Slutsky and Bitchin' | 'Briarpatch' put a woman in male noir genre but missed creating authentic female lead
Slutsky: I am always looking out for female lead roles that buck gender norms, so I was excited when 'Briarpatch' hit our screens because though I am a fan of noir films and shows, they always have male leads.
Bitchin': Well, noir is kind of ultra-male territory, traditionally, like Westerns. And it is a highly problematic genre with its use of the femme fatale as a projection of misogynistic inadequacy.
Slutsky: Precisely, noir has always been a guilty pleasure for me because of that. As much as I like the stylistic conventions of the genre and the "whodunnit" approach, I was never comfortable with the trope of the dangerous woman with sex appeal who lures a good man to his doom. It was like a woman could never be sexy and have fun without being a scheming and evil b***h. So, I was excited about the idea of a female Sam Spade in 'Briarpatch'.
Bitchin': And Rosario Dawson was cast as the lead, Allegra Dill. A woman of color as the investigator in a noir caper -- that is certainly something that I can get behind. So what is the problem?
Slutsky: Well, like a lot of these sorts of experiments where women are cast in traditionally male roles, I don't see Dawson's gender or race really have an impact on the storytelling except in these small moments. In the first episode, we see Dawson's character, Allegra, encounter the racist crime reporter, Freddie Laffter (John Aylward). When he sees the Latino waiter defer to Allegra, he remarks poisonously, “How come he treats you like a white man?” But besides that exchange we never see Dill or AD Singe (Edi Gathegi) face any other form of overt or covert racism in San Bonifacio, a predominantly white Southern town. I remember 'Castle Rock' handling this aspect much better. Oh, and yes, there is another small moment on the show when Allegra is handed an orange in a diner to remind her how the owner used to leave a fresh fruit every day for her when she used to scrounge through the trash for leftover food when she was growing up without parents and taking care of her kid sister. While it is telling of how the townsfolk subtly look down on her, it is more a reflection of her growing up poor.
Bitchin': So you're saying that while the show has these small moments, it doesn't go beyond that?
Slutsky: Well, the showrunner and creator of the series Andy Greenwald certainly intended to freshen up the noir genre and bring it to the "modern age", as he says in his interviews, by casting Dawson. By including these subtle moments, we see this intention in the storytelling. But, overall, I feel the show is a case of an idea being lost in execution.
For instance, Greenwald was writing the show's script when Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the elections. He saw how she was “a woman who was unable to be any emotion in any direction or else she would be pounced on.” So, instead of Dill showing emotion, he wrote her as an "iceberg" who has developed this persona to deal with the world of men she is thrust into. However, in the show, she seems like a caricature of the hard-boiled detective.
We don't see her handle any of her decisions or interactions differently because she is a woman. Her pantsuits are awesome, but would she not use her sex appeal more when she has so few "weapons", as Greenwald puts it, in this world of men?
If that was written into her character --how she uses her looks, subtly not blatantly, we would have a character that would have turned the femme fatale trope on its head. A woman who uses her charm to get to the truth, rather than leading men astray.
Bitchin': Interesting. But you could also say that Greenwald didn't want to sexualize Dawson's character or objectify her in any way. Maybe he wanted to present a "cool as cucumber" female lead.
Slutsky: You do have male leads who are cool as a cucumber but also charming. It is charm weaponized but it is still charm. And a woman of color in a man's world that is so rigid would realistically use whatever weapons she had.
Bitchin': True. She is also not shown to be an unkempt geek girl like say Darlene Alderson in 'Mr. Robot' who says "FU" to the world who wants her to look groomed and pretty. I mean Dawson's sleek, shiny straight hair and her white suits take time and effort to maintain -- it is the kind of grooming you don't see Allegra Dill really care about.
Slutsky: She definitely has the "First Lady" look but that look is usually donned by women who have lived with power and privilege for a long time. Now, you could say Allegra takes on this persona after she gets out of town and becomes successful but you would see this persona breakdown slowly once she is back in her hometown -- a progression you don't really see. And when you are a woman, how you look, like how you dress, is commented on constantly. This scrutiny affects you and you see women rebelling or embracing this scrutiny in different ways -- but they always react -- its human.
Bitchin': So, missed opportunity?
Slutsky: Yup, I wish Greenwald had a woman co-writer just to get these little nuances right about the day-to-day experience of being a woman of color so that we could have a female Sam Spade that women would instinctually relate to. But 'Briarpatch' is the start of a good trend. I'll be content with that for now.
Slutsky & Bitchin’ is a weekly column that will examine the highs and lows of pop culture and media from a feminist POV. The column is published every Saturday.