The Outstanding Limited Series Emmy nominations are unified in shining a light on female and racial oppression but can they incite real change?

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This article contains spoilers.

I was surprised when I saw that all of the Outstanding Limited Series nominations focus on either female or racial oppression, particularly as previous years Emmy’s have seen no such unification in theme. Although previous nominations such as Big Little Lies and When They See Us also discussed female and racial oppression, no other year has seen all the nominations include it. However, understanding art as a reflection of its time, it makes sense. The nominations suggest that each year of the last decade has become increasingly demanding of change, verified by the global #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements. The arts are amping up their support of social dilemmas, the question is whether or not they can help bring change, or whether they are simply holding up a mirror.

The first, Mrs America, is an undisguised presentation of the history of female oppression, as it follows the women at the forefront of the 1970s America Equal Rights Amendment, or the ERA. Throughout the show we see how the women pushing the bill ‘suffer for the cause’, as they allow themselves to be felt up by my men in positions of authority, in order to get their backing. The most interesting feature of the plot, if it were not true, is its Republican anti-heorine, Phyllis Schlafly, whose STOP-ERA party grouped housewives against the bill. Phyllis argues the bill would disadvantage housewives, cause women to be drafted into the military and eliminate the tendency for mothers to obtain custody over their children in divorce cases. Ultimately indoctrinated by patriarchy, we see her repeatedly elbowed out of conversation with men in the workplace, who ask her to ‘take notes’ rather than share insights, as well as fight her husband on her right to study law, all without ever recognising the ERA plight. The show contrasts Schlafly’s private life with the private lives of the main ERA proponents, presenting her marriage as one of tradition and constraint while theirs, new wave and free. The most interesting character trajectory however comes from Alice Macray, Phyllis’ right hand woman. Alice aids Phyllis throughout, but is forced to reflect on their incessant opposition to the ERA, when she is unexpectedly enlightened at the liberal National Women’s Conference and learns of a fellow party members suffering in the home. The show’s documentary footage from the 1970s rallies and marches, reminds us that this isn’t just a drama, but history and the more recent footage reminds us that men and women are still not equal by law in America. It highlights the experience of women in 1970s America and their necessity of being attractive and compliant in order to gain recognition. But more importantly it celebrates, with a star-studded cast and beady eyed script, the women at the forefront of the movement, the sisterhood they formed and the leadership they showed. It is a great proof of the female battle and an unsurprising nomination for the Outstanding Limited Series award.

Unbelievable, by contrast, is primarily a detective series but, much like this year’s I May Destroy You, it spends an extraordinarily long time with the victims of sexual assault. It presents real female victims, not just the young, reckless and attractive ones we are told about in the media but also old, overweight and from mixed ethnicities. It presents two female detectives who work solidly on the case, as though their own safety depended on it, as they discuss the injustices in their own police departments and acknowledge the failings of male detectives in rape cases. The success of this series is due to its ability to properly reflect the complexities and realites of sexual assault, crime and policing. It is an american police drama devoid of ego or showmanship but with reflection and honesty. It faces up to the fact that there are criminals within American law enforcement and asks why, if as many women in the police department had hit their child, as men who had hit their wife, they would all be out of their jobs, while men remain. Sexual assault is shown not just as a crime, but as a life-altering and often life-destroying event particularly through its focus on its female protagonist, Marie Adler, who after having repeatedly fallen victim to the state, only has that used against her when reporting the crime. Unbelievable is not only the victim’s story, but a call for revision in law enforcement and social systems; it is about the oppressed and the oppressor equally.

The most focused conversation about feminism out of all the nominations, is Unorthodox as it spotlights women in Hasidic Orthodox Jewish communities, through its protagonist Esty. The series has been widely recognised as groundbreaking, but mostly due to the fact that it is primarily spoken in Yiddish and is the first of its kind to represent the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community more broadly, even having its own ‘the making of’ documentary. Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s auto-biography The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the plot shows the constraints placed on women inside strict Jewish communities. Constant scrutiny from her new husband’s family, which extends to her sexual and reproductive capabilities, leads Esty to seek a new life in Berlin. There she begins to experience the freedoms of life outside of the community, as she becomes inspired to pursue her dreams in music, which she was previously forbidden to practice. She also reunites with her mother who had been excommunicated when Esty was young, for refusing to conform. Through a shared enemy, the pair begin to rebuild their relationship as her mother seeks to prevent her from returning. If feminism is defined as a woman’s right to choose, Unorthodox shows Hasidic women are forced to exchange their communities, for autonomy. A revealing, focused and moving story of female isolation in religious communites.

