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.

Little Fires Everywhere – A perfectly timed discussion on race.

Photograph:The Radio Times

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two mothers: Elena Richardson, a white middle class writer and all round do gooder and Mia Warren, a black artist who moves from state to state in her car with her daughter, Pearl. The two meet when Elena Richardson takes pity on Warren and allows her and Pearl to rent her apartment for free. Elena prides herself on the action and sees it as an opportunity to do good in the world, soon sparking up a friendship with Pearl, who in turn becomes close friends with her own children. The story becomes, in the most part, a discussion about race and class, but also about motherhood. Ironically released during the biggest discussion of race the world has ever seen, following from George Floyd’s murder, it is a loud and glaring discussion of white privilege in America, from dolls only being made in white, to Elena’s trust in the police department versus Mia’s fear. However, the biggest and most thoroughgoing discussion of race and motherhood comes in with a third mother, Bebe Chow, who came to America from China to give her daughter a better life. The show sees her fight for custody of Mai Ling, in a world where white always wins.

What I loved…

The acting in the series incredible; Kerry Washington undeniably owns the show with her moving portrayal of Mia Warren. However, I found the shows young cast especially impressive, specifically Tiffany Boone, who plays the younger Mia Warren in the flash back episodes. Despite having a smaller part, her ability to mimic Kerry Washington’s mannerisms and facial expressions made for an uncanny likeness. She is one to watch.

The conversations the season has is undoubtedly its most interesting feature. It is the most mainstream discussion of racial bias and how it filtrates into the minds into even the most seemingly anti-racist people, I have ever seen. This comes through most clearly in the Richardson family, in particular through Elena’s character, who despite all her good intentions, still holds biases that she herself is blind to.
Alongside and tangled up in its conversation about racism is its discussion of motherhood, in particular mother daughter relationships, which forms a relatable and moving dialogue throughout the show. The season parallels Elena’s relationship with her youngest daughter Izzy (the one she didn’t plan for) with Mia’s relationship with Pearl. Both girls experience problems with their own mother and in turn seek solace in each others. Izzy, who can’t cope with her mothers need for control enjoys the company of free spirit Mia, while Pearl, sick of having no sense security or grounding, can see the value in a tightly organised home. The fact that both girls find qualities in each others mother’s more agreeable than their own shows that the concept of a ‘good mother’ is subjective, based more on preference than truth. This dialogue is played out with Bebe’s fight to keep her daughter, when the court gets to decide what constitutes a good mother. Through these three women the show discusses the inadequacy, survival and criticism of mothers.

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful, political, feminist watch.

9/10

Normal People @ BBC Three

Photograph: Enda Bowe/BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel, I was anxious that the screen adaptation could not do justice to her honest and intimate style of writing. If you have read Sally Rooney’s novel you will know that this book is built solely on the bond between the two main characters; it’s unusual lack of plot has brought recognition in its ability to portray the complexities of modern relationships. It follows the ebbs and flows of their relationship with all its natural bumps containing no real climax. Naturally, then, as internal perspectives are an area which screen is so often lacking, I thought how could it possibly do it justice? Rooney’s novel would be just another click bait opportunity, capitalising on the popularity of the book but translating poorly on screen. A tamer Fifty Shades of Grey.

However, this piece is genius, regardless of whether you are watching afresh or as a fan of the book. It maintains all the intensity of the novel, mostly through silence, lighting and cinematography. I found myself holding my breath along with the characters in the scenes, an element rarely preserved when adapting from novels. In fact, the series makes apparent the void in teen/young adult screen, by contrasting the over-dramatised and belittled teen emotions often written by a detached fifty year old man behind a desk. The script unlike the far fetched land of Skins or Misfits, is placed in mundane ordinary experiences. It is a dramatisation of isolation, manifested in class structures, miscommunication and loss. Communication forms a heavy theme in the script as two elite communicators in the written form, struggle to put across their most basic desires verbally. When Jessa Crispin at The Guardian wrote ‘I was bored watching these very typical representations of college students doing very normal things ‘, I think she was forgetting the title of the book. This isn’t supposed to be a happening programme, it is revolutionary because it is an exact mirror of the young experience now but perhaps she has forgotten what it is like to be 20.

9/10

BlackAF

Photograph: Gabriel Delerme

Looking for an easy watch comedy during the lockdown? Look no further than Kenya Barris’ BlackAF, following on from his earlier series ‘black-ish’, ‘grown-ish’ and ‘mixed-ish’. Despite being criticised for being a rehashing of ‘Black Ish’, viewed in separation this is a funny and fresh watch, readily available at your Netflix fingertips. The series is a satirised depiction of Kenya Barris’ life, a wealthy comedy writer, presented as a documentary attempt by the protagonist’s daughter for her college application. Showing his black middle class family living in a white middle class world, the series confronts issues of prejudice, cultural identity, and ‘black art’ success in a way that (prior to Black Ish), I had never seen before. Kenya Barris may need to push himself to get away from the shadow of Black Ish, but here he has stuck to what he does best: expounding on his personal narrative in a satirical context.