There was a moment in Jessica Jones’s second season that floored me, despite its seeming mundanity. It was when Trish Walker, former child star and Jessica’s best friend, turned down a marriage proposal from all around-great-guy and super-reporter Griffin. As Trish tries to handle the blowback from her toxic mother (who keeps insisting that Trish is throwing away her life by refusing the engagement), she finally puts her angst into words: “I don’t want to be with Griffin—I want to be him. I want to do what he does. And that’s not love, and it’s not fair to either one of us.”
This problem, this exact one, is wrapped around me like cling film, impossible to spot and harder to eradicate. I took a moment to try and count up the number of times I had been told that my admiration or emulation of a man (even a fictional one) amounted to romantic interest or sexual desire. I could not find an end to that number.
[Spoilers for Jessica Jones season 2 below.]
My entire life is comprised of comments, rejoinders, and teasing where people mistook my fascination or ambition for something they could easily pass off as cute and immature. Because I was raised as a girl, and girls get “crushes.” They effectively lose their minds over the things they love. Madness is not wrong to invoke here; I can remember approaching adolescence and hearing warnings from every corner about the dangers of becoming “boy crazy.” Crazy, as though hormones are physically capable of stripping a person’s mental soundness from them for a period of six or so odd years, before you came out the other side a misshapen adult who hopefully has more sense (and a boyfriend). It sounded terrifying, some sort of pagan curse I would have to endure as punishment for daring to grow older.
To tell you the truth, I don’t ever remember being boy crazy. (This might have something to do with being queer?) I remember liking guys and thinking they were cute sometimes, but I had no desire to launch myself at one like a live missile. Yet every time I thought someone male was fascinating or even just kinda cool… oh no. I like liked them. That was the narrative. If I went against it, I was just too confused or embarrassed to admit the truth. How cute! Poor me.
This isn’t to say that there’s no truth to this concept whatsoever. Sometimes it is hard to separate what we want from who we want. It can be easy to think that we’re enamored of traits that we wish we could have for ourselves. People seek out what they lack. They search for people who can help them achieve what they cannot on their own. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as we’re honest about why we are looking for it in the first place. If you wish you were more gregarious and end up with a partner who is chatty and lively, it’s perfectly healthy to experience a little of that congeniality vicariously. If you love painting but lack that eye for color or time to hone new skills, it makes sense that you would be drawn to someone who possessed those skills and the same enjoyment that you did.
But seeking out a partner who might be able to offer aspects that you crave is not the same as being told that your every fascination is a crush or a flirtation. And that is often the explanation that is forced onto girls and women. It occurs in realms of both reality and fantasy, making it harder and harder to figure out who we are and what we’re truly after in life. It allows others to dismiss our desires as something frivolous. It promotes romantic relationships over mentorships and solid friendships. It turns us into addled factories of emotion—the only acceptable version of female lust that the world is willing to accommodate without insult. And it can really mess you up over time.
As a child, most of the fictional characters I related to were male. I spent my time imaging that I was Aladdin, Luke Skywalker, Ford Prefect, Batman, Boba Fett, and Billy the Blue Ranger. Part of this was a numbers game—there are far more male characters to look up to, especially if you’re into sci-fi and fantasy. Part of this was down to genderfluidity on my part, which I hadn’t really reconciled at that point in time. But the older I got, the more that relationship changed; suddenly I was told that I liked Obi-Wan Kenobi because I liked him. Because he was handsome and I was a girl, and having a poster with Ewan McGregor on your wall was a very specific tell in the late nineties and early aughts. It was deeply puzzling to me, because on the one hand, they weren’t wrong—Ewan McGregor was and remains a very attractive dude. But Obi-Wan Kenobi was precious to me for a completely different list of reasons. He was sarcastic, and he was a Jedi, and he was kind of a mess in a way that I found incredibly relatable. John Crichton from Farscape was another one. Yes, he was a gorgeous guy, and I noticed because people generally do notice those things. But John was also funny and responded to stress with nerdy pop culture references. He was smart, and he was a soppy romantic, and he was insanely adaptable. I wanted to be that, not marry it.
But no one believed me.
Or rather, the only people who did believe me were other female friends who also hated being assigned the token girl role on the playground due to the happenstance of their gender. We loved Princess Leia, but we didn’t see ourselves in her. We raged against being told to pick the only girl avatar in the video game because the boys refused to let us try anything else. We tried to explain that if we weren’t Peter Pan, then we were definitely Captain Hook. And when we weren’t allowed to branch out, we just kept to ourselves. We played Star Wars. There was a Batman stunt show. All roles were filled by girls. It was rarely commented upon, and no one was ever accused of liking their alter ego.
Later, I would look for fun nerdy t-shirts (signaling with clothing is incredibly useful as a nervous teenager who wants to make friends), but everything cut for women was made in the form of a love letter: Mrs. Bruce Wayne. Han Solo with his shirt half open, gazing at you. Spock with hearts surrounding him. Even when I could find a plain old tee with a simple picture on it, the questions stalked me: Oh, so you have a crush on Aragorn? (I mean, Viggo Mortensen’s a babe, but I’m definitely more of a hobbit…) Which Batman would you want to take you out on a date? (I would rather take his place on the streets of Gotham, I already really like wearing black.) Why would you like Obi-Wan at all when the Star Wars prequels were trash? (Rude. Also, irrelevant.)
And the worst part is, there’s nothing wrong with having a crush, if that’s why you’re into something. If you want to draw doodles of Harry Potter in your notebook with hearts around them and write a fanfic where you go to Hogwarts and sweep him off his feet, I am five-thousand percent here for you. It’s just not me. And everyone kept telling me that it was.
