is erroneously reinforced as reality via its ubiquitousness while the power fantasies of others are sublimated in response. Trinities work best when they are balanced. When they are not—as is the case with our entertainment industry’s depictions of white men—this is damaging not only to those who do not get to see themselves as heroes, but also to those who are told that they must always be heroes—that they are incapable of failing. In reality, perfection is unattainable. Perfection is Godly. The best of us are those who rise once more after they falter. For every Black Panther there must be a Luke Cage. And for every Superman there must be a Punisher.
“You must be something when you’re not wearing the long johns, right?”
In America, a man will never suffer the vicious inequities of institutionalized racism if he is white, but—as Frank Castle’s tale illustrates—whiteness does not prevent one’s life from going to complete shit. The existence of the Punisher is a novel acknowledgement of the suffering of a particular subset of white men, which is why I believe his popularity has undergone a rabid resurgence. The Frank we are shown in season two of Daredevil is not only very different from your average Marvel hero, but initially parallels the lives of so many working-class white men in Northeastern and Midwestern districts who are disillusioned with the American Dream. Both Frank Castle and Matt Murdock come from the same lower-middle-class white ethnic urban background. Matt is Irish American. Frank’s ethnicity is not given, but context clues place him as Italian American. What is so wonderful about the inclusion of Punisher as a foil to Daredevil—and that pivotal scene where Matt questions Frank about his upbringing—is that we can deduce the exact moment where the lives of Matt and Frank diverged.
Matt received an influx of cash and went to college. Frank went to war. Matt studied concepts of liberty and justice in classrooms where his worldview was questioned by multicultural multitudes. Frank was told what liberty and justice were by a lone man richer and whiter than he was. And was then ordered to kill for it. He made a living out of killing. Matt, foregoing the footsteps of his father, made his living with ideas. With words.
Frank isn’t as wealthy as Tony, as smart as Peter, as worldly as Matt, as powerful as Bruce—but he was able to build a life for his family with this country’s help, just like any other white man a couple of generations deep into the GI Bill. Like so many others who went to the plants and the police stations, Frank buttoned that blue collar, albeit a camouflaged one, and went to work.
And then it all went to shit. And Frank went to pieces. But white men in America are not allowed to be broken. After all, we have been told time and time again that white men are the ideal. So broken pieces must be swept under the rug to keep said illusion in place. Frank suffered. Alone. With nothing more than the shattered remains of his home and his gun. The White Reality is that men who are not allowed to acknowledge their pain, who are not allowed to give voice to the truth that their American Dream has become a nightmare, lash out. Frank is bottled sorrow. Frank is unchecked anger.
Punisher is death.
Frank Castle’s reintroduction to the public could not be more perfectly timed or placed. The character is rooted in revenge, a ‘70s film sub genre made popular by Death Wish—making his gunplay the perfect bridge connecting Daredevil’s martial artistry and Luke Cage’s Blaxploitation exploits. His violent rampages are also therapeutic for white men who are similarly awash in a groundswell of anger. But unlike the vehement displays manifest in hate crimes (and occasionally political rallies), the Punisher’s actions are as subversive as they are frighteningly cathartic. And that subversion comes from the fact that Frank Castle does not blame his woes on some random invented outgroup that happens to be browner than he is, but on the actual individuals responsible for his suffering. Men he thought were his brothers. And in delivering his own personal brand of punishment to them he finds the first member of his new family along the way—Matt Murdock.
The Punisher’s introduction via Daredevil is vital because Matt gives Frank space to commit another subversive act for men: the act of grieving openly and passionately. And only Matt can do that because he represents home—a completion of the circle—in a way that no other character in the Marvel universe can. Matt Murdock, Daredevil, is just another boy from the neighborhood. As close as you can get to family without sharing blood or spilling it.
Next up: What I’d like to see in a Punisher series, why Misty Knight should be Frank Castle’s platonic ride-or-die (and vice versa), and why the two characters are the perfect bridge connecting Matt Murdock and Luke Cage.
The second season of Daredevil provides two separate tales binding together to make for an even stronger whole. I enjoyed it—thoroughly—though it is plagued by themes that one would call problematic.
Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. I was delighted by the casting of Elodie Yung as Elektra. To finally have a woman of Asian descent take the female lead in a story that leans heavily on Asian martial arts and East Asian myths allowed Marvel to make a bold statement: it would not be following Hollywood’s insulting lead in erasing Asian people from their stories.
To be honest, I was deeply concerned that Marvel would do just that. (The casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist does not do much to assuage those concerns.) I was afraid that Marvel would cast a white actress as the originally Greek Elektra Natchios—that a white woman would be the face of Asian martial arts in the Marvel universe, to be surrounded by a slew of nameless Asian lackeys that would be quickly mowed down by Daredevil’s superior skill. I was fearful that we would see white men and women bringing justice to the overwhelmingly Asian American areas of New York via their mastery of Judo, Karate, and Muay Thai. I was afraid that all the heroes would be white, all the villains would be Asian, and all of the cultural elements cribbed by Marvel would be Asian as well. I was afraid that Asian people would be reduced to set pieces in white fantasies of Asian myths.
