The Incredible and the Marvelous: Jessica, Midge, and so many more
Text : Riddhi Dastidar
Elizabeth Alexander writes a poem called Praise Song For the Day.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
For me 2017 has been the year of figuring it out at kitchen tables, taxis, park swings by work, alone in dark hills, on friend’s spare mattresses, in group-texts and together alone punch-drunk, happy-happy.
It wasn’t happy-happy for a very long time. I clung desperately to people to stay afloat. They came in forms various and surprising, nearly all women.
One of them was the incredible Jessica James, protagonist of this year’s eponymous Netflix film. Jessica is very millennial in her preoccupations- how to keep making art in an indifferent universe, how to cope with major heartbreak, how to do the stumble-strikeapose shuffle of figuring it out in your twenties.
She cultivates a wall full of rejection letters. The whole thing is very much in line with our time of Instagram-brand ‘live your best life’ encouragement. It’s just a little off-center.
So there’s this one scene where the romantic interest has messed up, and he says, “Jessica I really like you”.
BAM! This is where your womanly stomach turns to mush, and you melt. There’s your dose of validation: the dude wants you! But—
“Of course you do,” Jessica says. “Everybody does! I’m friggin’ dope.”
Stops me dead in my tracks. The next day her face is on my wall next to the only other picture there— an awkwardly angled Frances Ha dances—stealing time during lunch hour to make art. Predictable, right? Twenty-something aspiring writer with day-job goes through break-up and walks into the unknown; makes muses of similar women. You got me.
With Maslow’s basics sorted, I have the privilege of wrestling existential angst:
Do I even have anything of importance to say? Will I have the strength to choose being alone over subsuming myself in bad relationships? Will I ever feel surer of myself?
The questions are like a TV-channel the remote is stuck on; you hit mute, but you know they’re lurking there. So when I see Jessica dancing up the stairs, past her neighbour, and on the roof, I recognize the questions and am riveted by how much larger than them she seems.
Can we take a moment to be elated that these loud, self-absorbed women are bursting forth on our screens? More, please.
Fresh out of an abusive relationship, where I’d shrunk myself so very small, Jessica James proclaiming her dopeness seemed positively revolutionary to me. At the time I was also trying to write in all caps on my blank slate: I WANT TO BE A WRITER, PLEASE. Without actually saying it out loud (because how embarrassing).
There’s this part in the film where Jessica meets her playwriting idol and looks for some assurance about when the uncertainty of her career and trajectory will end. She doesn’t get it; instead she’s told: “You love it, and you’re doing it. That’s kind of it.”
Do The Thing. Perhaps you’ll never make it, but you can still make stuff.
So, I did, I Did The Thing.
I set up my single-room with single-string-lights, and meditated in my single-bed in lieu of crying myself to single-sleep.
I woke up early to walk endorphins into my system in the park I’d walked past for a year, and took notes on everything— the house painted Vim-bar-blue, dog-walking couples in matching red joggers, birds plotting on park benches.
I read constantly and stopped responding to t(ex)ts. Slowly, my dreams turned from loss-longing-painful rejection, to lists: Electric Literature-Rumpus-Hazlitt. This is how I start to submit to places.
I Do The Thing.
I return home for Christmas and my mother sighs at my lack of direction, pokes casually at my anxieties in the special way mothers get under your skin years after they stopped being your frame of reference for who to be. All the other children are being promoted at appropriately prestigious jobs or working on prestigious PhDs; every day someone gets engaged. In the meantime, I have gotten a few more tattoos and an undercut.
Jessica suffers a similar affliction. She’s not some cut-out of a Strong Independent Woman though, so she has Tasha, her best friend. They work together, go dancing, vegetate in bed, discuss how many vibrators are enough, and are unflinchingly honest with each other.
After an irresponsible i-pill, I’m a hormonal wreck all day. I text my best friend Shyamli.
I don’t want to feel like this.
THEN DON’T HAVE UNPROTECTED SEX, YOU ASSHOLE.
Yes, that. It’s the kind of radical honesty you can only share with someone when you’re confident in the core of love and understanding you share.
Shyamli, Ahona and I have been best friends since college. Now our shared space is a Whatsapp group that triangles rapid-fire texts between Iowa, Calcutta and Delhi. At one point we named it Oversharing Is Caring. It was a joke but also true as these things go. Here we text the world into sense in real-time, no-filter. We usually pass the Bechdel test. There are a lot of screenshots, mostly mea culpa. It’s convenience- and also absolute trust.
