Do you remember that moment in 2012 when Girls premiered and basically every black critic (myself included) descended upon it like locusts to declare it the dumbest, whitest shit they’d ever seen? They excoriated it for its narcissism, but primarily for its whitewashing of one of the most diverse cities in the world. Well, distributors and content creators seem to have taken the second half of that message to heart, and they’ve come to the conclusion that all that really needs to be done is to take the same situations and themes and present them with black faces. That’s how we come to the next entry in the absolutely interminable bougie hipster NYC dramedy genre, The Incredible Jessica James.
I don’t mean to discount Jessica Williams here. She is, without a doubt, smart, funny, and talented. Her movie (except, come on: this looks and feels like a TV show) is rote, mediocre, and lacking in any meaningful insight. This is exemplified by the fact that Jessica Williams is about the only interesting thing in The Incredible Jessica James, and that’s being generous. Jessica is defined by her confidence. In one scene, she describes herself as “not yet broken by life,” and we see that in her character throughout. She’s honest and forthright on dates; she’s constantly writing and sending out her work despite a wall of rejection letters; but mostly I feel like we see it in the thoughtful and caring way that she teaches her students.
For the most part, however, The Incredible Jessica James is incredibly indistinguishable from nearly everything else in this tired genre. It is tightly wrapped up in individualistic ideas of striving and success as well the most painfully overdone portraits of the dating scene for young people in New York City. We get it! You use Tinder and Instagram and you fuck! Please shut the hell up about it. Here are the three narrative choruses of The Incredible Jessica James:
- Golly, dating is hard!
- I’m 25-years-old and I’m not a famous writer yet!
- My loving and supportive family isn’t cool enough!
Really, what separates Jessica James from every show like it other than the fact that Jessica is black? And that can’t even be used as an excuse anymore, given that American capitalists have once again realized that there’s movie and television money in pandering to black people. They knew this well in the 90s, then they forgot for a while, but they’ve remembered in the past two or three years. So now, instead of just white folks, we have the likes of Williams, Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Lee Daniels, et. al. to present us with fundamentally similar stories of bourgeois aspirational life.
We can see this most readily in how shows/movies like Jessica James handle money. You will often see money gestured at as a thing of concern, but almost never does it manifest as a genuine problem. There’s one scene in Jessica James where she’s invited to a party by a friend, thinking she’ll be “a guest, not serving.” Her friend, who is also there serving, comments that she assumed Jessica needed the money, and Jessica agrees that she does. So, there’s a couple of things going on here. We see that Jessica is “struggling” in the sense that she has a full-time job but needs to take extra side gigs to stay on top of things. We also see, though, that money isn’t such a problem that Jessica wouldn’t consider passing the whole thing up to go to a party, and her whole response about needing the money is fairly blase overall. There’s never a sense that she’s really struggling, or even a sense that Jessica might not make it as a playwright. It’s all fluffy and preordained. Just work hard enough and you’ll make it!
This is a kind of struggle that isn’t really a struggle at all. It’s meant to make Jessica relatable, but it’s the only present scene where money feels like a tangible problem. Money doesn’t seem to be a thing that Jessica thinks about or something that causes her any worry. When she isn’t occupying this “struggling but not really” space, she’s living in the orbit of rich people like her boyfriend, an app developer named Boone, who straight up buys tickets for two people to follow Jessica to London (and one of those people isn’t even him!) Whose life is this? More to the point, whose black life is this? Jessica is so distanced from money and from economic consequences as to be laughable.
Look, I don’t demand perfect representations of reality from popular entertainment. Escapism is valuable and has its place. I don’t need movies to devolve into poverty porn. That said, things like Jessica James are so uniform in their presentations of what it means to be a young millennial in this country. What I do ask is that popular culture not provide us with such an insidious take on reality. We have the data. We know that this isn’t the kind of life most young people are leading, particularly young black people, and particularly young black women. This show doesn’t give us anything like what life is like financially for black people and black families. It is basically a fantasy. While it might be unfair for me to expect all of this from Jessica James, its utter uniformity with everything else like it should open up a space for us to question what the hell the movie is even doing.
This is the problem with representation when it is not connected to any kind of recognizable class politics. If you think I am denying the power of representation, please look at my entire blog primarily about how important representation is. Representation without class politics simply looks like black faces in high places. We get to look at Obama, Oprah, Beyonce and Jay-Z, DuVernay, Williams, and say, “oh, it must be okay because black folks are represented everywhere.” No. That’s not how it works. If black people are going to make it, but feed us the same capitalist propaganda as white people, then I have no use for them either.