Melissa Rosenberg’s portfolio is more than a little confusing. One of the most successful female writers in Hollywood, she’s the woman at the helm of Jessica Jones, the feminist, noirish, boundary-pushing Netflix series that nobody thought Marvel was capable of. Rosenberg was a staff writer on The O.C (Season One, when it was briefly good) and rose to executive producer of Dexter (Season Four, when it was still good). She ran the short-lived Red Widow for ABC, with a difficult female protagonist who drew tricky comparisons to Walter White.
And… she wrote the Twilight movies. Wait, what? Twilight is massively problematic, with its anti-abortion messages, normalisation of abusive behaviour and sexual conservatism. Not to mention being one of the most uncool cultural products of the last couple of decades, sneered at by critics and ridiculed by the internet. Obviously, Rosenberg was hampered by the fact that she was adapting flawed source material, but for the Twihard-hating Comic Con fanboys of the world, she was tainted by association.
So how did an intelligent woman with a commitment to compelling female characters play an instrumental role in giving the world Bella Swan? Let’s step back and remember that in 2015, females comprised 22% of protagonists, 18% of antagonists, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters in America’s top 100 films. Behind the camera, women made up 19% of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers (1). Twilight, a romance aimed at female audiences, was one of the few big projects likely to be written by a woman. The series had a built-in fan base from the success of the novels, and enlisted acclaimed directors like Catherine Hardwicke and David Slade. Career-wise, it must have made a tempting prospect, a rare opportunity.
Rosenberg has reflected on the unprecedented hatred that Twilight garnered because of its female orientation. With Twilight, the condemnation extended beyond the films to the fans, with the kind of anger pretty much reserved for things that women like. The franchise was notorious for its deeply committed and predominantly female audience. And yet, Twilight demonstrated that a movie with a female fandom could still prove to be a massive box-office success, a ‘tentpole’ film.
Would The Hunger Games, Divergent and even Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids have been made if it wasn’t for the enormous financial success of Twilight? Wasn’t Twilight a crucial part of the recent recognition that a massive audience exists for blockbusters featuring female leads? Even if it perpetuated some very outdated and damaging ideas, Twilight may have also cleared the way for updated and exciting ones.
And once Rosenberg adapted the franchise that made about $3.3 billion worldwide, she could pretty much pick her project. So what does one do after giving the world a record-breaking franchise that simultaneously enforced harmful gender dynamics and asserted the power and legitimacy of female audiences?
Develop the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first leading female superhero, of course. Not only that, but make her the kind of complex, flawed, funny, dark, non-sexualised female character that geeks with ovaries have been praying for. And then place her in a narrative that focusses on the realities of domestic violence, surviving sexual assault, toxic masculinity and sexism. And then throw an interracial relationship and queer characters for good measure. Yup, you have to wonder if Rosenberg was trying to rehabilitate her creative karma here a little.
Jessica Jones is an icy cool glass of female badassery in a vast desert of hilariously masculine superhero franchises. Her grimy, deadpan sass is anathema in an endless technicolour landscape of biceps, cleavage and furrowed brows. She’s been hailed by Rolling Stone as “a corrective to the way that women have been represented in previous comic-book stories”. This is Marvel’s redemption after the ongoing Black Widow debacle. It’s glorious to see a female character who is so unapologetically imperfect. She’s a hard-drinking, bleakly sarcastic, emotionally ingrown anti-hero who we see cussing, peeing and having girl-on-top sex within the first hour or two. Rosenberg has described how “she was exactly the character I wanted to write my whole career. She was a fully-formed human being, not a one-dimensional character – she was not the wife or the cop partner or whatever” (2). The more procedural elements of the series bring to mind Veronica Mars, also a noirish detective story centred around a tough, smart and flawed female whose skills are crucial and whose looks are incidental. Both stories also deal with issues of sexual assault, though Jessica Jones is far more concerned with critiquing the harmful models of masculinity that we shoehorn men into.
It seems impossible that the same woman who penned the dialogue between Bella and Edward was behind this show. In fact, Jessica Jones is the diametric opposite of Twilight: sex-positive, pro-choice, and anti-abuse. It both reflects and reverses the Twilight love story. In a risqué reversal, Jessica Jones reimagines the weird, repressed Twilight sex scene as something genuinely sexy and reciprocal, as Jessica and Luke have superpowered sex intense enough to break the bed. Kilgrave, the manipulative, obsessive, abusive control-freak, is Edward Cullen unmasked. Jessica is immune to Kilgrave’s abilities, just as Edward can’t read Bella’s mind. Both men watch and control the object of their affections, enacting violence to ‘protect’ their female possessions from other suitors. Like Edward, Kilgrave’s intimate abuse comes in the form of ‘romance’; “I’d do anything for you”, “we’re inevitable”, “I can’t be a hero without you” “I saved you… dried your tears”. Doesn’t that ring frighteningly close to Edward’s “I couldn’t let you walk away from me. It hurt just to imagine it”, “she is mine”, or “don’t even think about it. I would just get you and bring you back”?
This series treats extreme professions of love as the unhealthy excuses they are, upending the supposedly romantic behaviour of controlling men. Like Edward with his predatory magnetism, Kilgrave was born with the power to make other people do whatever he wants. But where Edward held women in a supposedly sexy thrall, Jessica Jones condemns this kind of control and explores issues of explicit consent, entitlement and power. Some of the dialogue here could be on anti-domestic violence posters (Trish: “men and power. It’s seriously a disease”). The twisted parallels between the two characters highlight just how messed up our concept of masculinity really is, and why fantasy, consent and ‘romance’ are such confusing territory for men and women.
So how do we reconcile the opposing voices of Melissa Rosenberg? Maybe in the boy’s club of entertainment, women have to make compromises in order to tell the stories they want to tell. Maybe the success of Twilight, and the films that came after, means that the next wave of female creators won’t have to compromise. Maybe Rosenberg isn’t even aware of the contradictions. But vampirism and human flight aside, only one of these stories feels like it’s telling the truth. Abuse is not romantic, obsession is not love, and when somebody breaks into your house, it’s goddamn creepy. And if Jessica Jones faced off against Edward Cullen, I know who I’d be rooting for.