Little Fires Everywhere bridges the gap in the nominations in that while it is undoubtedly feminist, in its focus on motherhood, it is primarily about race. The show explores the dynamic between a white mother, Elena Richardson, and black mother, Mia Warren, who become acquainted when Elena takes pity on Mia and her daughter Pearl and offers for them to live rent free in her apartment. Despite all her good intentions, Elena exhibits white saviourism, as she becomes dissatisfied when her charity isn’t met with enthusiasm. She offers Mia a job in her house on the assumption that she needs help and prides herself on fighting Mia’s daughter Pearl’s battles for her, but begrudges Mia when she is met with hostility. The show explores how racial biases do not stop at the parent -even in a progressing society -but is handed down through generations, as Lexie, Elena’s daughter, uses Pearl as a scapegoat when filing her abortion and gentrifies Pearl’s hardships in order to get into Harvard. The gnawing anxiety Mia experiences when she sees a police car, juxtaposed with Elena’s ability to rely on the police department for favours, is just one of the ways the show reflects on how whiteness contributes to an easier life. This is stated no more clearly however, than through a third mother, Bebe Chow, who after coming to America from China to give her daughter a better life, resulted in abandoning her at a fire-station due to poverty and post partum depression. Regretting her decision, Bebe searches for May- Ling but it is Mia, a colleague of Bebe, who informs her that May-Ling has since been adopted by a white American couple who are friends of Elena. Bebe, forced to fight for custody of her child in court, has her biological claim is pitched up against the benefits of finance and stability which the white couple offer. The jury assess what constitutes a good mother, in a world where white always wins. Little Fires Everywhere is an aptly timed discussion of racial bias and white privilege, during the biggest push for racial equality of the 21st Century, following the death of George Floyd.

Most surprising of all the nominees focus on oppression, is Watchmen, whose comic book series and 2009 film only ever partially addressed race and focused around white superheroes. Lindelof, the show’s creator, reimagines the world of Watchmen by placing it firmly within a discourse of racial oppression and white supremacy. Beginning with the depiction of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, a significant incident of racial terrorism in American history whereby the ‘Black Wall Street’ was burned down by white supremacists, aided by the National Guard, the series makes its anchor in history a racism fuelled atrocity. Catapulted forward into the present, we are introduced to the current world through the eyes of an African American protagonist Angela Abar, whose alter ego Sister Night, is a caped heroine working for the police. This America, led by liberal president Redford, appears an improvement on our currently reality, as his agendas include reparations for black people, a Victims of Racial Violence Act and the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, reconnecting black people with their ancestors. In this America, police officers mask themselves for their own protection and primarily work to fight masked white supremacists, known as the 7th Kavalry, descendants of the KKK. However, the noosing of Chief Judd, a white police officer, by a black man who claims to Abar’s grandfather, throws this narrative. Forced to ingest ‘nostalgia pills’ to fill the gaps in her past and discover the truth about her grandfather, Abar sees her grandfathers life following from the Tulsa Race Riots. Through her grandfather, we learn that apparent racial progress is just a veil to cover persisting white supremacy, as he discovers a secret white supremacist organisation known as Cyclops. Disillusioned with the justice system, he unexpectedly learns that if he is to take out white supremacists or real criminals, he would have to do that in a mask, rather than wearing a badge. Hence the beginning of the ‘hooded justice’. However, it becomes clear that Cyclops never disappeared but still includes leading members of the police and government who are working to try and inhabit Doctor Manhattan, to regain full control. While the world Lindelof uses is undoubtedly more fantastic than our own, he uses it to make powerful statements about the current state of America. By taking a real historical event such as the destruciton in Vietnam war and making it the work of super power Dr Manhatten, Lindelof likens white supremacy to the work of an evil super power. The greatest acheivement of the series, is that it takes the only superhero of colour from the original comic, the traditionally blue Doctor Manhattan and gives him a reason to be a black man. Watchmenreverses the trend of the ‘black villain’ by giving us not one, but three black heroes: Sister Night, Doctor Manhattan and Will Reeves against white supremacy. It even addresses the importance of children having a superhero who looks like them, as Angela’s childhood obsession with Sister Night grows because she ‘looks like her’. Therefore in creating three black heroes the show provides, just as Sister Night did for Angela, something for black children to admire.

