The Fires This Time“Little Fires Everywhere” Is an Indictment of Colorblind Whiteness

Reese Witherspoon as Elena in Little Fires Everywhere (Photo credit: Erin Simkin/Hulu)

Trimble is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Pop Culture Criticism

I started watching Little Fires Everywhere as May turned into June and Americans rose up over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The first thing I saw was a house on fire and the year: 1997. Little Fires depicts rich white families navigating racialized and queer forms of outsiderness in the color-blind, don’t-ask-don’t-tell ’90s. It looks back on a decade dominated by white post-racial fantasies with an eye to what’s happened since then: white nationalists marching in the streets, white rage in the White House. Watching when I did, as protestors set up camp in Lafayette Square, I found myself reflecting on my own education in ’90s color-blindness. As author Mychal Denzel Smith has observed, white people who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s internalized the language of multiculturalism, not anti-racism.

The legacy of this education is a flimsy analytical framework and a thin sense of history, all of which leads to inadequate theories of change. For white people especially, then, our capacity to understand, talk about, and participate in anti-racist rebellions is informed by this inheritance. This makes Little Fires Everywhere an occasion to consider how we might disrupt this still-unfolding past with an eye to transforming the present and future. The show, adapted from Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller, looks back on the ’90s to explore the dissonance between white fantasies of colorblindness and the realities of white supremacy and privilege. Claiming not to see race allowed white people to comfort ourselves that the advantages we enjoyed came from hard work, good choices, and savviness. As one of the show’s protagonists, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), puts it to her daughter: “There are rules and they exist for a reason. If you follow the rules you’ll succeed.” Bury your difference deep, Elena tells her queer, misfit kid, and the keys to the kingdom are yours.

So I was intrigued to see the story begin with the Richardsons’ kingdom in the wealthy, integrated suburb Shaker Heights burning to the ground, its mistress watching from the street. How do we understand the house on fire that visually anchors this series? What insights does it hold for a present still steeped in white denial of racial injustice and resounding with current Black Lives Matter protest, calls for abolition, and other forms of reckoning? The small-screen adaptation of Ng’s novel does what the author herself didn’t feel she was the right person to do: It makes Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), the artist and single mother on whom Elena fixates, a Black woman. The Blackness of Mia and her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), strains Elena’s claims not to see race and brings the violence of her actions to the surface. White people and our property are obstacles to systemic change in part because we fail to recognize that the policing of Black lives happens in our name; Little Fires draws attention to this by substituting for the pretense of colorblindness the terrorizing force of what philosophy professor George Yancy calls “the white gaze.”

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In the first episode, before the two women meet, Elena spies Mia sleeping in her car and she calls the authorities, later identified as neighborhood watch—a fraught reference that since 2012 has been indelibly associated with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Reporting a suspicious person and adding, seemingly as an afterthought, “I think she’s African American,” Elena mobilizes white habits of seeing that frame Black people as threatening others. (Like Amy Cooper, the New York City woman who was recently charged with filing a false police report, Elena’s use of the phrase “African American” is a way to signal her own consciousness even as she imagines the very presence of a Black person as a danger to herself.) This is the gaze that unsees murderous cops and sees, instead, suspects being justifiably restrained. The white gaze can’t fathom plans to abolish or defund the police. Because who will protect us from the criminals? Who will ride to the rescue if someone sets your house on fire?

Little Fires begins and ends with the burning of the Richardsons’ house; everything in between is an account of what happened in the months leading up to the fire, all arcing toward an answer to the question: Who did this? Across eight episodes, we see Elena escalating tensions, her rage bubbling to the surface as she spirals from overbearing power mom into something more monstrous. She tells her youngest child, Izzy (Megan Stott), the target of homophobic bullying from former friends, that it’s “hard” to be her mother before finally screaming at her that she wasn’t wanted in the first place. And as Elena’s relationship with Mia sours, she pries into the artist’s past, weaponizing her secrets to drive a wedge between Mia and Pearl. By the time we return to the fire, we know Elena has wounded and enraged just about everyone in her life. This might make her answer to the big question something of a surprise.

Elena, neighborhood watch asks, who burned down your house with you inside? “I did,” she says at the end. “I did it.” Except she didn’t, exactly. What Elena did is evict Mia and Pearl from the house they were renting from her and destroy, in the process, relationships that matter to her children. Izzy is the first to snap, dousing her bedroom in gasoline before one last encounter with her mother sends her fleeing into the night, homeless at 14. It’s the other three Richardson teens—the “good” kids—who light the matches. So how do we understand this burning property? What did Izzy and her siblings do? What did Mia and Pearl do? And what can we make of Elena’s claim of responsibility? The entangled mother-daughter relations at the heart of the show are shaped by interlocking systems of oppression. For Elena, Izzy is a snarl in the weave of the family, a site of deviance and discord. So she disinvests in her queer daughter and pours her maternal energy into Pearl instead: As Elena’s mini-me oldest child, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), says in the first episode as she invites Pearl to join the siblings in front of the TV: “You can take Izzy’s spot.” 

