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Succession and Women
The profit and glory of telling women to "Fuck off"
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Succession is a great show. I have enjoyed its comic writing, the stealthy performances, the brilliant directing by Mark Mylod that grew increasingly intense and experimental this last season. The show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, is a satirist in a mean, hilarious British tradition. No one comes out unscathed. No one is protected.
Succession is the only show I watch the intro through every time. For the music composed by Nicholas Britell, played on the piano of bones. For the broken sepia children, staring into the abyss of their future failures.
Ostensibly, the show is a satire about a class of people in the US and elsewhere who live amid astounding amounts of wealth, squeezed from the labor, the health, and the safety of nearly everyone else on the planet. It’s also a story about how money and power corrupt every relationship in any kind of family and the pseudo-families of work environments. Trust and love fail. Betrayal will out. Fuck off, as Logan Roy would say.
Here is what else the show is, and for me the other thing the show is leaves me with a bitter taste, as I turn my head and look back. The show is steeped in misogyny in a way it takes for granted, not because it’s a satire of misogyny but because the show doesn’t know it’s steeped in misogyny. By “the show,” I mean the consciousness and artistic vision of Jesse Armstrong, who might as well be understood to be the power guiding Succession, in the same way the sensibility of Logan Roy guides every moment of the story we see unfold, as the minions of this warlord, in wavering health, gather and plot to succeed him.
This is not an example of the scientific method, but the same way I know that Leonard Cohen, on his worst day, would have been a far better fuck than Bob Dylan on his best day, I know Jesse Armstrong, great artist that he is, is far more in love with the Matssons of this world than he ever could be with a character who is not a man. He doesn’t care. He’s careless, and that is part of the way misogyny expresses itself.
Misogyny is part of the episteme of the show, the same way misogyny is part of the episteme of the world we all live in, and if you are woman or female in the episteme of misogyny, you learn to find enjoyment in it, although the thing you are is not for one moment represented in the female characters who move around, as if they were a version of you. Nothing about what you understand about woman and female is in the mind of the creators as they shape the story. I could give you the same number of examples in the show as I could give you in every other slice of life presented by every consciousness that has no interest in woman or female, and this lack of interest will cost them nothing in terms of popularity and glory.
Oy, a few details. The character of Gerri. The show drops her—oops! By the end, she's a smudge. The way the show treats every woman who sucks up to the power of some man she’s fucking for money. They are nothing more than instrumental to that role. The show doesn’t care about anything else in Willa, for example, beside the torture of the bargain she’s made. Is there a shot of Justine Lupe without her face screwed into a fuzzball of “Oh, my fucking god, how can I keep doing this?” The women who ostensibly have their own power, played by Hope Davis and Cherry Jones, are paper cut-outs, moved onto the stage to make a rhetorical point in the story and moved off again. You can see Armstrong’s fingers on the edges of the paper.
Matsson, on the other hand, every single moment with Matsson you can feel Armstrong falling on the floor drunk with joy. It’s a great performance. It’s a great performance partly because of the excitement and happiness dripping from the smarmy, cocky, and socially clueless lines written for Alexander Skarsgård to speak and the story arc that keeps him in play for several seasons.
Shiv. Oy. Too many things to write about here, but the special cruelty meted out to her in the final episode puts all the rest of the misogyny into radioactive relief. It didn't occur to Armstrong that Shiv, because she is female and woman, would have a female friend. That she would pass the Bechtel test and have even one conversation with another woman about something that didn’t concern a man. In real life, even the worst human females have female friends. I guarantee this. Where do you want me to start?
More Shiv. The swim over to Kendall to say, okay you can be king. The final shot of her in the car with Tom, who has replaced her in the job she thought was hers, the final shot of her broken into pieces—the pregnancy, the “do-I love-this-snake?” the “do-I-love-anyone?” the “am I the nothing that Roman says we are?” look on her face—the show’s pleasure in this cruelty is what you feel rising off the scene. There isn’t the same cruelty in the final shots of Roman and Kendall, who are far less interesting characters, actually, far less divided throughout the series. Roman is right. They are nothing, and their yearning for control of their father’s empire is slime they can’t slither out of.
It’s exhausting to list more details, and frankly it bores me, as if I have to prove to you that misogyny is a force in the world and in the ways a creative mind may work. Without more details, you may say I make no argument you can quantify and that will allow you to say to yourself: She has a point. I don’t need you to think I have a point. Fuck off.