Some months into doing the thing, I meet someone. He spills across my life, quickly colouring everything. I am not down for it. I’d only just begun being just-me, taking up just-me space, thinking about just-me. Besides, dudes are dicks! I am falling in love and trying to doublethink myself out of it at the same time. I faithfully relay it all to my friends: he sends me a song and I’ve already decided before I press play that it’s shit. My friends don’t laugh with me, they tell me that I’m being the dick.
I try for radical honesty; we fall in love. This new boy is hilarious and interesting and I am so happy, it’s bewildering. He’s also uncomfortable with this level of oversharing. He doesn’t have friends like I do in the same way that most men we’ve known and loved don’t. Oftentimes, worn out playing compound-roles of sole confidante-mother-lover to yet another man, we wonder aloud why they don’t have these kind of friendships to distribute the load. (Only a trick question: We all know it’s the patriarchy. It’s always the patriarchy).
Female friendships have often been likened to romances. They’re kind of better. I mean we discuss everything from penises to politics to pasta. This grounds me— unable to trust my own OCD-ridden brain, compulsive need to be witnessed, to be told, you’re okay, you’re okay. My friends are how I am together enough to love.
For those of us with fractured familial relationships and more obvious peculiarities— queerness, mental illness, inability to make the sensible choices – our families are often not where we can return to feel safe. And yet the longing for home remains. Where do you go?
I go to chosen family: my friends, and my muses.
When Jessica James gets her Big Good News, she runs to Tasha and tells her that she loves her. My friends and I grew up in Indian households where such explicit expression of this emotion is unheard of. Now we say it to each other all the time.
My friends also make me hate other women less. If I can see us in all our complexities, I can’t turn that lens off. Not that it comes easy- especially when it comes to obvious targets like significant others’ exes. The unbidden competitive instinct is tough to unlearn. But it’s taken me my whole life to stop hating other women. I’m opting out.
I pass these things on to new friends I make, trying to infect everyone with feminism, sex-positivity and empathy. Recently one of us was in the hospital alone, facing a well-meaning senior gynac flanked on either side by a row of disapproving nurses. “Beta, yeh achha nahi hain. Aap unmarried ho”.
We flood her phone when we can’t physically be there:
Just tune it out.
I know a guy who knows a guy— at the very worst, it’ll be an afternoon.
I tell the younger friends I make that ‘I don’t want to’ is a good-enough reason to not. And that I don’t seem to get along with women is super-sad.
Put together we are a daisy-chain, making each other better— imperfect, and loving, and trying.
I want to see girls like us on TV- funny, smart, fucking up, mean, selfish, slinking away from truths, making the same mistakes over and over, a little bit self-absorbed, vulgar. Girls who love girls, girls who love to fuck, girls who recommend sex positions. Girls who call each other out on missteps. Girls who critique each other’s work and fangirl about it. Girls who are bitchy and girls who remind each other to not hate on other girls.
They’re finally here on-screen- growing in number, providing us with options beyond the Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl box we’d been shoved into for so long. A new favourite is The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. It’s about a female comic in the fifties. There’s a lot to like including her butch manager Susie, but what I love best is how much Midge Maisel curses. And she says the things you’re not supposed to say.
A few things you’re not supposed to say in real life as a woman:
I’m totally having premarital sex and it’s great.
(Boss), I’m on my period and everything is on fire so no, I can’t be productive.
(Male Colleague/ Friend /Acquaintance), I just said the thing you repeated like it was novel.
No, fatshaming isn’t funny.
I don’t want to be consistent enough to have children.
What glory after, to see her literally take center-stage, a storm of swearing, rage and wit- till she empties her clever, furious brain out clean.
How wonderful to see Jessica James blaze across the screen, the scene entirely hers, no benevolent sexism— divorced from the reality of so many of us, it’s still good to see.
These shows are so firmly female, I love it. You know the old adage about how you can’t be what you can’t see?
Praise song for women with multitudes
Praise song for saying the things we’re not supposed to say.
Praise song for being the ways we’re not supposed to be.
Praise song for becoming the things there’s no precedent for.
Praise song for carving new beginnings together and alone.
Alexander’s original Praise Song ends:
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.
Riddhi Dastidar is that person you know who stares slightly too long and is always taking mental notes. By day she handles outreach for a non-profit children's publisher. She used to be a molecular biologist once but she changed her mind. She tries to write as much as she can and often finds herself accumulating cats, tattoos and graphic novels.