At what point do you stop trusting yourself about yourself? I did, and for a long time too. People told me over and over that I liked what I was trying to become, so I absorbed it and regurgitated it. I would blush and look away when people asked if liked Obi-Wan Kenobi or John Crichton. I stopped arguing and let people construct a narrative around me that suited them. Sure, I was weird because I liked watching the SciFi Channel and I came to class toting Bradbury and Tolkien along with my textbooks. But I was “boy crazy” just like the rest of them. So there was good reason for me to be embarrassed about my interests, just like all the other teenage girls they knew. And I was embarrassed, constantly.
People might assume that this doesn’t continue into adulthood, but it does, and often more insidiously. Cosplay has been one of the biggest cues for me in that regard. When I dress as Luke in Return of the Jedi, most people think I’m a Sith lady because I’m wearing black and carrying a lightsaber. I put on Captain Kirk’s uniform, but a woman can’t be Jim Kirk, so I’m just some command officer. When I’m disguised as Hawkeye, fans’s eyes light up: “Kate Bishop!” Even though I’m wearing Clint Barton’s vestments. And I have nothing against Kate Bishop—I freaking love Kate Bishop—it’s just that she’s not the one I want to be. Point of fact, my husband is the one who wants to be Kate Bishop. We are not guaranteed to align with the person whose bodily silhouette we vaguely resemble. And trying to explain that, to put words to it, feels somehow selfish and grandiose of me. How dare I want people to see me more clearly.
There’s a weird parallel here that I felt while watching Trish in season two of Jessica Jones. It kind of put all of these feelings into perspective.
See, Trish Walker is constantly told by everyone who she is supposed to be, too, or rather, who she is to them. She also has a heap of trauma she hasn’t worked her way through yet, between her substance abuse issues and her mother’s persistent gaslighting and manipulation. And while she bears responsibility for the mistakes she makes, the same as everyone else, she is still blockaded from her own potential because no one is interested in seeing her as she would like to be seen. Instead, she holds a specific value to everyone around her; to her mother, she’s opportunity lost and then renewed in the form of a child; to Jessica, she’s a sister who needs saving; to Malcolm, she’s a fellow addict trying to recover; to her listeners, she’s that cute lifestyle reporter who used to be a cute child star. When she tries to step outside any of those boxes, she’s dropped into a new one—a romantic leading lady.
When Trish tells her mother that she wants to be Griffin instead of being with him, she is told that she is spoiled and that she is arrogant, and that she can never be more or better or different than what she is. And as a result, Trish spends the rest of the season circling the drain in an effort to be worthy of anything that she deems of value.
This is common I think, for women. It is just another way that society puts up weird invisible barriers for us, then forgets them and acts surprised when we run headlong into the block. The world limits its imagination in regard to what we can be and do. Trish runs this gamut through the current season, reliving the menial tropes that her life is built upon and being rejected by the ones she wants. She gains intel for Jessica by dressing up and singing as Patsy at a kid’s birthday party. We learn she tried to break away from her kid star persona by moving straight into hit-single-pop-stardom with a predictably terrible song and music video to match. We see her rally against the treacly talk show gab that her network wants her to stick to on her radio show. We find out about a forty-year-old director who took advantage of her when she was a teenage star in need of a new break. We follow along as she breaks off an engagement to a wonderful man, tumbles back into addiction, hooks up with Malcolm because she has nothing better to do. We watch her fail an audition for a major news network after walking away from her radio show.
The world won’t make room for Trish Walker to be anything more than a walking cliche, and so she performs it with the terrifying gusto of every good-little-girl-gone-bad the media loves to obsess over. People reading the tabloids and watching the news will decide what caused this backslide into hell, but no one will guess what’s really behind it—that Trish isn’t happy with the role the world has picked out for her. That dating a man who was the kind of person she wanted to be made it obvious that her own life wasn’t up to par. What’s more, no one will care about the why. They want her to be Patsy. They want her to be a twee blond celebrity with a serious reporter boyfriend. They want her to be a fluffy talk show host. Maury says as much when she’s hidden in his morgue in critical condition: “I told her she should have stuck to lifestyle…”
But here’s the kicker: This isn’t a story about how Jessica Jones’s best friend flushed her life down the toilet and fell victim to every stereotype on childhood stardom.
This is Trish Walker’s superhero origin.
I am getting the impression that fans of the show aren’t pleased with Trish right now. But this arc made more sense to me than dozens of origins narratives stretching back over the decades of the genre. Because once you realize that all those people who are riveted to your “crush,” who miss your teeny-bopper style, who file you with easy-to-reach labels, are putting you in a box?
You break the damn box.
And it makes sense that doing this is painful, and that it bars her from the people she cares about. It makes sense that it almost costs Trish her life, and that it leads to terrible mistakes, and that it isn’t nice or clean or bursting with happy endings. The process of refusing to be what everyone says you are—sweet girl, starlet, mess of a sister, lifestyle guru—is often less than fun. No one wants to be disappointing, and learning to live with that discomfort is strange, even for the most well-adjusted among us. But Trish Walker makes that choice anyway, because she knows who she is, or at least who she is supposed to be. Knowing that takes an extraordinary amount of courage. Being willing to do whatever it takes to realize that person takes more. I really hope I can figure out the trick to that someday.
One thing is certain—I’m never going to let anyone tell me I have a crush on someone who I want to be ever again.