Monday, February 1, 2016

Masculinity Monday: About Malcolm from 'Jessica Jones'...


Today marks the first day of Black History Month, and in honor of that we're going to do something a little bit different here at Kiss My Wonder Woman. This year we want to spend a lot more time talking about issues of race and color in popular culture, so for Black History Month, every Masculinity Monday and Strong Female Character Friday will be exclusively dealing with black characters, shows, and situations. We're also going to extend this all year - in May we'll spend all month looking at Asian-Pacific Islander characters. We'll grab Hispanic Heritage Month, Arab American Heritage Month, and Native American Heritage Month too.

The point here isn't that we're catering to different demographics (though we're not really above that) or that I've been shamed into doing this. This is a personal challenge for myself to spend more time looking at and praising characters of color - if I can't come up with enough characters for each of these months, that's a sign that there's something very wrong with what I'm watching and reading, and that's not cool.

Look, we here at Kiss My Wonder Woman believe that stories are a way to reflect the world around us, and that by reflecting the world we can influence it. It's worth our time to seek out innovative and compelling stories about people of color because those are the stories we need right now. We need to see characters of color properly represented in our media so that we can learn to better tolerate and understand each other. At least that's the goal.

So with all of that said, let's look at our first topic of the month: Malcolm Ducasse from Marvel's Jessica Jones.

I've been meaning to talk about Malcolm Ducasse for a while, ever since I started watching Jessica Jones, but this provides a perfect opportunity to dig into the character, because Malcolm in a lot of ways embodies the issues surrounding representations of African American men in American pop culture. He's sort of an encapsulation of the tropes we most associate with them, and also an indication of how we can do better.

As a quick recap, Malcolm (Eka Darville) is one of the regular characters in Jessica Jones, appearing from the very beginning as Jessica's neighbor. He's not the best of neighbors when we meet him, mistakenly breaking into Jessica's apartment and eating her peanut butter because he's too high to know that he's not in his own place. Jessica for the most parts is hands off with him and Malcolm exists in the background of what we see. He's a junkie, a sweet guy, sure, who offers to sell his (stolen) TV so Jessica can get some money, but he's not reliable or really even much of a character. He's background color (pun intended), there to show how gritty and dark Jessica's world is.

All of this changes when, a couple of episodes in, we discover that Malcolm is actually working for the bad guy - Kilgrave. Malcolm has been following Jessica under Kilgrave's orders and taking pictures of her every day, pictures which he then gives to Kilgrave in exchange for heroin. It even comes out that the only reason Malcolm is a drug addict is because Kilgrave brain-whammied him into trying drugs in the first place. He was originally training to be a social worker and was a perfectly functional guy before Kilgrave got his claws in.

From this perspective, of course, Malcolm is then redeemable. All Jessica has to do is break him from Kilgrave's control and get him clean - he won't be inclined to go back to drugs because he wasn't inclined to go on them in the first place, right? And for all that this sounds like a kind of dumb plan, it works. Jessica manages to detox Malcolm in about a couple of days, allowing him to stay over at her apartment, and then he's fine. He's wearing button-up shirts again and starting support groups and reconnecting with his parents. Just like that, Malcolm is all better.

From this moment on, he becomes Jessica's biggest cheerleader after Trish, a person who is literally willing to get rid of a dead body for her. Other than one relatively minor blip in faith, Malcolm stays very loyal to Jessica, and the end of the season sees him cleaning the wreckage from her apartment without a word of complaint. 

So Malcolm goes from a hopeless drug addict to a helpful, useful member of society in the course of a season. How could I possibly have a problem with that?

Well, my problems basically stem from one basic thing: everything about Malcolm's drug use and recovery is too damn easy. It really feels like a cop-out when we discover that literally the only reason he uses drugs is because Kilgrave made him, and it cheapens the plot when he is able to get clean so easily and completely. 

The problem is not so much with the broad outline of his character arc on the show, but with the specifics and the execution. Instead of creating a character who feels realistic and tragic and compelling, Malcolm kind of becomes a stand-in for how white America can fix the problems of the inner city in one fell swoop.

Hear me out.

Despite Eka Darville being a freaking phenomenal actor who broke my heartstrings, Malcolm as a character doesn't really have much to do. He doesn't contribute a whole lot to the story as a whole, but rather tends to stand in for Jessica's emotional state at any given moment. When she's jaded and drinking too much and running from herself, he's a junkie who's friendly but not helpful. When she's starting to get back in the game, he's suddenly relevant and his problems are as real and present as hers. Even more, they very literally represent her failings: Kilgrave was only able to get his claws in Malcolm because she, Jessica, didn't make sure that Kilgrave was dead.

Further into the story, as Jessica starts to believe that Kilgrave can be beaten, Malcolm is able to make a miraculous recovery from his drug problems. When she falls into despair and decides she can't get close to anyone because she's horrible, he hates her and literally leaves to get away. 

Finally, at the end, when Jessica is learning to forgive herself and move on, Malcolm just so happens to be there, signaling his forgiveness with housework. Do you see what I mean? Very little of what Malcolm does in the season is actually about him. The majority of his arc is really about Jessica, and that's not great.

That's not the most problematic aspect of his story, though. The really unpleasant stuff comes when we start looking analytically at Malcolm's drug use and recovery. See, it's kind of a big deal for a Marvel superhero show to feature a main character who is addicted to drugs. That's dark, even for comic books. On the surface it feels like a good move, especially since this is a redemption story where Malcolm goes on to be helpful and wonderful and do the right things.

By making Malcolm's addiction and recovery all about external forces, however, the show effectively shoots itself in the foot. Rather than becoming a hard-hitting look at the real problems of narcotic abuse in America, Malcolm is a plot device. He's addicted because a bad man made him and he gets better because a nice white lady told him to. The end. 

