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Motherhood and Morality: Catching Up with “Workin’ Moms”

The protagonist of Workin’ Moms is not a good person. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about that. Plenty of shows are about bad people and Kate’s sins are relatively minor. She’s not killing people, dealing drugs, or running a criminal enterprise. Yet, most antiheroes (and heroes to be honest) remain men and Kate’s misdeeds are particularly interesting because of the premise of her show — motherhood.

Or more precisely, working, regular motherhood. Kate and her friends may be privileged (no plotlines yet about the expense of childcare) but they’re also supposed to be relatable. The zany “other” characters sit at the show’s periphery, uttering just a few lines in the mother’s group to signal that the show’s creators know that black and brown and older mothers exist. But these women are outside the central group, not as relatable or flushed out as Kate and her friends.

The main group, of which Kate is the lead, is comprised of working, upper-class white people, struggling to be good parents, professionals, and people. It’s the last one that Kate fails at through acts big and small. She teases a toddler boy for his long hair, showing her propensity to punch down (not to mention her lack of feminist bona fides). Though technically consensual, she starts sleeping with her much younger assistant in a plotline that if the genders were reversed would have people calling for her head. She even serves as the go-to PR person for the local men’s right chapter (before eventually quitting this vile gig).

You see Kate’s ease with moral missteps are all light enough, small enough that we’re meant to forgive her, to understand. It’s the type of empathy that asks you to briefly cross ethical lines. And in Kate’s universe, most everyone crosses it with her. Her assistant comes back after the men’s rights clients are gone, seeing Kate’s willingness to work for them as a momentary lapse. Her (estranged, having cheated) husband doesn’t see a problem in Kate sleeping with her assistant — he goes so far as to support his wife, acting as her attorney when the young man sues.

The only time Kate is held accountable is for teasing the boy about his hair. The boy’s mother takes offense and uses her power as a journalist to smudge Kate’s reputation. It’s clear this transgression is different from the others — it reflects not just on Kate as a person, but her as a mother. And that distinction, that Kate can be a good mother while not being a good person is what makes Workin’ Moms so distinct.

Usually, TV moms are good or bad and their personality outside of motherhood matches nicely. There are the good moms of yore (from June Cleaver to Claire Huxtable) and their modern variations (Pose’s BlancaFriday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor), all good people through and through. There are selfish bad moms (like Betty Draper and Lucille Bluth) and criminally abusive moms (from Mommy Dearest to Carrie). But the bad person/good mom is hard to find (and the good person/bad mom seems entirely absent, while men get this characterization all the time).

Now some may argue that Kate’s not a good mom. She consistently prioritizes her career over her family. In season one, she takes an out-of-town job despite having a newborn at home. Later when she’s on a forced-leave, she hates staying home with her baby and takes a second job just to have something else to do. But Workin’ Moms doesn’t demonize her for those choices. Instead, it contextualizes them as part of how Kate struggles to be a good mother. Yes, her husband cheats on her, blaming, in part, how she puts herself (and her career) first. But not only does that not stick (he wants Kate back as soon as he’s found out), it doesn’t affect Kate’s parenting. You can be a good mother and bad partner.

Kate’s mothering may not look like June Cleaver’s but it clearly falls into the “good enough” category. In season one, we see her struggling to get her baby to latch, fighting the good fight to breastfeed, even when it’s clearly not working. Later, she’s figuring out how to co-parent after separating from her cheating husband, first denying him the ability to see his kids and then eventually granting it. By the end of season three, she’s making her toddler’s Halloween costume in a hotel bathroom, sneaking away from her sexy new lover to make sure her kid has something to wear. None of these parenting moments shows a perfect mom. But they each show a woman struggling to do right by herself and her kid.

Kate has to work at mothering, not because she’s a bad person but because she’s human. So much of the portrayal of parenthood omits these day-to-day difficulties. Instead, it’s how best to guide your kid — not how to deal with the constant pressure to subsume yourself to the cult of good motherhood.

