Tube Tied: Boardwalk Empire and the Empire of Men

Michelle Dean
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Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series from a Sopranos alum that is probably best known to you for trumpeting its association with Martin Scorcese all around town, premiered Sunday night. I expect that the jury is going to be out in this show for some time. That's at least true for me. I've learned, through hard experience, not to judge these high-end cable shows based on their first hour. These things are slow burns, not forest fires; I actually can't think of too many of them that managed to get all their cards on the table in the premiere. When you have eleven or twelve hours to go, you usually lose much of the first episode to setup.

The show is set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, and centers around the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi), a casino-owner gangster type. (The character is allegedly based on a real life figure.) Prohibition is newly begun, and Nucky's already playing politics with the local Women's temperance union, where he meets Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irishwoman trapped in a bad marriage from which it seems inevitable that Nucky will liberate her. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), changed by the front lines of the Great War, is growing impatient with his income level and social status, and is eager to get scamming and killing, much to the comparatively laid-back Nucky's dismay. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to watch the gangster activity in AC more closely, with Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) at the helm.

As even that preliminary list of actors should indicate, no expense has been spared in casting the show, which is chock full of faces you'll recognize from other series, including Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire's quixotic Omar) and even Molly Parker (Deadwood's Alma Garret) in a framed photograph of Nucky's "dead" wife. The look of the show, though beautiful, is a little clean for the subject matter—all bright eyes and scrubbed faces and red lipstick, without a trace of grime or dirt. Even the eruptions of flesh and blood from the show's many gangster shootouts are clinical and clean in a way. That's probably just the Scorcese influence. And perhaps I've become too used to the sepia, nouveau-grime aesthetic of most of HBO's other period pieces like Carnivale and Deadwood.

The big question, too, is whether Nucky will be compelling enough to carry the series. As of the end of this first episode, I'm really not sure. God knows I love Buscemi but so far the best compliment I can give his performance is über-competent. His Nucky does not, like Al Swearengen or Tony Soprano, leap off the screen. At least not yet.

Because I knew this show would be premiering during my time blogging for you, I have been praying for more women on it than the promos were suggesting there would be. In that respect this show might be doomed from the get-go by the choice of the gangster genre, which has not traditionally given rise to deep and nuanced characterizations of women. (The exception here may be The Sopranos and as I mentioned the showrunner is an alumni of that show, so here's hoping.) The gangster world is a man's world, and depictions of it in popular culture seem eager not to let us forget that. Furthermore, when I think to myself, "What film/television directors working today are most interested in the inner lives of women?" Martin Scorcese does not leap to mind. He does what he does very well, don't get me wrong—I enjoy his movies, but I don't look to them for interesting work about women particularly. His molls and mafia wives always seem more representative of what men think women are like than what women might articulate about their own experiences as such.

The premiere bears out my suspicions on that score, sadly, though it opens with the Women's Temperance Union meeting I alluded to earlier. The women in the meeting are predictably faceless, led by a shrewd schoolmarm who inveighs against the devil's drink. But for the women who do get significant screentime, we are only given Madonnas—the pregnant, suffering Margaret, framed beatifically in every shot, and Jimmy's wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino), with otherworldly perfect lustrous curls cascading down her back. To complete the cliché, one whore is presented—Nucky's girlfriend Lucy (Paz de la Huerta)—characterized almost entirely as a drunken, screeching harridan.

The most illuminating moment, in that regard, came when Nucky and Lucy were interrupted mid-coitus by one of Nucky's lackeys. As Lucy curses and yells, the camera doesn't even bother to focus on her, leaving her blurry in the background, as though the only thing that is dramatically interesting to Scorcese here is Nucky's reaction. That doesn't bode well.

Again, I am cognizant that time may change the tone and depth of the series' treatment of women, but these did seem to be exceptionally blunt portraits. And their coarseness does point to the issue of what it is that feminist—or anti-racist, or anti-homophobic, or really any kind of progressive—criticism of pop culture expects from cultural artifacts. Because I know what some of you were thinking—what, in any event, more of you would be thinking were you coming across what I've written above somewhere other than a feminist /progressive blog. You are thinking: so what? What Scorcese, or gangster movies/television shows more generally do, is good. It's entertaining. There's artfulness to it. You're not seriously suggesting that his work has to be for everybody, are you? That it has to be perfectly representative?

