Saturday, December 18, 2010

"That thing that inspires people-" - On "AKA Jessica Jones", Empowered and Joss Whedon

(Bear with me here, as this is sort of a shaggy dog and I haven't blogged in a VERY long time.)

So, I recently heard that one of my favorite comic book series featuring one of my favorite "superheroines" (retired as she was) is hitting the small screen. Jessica Jones, ex-superheroine, Private Investigator, hard-drinking badass who is so much more awesome than she gives herself credit for getting a TV show? My mind was blown. I found it it was going to be called "AKA Jessica Jones" which is fine, as it can't be called "Alias" of course, due to there already being a show called that. I then heard who was making it - the gal who wrote "Twilight" and did some work with the "Birds of Prey" TV Series (and, marginally to her credit, the TV Show Dexter). And it was going to be on ABC rather than a cable network. As another blogger put it "no F-bombs for Jessica [...] is like Batman without his Batarangs". My enthusiasm kinda curdled after hearing all of that.

It's not that Jessica Jones has to be crude to be great. She just has to be herself - refreshingly human, swears and all. This is a character that responds to being saved from drowning by a Norse God with vomiting and swearing, not wonder and alliteration. I hold some slight hope that she'll make the transition intact. There have been great, troubled female characters who fight crime on TV - Sarah Shahi's Detective Dani Reese on "Life" comes to mind just a for example (if you liked the comic book series 52, I highly recommend that show). I just care so much about Jessica Jones' character that she's actually one of my favorite superheroines. She makes my Top 5, easy, both as the messy character she was and as the loving, confident and fierce heroine she has become. And all this thought of "Can they adapt her successfully to a mainstream TV show?" led me to other two other big thoughts.

Thought One: Why do I care so damn much if this show sucks?

Thought Two: What TV Show with a Superheroine would really work the best on Cable?

The answer to the first one was sort of obvious - Jessica Jones is not a cipher. She's portrayed as a human being, one I can empathize with because she not only makes mistakes, she makes mistakes KNOWING that they're mistakes. She drinks, she has self-worth issues, she does the right thing but rarely gives herself enough credit. I see a lot of myself in her and every triumph she painstakingly makes in the course of her series, the redemptive arc she travels, all of it feels celebratory in a personal way I don't get reading Superman or Batman*. She makes an impression and she gets over her worst fear on her own terms. That's important. And when I thought about who else I wanted to get a TV show, one of my other Top 3 Superheroines came to mind - Empowered. And a light went off in my head.

There was a poet who said "the only ones for me are the mad ones". For me, in many ways, the only ones are the struggling ones.**

Jessica Jones and Empowered might not seem to have a lot in common. Jessica Jones is an embittered PI who quits the Superhero gig after a nightmarish experience. Empowered - Elissa Megan Powers - is a superheroine whose often tetchy supersuit leaves her with a D-list reputation but is fanatically determined to rise above it and become an A-lister. One wears street clothes, the other is forced to wear what is essentially a meta-commentary on slutty superheroine outfits. One's full of bitterness that butts against her inner optimism and heroism, while the other's optimism and heroism fights against bitterness that would stop any sane person from trying to do good at all.

Both of them have one thing happen in their first volumes - men don't take them seriously. Their lives are unsavory and unhappy at the start. But later, the same people who dismiss them are much worse off for it.

Jessica Jones gets dismissed by two male cops, grilled by a vindictive police detective, attacked by a man who practically has "manhandle" in his name. Empowered gets trussed up, captured, dismissed as a worthless excuse for a superheroine and damn near believes the hype. At the end of their first arcs, however, Jessica's tracked down the men who thought they could use her to their own ends while Emp has effortlessly saved her new boyfriend from death. Neither win is a clean win done on their own . . . but on the same token neither one of them realizes just how much better, noble and good they are, how much more awesome than they give themselves credit for at the end of their stories. And with each story after that, these women become more self-aware, self-assured and do more good for themselves and others. Best of all? Love, a BFF girlfriend and slow, gradual increases of self-esteem help them along the way. There are obvious differences but I still love them both for putting the "Human" into "Superhuman".

I love characters who both show realistic flaws and grow as people. Women who are complex and have more power than they realize illustrate to people who aren't perfect that they don't have to be Wonder Woman to make the world and themselves better. I would kill for a Jessica Jones show on cable but I'll settle for a show with her on ABC if it's done right. If she's still flawed, human, gutsy, brave and full of bite and strength. But you know who else I'd love to see get the TV series treatment? Empowered. And I would want it to be done by Joss Whedon.

So, why him?

While I know the upcoming Avengers film is his current focus, I think Empowered would be the perfect vehicle for Joss Whedon - one way or the other. I disliked Dollhouse but was never sure if the distasteful premise would have been better if, as Whedon claimed, he got to use it to say things he wanted to say about women being seen and used as sex objects (he has been quoted as saying Fox backed away from the sex and demanded generic action, much to his chagrin). That's the thing about Joss Whedon, tho'. For every complex, contradictory and awesome Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg or River Tam, there's the punishment of damn near every character who seems to have sex or a happy adult relationship. All his fine speeches seem to butt up against a strange cruelty to his characters and an odd streak of tawdriness. Call them Companions, call them Dolls - I call it kinda fishy and off-putting. Even Buffy Season 8 has Dawn being punished for sex across several issues, has Buffy and Angel's frantic coupling result in demons pouring forth to wreak havoc and inflict death. While I have loved Firefly/Serenity, Angel, Astonishing X-Men and many other of his works I honestly want to see Joss Whedon's "Empowered" on a cable network . . . just so he'd have absolutely no excuses and nowhere to hide how he really feels about sex and the women who have it.