To be fair, we were provided with an ample sampling of the above. Daredevil’s depictions of the Hand and the Chaste—two mythical warring factions originating in Central Asia according to Marvel lore—were frustratingly unbalanced. The protagonists were a multicultural band of men; the antagonists were Japanese. In fact, if not for Elodie’s Elektra, none of the protagonists in a story about good versus evil—one spiraling out of ancient Asian cultures—would be Asian. That? Is both insulting and absurd.
To reiterate, damned if you do; damned if you don’t. What if Marvel had decided to cast an elderly Asian American actor as Stick, leader of the Chaste? While it would have been comforting to have a second person of Asian descent on the side of “good”—that choice would have certainly opened Marvel up to criticism. Is inclusion worth it when the role is that of an elderly “mystic Asian” who teaches the white hero to be all he can be?
Indeed the change of Elektra from white to Asian adds uncomfortable elements to the love triangle established in the second season that would not exist were all the actors of the same race. But instead we have a woman of color in the position of a succubus, tightly wrapped in red and black, dragging Matt Murdock further from his lofty position in the Western world. A woman who we are told inherently possesses a darkness within her. A woman who in every scene is set as a counterpart to the plucky—and white—Karen Page. A Karen Page who is draped in ivory and blue. A Karen Page who tries her hardest to bring both Matt Murdock and Frank Castle back from the brink. Back to her world. Back to a New York City where people of color exist on the fringes as civil servants, villains, and victims—but never heroes.
“Immigrant Africans, Caribbeans, and African Americans make up 25.1% of New York City’s population.”
“Asian Americans make up 11.8% of New York City’s population.”
“Hispanics and Latinos make up 27.5% of New York City’s population.”
A lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
The Marvel universe is split neatly into different factions, a clear (and wise) attempt by Marvel to appeal to fans of other genres while remaining safely nestled in the superhero realm. The Avengers and Spider-Man provide consumers with standard superhero fare; mutants, cosmic characters, and space explorers such as the Fantastic Four lean heavily on science fiction. Blade and Doctor Strange allow Marvel to explore horror and fantasy; street-level characters allow Marvel to explore neo-Blaxplotation, martial arts, and noir.
Dear God, am I tired of that. But it seems to please Hollywood considerably and I have the option not to watch. I’ve been exercising that option a great deal lately. I don’t have to settle in for another Avengers movie. Or Ant-Man. Or Fantastic Four. Make a million movies in that vein and I won’t be troubled in the slightest (or found in the theater).
But Netflix’s slate of Marvel shows is different. Why? Because the shows are set in New York City. Because the comic books that the shows pull from are overwhelmingly influenced by African American films and television shows, Chinese action flicks, Japanese manga, and African American and Chinese American ethnic enclaves. To reduce black and Asian characters to sidekicks in these stories, to roll out with a Defenders team that includes one lone black man as the only person of color? Is decidedly racist. A New York City where the stories of people of color are subordinate to the stories of white people is a lie and a travesty. I want the truth of equality. I was born there. I know New York City’s reality. My family is a part of it. My friends are a part of it. And a large percentage of them are not white.
A chunk of them are however! So, once more, what I what is equality. Marvel has done a fabulous job weaving a thread of the story of the Irish in New York City into Matt Murdock’s tale. I am crossing my fingers that they do the same with Frank Castle’s Italian American background. (Don’t let the last name fool you. If you think for one moment that the Punisher isn’t Italian I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) But I would have much preferred a series featuring Angela Del Toro to one featuring Jessica Jones. And I am disappointed that a biracial actor was not chosen to play Iron Fist. Moreover, Luke Cage’s introduction in Jessica Jones has me skittish in regards to how African American culture in New York City will be showcased.
As I’ve said, a lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist. And we’ll discuss that a bit later.
The Marvel-Netflix series of shows has been a success both financially and creatively. Daredeviland Jessica Jones have not only remained faithful to the core attributes of its lead characters but have also stretched the notion of what the masses expect from a superheroic tale. Both works are darker than other fare from Marvel—clearly indicating comic heroes aren’t for kids anymore—utilizing quirky examinations of adult themes rather than juvenile titillation to make said statement.
Jessica Jones in particular has connected with an adult white female audience—a group woefully underserved where action projects are concerned (though inroads have been made with projects like Mad Max: Fury Road). However, where both Daredevil and Jessica Jones take great pains to examine the role of the white vigilante (or in a broader capacity, whiteness in urban society) and how it has morphed since the glory days of Batman, depictions of people of color suffer greatly for it.