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The resulting dynamic is deeply uneven. Elena fends off the threat of her daughter’s queerness by investing in a narrative of white uplift. And Mia takes a job as “house manager” to keep an eye on the seduction of her own child by the Richardson family—and ultimately ends up caring for both Richardson daughters when their mother fails to see their struggles. This care work evokes a long history of Black women’s labor being diverted to the nurturing of white families and their children, a dynamics Mia conjures when she observes that “white women always want to be friends with their maid.” But though Mia’s connection with Izzy in particular is informed by this racist dynamic, it’s also a form of queer kinship: The artist is a lifeline for a kid whose peers call her “Ellen”—in reference to Ellen DeGeneres, whose eponymous sitcom was canceled after she came out in 1997—and whose mother takes a decidedly don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to her daughter’s difference.

Izzy is Elena’s problem child in larger part because she reminds Elena of a past she’s suppressed. The series’s sixth episode, “The Uncanny,” is set entirely in the 1980s and provides detailed backstories for both Elena and Mia. In it, we learn that Izzy was the result of an unplanned pregnanc—the fourth child who, through no fault of her own, cost Elena her career in journalism. The title of the episode is illuminating: Mia’s art-school mentor and eventual lover explains that Freud’s concept of the uncanny names “a species of the terrifying” that derives from the return of the repressed. “Uncanny” is the accepted English translation of the German unheimlich, though a more literal translation would be “unhomely.” A familiar element that resurfaces in strange form, the uncanny relates to what haunts the home—the stranger inside. And it taps connections between individual and collective psyches.

Little Fires constructs the “stranger” threatening the white house like nesting dolls: There’s the rebellious self that Elena buried when she got pregnant with Izzy; there’s Izzy herself, who’s increasingly estranged from her family’s lifeworld; and there’s Mia, whose presence in the house keeps pulling the Richardsons’ whiteness into focus. It makes sense that the latter two are the allied agents of change who bring down Elena’s house. In the final episode, Mia passes on to Izzy the lesson she’s learned about devastation making room for renewal. Humans are like prairie fires, she says. “After the burning the soil is rich and life can grow there. Life that’s maybe even better than what was there before.” In this context, Izzy’s dousing of her bedroom in gasoline becomes a gesture of radical hope: By revolting against her family and its property, Izzy is reaching for another way of being in the world—another kind of inheritance. Whatever that alternative looks like, it’s painfully premised on disaffiliating from her family.

Claiming not to see race allowed white people to comfort ourselves that the advantages we enjoyed came from hard work, good choices, and savviness.

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As Black studies scholar Christina Sharpe observes in her 2016 essay “Lose Your Kin,” white American kinship structures are inseparable from a history of slavery: “Transatlantic chattel slavery’s constitution of domestic relations made kin in one direction,” Sharpe writes, “and in the other, property that could be passed between and among those kin.” The making of white American families and their wealth was intimately tied to the unmaking of especially Black and Indigenous kin groups. And these entanglements persist in the present, which is why the heteropatriarchal family is often marshalled to resolve anxieties about racialized threats to whiteness. Sharpe’s injunction to “lose your kin” is about more than frayed or ended relationships. It’s about refusing to reinvest in whiteness as a project defined by the casting out of others. And this, Sharpe says, is a condition of possibility for remaking the world.

All of this brings me back to Elena’s claiming of responsibility for the smoldering ruins of her once-opulent house. “I did it” suggests she’s beginning to see the trouble with her way of being in the world. This is reinforced in the final minutes of the series when Elena races over to Mia’s vacated house in search of runaway Izzy. What she finds instead is Mia’s interpretation of Elena’s hometown: a scale model of Shaker Heights crafted out of white flour-based paste. A poem written by Pearl and read in voiceover serves as an artist’s statement. Elena circles the piece, looking from all angles at a town made of “blinding white flour and beautiful lies,” until she sees the dainty little birdcage at the center of everything, its door ajar. Inside the cage is a red feather she recognizes as belonging to her youngest child. And for the first time, after insisting on “Isabelle” for 14 years, Elena finally calls her daughter “Izzy.”

It’s barely a whisper. And then the credits roll. But spliced into these credits are black and white photographs taken by Mia throughout Little Fires Everywhere, a queer Black woman’s perspective on the intimacies, antagonisms, and beautiful lies that comprise Shaker Heights. In the end, the show does more than make room for a shift in Elena’s worldview. It also registers just how much this sliver of hope has cost the more marginalized others in her life. Izzy is a homeless teen, a queer child in search of kin. And Mia’s secrets have been violently exposed, forcing both the artist and her daughter to survive the pain and start again. This resilience and the insights it affords are encoded in Mia’s creative labor, which unveils the white gaze at work in a family and a town that professes not to see race. “Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative,” Sharpe concludes. “Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.”

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by Trimble
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Trimble is a writer who teaches courses incultural studies and gender studies at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Her first book, Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse, is available from Rutgers University Press. Trimble is a puppy parent, horror nerd, and big-time NBA fan.