Much like Jessica Jones, Empowered is a character who has sex when she feels bad about herself but unlike Jessica, the sex is never demeaning or nihilistic (although one could argue they both use it as "comfort food"). Her boyfriend loves and respects the hell out of her. He was a bad guy, a minion and worse, but meeting Empowered on the job and seeing her genuine earnestness, her heart and determination turned him over to the side of good. Another of her best friends is Ninjette, former Ninja-for-hire also turned to the side of the angels after talking to her. Even a Demonic Galactic Overlord of Kirby-esque dimensions she captures in a belt-shaped device becomes a dear friend via Stockholm Syndrome and teary bonding over DVDs . . . of Buffy Season 5 (among other shows but, well, there you are).

Sure, there's problematic things about Empowered. Unlike Jessica Jones, Empowered is forced to endure being dismissed as sexualized ideal, a blonde in a skimpy superheroine outfit. She has to fight to be taken seriously every time she goes out to try and make the world better. Every woman who's been dismissed as just a face, an ass, a set of breasts, ect while striving to do a job better than her male coworkers can empathize with her. And for all of Joss Whedon's flaws, Buffy Summers was his angry response to the idea that the blonde who has sex and is fun and funny deserves to be murdered for it in the most gruesome way possible. Buffy Summers was a beautiful blonde girl who was also human, heartbreaking and complex. Buffy came from one man seeing the blonde girl who was just a sexy prop designed to be murdered and his getting angry, his saying "No more." Empowered came from Adam Warren being told to draw a prop, a supergirl tied up, bound and helpless, and demanding instead that people see a beautiful, heroic human being with a heart. Jessica Jones' worst nightmare, the thing that drove her away from embracing her power, was being reduced to a servant and prop for a controlling madman. Alias was the story of her coming back from that experience stronger than before, with a raw, angry voice that would not be denied. That was the story Brian Michael Bendis set out to tell with her and it was a necessary story that I felt was amazingly told.

There's a reason I love all of these characters, problems be damned. They're heroines who were created in order to stand up and refuse to be labeled as "just the sexy girl".

This is why I'd love to see Whedon write Empowered. Just to see what would happen. Could Whedon finally write a character who saves the day and still has sex as part of a happy couple? Could he do it without strange, unsavory undercurrents? Lord knows, I think it would be revealing as all hell to find out.

But back to the matter that started all these thoughts - will AKA Jessica Jones be an amazing tour de force or another bland Birds of Prey? I'm hopeful that she'll be every inch as vibrant, as damaged and as wonderful as we know she has been. I'm hopeful that we, as viewers, will be able to be taken on a similar journey where she learns just how powerful she can be and just how much strength she has inside. I don't even need to know she'll be swearing - I just need to trust that she'll still have her own voice - loud, brassy and refusing to be silenced. And every time she wins, we win by proxy.

Whether it's Buffy Summers, Elissa Megan Powers or Jessica Jones, I want to hear a woman stand up and say that it's okay to be human, that you can be imperfect and strong at the same time - even if we need a superheroine vehicle for her to do it.

I want to watch a heroine on that TV screen I can identify with again.


*This is not to say that Batman or Superman are bad characters. I love them both. It's just that they are almost never allowed to be seen as vulnerable, as emotionally open to change.

Superman's the best of us and that's great - that's the way he should be. His relationship with Lois is wonderful and inspiring because it feels like they are equals. Even so, he's almost never portrayed as vulnerable in a way that feels honest or compelling - this nonsense with him walking around the USA, for instance, misses the forest for the trees. He doesn't have to walk amongst humanity - he is humanity. But that's another post entirely.

And as for Batman? I love him to death but decades later and Batman's only let a handful of people into his heart and almost never says "I love you" romantically.

These are things I want to see and to my irritation, outside of Cyclops and a handful of others, I can almost never find a superhero that makes me nod as I watch them open their hearts and figure out what really makes them tick. Just my opinion, of course. Feel free to disagree with me or, even better, list superheroes I may not know about in the comments.

**This isn't to say that I only love damaged characters, just that I find them the most compelling. Taken to the most extreme example, members of the Secret Six or Emma Frost are characters so profoundly broken, for instance, that I exult in every act they make on the side of the angels and love them to pieces. I see my messiness in their messiness and either learn lessons from their strides towards being whole or guiltily relish that I'm not quite as broken.

But on the other side of the coin, I absolutely adore characters that are fully committed to their ethics, themselves and their mission. These men and women who know who they are and make no apologies for it? I love them because they inspire me to be better. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Steve Rogers - they are superheroes I love because I want to learn from their example. I want to be able to stand up tall and proud, knowing that who I am has value, that I should not apologize for who I am. And if you feel that I'm contradicting myself here, I'll just pretentiously quote another poet and say that "I contain multitudes". But don't we all?

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