The Patriarchy Drove Them to it: Feminism and Gender in The Wilds

Anne Sweet, Université Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle

“It’s about a bunch of women who get stuck on an island and it will want to make you binge-watch,” was how a student in my TV class quite enthusiastically recommended The Wilds (Amazon Prime Video, 2020-) to me before Spring Break. Ah… The students in my TV class… In our world of filter-bubble targeted content, they direct my attention to that which I would not otherwise notice, and for that I am forever grateful.

Stuck in lockdown, and needing a bit of mindless diversion, I decided to have a look at The Wilds. Upon viewing the first episode, it seemed to be a banal series, a Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) derivative featuring moody teenagers. Unimpressed, my husband rolled his eyes, and sighed, “Ah, the young, why are they so miserable?” However, this series is what Jason Mittell would call a “drillable text” with multiple mysteries inciting the viewer to be a “forensic fan”[1] and want to solve them: how the young women ended up on the island, how they get off of it, and what happened to them to render them so maudlin. My attention thus engaged, I continued watching, and found there is a twist, quite a major one, as this series is perhaps the most overtly feminism-based series I have ever seen and perhaps that ever was.


In the past, using the words “feminism” and “feminist” in a series was considered almost as bad as using the “F-Word” in terms of potential offense to viewers. Feminist messages were often conveyed through representation, symbolism, and metaphor, and by showing empowered women leading by example, but the word “feminism” was rarely spoken and the movement rarely directly acknowledged.[2] In The Wilds feminist discourses and issues are not only directly and overtly featured in the plotlines, but the words feminist and feminism are actually spoken, and repeated. This makes the series quite distinct from many others featuring a female cast, and quite exceptional in its depiction of gender and gender issues. It is an interesting example of the way streaming platforms are targeting niche audiences, rather than mass audiences. It also interesting that the show is broadcast on Amazon, a commercial capitalist giant, in light of the fact that women are still considered to be the motors of retail-consumer capitalism and are desirable target shoppers.[3] Yet what version of feminism is being sold to them?


In The Wilds, the young women (mostly high school students) are not actually alone on the island but were unknowingly put there on purpose as part of scientific experiment to demonstrate that women are the superior sex. The study is orchestrated by a social scientist called Gretchen Klein, a nefarious villainess who has deceived the young women and their families to trap the girls on the island and who also spouts feminist rhetoric at the drop of a hat. While the series is a drama, at times, it feels as if it descends into mockery. And the question that went often through the mind of this media studies scholar when viewing the series’ feminist (or “feminist”) messages was, “What on Earth?”

First, before examining the more dubious aspects of the series’ feminist and gender politics, it is important to note that the series can in some ways be innovative, and was even created by a woman, at a time when gender parity behind the scenes in production has still not been achieved.[4] The Wilds is part of a recent trend that Sandra Laugier defines as “a second wave of feminist series” that appeared in the wake of #MeToo and give viewers a framework for conceptualizing feminist issues, picking up where the first wave of feminist series of the late 90s-2000s left off.[5] Within that trend I have noted a second wave of both Girl Power series, and other sorts of series featuring empowered girls and young women. As part of the second wave of feminist series, The Wilds embraces many of the values of the fourth wave of feminism, notably body positivity, inclusivity, and LGBTQIA+ rights. It features a large cast of women who are of different shapes, sizes, ethnic groups and sexual identities. The young women are smart, physically fit, capable and can survive in nature. They can hunt, purify water, build fires, and construct a shelter. They are violent, they kill things, and they fight. Yet, as their life stories rollout in flashbacks, we learn that they are not merely moody adolescents but that they were all victims of trauma. Many are on the edge of losing their sanity, if it is not already too late. The reason for this, Gretchen Klein clearly states, is the damage done to them by the patriarchy and patriarchal society, and that is why these women in particular were chosen for her study.

TV series can be pedagogical in nature and attempt to educate people about society and societal issues.[6] Through the girls’ back stories, the series deliberately brings to light many contemporary women’s issues. Dot is exhausted from the burden of being a caregiver. The love of Nora’s life is killed by fraternity hazing, a particularly brutal patriarchal ritual. Rachel, who is told she has grown too big to compete in her sport, becomes bulimic. Many of the women are victims of toxic masculinity. Martha, as an 11-year-old, was molested by her doctor. Leah, as a 16-year-old is seduced by a man in his thirties, and then coldly dumped and driven mad from the shock and grief. Toni’s life blows up after she reacts violently to being accosted by some drunk men in a parking lot. Fatin catches her adulterous father sexting other women. While some of the storylines can seem clichéd and well-trodden, the fact that the women are all connected by (and selected for) their patriarchal victimhood is not.