It is clear that what this year’s best limited series’ nominations present is a world in much need of a revolution. Mrs America wakes us up to the fact that men and women still aren’t equal by law in America. Unbelievable acknowledges that most rape victims weren’t drunk or wearing too little and that male police officers could also be abusers, while Unorthodox highlights the isolation and restriction placed on women in Orthodox religious communities. Little Fires Everywhere discusses the acumulative effect of white privilege while Watchmen demonises white supremacy and celebrates blackness. Most unifying in the nominations is their sense of restlessness and as a viewer, this has to have an a cumulative effect. Much like an addict admitting they have a problem, the existence of these series are a proof of progress, in at least recognising the problem exists. I think most likely to isight change is Watchmen, in its use of shock factor as well as Unbelievable, as it provides a naturalistic, honest and informative depiction of sexual assault. Both of these series succeed in being informative and I think in the very least, will encourage reflection if not revision.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Set in France in the late 18th Century ‘Portrait On A Lady on Fire’, is a progressive period drama about a solo female artist named Marrianne, who is commissioned to complete a wedding portrait of Héloïse, against her knowledge. In this wonderfully feminist piece the four main parts are women, with the addition of Héloïse’s mother the countess and her maid Sophie. The film is ultimately a discussion of the female gaze, a woman being painted by a woman, who also gazes upon the painter, both constantly under scrutiny. The male absence in the film is glaring and yet the female oppression is loud; it is in Marianne’s need to paint in her father’s name as well as Héloïse’s arranged marriage. Throughout the film Héloïse, Marrianne and Sophie the maid, form a kind of sisterhood like that seen Mustang, coming together through difficulty.

It is a heartbreaking and beautiful LGBTQ film. 9/10.

Viewed on MUBI.

Mustang – film recommends.

Photograph: Allstar/Canal+

A tale of sisterhood.

This Turkish language film by Turkish-French film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is set in a small village, near to Istanbul. The film depicts five orphaned sisters who live with their grandmother and presents their struggle growing up in a conservative society. The plot begins with typical childhood scenes of the girls on their way home from school, playing with a group of boys in the sea. When they reach home however, they are met with fury for bringing ‘shame’ on their family and are forbidden from leaving the house. The film is an aggressive discussion of female oppression in conservative countries, covering dark topics such as gender violence, assault and suicide. However, it is the friendship, rebellion and most importantly sisterhood, which makes this film so memorable.

A stunningly portrayed feminist work, 8/10.

The Dirty Thirty by Degenerate Fox

06.03.2020

Attending Degenerate Fox’s International women’s day piece at the Rosebranch Theatre, a member of the cast on the ticket booth chewing gum and shouting us in, set the tone for this less than usual production. Thirty, two minute pieces, the order of which is decided by the audience who are reading the plays off a ‘menu’. The pieces begin with the cast shouting ‘go’ and close with ‘curtain’. Asking the sound man if he is ready, shouting that they need certain props between pieces, there is no fourth wall in this chaotic piece. In this international women’s day special they focussed on a range of mini pieces, performed by it’s LGBTQ international cast. My favourite pieces were ones which focussed on trans issues such as the piece: ‘What we think of TERF’s’ where a TERF is represented by a glass of water which they treat as if it is infected before one of the cast member reluctantly edged towards the glass and chucked it through the door. Similarly, when discussing how it feels to be labelled something you are not, their cast member Jack held up a sign saying ‘woman’ and awkwardly tried to put it down a few times before reluctantly holding it and faking a smile. The piece was insightful and informative and the wide scope of the content reflected the diverse cast, covering broad topics such as sexual assault in Latin America, to listing inspirational women we might not have heard of. I’d love to see how their usual show compares to the factual nature of this piece. Admittedly, if you’re looking for high quality theatre, this isn’t it – the talent of the cast varies from what appears obviously trained actors to seemingly happy volunteers- but what it does provide is a fun show brimming with inclusivity. The cast could work on their conviction on delivery if they did wish to elevate this to a serious piece of theatre, however, I imagine as this was a special it may have been put together very quickly. I can see this company at festivals or as a fun, more boozy night out. If you are member of the LGBTQ community this company are ones to watch!