In the second season of Workin’ Moms, we see a lot of younger Kate, learning how she met her husband, what she was like before kids. And like everyone I know in real life, Kate is the same before and after having kids. She doesn’t become a different person. Instead, she remains the funny, morally-flexible person who quips to defend herself but can’t predict when she’s about to take a joke too far.

I sympathize with Kate not for her lack of conventions but rather for her flawed nature. She’s not evil or saintly. Simply she’s imperfect and women, particularly mothers, are rarely given the chance to tell that story.

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10 Netflix Shows to Watch for Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, the time the federal government has designated to celebrate latinidad. So we’re taking a moment (really September 15-October 15) to shout out our fellow Latinxs for all they do, commemorate the independence days of seven Latin American countries, and watch some Latinx folks on TV.

Yes, you are still about as likely to see an alien on screen as a Latina but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great shows out there featuring “Hispanics.” Just to make it easy, we’ve compiled a list of ten of our favorites from Netflix. After all, one subscription is all should need, right? Enjoy!

Charmed

Brujeria is in our blood, so it makes sense that Latinxs are finally getting our own TV witches. Shows like CW’s Charmed may not get as much attention as our white counterparts but that doesn’t mean they’re not just as good.

The latest Charmed is packed with feminist in-jokes and reminiscent of cult-favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show premiered to controversy when it turned out that despite its Latinx premise, only one of the three sisters identifies as Latina (the other two are black) but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty to enjoy in the first season now on Netflix before the second season starts October 11.

Grey’s Anatomy: Seasons 2–12

I admit it — I miss Callie Torres. The big-hearted orthopedic surgeon was an inspiration on Grey’s Anatomy, breaking bones and dancing in her underwear in seasons two through twelve. She spoke Spanish, dated (and married!) both genders, and did the most singing on the musical episode.

Actress Sara Ramirez is now doing great work over on Madame Secretaryas the butch Kat Sandoval, yet this Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re finding refuge from Trump’s America in re-visiting Callie Torres.

Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin recently wrapped its final season and now all five seasons are available on Netflix. If you haven’t hung out with the Villanueva family yet or you’ve simply missed the latest installment, you’re in for a treat.

The show manages to represent a type of Latinx family we all know (hard-working, women-led, multi-generational) and deal with hot button issues (immigration, Catholicism, sexuality) while never getting preachy or tired. Instead, Jane the Virgin entertains with telenovela plot twists, an epic love triangle, and a hell of a lot of empathy. I miss it already.

On My Block

A Netflix original, On My Block’s second season came out earlier this year and we love how it centers brown and black teens. Whether it’s crushing on your no-blood-relation prima or dealing with the intricacies of gang violence, the show positions our coming-of-age stories as important, funny, and valuable. The young stars run the gamut of skin tones and hair textures and their antics speak to what we all know about the pitfalls of growing up: it’s hard/awkward/ridiculous.

Now, if only Netflix would take note and make more content for and by US-born Latinxs…

One Day At A Time

One Day At A Time made headlines earlier this year when Netflix declined to renew it despite rave reviews (and perhaps strong viewing numbers). Luckily, CBS’ Pop TV has picked up the Justina Machado-helmed comedy and all the past seasons are still available to stream on Netflix.

Featuring a stand-out performance from living legend and original EGOT winner Rita Moreno, One Day At A Timegives the Latinx experience the sitcom treatment, only more brown than you’re used to.

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black may have changed TV as we know it, ushering in the streaming era with a show elevating incarcerated women of color. It certainly catapulted the careers of Latina talent ranging from Jackie Cruz to Laura Gómez from Diane Guerrero to Selenis Leyva from Dascha Polanco to Elizabeth Rodriguez. It’s rare for any show to feature this many women of color, let alone give meaty parts to so many Latinas, and OITNB did it all while appealing to the “mainstream.”