I'm not, exactly. All I'm trying to point out is that there is a good thing going, somewhere in the culture, and for whatever reason, women are not really a part of it. Is it really so wrong for people to want to feel a part of the stories their culture tells itself? Isn't it okay to want to feel like your presence is being noticed, that your existence is seriously thought about, and not just a piece of the background scenery?

Moreover, isn't it a problem that accurate, deep, careful dramatic depictions of women (or non-white people, or disabled people, etc.) are not viewed as necessary to the development of good drama. If we didn't live in a world that defined women as somehow, ephemerally, "less than," one could probably shrug one's shoulders and say that art is not a mirror, it's a lens. But if your lens is always myopic in a particular way, it seems to me that's something that, as a director or a writer or even an actor, something that ought to be of concern to you.

That's why I keep asking if the women on shows like Boardwalk Empire have to be so flat. It's also why I hope it gets get better.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

A man's world

I watched the premiere and felt exactly the same way about the portrayals of the women characters (so far, anyway). I agree that there's still reason to be hopeful, but I had my fingers crossed for some high-quality, HBO-style nuance when it came to the ladies of Boardwalk Empire, and it did not deliver. Boo.

I did like other aspects of the show though (and Steve Buscemi is our fave office celebrity here at Bitch—one of our interns served him coffee last week!) so I'll continue to tune in and hope for the best.

Great post!
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Boardwalk Empire

I haven't seen the first episode of this show, but just wanted to point out that Vanity Fair did an "article" on "The Women of Boardwalk Empire." It consisted of few words and four of the women featured in the show standing in a can-can line, showing all of their legs and wearing tons of make-up. I love that you post an actual review of how women are portrayed on the show rather than just an expose' on how beautiful they are. Thank you.

I looked up the Vanity Fair

I looked up the Vanity Fair article you mentioned and found this jem:

"Paz de la Huerta steals every scene she’s in as Nucky’s loudmouthed sometime girlfriend; stunning Gretchen Mol plays a local showgirl who shares a long history with Thompson; Aleksa Palladino is the girlfriend of Thompson’s troublemaking former protégé; and Kelly Macdonald is an uncut diamond whom Nucky rescues from her abusive husband. "

All four described in terms of their relationship to the men on the show. Also, would a male character ever be referred to as an "uncut diamond"? Ugh.

Great article, though. I felt the same watching the premiere but knew saying anything about it out loud would just make me a Debbie Downer.


I was neither disappointed nor blown away by Boardwalk Empire. It was a very solid, well done 75 minutes, but when you have Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, HBO, $30 million, and Martin Freakin' Scorcese on your side, it's going to take more than that to impress me. I'll be sticking around to see if it improves.

As for the issue at hand, I, too, was disappointed at how so very incidental the women seemed. I'm sadly used to women and girls being portrayed as secondary and minor characters, but Boardwalk Empire is especially bad. I'd go so far as to say that not a single woman we've seen so far could be considered an actual character; they're just props and plot developments.

And I completely agree with your counter-argument to the "So what?" line. Of course a show doesn't "need" female/minority characters to be great. But it never seems to work the other way, does it? Just think what happens to shows, movies, etc. that focus this heavily on non-white and/or non-male characters. That's right: they get dismissed as being "not for everyone."

Great analysis

Brilliant article on the series! You touched some key-points on the matter. After watching the first episode myself, I felt a bit frustrated with Boardwalk Empire because it gave us a wide range of compelling and strong male characters, but few interesting female ones, if any at all.
Nucky's girlfriend annoyed me to no end. She was a screeching, spoilt brat that cared for no one but herself. I know where they were going with this, portraying her as a lousy gold-digger, but it still pissed me off. And the sex scene between her and Nucky just goes to show that the writers had the same opinion about her, because obviously in that scene Nucky is the victim, at least from their point of view (and can you blame them? I do sympathize with him in that scene).
Margaret sort of piqued my interest, with her unaffected sincerity and kindness. She shows a lot of potential, character-wise, because I think she has a strength in her that could come out later on. And it got me thinking that one way or another, she did manage to get herself out of that horrible and abusive relationship. Yes it was Nucky who gave a helping hand, but she indirectly caused a lot of what happened. She was the one to initiate a meeting with him. And she didn't do anything rash or out of character. Being her kind, selfless, loving self helped her in the end. Or so I like to think.
I don't know if I can blame her for not standing up to her husband more, because the idiot was dangerous and violent and it's not like she was in the position to do something about it. I'll just have to see how she reacts as a widow. Here's to hoping her character will grow.
As for Jimmy's wife, I didn't really notice her all that much. She did try to persuade her husband to continue his studies, offering to get a job, but once she gave the suggestion and it was rejected, she moulded into a beautiful, loyal wife again. The fact that she is quite ignorant of Jimmy's affairs is pretty sad. Or at least, she didn't seem to know a whole lot about her husband. But then again, I didn't really pay attention to her so I might have missed a couple of things.
In any case, I can only hope that these women get to have more interesting parts in the story and that they will be better fleshed out. Out of all of them, Margaret felt the least like a stereotype. Even if she was.
Anyway, sorry for the huge rant, loved your article and I hope you review more shows and discuss female characters again :)

