Stop what you’re doing because if you haven’t watched the Netflix series Jessica Jones or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I am about to ruin both for you. So hard. I like to think of myself as a generally decent person, so I don’t want to be the one who spoils either for you. So now is the time to turn away from the blinding spoiler light emitting from my pithy words below. Please return when you are ready to stare into the sun. Also, I’m going to put a trigger warning right here because I discuss the theme of sexual assault in said words.
Okay, now that we’re all here and caught up, let’s talk about Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Miss Jessica Jones in the Netflix original, Jessica Jones. Why? Well, for one, why not? And “B,” because I think what is happening with these two ladies is pretty amazing.
Not long ago, in pop culture discussions happening not so far away, the label “Strong Female Character” (SFC) became pejorative. The SFC started coming accessorized with air-quotes and eye-rolls as reviewers and fans challenged the writers creating these potentially fantastic, strong women in sci-fi, fantasy, action, and horror stories because their characters ended up either missing the mark completely or coming so frustratingly close you wanted to take the creators and the characters by their collective shoulders and give them a good shake.
Writer Tasha Robinson took the SFC to task in an article on The Dissolve when she examined central casting and marketing teams’ versions of the SFC. She calls out these one-dimensional SFCs who exist either merely for lip service during junkets or function simply to motivate the male protagonist in their stories. Robinson points out that, like a girl who makes it to third base and through the credits in an 80’s horror movie, it is rare to find an SFC who is nuanced, complex, and progresses the story in some way outside of making our male hero more manly and/or heroic.
Robinson called it “Trinity Syndrome” after Carrie-Anne Moss’s character in The Matrix films. You see, Moss’s Trinity is a Strong Female Character with massive potential that goes unrealized; aside from letting Neo know he is amazing, she does little to progress the plot. Removing Trinity from her role as great revealer she could be and do so much more; it is a let down for viewers and ignores a wealth of unexplored potential. She goes on to list a bevy of other films, such as Wildstyle in The Lego Movie and Valka in How to Train Your Dragon 2, where we see female heroines who fall flat or leave so much potential in the circular files of the writer’s room. Robinson’s Trinity Syndrome picks up where the Bechdel Test leaves off, and represents all of those missed opportunities for fantastic female characters and storylines in film, TV, comics, and genre-literature, despite the potential for an embarrassment of creative spoils. It’s a great read, so if you haven’t checked it out, click on over – I’ll wait here.
Now, here is why I’m all up in your computer screen today, writing words, being all “1’s” and “0’s.” This is a big moment for pop-culture connoisseurs who have been thirsting for a (lower-case and coordinate-adjective) strong, female character. I submit for your consideration Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Krysten Ritter’s Jessica in Jessica Jones. The writing, swoon! The acting, double swoon! Both TFA & Jessica Jones make child’s play of The Bechdel test (SW:TFS; JJ), both have beautifully written, fierce female characters that defy central casting and the Trinity Syndrome, and both are pop-culture zeitgeist despite being centered around – gasp – strong, female characters.
We all find the lack of Rey merchandise disturbing, not just because the internet likes to get mad about all of the things, but because The Force Awakens is Rey’s story. Rey is the Jedi we have been looking for, she is this generation’s Skywalker. (Yes, I am pitching my tent in the Luke-is-Rey’s-Father camp.) I think Abrams and Kasdan made a clear point of letting us know this is Rey’s story the moment that lightsaber flew past Kylo Ren and into her hands. This could have easily become a story centered on Ren, and between the current thirst for the anti-hero and the focus of the prequels I wondered for a moment if that might be the case with this new trilogy. I let out a sigh of relief when the earth split at Rey’s toes and a chasm opened between her and Ren, beautifully and pointedly illustrating her triumph over her impulse toward the dark side. A moment that I believe foreshadowed what we are being set up for over the next two films – a story that, similar to the original trilogy, centers on the hero’s journey of a powerful, lady Jedi.
A little lump formed in my throat when Rey climbed into the pilot’s seat of the Millennium Falcon, having accepted the torch that General Leia Organa passed along with six simple and powerful words, “May the force be with you.” That moment was an official acknowledgement of the torch’s passing, and, I believe, makes Han’s death necessary to the story rather than simply ending his character for shock value or reducing him to a mere device to advance Ren’s story. (Or, sure, giving Harrison Ford a graceful way to bow out of the rest of the films even though he clearly is so attached to the character of Han…. There really needs to be special punctuation for sarcasm.)
I wanted to slow-clap so hard when Abrams and Kasdan shattered the trope wherein the SFC’s capture and/or rescue serves only to empower or motivate our male hero. TFA clearly acknowledges both the existence of said trope, and then boldly defies it when we see Chewie, Han, and Finn in the Starkiller Base conferring on how to save Rey. As they are talking we cut to Rey, scaling the walls of the Base after having saved herself quite effectively, thank you very much.