You can binge all seven seasons now and relive the tragedy and beauty of the women of Litchfield.

Pose

Featuring a Latinx cast (MJ Rodriguez as Bianca, Indya Moore as Angel, Angel Bismark Curiel as Papi) and helmed by Latinx creator Steven Canals, Pose is making history in more ways than one. It depicts the New York ballroom scene of the early ’90s showing a community plagued by the AIDS epidemic and continuously under threat by discrimination.

Yet, Pose finds a lot of hope and beauty in its cast, helmed by the fearless do-gooder Bianca who exemplifies how a community can step up for each other. The LGBTQ drama raked in the Emmys and hopefully is just getting started.

Riverdale

The fourth season of Riverdale is set to premiere October 9 (in time for #HispanicHeritageMonth!) and in the meantime, you can catch up on the last three seasons on Netflix. The show explores the darker side of the Archie comics universe with plotlines around murder, drugs, and slut-shaming.

With Camila Mendes as Veronica, Riverdale gives us a Latina character we are not used to seeing — the richest girl in town. So friendly reminder, there’s not one Latinx experience! And the CW’s Latina characters — whether it’s Riverdale’s Veronica, Jane the Virgin’s Villanuevas, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Valencia — are here to remind you.

The West Wing: the Final Two Seasons

Remember when Jimmy Smits played Obama before Obama played Obama? No? Just me? Well, the year was 2005 and The West Wing needed an inspirational candidate to succeed President Bartlet. They chose Smits as Congressman Matt Santos, a principled, tall man of color with a relatively short resume.

Watching The West Wing (and Santos’ campaign) was always like going to an alternate universe where the people in power belonged there both because of their excellence and because they had the best interest of the country at heart. Today it feels even further from reality but it’s still nice to visit a universe where someone who looks like Julian Castro becomes President.

When They See Us

In 1989, the Central Park Jogger case captivated the nation and sent five wrongfully accused black and brown boys to prison. The narrative around the case — teenage boys of color roaming wild and attacking innocent/white folks — captured racists’ imaginations including one named Donald Trump who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, arguing the boys should be put to death.

Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us,” a Netflix miniseries depicting the events, sets the record straight, even getting prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer to finally face consequences for her role in the injustice (no word on the repercussions for Donald Trump). The four-part series is devastating and compelling, earning half of the four Emmy nominations afforded to Latinos this year.

Bonus: This Episode of Queer Eye

Sometimes you just want to relax and see a hard-working, activist Chicana get a great makeover. Enter the season finale of Queer Eye with protagonist Deanna Munoz. She’s the founder of the Latino Arts Festival in Kansas City and watching her journey gives us all the feels. Happy #HispanicHeritageMonth!

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Watching and Loving the White, Male “Stranger Things”

Stranger Things is a white, male show. Yes, one of the original four boys is black, and yes, there are strong female characters, and yes, for the first time in season three we got a character who is BOTH black and a girl, but the fact remains — this is a show that centers the white, male experience. I don’t normally watch shows like this. I generally prefer to hear from women and people of color — voices vastly underrepresented in media. This tendency helps me narrow down the overwhelming options that are TV today and ensures I’ll be spending my time on the most interesting shows anyway.

Yet, there I was, gobbling up the third season of Stranger Things as quickly as I could (four nights in my case). And while the show is undeniably white and male, they’ve clearly done some thinking around how to be better on diversity.

First, there’s the addition of Erica, Lucas’ 10-year-old sister, as one of our child heroes. If you haven’t watched the most recent season yet, you may remember her from season two — she had several scene-stealing appearances. In season three, she joins our adventurers in saving the world, playing a pivotal part in figuring out what’s going in Hawkins. And while actress Priah Ferguson is amazing, leaving more of an impression than many of her older colleagues, there’s something in Erica’s role as the fast-talking, “sassy” black girl that made me uncomfortable — it’s a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

See what I mean about the sass?

