A response to a blogger’s view of HBO’s The Undoing:
Congratulations on a well written and argued essay about the HBO series The Undoing. Your analysis outlines the ways in which a sophisticated production with a seemingly progressive theme marginalizes its underprivileged characters, exhibiting a racist and sexist underbelly. You point out that Elena Alves, the drama’s murder victim character, is an example of shameless stereotyping: her seductive figure placed on display, sexualized before her grisly death and in flashbacks thereafter, and served up as titillation rather than as someone who has earned the viewer’s sympathy. You observe that in some ways this fits the tradition of murder-suspense in cinema, as murdered bodies are typically the least important characters in this genre. However, you make an intriguing point that this facet should shift as the murder-suspense story that is The Undoing transforms into a domestic drama-suspense, culminating in a courtroom drama, plus a concerned gaze upon class, privilege, and most plainly, evil. Amid the intersections of those themes, you argue that the protagonist, Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is afforded a more sympathetic portrayal than the murdered Elena, who is at best patronized as an “unfortunate” Latina. And lastly, you assert that supporting characters and institutions depicted in the film view Hugh Grant’s villainous Jonathon Fraser with depth and understanding—a further privilege that is denied the objectified, “bludgeoned”, and therefore dehumanized Elena. Like Grace, we the viewer are seduced into thinking The Undoing a well-meaning, thoughtful and egalitarian narrative.
Now, after that seduction of flattery, here are a few other thoughts:
The comparison you make with Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca—namely, that its murdered woman is afforded more sympathy than The Undoing’s Latina victim—seems based upon thin evidence. You seem to think that the unfaithful and then revenged upon Rebecca is privileged simply because she is the novel and later film’s titular character. Really? That’s so impactful? Perhaps anti-whaling protesters should take note and heart; be consoled that Melville chose the title Moby Dick rather than, say, The Hunt for a Meaningless Mammal. Anyway, regarding Elena, you also seem to think that because a character is an innocent victim of murder, he or she should necessarily be a sympathetic figure. Well, as you suggest, if The Undoing was a straight-forward murder-suspense, then I’d agree that audiences should identify with the victim as an innocent. But this drama contains elements of social commentary, as you also suggest, and Elena, I’d suggest, is not merely a cardboard, objectified figure, or a convenient stiff, as you put it. Actually, she does exhibit complexity in my opinion, but she isn’t necessarily sympathetic. She is mysterious, which allows for audience projections, which include the following possibilities: that she is a good mother by seeking good care and education for her son; but also that she is opportunistic, passively aggressive, and seductive in a way that I think most viewers will think creepy, not “empowering”, as you seem to think. Her characterization as a not-wholly sympathetic victim of a crime was realistic and therefore good drama; so, too, was the assignment to her of Latin heritage a realistic reflection of setting demographics, and not a facile example of racial profiling.
Next, regarding some support characters and the villain, Jonathan Fraser: You might have made note of the series’ allusion to confirmation bias, as your essay exhibits the same construct of psychology. You believe The Undoing masquerades as a socially conscious drama while exhibiting the same white privilege or institutionalized racism it purports to expose. You skip over that the murder investigation’s lead detective, who is clearly a decent, as in not corrupt, and capable figure, is more than a “dogged” Latino, and is clearly placed in charge of a white male subordinate. Also, the high-priced lawyer whom Grace’s father hires to defend Jonathan is a black woman and clearly portrayed as a super-intelligent, redoubtable, if not entirely ethical person. I suppose that these anomalous elements didn’t fit your thesis so you didn’t explore them. And what quota of positive role models would the filmmakers have to display to satisfy your litmus test of enlightened creativity? Imagine the Rubix Cube of options that producers might consider to make scripts acceptable in the current zeitgeist: could they have had a blonde Hitchcock-like cliché instead of the Elena figure, thus objectifying a woman, but at least not a woman of color? Perhaps they could’ve added a white maid, or another white guy to the slew of hotel doormen we see in the series? Or maybe Jonathan should have been a man of color so that when he is portrayed with “sympathy and complexity” he, too, could be perceived as privileged, or at least rendered equal to other characters. No? Somehow, it seems that Jonathan would be deemed a privileged, sympathized-with figure regardless of his negative attributes—because he is white. Talk about confirmation bias. According to you, he is privileged in the eyes of the filmmakers (not just in the fiction they depict) when he is portrayed as having cheated on his wife, when he has run away from a crime scene and abandoned his wife and child, and even upon the story’s climax wherein he is clearly portrayed as a narcissistic sociopath—an opinion actually voiced half-way through the series by a minor character, Fraser’s erstwhile medical colleague, who attempts to penetrate Grace’s denial about Jonathan.
Your notions of victimization and privilege are tautological and circularly reasoned, so your conception of the Fraser villain is absurd.
What would be your prescription for today’s Hollywood producers and writers? In order to strip the advantaged of their privileged complexity, or the potential for audiences to sympathize with those who don’t merit sympathy, should villains be not only evil, but also uninteresting? Should Hannibal Lechter be a scrawny, witless nerd? Incidentally, I wouldn’t begrudge a re-make with, say, Denzel Washington given a shot at the delicious (sorry) cannibal/psychiatrist. Back to Undoing: Would it have leveled the playing field to make Jonathan Fraser a young, athletic man of color, not a middle-aged, do-gooding doctor whose “healer” persona and charm renders him a credible love interest for a young, beautiful woman? I presume the answer is no, as this change would still involve a socially advantaged figure (a male) in the villain role, plus then the problem would be the negative stereotyping of a racial minority as dangerous. Maybe you could write that thorny script and submit it to a studio, and maybe that script will be good because you are intelligent and you write well. However, I will stop short of saying good luck. I don’t know if you are creative, but I hope that artless social engineers don’t overtake the entertainment industry with their contrivances, though I will thank you for the following: I wasn’t aware that “ass accentuation”, as a concept, is a thing, or that “kiss my ass” or “show my ass” derives from primitive gestures of defiance that Freud will have written about back in nineteen whatever. I’m sure that Colombia professor wrote a fine paper on the subject and that it’s an invaluable contribution to academic literature.