The interest for the viewer is in identifying with each character, understanding her pain, and how it relates to her actions in the present. This fact that the women’s plights are linked by patriarchy is openly revealed belatedly in the series, explicitly detailed by Gretchen Klein. But, at the beginning, it passes a bit under the radar. Thus, the viewer relates to the characters and the stories, first, before the feminist shoe drops, and is almost “tricked” in a way into identifying with a feminist narrative, and potentially caring about women’s issues. Yet larger feminist issues like gender inequality and discrimination are not tackled, and the storylines repose upon the personal rather than the political, and essentially upon issues of male cruelty that most people feel are wrong, whether feminist or not. Thus, there is a certain lack of depth to the feminist issues that are being exposed, and in that way, Amazon is taking few risks.


Perhaps the most significant plotline is that of Shelby, a blond southern belle and beauty queen, the epitome of ideal standards of beauty and feminine behavior, and whose last name Goodkind is symbolic, as she seems perfectly poised, kind, and well mannered, even if others on the island find her conservative Christian values hateful and despicable. However underneath the façade of perfect evangelical Christian, Shelby is hiding the fact she is attracted to women in order to conform to her father’s and her community’s moral beliefs which hold that homosexuality is wrong. After Shelby’s father catches her kissing her best friend Becca, she ends the relationship, which causes Becca—another victim of toxic masculinity, who is already on edge from having been the recipient of her adult stepbrother’s sexual advances—to commit suicide. The island frees Shelby from all of the constraints put on her by her conservative family and church, and she enters into a sexual relationship with Toni. But even if the island seems to have somewhat healed her, massive damage has also been done. The men who interview her after she leaves the island note that her file mentions that she has dissociative personality disorder, and they wonder which personality she will show when they interview her. When she appears, her is head shaven, and she is dirty, and seems unhinged. The ideal version femininity she displays at first on the plane, and then on the island, is thus officially debunked as not only a masquerade, but potentially as a manifestation officially diagnosed mental illness. Thus, on the surface the series would be seem notable in bringing to light LGBTQIA+ characters and issues, and it would seem as if Amazon was showing little fear of consumer backlash from its conservative customers in the Red Belt States. However, the fact that Shelby is potentially mentally ill leaves the possibility open of an alternative reading of her predicament for those who wish.

The feminist potential of the series takes a hit in another way. It is important to note that the most feminist character of all is Gretchen, who is also the villain, which thus associates militant feminism with evil. Most of the girls do not identify openly as feminist, even if, before they ended up on the island, they were bound for a feminist retreat called “Dawn of Eve”, which is highly symbolic as Eve is arguably the first victim of patriarchy. In many Girl Power and girl-centered series of the 90s, there was a tension between the cool, young, trendy heroines of the third wave and the older women of the generation of the second wave, who were depicted as kooks, criminals or bad mothers, and absolutely not to be admired, which could also be read as a glorification of youth in a consumerist society.[7] In The Wilds, once again the young are the heroes of the piece. Yet this now demonstrates a tension between the third and the fourth waves, whereas it was once between the generations of the third and second wave (and in the series, older and gray-haired women are almost completely out of the picture—I cannot recall one who had a speaking role). Gretchen seems like a relic, and behind the times in her feminist and academic thinking. Her blowout, nice suits and stiletto heels, which she acknowledges are patriarchal rubbish but make her legs look good, show her as a fashion-plate of another era. While third-wave is debatable as actual movement, it definitely associated with a particular cultural moment of representations women in popular culture whose empowerment is linked to consumerist discourses, fashion and spike heels, which were notably made popular as an expression of “fabulousness” by Sex in the City (HBO, 1998-2004), a series which valorizes the non-inclusive, patriarchal high-fashion industry and toxic masculinity in the form of Mr. Big. Yet by emphasizing the “good” young people, over the “bad” older lady (and not by representing truly older women, or even older-looking women at all), The Wilds is still aligning itself with a certain set of patriarchal and consumerist discourses concerning youth and beauty.