Meanwhile, her brother Lucas gets to be more of a whole person (perhaps because he’s not saddled with being both a girl and a person of color). That said, there were several times when he literally faded into the shadows, his face so poorly lit in the line up of boys that I couldn’t distinguish his features. Perhaps they should hire some of the folks who do lighting for Insecure to help out… And of course, there’s also the issue that Asian and Latinx folks exist, but still, I noticed and appreciated the effort!

Not just race, the creators of Stranger Things are also working on their portrayal of gender. This season featured two episodes directed by a woman (last season had one — the Eleven bottle-episode and the first season had none). Plus, Eleven and Max finally became friends instead of rivals, a truly annoying and unnecessary plot point in season two.

It turns out girls are not natural enemies — thanks Stranger Things!

In season three, we get more girl characters and more who are two-dimensional. Eleven is no longer a genderless creature, a girl in name only. She not only presents more feminine (she’s got hair) but also is figuring out what it means to be a different “species” than her boyfriend Mike and his friends. That journey includes a totally 80’s makeover-at-the-mall sequence, which is positively delightful (although where does she get the money for all those new clothes?). And she gets to kiss her boyfriend, create a “new look,” and make a female friend all while still being the most important of the kids, the one who stands in front of the gang and fights the monster, the one who everyone must protect even as she is the only one who can hold off the forces of darkness.

On the grown-up side, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is still the only woman involved in the adventure and her primary weapon remains her mom-ness. Yet, this time it’s not just her knowledge of her kids and drive to protect them that makes her important. She’s able to use those same skills outside the house (how novel!) to demand she gets what they need, whether it’s help from the government or our local Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist. Definitely progress from taping together drawings on her living-room floor.

And we meet Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in the third season, a girl who’d have no place in previous seasons. Her hair’s a bit greasy and she’s got indie sensibilities, having played in band in high school and been invisible to her now coworker, Steve “the Hair” Harrington. But she’s down for adventure and good with languages, so much so that she breaks the Russian code and generally becomes crucial to our saga. At first, it seems like she’s just a lesson for Steve — shouldn’t he have gone for the girl who is smart and cool and right in front of him all along? But then (spoiler coming!) when he finally realizes his mistake and makes his move, Robin lets him down gently. Turns out she’s gay! And with that twist, she becomes not an object of Steve’s development but rather her own person, eventually helping our popular if pedestrian young man find employment after the mall “burns” down.

The other teenage girl (and Steve’s previous love interest), Nancy Wheeler, doesn’t do quite so well on bucking the gender stereotypes. She’s the most feminine of all our leading ladies consistently in skirts and heels. She fights misogynists at work and monsters in her free time but the way she’s shot makes her look small and fragile, despite being in a show mostly populated by actual children. Nancy’s not powerless — she’s right about her story idea and does the most damage with a gun of anyone this season, including the chief of police — but her power seems limited by femaleness (and her boyfriend always trying to save her) rather than stemming or even just free from it (like the rest of the female cast).

How many times have you seen this shot?

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love about Stranger Things. Of course, there’s the 80’s nostalgia (I had that radio! I’d wear that dress today!) and all the great movie references, bringing us elder Millenials and Gen X’ers back to our childhoods. But more than that, Stranger Things is primarily a story of underdogs winning and who doesn’t love that?

I’m not talking about how the kids are nerds — watching from 2019, we know that 80’s nerds become today’s power players — I’m talking about how the kids are kids. There may be superpowers involved but the young people at the center of Stranger Things are exactly where they should be developmentally. They’re learning what it means to have romantic relationships, to grow out of childhood interests (so sad that Dungeons and Dragons scene), to have first jobs, and try on new identities. And they’re not all doing it at the same pace or in the same way as each other.

Stranger Things takes childhood seriously. The friendship between Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will is as important as anything else on the show. In fact, they succeed only because they are children: they need Erica’s smallness, adult’s underestimation, and their own, childhood ability to believe and imagine to survive.

