This post contains light spoilers and triggers as related to the Netflix original series Marvel’s Jessica Jones. You have been warned.
I want to like romantic comedies. They’re movies with women leads and they’re supposed to be lighthearted and funny. In a world of triggers, a romantic comedy should be a safer choice than a gritty drama full of murder and gore. And yet, I find Jessica Jones almost reassuring for how it subverts romcom tropes.
Creepy (sexually aggressive, sexually harassing, stalking) behavior gets labelled as romantic in comedies. Sometimes it’s played for laughs. I remember the first time I watched Back to the Future as a child and avid Michael J. Fox fan, how betrayed I felt by the scene in the past where his father hides in a tree to peek in at his mother changing her clothes. I hated that she got stuck with that man for the rest of her life, raising children with him and sharing a marriage bed with him. Yet it was just supposed to be a momentary joke, a laugh, not a warning that Marty McFly was a bad man. I was able to recognize that for how wrong it was.
Yet when I watched Say Anything as a teen, I wanted Lloyd Dobbler to get the girl, or even better, I wanted to get Lloyd Dobbler. I saw a boyfriend who cared enough to make a grand romantic gesture, standing outside her house playing their song on a boom box held over his head. I didn’t see the boy ignoring her boundaries, refusing to give her space she asked for, denying her the opportunity to begin young adulthood on her own. I just saw love, and so did the writers.
Now that I’m older and more cynical, I can spot the actually-unhealthy “romantic” behaviors more easily. These days I find myself watching television with a pre-emptive cringe; do the writers know that’s unhealthy? Do they think it’s romantic? Are they going to pair these two characters up on the basis of that actually creepy behavior? For all that romantic comedies are supposed to be light and easy, I can find the “romantic” build up to the inevitable pairing painful or even downright triggering.
The villain in Jessica Jones, Kilgrave, is a fan of romance. In one of the most chilling scenes of the entirely chilling first season, he tells Jessica “I am new to love, but I know what it looks like. I do watch television.” That was the moment that let me know I could breathe easy, that I could let that particular guard down in the midst of the parade of trauma triggers that is Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Ahh, I thought, the writers know this is unhealthy – and they know it’s unhealthy even when it’s billed as romance. I can trust them to treat Kilgrave like the villain he is.
I had expected to be triggered watching Jessica Jones. I had been warned by friends that it dealt with topics of abuse and rape and PTSD, that it was hard and brutal. And while all that is true, I haven’t been triggered. The writers understand that what Kilgrave does to Jessica is abuse, not love, and that no matter how convinced of his own romantic nature he is, Kilgrave is first and foremost a predator. This makes all the difference in the world to me. By contrast, I was so badly triggered by the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, and its casual and even titillating treatment of rape, that I had to turn it off before the episode was over to be violently sick for hours.
I can’t speak to anyone else or whether Jessica Jones would trigger them or not. There are certainly numerous potential triggers throughout the show – drug abuse and police brutality and domestic murder are all going on as side stories while Jessica battles Kilgrave and the PTSD he left her with. For me, the recognition of Kilgrave as a villain, of his grand romantic gestures as emotional abuse, of his stalking as predation, is some kind of alchemical magic, transforming the shit of life as a non-man in a rapist man’s world into golden television that somehow heals wounds inside me. It’s not easy television. It’s not lighthearted. But in not being light, in not playing everything for a laugh, it almost seems to say: “I believe you.“
I remember when I first saw the “peepin’ tom” scene in Back to the Future. My feeling was that George McFly wasn’t quite the innocent victim he seemed to be earlier when he was being bullied by Biff in the diner. Even Marty is rather surprised/disappointed by it. George was of course meant to have grown up to be still a timid man being bullied by Biff, though married to Lorraine and no longer peeping at her through her window. At the same time Lorraine was revealed to be quite flirtatious as a teen, to Marty’s surprise because his mother had seemed “square” just like his dad. I suppose Marty’s intervention caused George to stop peeping at Lorraine through her window and actually go and talk to her. I admit that I saw myself in George felt inclined to forgive him for his peeping. I remember an interview with Crispin Glover (who played George) where he said that he disagreed with the ending to the film, George growing up to be “cool” and successful, as was Lorraine and their other children and Biff becoming a pathetic lackey to George and his family. He felt that was too much.
But I agree that there are lot of films where guys do some questionable stuff and it seems to impress the girl. I’d like to use Ferris Beuller’s Day Off as the example. Ferris impersonates his girlfriend’s father and pulls her out of school to be with him, pretending that her Aunt is sick or has died or something. When she realizes that it’s Ferris, she visibly think’s that it’s romantic or cool and rebellious. That part of the movie occurred to me a short while ago and I had to question it. There are plenty of other movies where the women are impressed by a guy I think is an asshole. James Bond movies are perhaps the worst for that. Bond get’s away with some awful treatment of women, perhaps the worst being his rape of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964). And back then more than now, the Bond films were meant to be rather lighthearted. We were supposed to view his treatment of women as amusing.
I’ve not seen Jessica Jones, but I read a good review of it by Anita Sarkeesian who was both appreciative and critical. I understand what you mean about needing to know what the writers think about what they are writing and what they want their viewers to think.
I think film history is loaded with films where a man has gotten a woman to “fall in love him” by dominating her. Do you know of the John Wayne film McLintock! ? He humiliates a woman with a public spanking and that seems to make her become attached to him. I have read from many women who have talked about what impresses them about men and how they expect men to “win their hearts” and I have a hard time respecting women who seem to want men to be invasive and dominating, which somehow is meant to prove their love for them or prove their masculinity. I have a much easier time respecting women who don’t believe that men being dominating and invasive and the feelings that women feel in response to that, some of them almost involuntary, is love. I mean it is possible to make somebody “love” you even if they hate you, by touching them in the right places.
Games of Thrones is all kind of weird. I can’t watch it.