Gretchen emphasizes the power of women, and her goal is to scientifically prove that women should be in charge of the world through her research in order to save the world. In real-world contemporary academia, her study would be considered problematic. The premise of her research is proving that men and women are inherently, fundamentally and irrevocably different, and that women are the superior gender, whereas much of current gender research and thought would lean towards examining gender as a social construct, ending discrimination, and promoting equality. Moreover, Gretchen’s research sublimates the non-binary, as does the series. She clearly separates people and their behavior into the binary categories of male and female, ignoring the concept of the gender spectrum. And, while some of the characters are lesbian or bisexual, all of the female characters are very clearly cisgender. While the series potentially possesses some LGBQTIA+ positive aspects, in ignoring the existence of different genders, it falls flat and seems out of touch. When asked if she hates men, Gretchen says no and that she even loves some of them—an important point to make as feminists are often derided as misandrists. Yet Gretchen is also shown to be a victim of patriarchy. Her son is a criminal, arrested as one of the perpetrators of the very hazing incident that killed Nora’s boyfriend. Gretchen says she tried to do everything, right to make him a good man, even reading him Adrienne Rich’s poems, and yet the lure of the patriarchy was too strong. He joined a fraternity, became a toxic male, and was subsequently lost to her. Thus, if Gretchen, seems a bit over-the-top, to the point of almost being a mockery of feminist and feminism, patriarchy has also unhinged her as it has the young women in her study.

The patriarchy drove them to it—to violence, to rage, to despair, and to extremes. The Wilds presents a dark, yet poignant, feminist message, unlike any other. One I find questionable, superficial, and at times corny, yet at the same time intriguing and raising many questions for further research…   



[1] Jason Mittell, “Web-only Essay: Forensic Fandom and the Drillable Text.” Spreadable Media web site (no publication date), http://spreadablemedia.org/essays/mittell/#.YIsn3C8Rp0t [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[2] See, for example, Anne Sweet, “’Unreal’ Gender Messages in Late 90s Women-Centered Action Dramas,” TV/Series 1 (June 2012): 209-224, https://journals.openedition.org/tvseries/1205 [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[3] A web site for a communications agency called “girlpowermarketing” [sic.] interestingly features some key statistics on its home page, including the fact that women are still the main shoppers and key purchase decision-makers for the household, including for what can be considered as traditionally male products [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[4] For more data on this, see the statistics gathered by the annual Boxed In study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at the University of San Diego, https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[5] Sandra Laugier, “Sur la deuxième vague des séries américaines féministes,” AOC, November 3, 2020, https://aoc.media/critique/2020/11/02/sur-la-deuxieme-vague-des-series-americaines-feministes/ [Consulted: April 29, 2021].

[6] See, for example, Divina Frau-Meigs, Médiamorphoses américaines dans un espace privé unique au monde (Paris: Economica, 2001).

[7] See, for example, Karin Beeler (2007), “Old Myths, New Powers: Images of Second-wave and Third-wave Feminism in Charmed” in Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV, ed. Karin Beeler and Stan Beeler (London : I.B. Tauris, 2007), 101-111; see also, Anne Sweet, Le Girl Power en question dans Xena: Warrior Princess et Charmed: Enjeux sociaux et  commerciaux dans des politiques de genre, doctoral thesis archived at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2014.

The ‘multicultural zoo’ in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (2019)

Laura Carter, Université de Paris, LARCA-UMR 8225

Bernardine Evaristo’s 2019 ‘fusion fiction’[1] novel Girl, Woman, Other introduces several familiar narratives about postwar education in Britain: the ‘golden age’ of the grammar school, the myth of education as a route to social mobility, and the ‘failure’ of the comprehensive school. In each of these cases, Evaristo repositions the narrative by revealing them through the eyes of (mostly) girls and women of colour. In this blog post, I’ll explore the place of the secondary school in Girl, Woman, Other. Moreover, in the interdisciplinary spirit of LARCA’s Gender and Sexuality Studies research group, I’ll also suggest a few things that historians might learn from Evaristo’s fictional, intersectional, and intergenerational perspective on the postwar secondary school.

Just like in most stories of everyday life set in twentieth-century Britain, school days feature prominently in Girl, Woman, Other. We first catch glimpses of the New Cross girls’ grammar school where Amma and Shirley are the only two black pupils in the 1970s. They forge a lasting connection through this shared experience of schooling, despite the vast personal and political differences that will develop between them. One semi-fictional London secondary school in particular, ‘Peckham School for Boys and Girls’[2], is our mooring point as we follow the lives of the interconnected suite of characters in the novel. This Peckham school is the ‘multicultural zoo’ of my title, a racial slur used by teacher Penelope to signify its shift from white working-class uplift to postcolonial, multi-racial education.


The school is a co-ed comp, where Shirley, first introduced to readers as an ambitious young black teacher, begins her career in the 1980s and where she encounters racist Women’s Libber Penelope, who is already mourning the loss of her 1970s dream for the comprehensive school. It’s also the site of Carole and LaTisha’s troubled school days of the early 2000s, by which point the school is on the brink of failure, plagued by knife violence, drugs, and teen pregnancy. This view across the decades is particularly powerful in driving a key message of Girl, Woman, Other: for this particular set of characters, secondary school is a site of almost universal disappointment.