It’s rare to see young people taken so seriously in media and Stranger Things really does it right by letting its kids grow. These aren’t characters stuck perpetually in a single grade, they’re actual people transitioning from being children to teenagers to adults. The show lets this change breathe, seeing it as an opportunity to explore new dynamics and possibilities rather than a wrinkle in its original premise.

The result is a unique narrative, one that expands who can be a hero, who’s worthy of our attention, and who deserves to have their story told. And this quality, this loosening of the adult-white-male hegemony over our imagination, is, as it turns out, what draws me to most of the media I consume. So I guess, that’s why I binged Stranger Things and why I’ll be one of the millions waiting for the next season. Yes, it’s white and it’s male but that’s not all it is.

Who’s ready for season four?
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“Someone Great” is the Romantic Comedy We Need

When I was pre-teen and teenager, the women dancing in their underwear on screen were white and super thin. Think Cameron Diaz and Kirsten Dunst. They had this carefree cuteness, this unquestionable right to be fearless, sexy, and the center of attention. All of us wanted to be them, as unattainable as that was for the vast majority of us.

Fast forward to 2019 and I’m watching Gina Rodriguez jam out in her choneys on Netflix’s Someone Great. This film is the updated romantic comedy we need, following Jenny, the 29-year-old music critic who’s T-shirt declares she’s “Latina AF.” She’s brown and proud, regularly using Spanish. And she’s just as plucky and beautiful as her white predecessors. The camera spends some quality time on her thighs and I am here for it. She’s talented and driven, landing a new job that will move her to San Francisco from New York and give her a full staff to supervise at the ripe-old-age of 29. She’s not as squeaky clean as her earlier, romantic comedy counterparts (or even Gina Rodriguez’s other alter ego Jane Villanueva), doing a wide variety of drugs on the sidewalk. But she’s still romantic, seeing her love story as star crossed and using her power as a writer to express her feelings poetically in voiceover.

And like all excellent romantic comedies, Someone Great features fabulous outfit after fabulous outfit. Throughout the day we spend with Jenny in New York, people keep remarking on her clothes like she looks ridiculous. But I’m here wondering how I can get her whole dated, grunge, barrio clothes now. And of course, the same goes for her friends, who manage to look stunning in every shot, including the obligatory getting-dressed-to-go-out montage.

In fact, in addition to Brittany Snow and DeWanda Wise as the best friends, Someone Great also delivers on the romantic comedy classic of the cameo. There’s Ru Paul as the over-the-top and top-end drug dealer. There’s Rosario Dawson as the boyfriend’s cousin who works at Vogue and manages to both sympathize and condescend to Jenny simultaneously. And as a nod and much-needed update to Sex in the City, Girls, etc., there’s New York itself, another romantic comedy staple, appearing browner but just as glamours as always.

Yes, seeing a brown-skinned, black-haired Latina get the full romantic comedy treatment — dance breaks, wardrobe changes, fantastic female friends — is so satisfying. Much of the tone of Someone Great is not joyful though, it’s sad. The film brilliantly portrays the late-twenties angst of Millenials. It is hard to be at the stage where you’re transitioning from all-night benders to farmers’ markets, from screwing the wrong person to declaring your love, from post-college bacchanal to full-fledged adulthood.

But usually, TV and film only allow male characters the kind of transgressive, lost, and sympathetic coming-to-age stories that Jenny and her friends get. Think of the era of the man-child film, embodied by Knocked Up. That was in 2007. Before even the flashbacks of Jenny and her crew. There were so many of those films. Meanwhile, unmarried women’s existence past 30 was only just getting to be fun and not tragic on screen, thanks to Sex and the City. TV’s made some great strides since then. But it’s taking romantic comedies a long time to catch up or include brown people.