Boardwalk update?

I've been catching up on old Bitch media blogs and came across this. I love this review because I've been watching the show and I haven't seen too much feminist discourse on it yet (if you know of any good articles, please link!). You're also dead on about the pilot, and I am not at all a Scorcese fan for precidely these reasons. But by this point in the first season (episode 4 was last Sunday, I believe), there has been an explosion of issues raised, in a deconstructing and interesting way in my opinion, and the style and tenor of the show have stepped back from the Goodfellas vibe of the pilot and delved into much more subtle characterizations and commentaries. That's why I think ultimately Buscemi is the perfect choice for the (ostensible) protagonist: he is not overtly forceful, violent and dominant like Gandolfini or McShane, because Nucky is not a pure kingpin as found in the tropes of gangsters and westerns. He is the middleman in a network of true gangsters, politicians, and constant clashes. The main characters in Boardwalk all seem to be more trapped in a dilemma of corruption versus idealism, in effect at the crossroads before becoming full-on gangsters and criminals (or at least, they don't want to be totally corrupt yet.) And I'm including the women of the show in this notion. In the pilot the female characters were not well developed at all, but each one has emerged as also at a kind of moral crossroad: the Madonna figure, Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) is actively choosing between fighting against Nucky's world of corruption with the Temperance League or letting herself enjoy the perks and excitement of being a part of his life. Jimmy's mom (Gretchen Mol) leads a vibrant and overlapping double life of babysitter/mother and active sexual being rather than acting as if they are mutually exclusive, Angela has reclaimed independence by pursuing a life outside of Jimmy and their son, and even Lucy is fighting on her own behalf to hold on to the prvilieges of being Nucky's mistress by using weapons at her employ. These are all much more complex characters than the pilot would suggest, with vices, independence and rich inner lives. Even Margaret starts shoplifting! I cheered when she did that.

The portrayal of these women, as it is developing on the show, is certainly problematic, but I think in an intentional and challenging way. They are purposefully treated by the men on the show as less equal contenders, and they are purposefully often the first casualties (along with immigrants, people of color, and little people) in each battle-- be it social, economic or violent-- between the big wigs on the show. But these groups fight back, especially the women. Margaret demands respect by boldly voicing her opinions and using Nucky's open corruption against him. Lucy plays the needy mistress, but intentionally, as the last weapons of someone who knows she is losing privilege. These are certainly the Madonna and Whore figures of the show, but their willingness to take control where they can, be independent and act like real people makes this show so appealing to me. Especially since (spoiler alert!) Nucky and Margaret have some wild sex after she challenges him. Add in the racial, social, economic and sexual dynamics, and I'm totally addicted.

Women characters in BE

I agree about the flatness of the female characters. Nothing about them would prompt me to watch a second season. Kelly MacDonald character seems to have only one facial expression - worried. Worried smile, worried frown, etc..I think that what Boardwalk Empire has going for it is gloss a feature that has as a limited ability to maintain my attention. The women are virtually all kept women or prostitutes with the exception of the head of the temperance league. Pallidino's character is extremely passive and looks to others to provide her with a way out of her situation. Paz's character is literally kept by Nucky as is Kelly MacDonalds'. Even the sex scenes are disturbing given the extreme passivity of the women (just seem to lie there and take it). Even the vigorous Paz (her sex scenes are strangely masturbatory) is reduced by her characters' babyish cooing during sex with the prohibition agent and little girl appeals to Nucky. The only character who seems to direct the course of her own life (to some extent) is Jimmy's mother. Although she appears to be the creature of the Commodore, Jimmy's father. I don't know if Martin Scorcese is working out some issues around his relationship with his mother or other women in his life but I would rather he conduct his therapy in the privacy of a psychotherapist's office not on the small screen.

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