The pair of Team Rocket agents Jessie and James (Musashi and Kojiro in the original Japanese) are fixtures of the Pokémon animated series. The series subjects them to endless misfortune, and they never achieve their stated goals. They spend much of each episode in various states of explosion, and the warmest welcome they manage among the protagonists is occasional deep mistrust rather than overt hostility. They have earned the love of fans for their insistent theatrics, incompetence as thieves, and impressive fashion sense, but the show itself is much less consistent.
They deserve better.
Jessie, James, and their companion Meowth each have a heartbreaking, too-familiar origin story.
Jessie was the neglected daughter of a high-ranking Team Rocket agent, and aimed herself squarely at nursing school. The school she enrolled in was meant for nurses who were themselves Pokémon, and she studied alongside a class of Chanseys. She was talented enough to teach her non-human classmates a thing or two about the healing arts, but was ultimately unfairly expelled. Her Chansey roommate remembered her fondly enough to break her own class-completion medallion and give her a piece, as a token of remembrance and a sign of friendship. It was in this crestfallen, broken state that she became a petty criminal and, eventually, a Team Rocket lackey.
James got his start as the only scion of a wealthy family, and was groomed for the upper class from the start. He found his aristocratic instruction boring at best, but what broke his willingness to remain was learning that the woman selected to be his future wife was hideously incompatible with him. Leaving his family, his wealth, and his beloved pets behind, he struck out on his own. His grades could not keep him in a school for Pokémon trainers, which he lost the privilege of attending. Out of options, like Jessie, he turned to petty theft and then membership in Team Rocket.
Meowth was an orphan raised on too little food, who fled to “Hollywood” to feed himself. There, he was taken in by a pack of similar strays, and lived on the edge of continuous peril as a food thief alongside his packmates. He fell in love with another Meowth, who told him that she preferred the company of humans. Misunderstanding that rejection, Meowth trained himself to speak human language and function on two legs to make himself more human-like, and she again rejected him, this time as a “freak.” Too despondent to continue in his former life, Meowth turned to the first English word he managed to say, from a book…“Rocket.”
These are desperately broken people who found each other amidst the wreckage of everything that was taken from them. These are people beaten down with cruelty and unfairness for so long that it is a wonder they can still smile. These are people taken in by a nefarious cause because it dangled before them, without ever actually providing, things they found nowhere else: purpose and belonging.
These are not evil people, and their fundamental kindness shows in the affection and loyalty they trade with their respective Pokémon teams. Both of their initial Pokémon companions, Ekans and Koffing, were gifts, and both were utterly devoted to their masters and despondent when separated from them for any amount of time. Both finally evolved into more powerful forms when exposed, not to combat, magical stones, or any of the other means usually required for Pokémon metamorphosis, but to their masters’ tears. Subsequent members of the pair’s retinue were sometimes caught in battle or otherwise in the franchise’s trademark combative manner, but a large fraction willingly joined the team after being offered food or other kindness. Jessie added a Yanma to her troupe after her Team Rocket superiors rejected it, refusing their decree that it was unworthy of the organization, and her devotion paid off when it evolved into a powerful Yanmega shortly thereafter. All of Jessie and James’s Pokémon are fiercely loyal to them and vice versa, and many of James’s in particular determinedly express that affection whenever they are called into battle. Many of the two’s team members are left with medical professionals and caretakers to help them reach their full potential or protect them from harm. Jessie and James’s parting from their original Pokémon, so that they could protect a group of wild members of their kind from poachers, is particularly wrenching.
There’s something familiar in this overwhelming, emotional kindness in people shoehorned into the villain role no matter how unsuited they are for it. It is not a coincidence that James’s revolt was against the weight of rigid social expectation, and that his only healthy relationships in youth were with his earliest Pokémon. It is even less a coincidence that what got Jessie expelled from her nursing school was the fact that, instead of being able to duplicate her classmates’ soporific Sing attack to help patients rest, she succumbed to it and fell asleep in class…while her instructor was wearing sound-canceling headphones. What shattered Jessie’s dream was an unfulfilled access need, and what set James fleeing from wealth and privilege was the inability to function amidst social scripts he could neither understand nor accept.
Jessie and James famously have a rhyming poem about themselves they use as their introduction at least once an episode. For much of the series, they refuse to innovate on it, and their compulsion to reveal themselves in this specific way causes them literal anguish when they try to suppress it even briefly. It is so insistent that, on one occasion, they broadcast a pre-recorded version using a projector built into their submarine, because it wasn’t safe for them to leave the submarine, but Team Rocket must have its intro. They both have fairly specific obsessions: Jessie has a near-encyclopedic understanding of Pokémon attacks and rapidly masters the movesets of new team members, and James collects bottlecaps and resents having to sell his accumulated hoard for the group’s financial survival. Both immediately recognize rare Pokémon when they encounter them, even in unfamiliar regions. Yet neither of them functions well in a test-taking environment, and both spectacularly fail out of exams that could have given them the title of Pokémon Master.
Every now and then, even when their plans succeed and they finally manage to steal something, they take pity on it and release or return it.
Jessie, usually a bit more callous than her partner, insists on returning a tremendous haul of food at a time when they and their Pokémon were increasingly desperate for it, because her former Chansey roommate was taking the fall for them, and she couldn’t bear the thought of her dreams, too, being unfairly stolen.
Both Jessie and James frequently assume disguises as part of their heists, and their disguises frequently involve apparent cross-dressing. James is exceptionally comfortable in female guise, and the ease of his costume changes suggests that he keeps his legs shaved and otherwise engages in feminine-coded ablutions even while presenting male. On at least one occasion, he wears a bikini with what appear to be high-quality prosthetic breasts, of the sort that a trans woman might seek. Jessie, with her potentially ambiguous name, seems much more comfortable in her femaleness than James does in his apparent maleness, yet in one memorable scene, she takes on a male guise alongside James dressed impeccably as Officer Jenny.
Every now and then, they try to make an honest living, and frequently succeed, but their success is never sustainable. Eventually, they always return to Rocketeering, whether because of their superiors’ insistence, because they didn’t recognize that their front business was successful enough not to need to be a front at all, or because someone identified them.
Jessie and James are not heartless monsters trying to separate Pokémon from their doting owners and deliver them to their shadowy bosses.
They are autistic, queer abuse victims who fell through this world’s cracks, whose personalities are deeply at odds with what they feel cornered into for their own survival, whose intelligence and ambition never quite propel them over the hurdles of test-taking, inaccessible schooling, and queer-antagonism that stand between them and what they would rather be doing.
For all the cute, cheerful, childish joy that the Pokémon cartoon brings me, there is one thing for which I will never forgive it.
I will never be okay with how this show, after introducing a much more effective and unsettling Team Rocket troupe (Butch and Cassidy), did not give Jessie and James the chance to reject Team Rocket and find a home among the show’s protagonists. I will never be okay with how, even after the show finally gave us effective villains it could use instead, it kept Jessie and James in this role, trapped forever in the desolate slot this world assigned them. I will never be okay with how Jessie and James didn’t get the redemption narrative that the series spent the past 500 episodes setting up, and left us yet another world where queer autistic teenagers can only be ourselves around a tight-knit chosen family that is at least half quasi-sentient animals, to be hated, feared, and pitied everywhere else.
I will never be okay with James, autistic, transfeminine, and forced to leave behind a potential life of luxury and a series of beloved pets, being treated as an irredeemable thorn in the real characters’ side, forever.
Jessie and James deserve better, and it hurts to see the gap between that and what they get.