Something Great fulfills and advances the promise of earlier, feminist shows, giving us a new set of women that better reflect what the world and New York actually look like. And Something Great has the courage so many of its predecessors do not — it’s happy ending does not include a relationship. Jenny doesn’t get back together with her boyfriend. No new love interest appears to save her from her broken heart. She doesn’t even have bone it out as DeWanda Wise’s Erin helpfully suggests. No the “Someone Great” of this film is Jenny herself, choosing and finding herself. This is the romantic comedy of my dreams. Enjoy.

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The Hilarious and the Heart-Wrenching in “Workin’ Moms”

Women have whisper networks. We talk about handsy colleagues and compare paychecks. We discuss skin care routines and pass book titles back and forth. I learned about Netflix’s latest import (from Canada no less!), Workin’ Moms, through my network and immediately passed it on.

You see, Workin’ Moms hasn’t gotten the press coverage of Russian Doll or You. It’s more in the One Day At A Time bucket, forced to grow its own audience through the luck of the algorithm, assumed to only speak to a niche audience (like Latinos — 16.7% of the population, or working mothers — 12%, le sigh). And so, we real working moms are spreading the show amongst ourselves, relaying the fact that this comedy gets to some of the truths of early motherhood in ways we haven’t seen before.

Usually, early motherhood is skipped over entirely (look at this cute baby, now skip forward until they’re old enough to lead their own storylines), glossed over as a sacred and precious period (babies are adorable yes, but difficult to care for too), or portrayed in slapstick comedy form (dirty diapers are perhaps not so hilarious when part of your daily routine). Not so with Workin’ Moms.It’s about the good and the bad, the hilarious and the heart-wrenching of early motherhood. There’s the scene about trying to get your baby to latch. The one where you finally have good sex after the birth. The one where you realize you’re pregnant again and think, I cannot do this.

I’m particularly impressed with how the show presents motherhood as an affront to your identity. All the moms on the show deal with it. In the first season (the one on Netflix now — Canada’s on season three), Jessalyn Wanlim’s Jenny Matthews rebels against the role of motherhood, reverting to her college-aged self, wearing chokers, piercing her nipple, and flirting/hooking up with inappropriate men (aka not her husband, aka her boss and random younger men). Juno Rinaldi’s Frankie Coyne faces the chemical imbalance of motherhood with postpartum depression, unable to keep her job, her sense of self, and sometimes her grip on reality. Dani Kind’s Anne Carlson struggles to match her gruff personality with mothering, feeling jealous of her nanny’s easy connection with her prepubescent daughter and contemplating an abortion of her third pregnancy. Meanwhile, our lead, Catherine Reitman’s Kate Foster hides her promotion from her husband, a career advancement that would be a no-brainer without kids. Now it’s fraught and painful, a no-win situation that turns Kate’s professional dream turned into a nightmare when her son winds up in the hospital.

Throughout, we see the specter of motherhood, this role that is supposed to fulfill you but requires never-ending self-sacrifice, as what it is: really fucking hard. Society’s depiction of motherhood in movies and in the media doesn’t fit actual women with actual lives. So many of us mourn the life we had before kids, the one that allowed us more leeway to focus on ourselves, to grow our careers and interests. The one that included late night outs and bodily autonomy. The moms on the show and the ones I know in real life all want the best for their kids and are willing to work hard and sacrifice for them. But what if we sacrifice too much? When does it become counterproductive? Maybe older kids can recognize that their parents have needs outside of them, but babies and toddlers cannot. Their needs are endless and can consume you if you don’t create boundaries. It’s a pretty tough line to draw, made more so by a social narrative that says you’re supposed to give endlessly and like it.

Not that motherhood is all bad nor is the struggle to navigate its demands. On Workin’ Moms, we see Anne finally bond with her daughter and when they connect it manages to be satisfying, meaningful, and funny. When Kate gets her baby to latch and then later decides to stop struggling and switch to formula, I felt her success in my bones (really my nipples) and the bittersweet compromise in my soul. Each woman is becoming better, yet different people through the journey of motherhood. This show honestly portrays the growing pains of this weird, rewarding, and difficult transformation that is early motherhood.