Drop Dead Gorgeous @ VAULT Festival by the SAME SAME Collective

01.02.2020

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a darkly comic exploration of femininity and appetite by four women from the UK, India and Taiwan. The performance lies somewhere between a dance and performance art, with no dialogue whatsoever, as a table bearing fruit forms the centre piece of the action. In that sense Drop Dead Gorgeous is a visual discussion of femininity and its conflict with appetite, presenting a form of hunger I can certainly relate to.

The piece as a satire...

The piece successfully presents a comedic criticism of the universal tropes of femininity through both action and staging. Beginning with just the spotlight lit table, in a brief moment where the lights go out, the women hidden underneath the table appeared seemingly from nowhere. This felt indicative of the idea of women being ‘seen but not heard’ as they appear noiselessly, a trope which was continued throughout the piece, broken only by the occasional graceful sigh performed in unison. The set design was mostly beautiful, a pure white table cloth laid with colourful fruit, stood on pure white flooring. This perfection was mirrored in the women both in costume design, as they stood in their neat matching floral dresses and in accuracy of movement as their dance was timed to perfection. They appeared serene, controlled and delicate to the point of being comedic. Gradually they incorporated the fruit, beginning by gracefully selecting a grape each and including it in the routine. However, as the interaction with the fruit increased the unison of their movement began to break, first by selecting differing fruits, before comedically stuffing their faces until finally the piece digressed into a kind of animalistic feeding ground. They hoarded fruit, stole from one another and devoured all in sight. In this sense food acts as a means through which women cannot appear delicate and faultless.

The Set and how it supported the critique

The piece was performed in-the-round with audiences on all sides amplifying the sense in which the women were on show. Even when they did enact their appetitive desires, the majority of this was done under the long dangling cloth served as a mask to their eating. By the time they divulged into pure animalistic behaviour the table had visually broken into quarters, providing a symbolism of their societal mask slipping, revealing expectations of female bodies as idealistic.

If I had to moan…
My only real complaint was that it was so short. I would’ve loved for them to have taken this further.

The Same Same Collective are ones to watch for multi-cultural political performance art. I found Drop Dead Gorgeous a laugh out loud piece; current and thought provoking it is in tune with works such as ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’. To catch them again they will be back at the London Vault festival on the 15th of February.

Girl from the North Country @Gielgud Theatre

11.01.2020

The musical that doesn’t feel like one.

Accompanying my mum to Girl from the North Country on the basis that it ‘has Bob Dylan music in it’, I had no preconceptions as to what it would be like and even though I knew it had been well received, I was taken aback by the ingenuity of the piece. GFTNC is categorised as a musical so predictably music is a central component, however it felt more like a kitchen sink drama come concert in comparison to thoroughgoing musicals such as Come From Away. Set in an American guesthouse in 1934, the play concerns itself with family issues; infidelity, illness and finance consume the plot. Within this the music acts as a kind of melancholic soundtrack, distinct from yet descriptive of the scenes. The most thorough performance came from Katie Brayben who played Elizabeth Laine, the mentally ill wife of the house owner. She convincingly inhabited the illness both in its comedic and frightening moments. Gloria Obianyo who played Marianne stood out as the best vocalist, as her soulful voice was more like a blues artist than your typical west-end performer.

The Set Design reflected its genre.