In case you couldn't guess, this story is so reductionist as to be actively harmful. By presenting the idea that addiction is something that one can just "get over", even when that addiction was forced onto you by outside forces, the show cheapens the stories of real addicts struggling to get clean. 

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of having a character like Malcolm slowly crawling out of his pit and coming back to the world, and I'm even okay with the idea of his addiction being kickstarted by an evil mastermind. 

But for this story to work, we have to see Malcolm himself doing some of the heavy lifting. Here Malcolm has very little agency in either direction. He doesn't decide to do drugs and he doesn't decide to get clean. He's a ping-pong ball.

All of this becomes more complicated when we talk about race. Obviously this story wouldn't be better if Malcolm were white, but there's something discomfiting in having a character who so fully fits into our stereotypes of aberrant black masculinity being saved by a white woman. Malcolm is everything that white people in the suburbs are told to fear about black people in the city. He's a drug addict. He steals. He's "shiftless" - whatever that means - and creepy. He follows around a white woman all day and takes pictures of her. The horror!

But once we know that Malcolm isn't really a drug addict, that this was all Kilgrave's doing, we're allowed to see that Malcolm is actually very respectable and nice and kind and sweet and wanted to be a social worker of all things. So now he's redeemable and Jessica can save him. Before we knew that his addiction was forced on him, the story had no intention of saving him. It's only now that we understand his addiction isn't his fault that he's respectable enough to be saved.

That's not good. That's actually actively bad. Malcolm shouldn't have to be secretly respectable and high-achieving in order to be worth helping. While the discovery of his past does make him all the more of a tragic character in the show and it's a great dramatic reveal, from a meta perspective, it sucks. Malcolm is literally just a background character until he fits into our respectability politics, and then he's fine and should be saved. Even more, he is saved and very quickly.

Imagine for a minute how the story would be different if we never find out that Malcolm used to be a social worker before Kilgrave got him. Imagine how it would be different if Malcolm were a heroin user already, and Kilgrave just leveraged that to his benefit. Would Malcolm be any less worth saving? The issue is that the story seems to suggest he would. That if Malcolm weren't so gosh darned nice and good and decent before he got hooked on drugs, Jessica would be justified in leaving him there to rot. 

Our culture does not have a good history with the representation of black men on screen, especially not with black men like Malcolm. The only really solid case I can think of where a character like Malcolm was handled really well was Andre Royo's portrayal of Bubbles on The Wire, and it really feels like cheating to have to go all the way to The Wire for an example here. Our track record with showing black men wrestling with addiction on television in particular is not good. You might go so far as to call it aggressively awful.

Malcolm's character was a chance to get this right, to tell a complex story about addiction and recovery and backsliding and the messy truth of getting better alongside the complex and beautifully told story the show was already telling about abuse and recovery. 

Making Malcolm's story fleshed out and real would only have made the show better, but by keeping it all wrapped up in Jessica and a shadow of what real recovery is like, the show did itself a disservice. I mean, this is the one real clunker in Jessica Jones. I love Malcolm and I will defend him to the death, but his story could have been so much better.

Worse, by showing recovery as something easy and permanent, Jessica Jones is actually doing an active disservice to its audience. It's perpetuating the myth that people who constantly relapse into addiction are just weak-willed. This is not the case - will has very little to do with it. In reality, the biggest ways for someone to recover for good involve some backsliding as the person is slowly reintegrated into society and relationships. Malcolm's recovery isn't just narratively undeveloped, it's factually wrong. That's not how this works, and by saying that it is, Jessica Jones is spreading harmful lies.

All of this matters because, well, Malcolm and the real people he represents in this story matter. There is a perception that black men, particularly black men living in the inner city, are dangerous and bad and probably on drugs. Malcolm doesn't help that, obviously, but he also plays into the white community's unpleasant habit of equating respectability with worth. 

It's only when Malcolm is a clean, educated black man that he's worthy of saving, and that's a big problem when we consider how this portrayal of black masculinity is going to affect our subconscious views of the people around us.

So. Malcolm Ducasse. He's a great idea from far away, but the closer you look the more you can see that Jessica Jones and all of American pop culture has a lot more work to do.

You deserved better.

2 comments:

  1. All good points, which I hadn't really thought of before.

    From this moment on, he becomes Jessica's biggest cheerleader after Trish, a person who is literally willing to get rid of a dead body for her.

    I can see this on one level. The drugs created an addictive streak in him that ought to remain even after detox, that being what addiction is. But the drugs came about because of having his mind violated by Killgrave, so going back onto them may be terrifying in a way they might not be for most addicts or ex-addicts.

    And so he transfers his addiction to Jessica - who got him off them, and who many times helped him back from the elevator to his apartment (however minimal an act that might be for her, it's probably the most care anyone's taken of him in all that time). Jessica's becomes whiskey.

    But I had to come up with all of that. I don't *see* it like I do with everything between Jessica and Trish or Luke.

    So, yeah, I have to admit you're right.

    As an aside, Jessica says at one point that she doesn't like talking about what Killgrave did to her because they're always someone who's had it worse. For the most part, she's probably taking about Trish, who was abused not by a chance sociopath but by the person who should have been her foremost protector. But I wonder if she would count Malcolm as that too.

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    1. That is a super interesting theory, actually. I think the idea of Malcolm being "addicted" to Jessica in substitute of any drug is absolutely fascinating. I mean, from the meta perspective it doesn't really help matters, but from an in world view it's super cool.

      I did really think that Jessica's comment on "someone always having it worse" was a deliberate character choice and an interesting one, but I'll admit that I hadn't actually connected it to Trish. That makes more sense than the vague whatever I had going on.

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