Workin’ Moms captures much of what it is to be a new mother but it is not perfect. All the moms are relatively affluent, either paying for nannies or able to have one of the parents stay home. The racial dynamics are rough, focusing mostly on the white experience. Early on Kate (white) fires her Filipino nanny in a scene that made me cringe — it othered the brown woman while allowing the power dynamics to go unquestioned. In the show’s mother circle, the lone black woman is consistently played for laughs, made strange and unrelatable for no discernible reason. Yes, the show features two women of color, Jenny and Frankie’s partner Giselle, but neither of them takes as central of a role as the white women.

And then there’s the stay-at-home mom in the mother’s circle who’s made the villain, Katherine Barrell’s Alicia Rutherford. She has precious ideas about self-sacrifice and women’s role in the home. And the other women bond over belittling her. After all these years of mommy wars, it would have been refreshing to see a show that doesn’t pit one type of motherhood against another. We’re not actually in conflict with each other. We’re in conflict with a society that tells us we should find fulfillment in unpaid, undervalued work no matter our personality or predilections. Workin’ Moms generally rallies against this notion as do the real working mothers I know. Here’s to the next two season arriving in the US, hopefully not repeating some of the more tone-deaf moments, and continuing to show motherhood for what it is: beautiful, impossible, real. That’s a story worth telling.

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Godless in Trump’s America

Since the election of Donald Trump, it seems like our country has been in a never-ending debate about who we are and where we come from. There are so many places to look for answers but as a media critic, I, of course, look to TV. And in this moment of Bible-signing, border “crisis,” and macho, guns-out leadership, I find myself turning to Westerns for answers. They’re our own creation myth, the story of American exceptionalism, power, and whiteness.

Recently, there’s been some effort to update the Western with Netflix’s Godlessas the prime example. After all, it did win all those awards and premiere the same year as Trump’s presidency. I confess, my political leanings are such that I see some of Donald Trump in the show’s villain, Frank Griffin. The two men share a certain heaviness of body and jowls (sorry Jeff Daniels!). They also share a faux-Christianity that doesn’t require any respect for human life. And both of them are the type of leaders who collect crooks and lowlifes, seeing personal loyalty as the only meaningful virtue. I mean who would Michael Cohen et al. be in the old west but a band of gun-slinging outlaws? Am I right or am I right?

Of course, Frank Griffin and his men aren’t the only folks in Godless. The show’s marketing made quite the ado about its setting in a man-less town, positioning Godless as a feminist Western (which it is not). Certainly, there are strong women in the show. Michelle Dockery as Alice Fletcher is mesmerizing as the isolated widow with a good shot and mixed-race son. Her love life is central to the show, even as the creators betray in her a totally unnecessary and graphic rape scene. In it, we learn nothing new about the characters, already having learned that Alice has survived tough things. No, her rape is just an uncomfortable excuse to titillate the audience with Michelle Dockery’s breasts, combining violence with eroticism in a way that says MALE GAZE IS RAPE CULTURE in all caps.

And there’s my personal favorite, Merritt Wever as Mary Agnes, the town’s would-be leader who’s given up dresses and men as she holds her community together. Mary Agnes advocates for the women’s independence, urging her fellow townswomen not to make a business deal with partners who see their gender as weakness. In the finale, she organizes the women’s last stand, setting a strategy that will keep at least some of them alive. And along the way, we see her taking care of her brother’s kids and the hapless Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Whitey Winn. You see, Mary Agnes may have gone butch, even nabbing the richest, most beautiful and most experienced woman in town — Tess Frazer’s former sex-worker Callie Dunne — but the show takes great pains to let you know she’s still a nurturer and thereby a woman.