This disappointment comes in various forms. Carole finds the strength within herself to move past her horrifying experience of rape and turns to Shirley (by this point known, at best, as the ‘School Dragon’) as a mentor. Carole uses the school exam system to attain upward social mobility first via the University of Oxford and then the City of London. But there is no warm and fuzzy place in her heart for her old school, indeed Carole’s awkward encounter with Shirley at book’s end suggests how plainly functional institutions (and their staff) are in Carole’s self-narrative. As a highly intelligent and highly successful black woman operating in all-white spaces, Carole’s inner drive and well-honed survival tactics lift her out of poverty and trauma, at great personal cost with respect to her Nigerian heritage. This is quite different to the celebrated narrative of the white working class, upwardly-mobile grammar school boy, who returns home to pay his social and cultural capital forward.

We meet Carole’s one-time friend, LaTisha, also climbing the ladder of social mobility (in her words ‘on the move’), working her way up the management hierarchy in a local supermarket. At their comp, LaTisha was part of what 1970s sociologists would have called the ‘counter-school’ subculture. LaTisha makes some very poor choices, but she is also highly intelligent, evidenced by her precocious, but logical retorts to each ‘senseless’ school rule she encounters. The school fails her too, by presenting her black girl future as a fait accompli. The school has no resources, no energy, no willpower to accommodate LaTisha’s complex social and emotional needs, and she’s unwilling to assimilate to the ‘good girl’ codes like Carole does.

As we learn from both Penelope and Shirley’s narratives, the social justice mission of the comprehensive school is a faded memory by the 2000s in this corner of South London, and the long-standing racialisation of social problems located in the comprehensive school is a burden that girls like LaTisha must bear at the beginning of the new millennium. Earlier echoes of this shift appear in snippets of LaTisha’s father’s story, a first-generation immigrant pupil from the Caribbean who found himself thrown in the ‘Sin Bin’ for speaking patois (presumably in the 1970s).

Shirley and Penelope, the two teachers, are also deeply disappointed by the secondary school they work at. For Shirley it’s the educational reforms of the Thatcher governments that curtail her pedagogical freedoms in favour of box ticking and league tables, whilst Penelope sees multiculturalism as a monster that swallowed second-wave feminism whole within the school gates. This shared disappointment leads to a cautious pact between the two women (they are ‘work friends’ according to Penelope), suggesting how age might work to reconcile white and black feminisms. But their alliance isn’t forged in a shared, positive commitment to intersectionality. Instead, the bleak landscape of the late-century, failed comprehensive school in which they both toil as older, disillusioned teachers bridges their cultural divide.

Racial justice becomes less important to Shirley as she grows older and faces fewer daily micro-aggressions in the staffroom and classroom. At mid-life, she finds personal satisfaction more in the material and emotional spoils of family life, settling for occasional, individual success stories like Carole’s, rather than the structural, political changes she yearned for as a newly-minted teacher. Shirley is essentially a conservative character; she embraces her embourgeoisement and nurtures a little germ of nostalgia for the Butler Act of 1944.

The intergenerational framing of Girl, Woman, Other brings the racialised and gendered aspects of English comprehensive education between the 1960s and 2010s into sharper focus in ways that are quite helpful to historians to think with. For example, Evaristo strongly foregrounds sexual harassment and sexual violence towards girls by both peers and teachers, an issue that historians might find difficult to reconcile with a still rather fixed narrative of postwar British history in which ‘comprehensivization’ is aligned with progress. Secondly, Penelope’s racist caricature of the school as a ‘multicultural zoo’ signals the rich, discursive history of multiculturalism in British education that remains to be excavated.

Finally, the black and mixed-race characters found in this book are excellent, if sometimes composite, avatars for thinking about how individuals might have negotiated the mixed ability, co-educational, and multi-racial spaces of the postwar comprehensive school. To succeed, Carole must assimilate and credentialize, LaTisha must fulfil her ‘teen mom’ destiny, and Shirley and Penelope must relinquish their respective social justice missions. This combination of pragmatism, alienation, and a hint of possibility are useful starting points for mapping the social and emotional landscape of the British comprehensive school since the 1960s.

 

[1] Possibly modelled on Warwick Park School in Peckham, an 11-16 mixed comprehensive which closed in 2003 and became an academy.


[2] Bernardine Evaristo, ‘Words of Colour’ Waterstones Library Bristol Takeover, 10 March 2020 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mu8Yo6i6VdU].