It is worth noting TFA doesn’t come without it’s problems, however. One scene in particular set my blood to boil a bit. When Rey is captured and brought back to the Starkiller Base she is restrained with Ren circling her and trying to get information about the map to Luke Skywalker. When Ren leans in close, breathing down her neck, threatening to take the information using The Force, the rape innuendo in that moment is unmistakable. Here’s me throwing down my 3-D glasses and saying, “Can’t we have one film where a powerful woman doesn’t have a rape threat held over her? Gah.” Here’s me sitting back down, but with a mad look on my face.
Next we have recent binge-watch buzz, Jessica Jones. Set in the Marvel Comic Universe, Jessica Jones offers a female title character who is dark and beautifully complex. Despite Jessica’s birthplace in pulp, pen and ink, she is a comic book heroine who doesn’t lead the frame with her breasts, and who wears motorcycle boots and heavy leather instead of spandex or something that belongs in one of “those” adult stores. Admittedly her spandex is retired, but she doesn’t wear it in the show or in the Alias comics so I stand by my assertion. Jessica plays on the periphery of the typical “Action Girl,” but she shuns the one-dimensional, sexualized, asexual portrayal of a SFC a’la Vasquez in Aliens.
Jessica is grappling with life after being held captive and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Zebadiah Kilgrave, a terrifying character who has the power of mind control. During the 13 episodes we spend with her, Jessica faces down her captor after learning Kilgrave is pursuing her from the shadows, and he has taken control of another victim. (All fan-girling aside, Tennant turns in a haunting performance on the same level as Heath Ledger’s Joker. He imbues Kilgrave with just a hint of charm and vulnerability, which elevates his character from terrifying to horrifying. I can’t begin to tell you how disconcerting it was to have David Tennant nightmares while binging this series.) In and of it’s self the confrontation is interesting because in most fiction we typically see female sexual abuse survivors experience a gentle reawakening and redemption thanks to the love of a leading man. Jessica, on the other hand, not only confronts her abuser, but asserts her sexuality and her ownership of it when she has superhero sexy times with Luke Cage. It is, admittedly, problematic that she is drunk when she has said sexy times. However, Jessica is a high functioning alcoholic so it is, arguably, still an empowering moment of development for her character. I readily admit the circumstances make this theory worthy of further discussion.
As we get further into the series, Kilgrave’s perceived, or better yet contrived, vulnerability offers the opportunity for Jessica to fall into another tired, standard storyline handed to female characters when they are paired with damaged leading men. You know the one – girl rescues irredeemable man, making him a better person before riding off into the sunset to have lots of babies and argue over the thermostat temperature for the rest of their lives. When Jessica sat in Trish’s living room, gulping whisky and considering handing her life over to Kilgrave to pair their powers for good I wondered if that was where her story was headed. However, Jessica Jones show runner Melissa Rosenberg, who incidentally was the screenwriter for the penultimate girl-saves-damaged-boy-vampire-who-sparkles story, directly confronts that trope and blissfully smashes it when Jessica returns to the bunker to continue torturing Kilgrave to illicit evidence of his mind control abilities.
I can’t do a better job talking about the whole paradigm of control and manipulation that is fundamental to Jessica Jones than Jessica Lachinal did on The Mary Sue. So I am going to put this link right here, and say it is required reading. From the demands to “smile” on command and mind control, to discounting Jessica’s abilities and outright lying in an attempt to wrest control from our female protagonist, control and manipulation is directly confronted in the storylines for Kilgrave and Trish’s boyfriend, Will Simpson. Seriously, read it – it is good stuff.
Finally! Here are two characters who look like me, and are kicking serious butt. (Oh how I wish I meant that literally, but, alas, it is not to be, and I mean in the complex-person-with-lady-bits way.) When someone mentions either one of my girls – and they are my girls – my eyes light up and my mouth or fingers are set to go-mode. (Earlier this week my iPhone may or may not have autocorrected “right” to “Rey” because it is a sentient being, and was pretty sure I meant to talk about TFA instead of giving someone directions.) I can’t stop talking about them.
I’m going to go for broke and say Rey and Jessica have me excited about what is in store for women in pop-culture in 2016 and beyond. Why? Because, even though some toy makers seem to think otherwise (shoots evil look at a certain real estate game), I have to believe screenwriters can’t ignore the buzz around these fantastically written heroines. And I hold out hope that Rey and Jessica have issued a challenge to all of those writers who are debating what to do with the women in their scripts, books, and cells.
About the author: Melody Meiners is a St. Louis-based freelance writer, editor, and ghostwriter for hire. When she isn’t writing or reading words, she spends her time devouring all of the pop-culture and theater. You can find her on Twitter (@cosmosgirl) when she really should be writing, and you can read her pithy jokes about her children on her blog (MrsSmartyPants.com).
Melody Meiners is a freelance writer, developmental editor, and ghostwriter for hire located in St Louis, MO. When she isn’t writing or reading words, she spends her time devouring all of the pop-culture or teaching fiction writing and literature classes for STLCC @ Meramec’s CE program. You can find her on Twitter (@cosmosgirl) when she really should be writing, and you can read her pithy jokes about her children on her blog (MrsSmartyPants.com).