FOUR LITTLE SIRENS, WE
We finally get an opportunity to have a really strong woman on the show, who’s a different kind of woman. [Esther Randolph]’s not a showgirl. She’s not some tough hooker chick. This is a really intelligent, strong woman. For us it was sort of a breath of fresh air to be able to write that character as well.
- Terence Winter in an AV Club interview.
Time and again, television writers (and viewers) minimize the strength of female characters with reductive moralizing under the guise of identification with ahead-of-their-time feminism. Terence Winter’s comments regarding his female characters on Boardwalk Empire intentionally or unintentionally equate him with those who describe the lead women as “bitches,” “whores,” “weak,” or “crazy.” This line of reasoning ignores the accomplishments and predicaments of Margaret Schroeder, Gillian Darmody, Angela Darmody, and Lucy Danziger, and places sympathies with those few women who conform to societal and legal norms amidst a cast of shady politicians, gangsters, and bootleggers. It suggests that the women must be held to a higher moral standard than the men in order to be “strong” and “real” characters.
i. margaret schroeder
Although Nucky Thompson is the ostensible protagonist of the program, Margaret is the clear heart of it, and the conduit by which viewers are introduced to Atlantic City corruption. A common narrative trope involves presenting and immersing oneself in an unfamiliar landscape via an individual unfamiliar with its existence. The protagonist is an Everyperson, meant to facillitate the connection between the common and the foreign. Margaret, a working class mother with no prior involvement in politics, serves as the viewer’s on-screen proxy. She struggles financially and emotionally, she loves her family, and she works hard to support them via the means available to her, i.e. asking Nucky to find work for her husband. Throughout the entire series, Margaret follows this relatable trajectory of providing for her family. She works a job in which she is continually humiliated, she sleeps with the man who essentially employs her, she moves into Nucky’s home in order to remove her children from an environment in which they are scorned by former friends, and she protects Nucky politically and physically because, at this point, without him, she cannot maintain her family’s lifestyle. This is of particular importance now that her daughter is in the process of rehabilitation from polio.
Some viewers may criticize Margaret for being overly reliant upon a man- who had her abusive husband killed, no less- or for what they see as religious fanatacism, citing this as making her a traditionally weak-willed woman, but this is a minimization of her character, who could in fact be labelled a feminist. Margaret, at no point, asked to be Nucky’s moll or mistress. She did not ask for extravagance or servants. She asked for work. She makes it clear from the beginning that she does not want charity; she wants the opportunity to support her family following her husband’s death. And even if one believes that by asking for help finding employment negates her autonomy as a woman, let us not forget that she does not simply sit by and allow her paramour- now husband- to dictate her thoughts or self-expression. She frequently voices her objections to his decisions as well as to his patronizing acquaintances. She believes strongly in women’s suffrage, participates in protests even when it inconvienences Nucky, and clearly and intelligently articulates her positions and thoughts in conversation. Yes, she is a wife and mother based at home, but even from that “woman’s” domain, she effects change. One must consider her rebellion against corruption via her donation of property earmarked for development to the church, but she also finds strength in more apparent vocal and physical ways. Were it not for her insistance, Nucky’s backroom ledger would still incontrovertably tie her family to illegal activities. Had she not been that protective wife and mother, Eli may well have killed his brother in the parlor. Margaret is essentially the only one on Nucky’s side, if only in public, and the only one actively working to protect their family. In a sense, she’s the 1921 Skyler White, saving her loved ones from those who knock.
ii. gillian darmody
If one is to evaluate the “strength” of female characters by their similarity to Randolph, Gillian bears the most resemblance on the level of personality. She is absolutely the last woman to be pushed around, and the actions she takes to avoid being sidelined are often drastic. It is disappointing that in this series, the most aggressive woman in the room is considered a villain. Of course, the writers have made it difficult to defend any of her actions.
Gillian plays the Lady Macbeth role in the series, whispering means of deception and betrayal into her son’s ear. She tends to Jimmy’s ailing father under the guise of “the good woman,” but with the intent of poisoning him in order to bring her son to power, and with a little personal revenge thrown in. In the second season, while beating the incapacitated Commodore, Gillian reveals that he raped and impregnated her when she was thirteen. She found herself, a child with a baby, without anyone to rely upon, and as such, quickly immersed herself in the questionable role of nude performer. From the Henry Jamesian perspective of dramatic viewers, this is a natural consequence of having her virtue compromised.
What separates Gillian’s experience from that of the “poor rape victim” is her victimization in turn of her son Jimmy. As a young mother, Jimmy was the only constant in her life and Gillian acted out her own adolescence, including her pubescent sexuality, with him. Their Oedipal relationship comes to a head when she visits Jimmy at Princeton and Gillian essentially rapes him. Though their ultraclose relationship is troubling from the beginning of the series, by forcing Jimmy to have sex with her, Gillian becomes a bonafide villain to viewers.
However, from a realistic standpoint, Gillian’s abuse of Jimmy is not exactly surprising. It is a sad truth that victims of childhood sexual abuse sometimes go on to abuse children or other vulnerable individuals later in life. This is not to imply that all victims of abuse will develop predatory habits, but it is not atypical for survivors of childhood assault to find themselves mentally stuck in the age at which they were abused, the development of their sexuality arrested.