In related news, this morning I was roaming around old document files, and I found notes I'd written 10 years ago, after attending a National Book Critics Circle panel on the VIDA metrics. Do you remember the VIDA metrics, concerning the numbers of women represented in publishing? Reading the notes now, the things that concerned me about the panel—a mood of fear the women felt that if you showed an interest in the work of women writers, you would be lumped into a pussy category—this fear struck me as a keyhole into what has now become a landscape of erased history.
I could see the germ of a disconnect from the history of feminist thought I’ve seen grow into a giant maw of “what are you talking about? The “what are you talking about?” that makes a streaming series such as Fleishman is in Trouble (see a piece in this stack’s archive) appear groundbreaking to some women viewers because the narrator of the story realizes she has spent her life trying to be the only girl at the boys' table. She realizes this with a bolt, as if the women's movement had never existed.
The erased history is a time when women, backed by a movement, lived with no more exciting purpose than to discover the work of other women and usher it into the public conversation. It was the most thrilling thing imaginable to be in the place where I was, mainly the Village Voice from 1974 to 1999, working with women editors and male editors who got it, and knowing an important thing about our lives and the influence we might have was to say to women artists and thinkers—also queer artists and thinkers—“You, I see you. I love what you're doing. Do more. Do it again.” That was the way I saw my role as a cultural reporter.
It’s still the way I understand my role. When I named this stack “Everything is Personal,” after the title of one of my books, I meant I take personally the things that happen in society. The things that happen socially allow a person to be a person and circulate in the world. They allow her to have an abortion when she wants one. Publish a book men will ignore. Reflect on the contempt felt for women in a TV show such as Succession. We always knew you could be a Marxist and satirize capitalism and at the same time be a pig to women. In the 1960s, it was one of the main prompts for the women's movement in the first place.
The panel that took place in late May 2013, included the prominent women critics, editors, and writers: Meg Wolitzer, Laurie Muchnick, Erin Belieu, Pamela Paul, and Kathryn Schultz. They all wanted to see more equitable representation of women’s books being published, more books by women being reviewed, more women invited to review books, more men asked to write about women’s books, and more women writers included in magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. In addition, consciously, half-consciously, and unconsciously rose up lots of anxiety about whether having an interest in women marginalized you in the eyes of what kept being described as "the larger world."
If you were a woman critic and you were interested in the writing of women, you could look like a literary pussy, a pussy in the literary world, some kind of pussy. You could lose something. You could lose your power and maybe even your job. There was a feeling that literature produced by women was at risk of being categorized as a sub-genre, like romance or crime fiction.
As I sat listening, I wondered how we had come to this. How come so many women were afraid of how they appeared, who they might alienate, and how they would be categorized?
You could ask this question more generally about fear in our society, and I would speculate it has something to do with a more militarized, post-9/11 environment that re-normalized traditional gender roles. It emboldened the war against women and their bodies and made women feel more threatened about their safety and status if they dissented.
The erasure of feminist history was not inevitable and merely the result of a generational churn. It’s the result of a campaign to discredit the women’s movement and its critique of sexism and misogyny as racist, sexphobic, anti motherhood, and bad for women in a million other ways. Another phrase for this discrediting is the misogynist episteme. Capitalism depends on male supremacy. Sisterhood was powerful for five minutes, but it didn’t hold a candle to the profit and appeal of hating women.
As the women on the panel talked, I noted some confusion about categories. One category was female representation in publishing and journalism. Another category was the content of what women write and what is gained or lost if their voices are added or subtracted.
This has nothing to do with essentialism. I’m never talking about essentialism. I don’t believe there is anything essential about being a female human or a male human or a trans human. I am talking about the stories and forms of telling them women add because they issue from the experience of moving through the world in a body understood to be woman and female.
For a long time in the past and still now women writers are the people thinking about the lives of women characters in complex ways. They are the people writing about female friendship, sex, sexual violence, the relationship of private power dynamics to the larger political sphere, the internal struggles women and perhaps men, too, experience that otherwise don’t enter imaginative realms.
When women started to publish in large numbers, everything about what qualified as a fit topic in literature was changed. Everything. In addition to publications having the will to include more women, critics have to support the content and formal experiments of women’s writing no matter the personal cost to them.
After the panel, I was talking to Alix Shulman, who was distressed as well by the level of anxiety the panelists expressed about supporting women’s writing. She said, “They don’t have the movement behind them any longer.” I thought this was true. I asked this question 10 years ago, and I ask it again today: What can we do now to support women writers and the critics who want openly to love them?
Alix Shulman as I knew her in the women’s movement.