The design of the set was both naturalistic and abstract. The band was present throughout the show positioned upstage right, always in view but separate from the scenes amplifying the intrusion of the music into what, in terms of writing, could have been an ordinary play. A piano, downstage right appeared naturalistic and was used throughout the scenes mostly by Elizabeth while a drum kit, downstage left was visually out of place and was used solely as an instrument throughout the songs. It too was played by the actors (rather than members of the band) but this only brought you further away from the action, as it was so unusual to see members of the cast featuring in the musicianship. Similarly, ordinary guest house furniture such as a table and chairs and a kitchen sink were in keeping with the naturalistic script, however the spacing gave it an abstract feel as elements of the set, such as the sink, were rarely interacted with and acted more as ornaments. The most unique thing about the set, however, was the large screen revealed a third of the way into the production, which displayed an image of the nearby lake. It is unclear if this was supposed to be a modernistic representation of a window but as it was only introduced later in the production and occasionally it would show a laneway rather than the lake, I assume not. I think the purpose was to enable you to grasp the setting in a way which was going to juxtapose the naturalism, to distance you further from the scenes but more than that its purpose was to provide a backlight so that during the vocal numbers, members of the cast could stand close to screen and be mere silhouettes. It was thrilling to watch.

A genius piece so much more than an ode to Bob Dylan.

9/10

Women Aren̶t̶ Funny- PLUG IN GIRLS

@The Albany, London 9.01.2019

Women Aren̶’̶t̶ Funny, is a diverse night presenting the best in comedy and dramatic monologue. The acts were distinct but also unified by both a colloquial Britishness, which was headed by its Geordie host Ellen Lilley, as well as the shared themes of sex, ethnicity and mental health. The night’s name is indicative of female artists’ struggle in a predominately male industry as well as providing a satire of the stereotype that ‘women aren’t funny’.

The strongest performance came from Jenan Younis a woman of Assyrian heritage raised in Surrey. Much of her performance focused on what it was like growing up in a largely white middle class area with middle eastern heritage. She comically listed the dichotomies between herself and racial stereotypes, Christian not Muslim, calm not passionate and explored everyday racism. Her piece went on to discuss Stacey Dooley’s Iraq documentary and hilariously attacked her inability to speak grammatically correct English (which has always been a peeve of mine). Reading off extracts from her book ‘Women *what* fight back’ in Stacey’s thick Essex accent, she (I hope) filled grammatically correct words with incorrect ones in order to make mock Dooley’s usually horrendous use of English. Her piece was witty, insightful and creative and therefore it is no surprise that she has already been nominated for the BBC New Comedy award. She is one to watch.

The line-up as a whole was brimming with talent with all acts bringing a unique voice. Alex Bertulis-Fernandes’ set was very dark humoured- not my cup of tea but can definitely see doing well- and Lavinia Carpentieri’s performed a hilarious monologue about needing a shit on the way to work. Weaker performances of the night were due to lack of conviction or stage presence rather than weak content or writing. One of the best things about Jenan was her calm presence on stage while other performers had the tendency to jump erratically between jokes, touch their hair or fiddle with clothing which is not only distracting but also unprofessional. I’d suggest working on delivery and presence because all the acts were brilliant in content.

As a regular attendee of Covent Garden’s Top Secret Comedy Club I believe this show has the ability to be as big, as it presents real talent in a fun atmosphere. I’d say to the organisers to aim for bigger venues and higher frequency and it could soon replace other comedy nights which consistently support male over female talent.

The night was a lot of fun but more than anything succeeded in proving that women are funny! Where do I sign up?

Rosa @ The Courtyard Theatre

Rosa is a one woman show about a woman (named Rosa) who fixates on her ability to control time throughout the day, causing her to fear sleep. The script follows her neurotic daily routine in a convincing but also bizarre manner.

Things I liked about this piece…

Committed characterisation- I found Carlota Arencibia a thoroughly committed actress, never slipping in her characterisation even during the comedic moments. The piece had already started from the moment the audience entered, which was a clever way of amplifying the realism of the piece. We really had walked into the room of a mad woman. Movement was a key and clever part of Carlota’s performance, mostly to embody the time she was fixated on, as well as to physicalise Rosa’s desire for control. This added to the thoroughness of the characterisation as well as the comedy of the piece. Most of the comedy, however, came from the quirks of Rosa’s daily routine such as her morning wee which was done on stage into a plant pot, using a water pouch tucked into her knickers. Other absurd moments included her morning cup of coffee, which was poured over her face, her exercises, which included putting match sticks in her eyes, as well as the period she spends rubbing her clit, a small pillow attached to her knickers. All these elements made for a convincing and funny portrayal of her neurotic character but also were evidence of what an incredible piece of writing Rosa is.