What is particularly painful about the writers’ characterization of Gillian, is that rape is an extremely common crime and its survivors are often shamed into silence. As any frequent reader of this blog will know, sexual assault is of particular personal prominence to this writer, and Boardwalk Empire's sole depiction of a rape victim who becomes a rapist is disappointing, even if there is a sociological precedent for it. This portrayal of a lead female as a sexual predator only serves to make her seem unforgiveable. Her earlier strategic and violent revenge on the Commodore is relatively understandable, but the addition of her routine abuse of her son make these actions characteristic of an “evil” woman. In attempting to paint her as “more than just a rape victim,” the writers fail at complexity and instead make her into the literary trope of the woman doomed by violence. Essentially, Winter made Gillian into a sexual villian, and then complains that there are no strong, moral women to write for.
iii. angela darmody
Angela also represents an unfortunate trope of female characters: the doomed lesbian. Common even in female-penned fiction, as in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, queer women in literature are all too often unable to find happiness and romantic fulfillment, and frequently killed off, either as punishment for their deviancy or to literally express their inability to fit into “normal” society. What is problematic about Winter’s writing is that BE is not a piece of pre-Stonewall literature. It is a contemporary piece of fiction, regardless of its setting, and the characterization of other- usually male- figures reflects these modern ideals.
However, Angela still manages to be a strong female character, and thus far, the show’s only queer lead. Angela is representative of the woman left behind in times of conflict. Without Jimmy, she gives birth to and raises her son Tommy. Though she maintains her moral image by referring to herself as his wife, she does not spend all of her time mourning him when she believes he is dead. Instead, she finds friends who essentially become Tommy’s new family. She falls in love. She recognizes that she has lost her son’s father, but she does not allow this to break her. When he does return, she attempts to make their relationship work, but she does not romanticize it. She recognizes that they had a brief romance resulting in a child, but knows it would not function without Tommy. And even though she stays with Jimmy, she is not a weak woman by any means. Like Margaret, Angela would do anything for her son. When Jimmy’s violent side comes out in public, she makes plans to take Tommy away with her lover Mary, believing they can give him a better life. She demonstrates great bravery in choosing a life with the woman she loves, who adores Tommy and treats them with respect, without worrying that it makes her a bad mother or an immoral woman. And when Mary is taken away by her husband, only then does Angela return to Jimmy and Gillian, precisely because she wants a family for Tommy. At any point in the series, Angela could have chosen to leave, but her son’s safety is always her primary concern. At one point, Gillian gives her a free pass to leave them to be a bohemian in Paris, to paint as she has always wanted, but Angela does not even consider it. She is a responsible and kind individual, one who freely loves her child, who gives to others, and pursues the women she cares for. She is a strong and beautiful queer woman, one whose poor circumstances are not motivated by “feminine weakness,” and who goes to her grave with her arms around the one she loves.
iv. lucy danziger
Although all the BE ladies are subject to a barrage of misogynist insults, Lucy is the clearest target for slut-shaming and accusations of selfishness, not to mention denigrations of her intellect. When the series begins, she is Nucky’s showgirl girlfriend whose only purpose is to make her lover happy. She does this with sexual tricks, using exaggerated baby talk, and by dressing herself in the finest French fashions. What separates Lucy from the other women though is her lack of self-esteem. She has very little sense of self-worth outside of her sexuality, and she falls into a downward spiral when Nucky leaves her. After an unfortunate encounter with Nelson Van Alden, Lucy discovers she is pregnant. She reaches out to him, most likely because she sees an opportunity to assume a similar role to that which she played before. Instead, Van Alden offers her. money to give the baby up to his wife. For nine months, Lucy is refused contact with the outside world to protect Van Alden’s identity and reputation. During this period, Lucy is routinely left alone for days at a time, and during one of Van Alden’s absences, Lucy endures a grueling labor lasting several days. Following her daughter’s birth and the arrival of Mrs. Van Alden, Lucy leaves, presumably to further her stage career.
As much as Lucy’s. story is tragic, it is also one of a woman finally coming into her own. Lucy’s pregnancy makes clear that she does have aspirations beyond societal roles defined by men. Previously, she had assumed value came only in pleasing men, but during her isolation, her love of the written word and theatrical performance is reignited. Van Alden attempts to suppress this part of herself, suggesting that her only purpose is to carry a child. Lucy does take on her role as birth mother, and through the experience, discovers she can survive without the attention and affections of men. Immediately following the birth, she tells Van Alden, “I did it all myself.” It is a beautiful moment, as it represents a major turning point in her life, where she recognizes that she can truly take care of herself. In this moment, Lucy transcends her kept woman persona. She is instead a capable and self-assured individual.
One particularly problematic criticism of Lucy’s character is that she is “selfish,” for giving up her child. This line of reasoning is disturbing to say the least, as it could easily lead to demonization of pregnant women who choose adoption. From the beginning, Lucy had agreed to give the baby to Van Alden; she was never meant to raise that child. At no point is this a topic of discussion: like any birth mother, Lucy intends to give birth to her daughter, but her role does not extend beyond that. She does not abandon her child. Her role in the child’s life is over. Birth mothers are not selfish for chosing adoption, and doing such does not mean they do not love their biological children. As previously stated, BE is a work of contemporary fiction, and in contemporary Western society, it is generally accepted that women have a right to determine the outcome of their pregnancies. Women do not make these decisions lightly, despite what moralizing critics may suggest, and it should not be assumed that Lucy’s choice represents a lack of consideration. Instead, her choices during and after her pregnancy, make her a more thoughtful and purposeful woman.
Winter’s characterization of Randolph as “finally…a strong woman” ignores the accomplishments of his other female leads, the women dealt poor hands who use those situations to make change and find self-actualization, and are clear examples of feminine strength.