On the surface, Unforgettable is an unremarkable film about two women fighting for the paltry affections of a man they both love. It’s neither a progressive nor innovative example of the genre, but it does make for a fairly entertaining moviegoing experience. Dig deeper though, and this summer thriller illuminates one of the central conflicts of the contemporary feminist movement: the complicity of white women in perpetuating patriarchal power structures that disproportionately harm women of color. Though Unforgettable is conspicuously colorblind, the plot can almost directly be mapped to the historical relationship between white women and other women of color (especially Black women) in the United States.
When Julia (Rosario Dawson) arrives in town to start her new life with her fiancé David and his daughter, Lily, David’s ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) is fully aware that she has the advantage over Julia. Though she feigns cordiality, she makes several obvious overtures designed to reinforce that Julia is the interloper. Their small town is predictably very white, and is familiar to Tessa in a way that it isn’t to Julia. Tessa knows the people and places, and has an established role in the community. This is reinforced when Julia calls her best friend Ali and expresses discomfort with her new reality, explicitly saying, “I feel like I’m stepping into her life.” In this way, the people of the town become Tessa’s unwitting allies, further isolating Julia as an outsider to a tight-knit community. Her only true friend is across the country.
Nothing is made of Julia’s entry into a white family in a white neighborhood full of white people predisposed to seeing her as an outsider for being a woman of color. She is simply the woman replacing Tessa. But Tessa’s actions are so terrifying because she utilizes her whiteness as a weapon against Julia. After discovering Julia and David’s plans to wed, she sets in motion a series of events that open Julia up to interpersonal and state violence. Tessa’s master plan is twofold: Alienate Julia from Lily and David and frame her for cheating with her abusive ex-boyfriend Michael. Both parts of this plan have immediate consequences for Julia in her daily life. Julia is isolated and lonely in a new city. The restraining order against Michael has also recently expired. The two parts of Tessa’s plan work in tandem to make Julia paranoid about her own safety, gaslight her about the level of danger she faces, and frame her as unfaithful and untrustworthy to David.
Julia is ashamed of her history of abuse and keeps it a secret from David. Tessa exploits this weak spot by pretending to be Julia online and initiating contact with Michael, leading him to believe that Julia still wants to be with him. She even goes so far as to steal some of Julia’s things—including a pair of panties, an engraved watch she gifted David, and, most important, a key to her house—and mail them to Michael as an indication of Julia’s desire to rekindle their relationship. During this time, Tessa also creates an extensive digital trail of sexts and racy photos implicating Julia in the infidelity. Additionally, she begins calling Julia from blocked numbers, heightening Julia’s paranoia and triggering her implied PTSD. For Black women, trauma is often generational and continues on without recognition. By gaslighting Julia in this way, Tessa callously reopens a historical wound to serve her own ends.
Things take a darker turn when Tessa invites Michael to meet Julia for sex. Michael arrives to find a terrified Julia, and is enraged at what he sees as her mind games. He physically attacks her and almost kills her, until Julia is able to stab him and escape. It isn’t until Tessa enters the house to tie up loose ends by killing Michael that he realizes he has been tricked. Tessa’s jealousy was so extreme that she gave an abuser access to his victim simply so that she could use “incriminating” photos to break up a relationship. When Julia goes to the police to report the incident, they inform her that Michael is dead and that she is the prime suspect for his murder. With the “evidence” generated by Tessa, they have a strong case against her. This is where Tessa’s actions open Julia up to violence from the state. Her narrative paints Julia as a devious woman intent on luring a man to his death. At a time when Black women can be prosecuted for protecting themselves from abusive partners, it’s an interesting choice to have the white female villainess manipulate the system to achieve those specific ends; the sinister undertone of Tessa’s treatment of Julia leaves a decidedly menacing aftertaste.
When the police show David the exchanges, he believes them to be real and leaves without speaking to Julia. This detail is significant because it shows his instinct to believe Tessa over the woman he wants to marry. Race factors heavily into this thinking, as David refuses to believe that Tessa could be malicious or dangerous because of his own relationship to her. Despite David’s own experience with Tessa’s jealousy and control issues in the past, he is still predisposed to believe that she is innocent and harmless. It takes seeing Tessa with Julia’s engagement ring (an heirloom Tessa had stolen and Julia thought she had lost) for him to believe what Julia had been telling him about the threat Tessa posed to their family. This mimics the real-life instances of white women claiming harm or injury when confronted or challenged by Black women. The initial harm is always seen as a lesser slight than the subsequent offense. In this she said/she said, Tessa’s words carry more weight and more credibility than Julia’s, despite them each having nothing more than their word. Julia is automatically cast as the villain in the story of her own victimhood because her ability to be a victim is never established.
The film ignores the race of the characters completely, but close examination shows how the narrative reinforces institutional systems that endanger women of color and protect white women. The historical parallels are clear and mimic the many ways white women have sacrificed the well-being of women of color in order to get their way. Because of this, it’s strange that race is presented as a nonissue. The very bones of the narrative are rooted in classed and raced ideas about womanhood, who has access to it, and whose will be protected, valued, and believed. But that ideological entanglement is never explicitly acknowledged.
In fact, motherhood also comes to the forefront as an issue where the intersection of race is ignored. Much of the initial conflict between Tessa and Julia is about their different approaches to parenting Lily. Tessa is strict and exacting, mimicking the hypercritical example passed down by her own overbearing mother. Julia is more relaxed and accommodating, and makes an effort to take Lily’s own wants and needs into account. In one scene, Julia allows Lily to leave a dressage lesson with her mother when it becomes clear she is afraid of the horse. Tessa sees this as a mortal insult and later cuts Lily’s long hair short, seemingly in retaliation for her perceived disobedience. What she tells Lily, however, is that the severe cut is necessary because Julia leaves too many knots in it. Tessa’s pettiness sets her daughter against Julia by undermining the trust she had in her. When Julia points this out, Tessa intentionally throws herself down the stairs to gain sympathy from David.
There are, of course, specific critiques to be made about the catfight genre in and of itself. Why should Tessa be driven to homicide by a predictable eventuality? Rather than addressing Tessa’s deteriorating mental health, Unforgettable frames her criminal actions as a direct response to upheaval at the hands of the men in her life. The film does pay lip service to the idea that David’s engagement is a psychological trigger for Tessa; it is revealed that as a teen, Tessa set fire to her father’s house after he left her mother for his secretary. It is only after losing the trust and protection of her father and, later, her husband that Tessa falls apart. But why continue to perpetuate the idea that “losing a man” will drive a woman to madness? The film reinforces the patriarchal lie of white women’s inherent fragility. Not even Tessa’s madness is self-motivated.
While the plot of Unforgettable is good, campy fun, it also lays bare how white women often use their cultural presumption of innocence against women of color. White women’s “tears” are a powerful elixir, and the social capital they afford does not extend past the limits of white femininity. What happens between Tessa and Julia is a perfect illustration of the reasons why women of color are often hesitant to believe claims of solidarity with white women. While we are all women, white women occupy a position of social privilege in the racial hierarchy that they often weaponize against women of color. Our collective distrust stems not from prejudice but experience.