And these are the characters the show empathizes with — the white women of La Belle, New Mexico. Spoiler: People of color do much worse. Godless is clearly trying to rewrite the western to be less sexist and less white supremacist but when you’re counting degrees of racism, you’ve already lost. You see Godless relies on the same racist tropes that power the Westerns of the past, much of the media of today, and far too much of our politics, policies, and national conversation.

In Godless, we see a black town, literally called Blackdom, and its inhabitants as “others.” They’re introduced late (in episode three of seven) and portrayed as extremely violent in a violent world. You see the men of Blackdom (yes, I’m rolling my eyes each time I type the town’s name) are Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry that fought with white, Anglo settlers in the Indian Wars. They weren’t guaranteed freedom from slavery even as they fought for white expansion — an interesting bit of history for sure. Yet, the show takes great pains to tell you these men were particularly ruthless and indeed we see the town’s leader beating his daughter with a switch. And that’s before all of the black characters are massacred in the wind-up to the real showdown: the white folks of La Belle vs the white folks in Frank Griffin’s gang. This is your typical racist use of black bodies and black stories.

Think that’s bad? Native American characters do not do better in Godless: they’re stuck in the magical sidekick trope, Native Americans who use their mystical powers to help the white people. There’s Duane Howard’s unnamed ”Shoshone brave” (his character name, not mine) who is maybe a ghost, maybe a vision, but either way exists to give Bill McNue encouragement and advice. And there’s Tantoo Cardinal’s Iyovi who uses her healing powers on the injured Roy Goode, who issues wise animal metaphors to guide her daughter-in-law Alice, and whose skills in hunting and other matters somehow serve as comic relief. Neither is what you’d call a humanizing portrayal.

Samuel Marty’s Truckee, the half Native American, half white, son of Alice only does a little better. He doesn’t have any magical skills or even propensity to “Indian” tasks like horseback riding. But he’s portrayed as a fish out of water, part of neither the white nor Native community, lost without a father or strong sense of identity. It’s the type of character that multiracial people have been rallying against for decades.

And last but not least is the show’s complete erasure of Latino characters. For a show set in New Mexico, it is odd that there is no one of mixed Spanish and Native descent. In fact, despite the action going to Taos and other Hispano centers in the area, we do not hear a word of Spanish, and there are no Latino characters. It’s a gross oversight that erases New Mexico’s past and present with a single casting decision. And in case you think the show reflects some actual moment in history — it does not. Godless takes place in the 1880s, a time when Anglo settlers were stealing land from Hispanos all over the state. None of that exists in Godless. We just see English-speaking White and Black people carving out a living in tough land, fighting with each other, and occasionally referencing offscreen Native Americans as menaces. It’s racist and completely inaccurate.

At the end of the day, the central conflict in Godless is between Jeff Daniels’ Frank Griffin and Jack O’Connell’s Roy Goode as they solve their differences with bullets, killing whole towns along the way. You see the women of La Belle, even the mighty Alice and Mary Agnes, are just the scenery for these two white men. So are the POC who manage to find their way on screen. And this is a Western trying to be progressive!

So when I look to Westerns to understand this moment in American history, it’s not for accuracy. The true story of the American West is a mix of germ warfare and white supremacy used to steal Native land first by Spaniards and then by Anglos. The heroes are not white guys with guns. They’re Native Americans fighting for their way of life. The villains aren’t white bandits. They’re white soldiers and lawmen who rigged the system and used their guns to ensure the existing population couldn’t overcome their cheating ways. But we don’t tell this story.

No, Westerns are not a view into our past but rather our present, how we got to the terrible place we’re in: centering white men, their experiences, and preoccupations to our peril. This false narrative about America and our birth in the West is hurting us all. It pushes the real story out of the frame, limits the personhood and agency of the vast majority of the population, and leads to seeing white toxic masculinity as the only viable model of leadership (looking at you Donald T).

Here’s hoping we can imagine a better past, present, and future. I’ll be reading the tea leaves, looking for a critically acclaimed Western that doesn’t center white men. Who knows? It could happen, but for now, I’m not holding my breath.

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