It is both frustrating and exciting to watch. Jessica Jones dives headfirst into the topic of consent and its requirement for a true and healthy relationship. Jessica’s abuse by the hands of Kilgrave, and Patricia Walker’s dysfunctional romance with Will Simpson highlight the patriarchal need to dominate and diminish the role of women. However, unlike a by-the-numbers Lifetime movie, a tale of empowerment is woven using elements of science fiction as connecting threads. Kilgrave’s mind-control abilities push his tormenting above and beyond that of the average anonymous social-media bully, causing not only mental anguish for his victims but physical pain as well. Simpson, a rogue cop fueled by pharmaceuticals, attempts to control the movements of the women in his life via superhuman abilities. The character is perhaps even more frightening than Kilgrave in that Simpson shows that an abuser can wear a mask of kindness and can easily be a man one has been willingly intimate with.
Jessica’s physical strength saves the day, but not without the assistance of two very important things: smart women working in tandem and a higher socioeconomic status than others. Trish’s and Jeri’s money and notoriety provide access that would be otherwise impossible to obtain—from a favor from a morgue attendant to classified corporate documents to a speedy and medically sound abortion.
It is here where Jessica Jones shines and also falters. The familial bonds between Jessica and Trish as well as the snide working repartee between Jessica and Jeri are a delight to see. The show glorifies both sisterhood and women who are exceptional at their jobs. Women are shown in leadership positions in entertainment, in medicine, in law, and in criminal justice; the capability of said women is not questioned by the show—only by male characters who are rebuffed for doing so. Women do not need men to take care of them in Jessica Jones, but they are willing to exploit the white-supremacist society those men have built to aid them in their goals. Male characters of color suffer to serve Jessica; female characters of color are utilized to move the story along (and provide the show’s fleeting glimpse of lingerie-clad female objectification), but they are given little to no characterization or voice. Jessica Jones’ sisterhood welcomes members of only one type.
The treatment of Luke Cage is perhaps the most egregious given the character’s history as a Blaxploitation-era figure of empowerment. That history is gone in Jessica Jones—the character becoming a tabula rasa to aid in Jessica’s story. Luke’s cultural ties have been severed. No longer situated in Harlem, he runs a bar in Jessica’s integrated neighborhood. His past as a private investigator—one more skilled than Jessica herself—has also been taken from him. It is Jessica who shows him the ropes as a PI and compliments him for being a quick study. Luke Cage, a character with deep roots in northern African-American subcultures and an origin that highlights the racism of the prison industrial complex and the need for black people to work independently for their own justice, has been changed into a character wholly dependent on a white woman for instruction and closure in the case of his dead wife—a wife killed by the woman whose bed he routinely occupies as an emotional and physical salve. He is a private dick in the worst of all possible ways.
Malcolm Ducasse, a young black man twisted into a junkie spy by Kilgrave, does not fare much better. Jessica turns society’s irrational suspicion of black men against itself by using Malcolm’s presence as a distraction in order to steal items that will aid in her client’s release from prison. To reiterate, she offers Malcolm up to the system to free a young white woman from the same. Moreover, she extends Malcolm’s time in mental bondage to Kilgrave because it is advantageous to her. To Jessica’s credit she feels guilt regarding these actions, but what help is her guilt to a man railroaded into the system? Once Malcolm is freed from Kilgrave’s mental grip he does not return to his promising career, or to his family, but instead remains by Jessica’s side—fielding calls for her company and showing concern for her sobriety. And that is where we leave him, waiting for season two.
Would I recommend watching Jessica Jones or Daredevil? Yes, depending on the individual asking, for both works send different messages to two distinct groups. Unfortunately, as a black woman I am not in the group that is championed or empowered. I can hope for that to change with the addition of Luke Cage and Iron Fist to the Netflix slate, but I am still wary. And given Marvel’s history? I have reason to be.
Okay, you poor souls have suffered through enough Marvel thinkpieces for one day! Of that I’m certain. Next up? I play Daredevil’s advocate.
I’ve been thinking a bit about physical comedy lately. I adore the accidental nature of it—the element of surprise, the spontaneity. Pranks and pratfalls are the easiest way to get a rise out of me—laughter should I be a witness and fury should I be a victim. Don’t try to prank me. It will not end well.
But what is the funniest moment of the prank or pratfall? My answer would depend on the medium used to tell the story—prose, a comic strip, or live action and animation. With live action and animation, the most humorous moment is the moment of surprise, the instant where a deviation from how the victim believed things would occur takes place. The sucker punch. The pie in the eye. The dishes crashing to the floor. I believe that when creating a comic (“chopping” the action into static images) the most hilarious moment of the action changes, occurring when the reader’s anticipation of the victim’s surprise is at its height. As readers, we quickly fill in the blanks, creating an image in our mind’s eye before our actual eyes can gaze upon the panel containing the action’s climax. And so the panel of the victim “talking junk”—blissfully unaware that the shadow of his attacker has fallen upon him—becomes funnier than the attack. In some instances depicting the final action is not even necessary; a cut away from the action to a different scene altogether allows the reader to participate as a storyteller, the climax limited only by his or her imagination.