Set Design- This is the most fully realised set I’ve seen in a small scale production this year. It was made up of white painted wooden panelling which formed the three walls to the room. The white fresh paint was reminiscent of a mental asylum but the wood complicated this, making it feel more like a painter and decorator set or even a heavenly garden. The idea of it being a painter and decorator set was heightened by the roll-on paint brush which stood propped up on the wall throughout the piece, as well as the white linen flooring. This not-quite-finished state of the set nicely amplifies the sense of being stuck in time, much like Rosa. The set also mirrored her desire for balance, with props tending to come in equal numbers and there being only one stand out colour, red. The only sense of imbalance came from the roll on brush which looked as though it could have been left accidentally, cleverly highlighting the scene’s artificiality, much like her own sense of control.

If I had to moan…

This is a naturally difficult piece to critique due to its originality. However, I think to not lose sight of diction would be a good point to make, as parts of the performance were lost in the zig zagging of content. While the fast paced speech was obviously a deliberate characterisation choice, I think too much was missed at times.

The silent Mrs Coffman, the person Rosa speaks to throughout, was an unclear concept. Who is she? Do we know? Should we care? I found myself straddling the ideas that: Mrs Coffman was imaginary, Mrs Coffman was a psychiatrist, Mrs Coffman is whoever the audience want her to be. I think whether or not Mrs Coffman is supposed to be anything particular or not, it needs to be stated clearer as I found my attempt to grasp it distracting and spent half the piece worrying I’d missed the answer.

Finally, I would’ve liked to have seen Carlota go further in Rosa’s moments of fear, to elevate the contrast with the mostly lighthearted tone of the production.

Overall, this was an incredibly well written, performed and managed piece which I would highly recommend for anyone seeking something slightly unconventional. I wish this production the best of luck going forward and I have no doubt they will do well. Carlota is a real force.

Trouble @ The Chapel Playhouse

18.09.19.

Lizzie Annis’ ‘Trouble’, is a linguistically powerful and genuinely moving depiction of a night out from the perspective of a woman with Cerebral palsy.

It is both familiar and enlightening as it comments on sleazy men, social awkwardness, friendship and dating but from the perspective of someone with a disability. The piece was both hilarious and heartbreaking in one short half an hour sitting as it gives light to both the complexities but also humour which derives from the social repercussions of having a disability.

What I loved…

The language. The entire piece was written as essentially, one long poem with a rhyming scheme running throughout. It was cleverly paced, colloquial yet elevated with clever use of imagery throughout so that no set or props were required. I was struck by what an incredible piece of writing it was.

Multi-Role.

Throughout the piece, Lizzie embodies the people she interacts with simply by changing the tone of her voice and movement. I found this a lovely way of making a simple piece more powerful. She does a really good job of showing how sometimes less is more.

If I had to moan…

This is a really difficult piece to criticise as I genuinely loved it however, I felt some of the transition in her multiple-role playing could have been sharpened. At times it wasn’t entirely obvious who was speaking or which character she was embodying. Therefore I would say simply to focus on sharpening the tone and movement at all times, to avoid blurring the characters.

Overall however, I found this to be a really clever and contemporary piece of feminist theatre. We need more like this.

Post Popular @ Edinburgh Fringe- My Recommendation.

03.08.2019. Not for the faint hearted.

Lucy is utterly brilliant, fearless and spontaneous in her latest piece Post Popular. Her piece combines theatre, dance and vocals in a thoroughly interactive piece which relies upon audience participation. A dramatic retelling of women throughout history, from Eve to the present day, Post Popular is far from what you might expect.

The piece acts as a statement of female power while simultaneously reflecting on the lack of female presence in our history books. Lucy, with her incredible comic timing, unrelenting commitment and brave choices counterbalances the weak and lacking women in the stories. This idea is amplified by the two men which accompany Lucy throughout the piece acting as her extras but appearing more like her servants.

In order to not give too much away I will end this review here simply to say if you are not afraid to get your hands dirty, it’s a must see.

Warning: contains nudity and strong language.

9/10