competition between women: boardwalk empire edition

boardwalk_empire-1024x682I might perpetually be a bit late to the party, but this week we’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire. I have thoughts, of course.

Season 1, Episode 4: Anastasia.

There’s an unspoken competition going on between two female characters. Spoilers will abound, so look for my thoughts under the cut.

First, the relevant backstory and previously: Widower Nucky, our main guy, stares longingly at babies whenever he gets a chance. We can only presume he wants a family, desperately. His current lover, Lucy, isn’t the family type, and besides they live in a hotel.

Lucy is demanding, vulgar, and conforms to societal values for women. (Throughout the first three episodes, jokes are cracked about dumb women, just in case we didn’t get the message through characterization). She brings up the subject of kids, but, again, we get hit in the head that she wouldn’t be the best Mommy. Okay, we got it. Seriously.

Margaret is sweet, a caring mother, and she’s articulate. For the children, for the children, for the children. Most of what she does is to make her city safe for the children. Got it? Okay.

Episode 4, this competition comes to full height as each character is tested before Nucky over women’s suffrage.

Lucy is questioned over dinner–if you had the right to vote, how you would vote about this specific issue? And of course, being a societal creature who has been told women shouldn’t know and shouldn’t have an opinion, she doesn’t know the answer. She is the punchline of a joke. She laughs with them.

At a “chance” encounter, the same asshole interrogates Margaret, hoping he’ll hammer home the point. Ah, sweet and calm Margaret, who knows a bit about the world because she’s literate and smart and eschews the nightlife that rules Atlantic City. She shows him with her words and logic and edumacation!

Later then, Nucky gets a dancing performance from Lucy, and instead of watching her, he’s staring past her. To Margaret.

My thoughts: I like Margaret. She’s a neat character. She’s been put through a whole bunch and she’s doing the best she can.

It’s been clear for a long time that she is the type of woman Nucky needs, while Lucy is just the woman Nucky wants or wanted at some point before the series started.

It’s easy to write off Lucy as unlikeable. The show hasn’t gone very far to show us any reason to care about her.

And that’s frustrating. Not because Lucy isn’t better developed (there’s no reason she couldn’t have been, she’s gotten enough screen time and lines for a hobby or something), but because she’s the perfect embodiment of a society woman, and then she is demeaned for it.

I know that happens all the time for a long time.Women are compartmentalized into women-only boxes, then those boxes are labeled as unimportant. That part of the story doesn’t surprise me, even if it’s sad.

But when a show can give us a diverse cast who deal with, embody, and defy the entire spectrum of societal values, it really shows when one character is a piece of cardboard.

Worse, Lucy and Margaret don’t need to be in competition.

Yes, they both like Nucky. In theory, that is a prize only one of them can have. But it’s not a competition because Nucky is a character with his own agency. If he does make a choice of Lucy or Margaret, it’s not because one of them ‘won,’ it’s because he is capable of making his own decisions (and I don’t doubt his agency because he’s a male character on TV–of course he’ll have all possible agency).

Yet this choice is framed as a competition, not by their actions but by storytelling techniques and production choices. This race for Nucky’s affection was engineered and completely unnecessary.

Everything is competition for women on screen–lines and screen time and the types of roles they get to play. When 50% of the characters are compressed into 17% of story, it will always feel like women are scrambling to hang on to each line. Until that changes, until female characters are given agency and full-spectrum development, it’ll feel like one giant competition.

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