Boardwalk Empire: Feminist Nostalgia Or Misogynistic Fantasy?

On Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

The following post was written by ShaynaLeah on OnSugar blog Life Forward.

Last week I finally got to watch the first season of the latest HBO night time soap, ahem, drama, Boardwalk Empire. If you are unfamiliar, it takes place in 1920s Atlantic City, NJ, and follows the corrupt Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) as he rules Atlantic City, living in the boardwalk Ritz-Carlton Hotel as he makes money as a bootlegger at the start of the Prohibition, and skillfully plays politicians like marionettes as women (finally) get the vote.

Though the show, at its heart, is about the men who ran Atlantic City, with bits and pieces about Chicago and New York (Meyer Lansky, “Lucky” Luciano, and Al Capone all have minor roles as characters in the series), the portrayal of women is fascinating. The Women’s Temperance League is shown as a strong political force, though the leader is often mollified by Thompson, who profits greatly from the increased prices he can charge for the liquor he sells by the barrel to casinos and others, thanks to the Prohibition. Nucky congratulates women on getting the vote — though he continues to show that their ignorance of world politics makes them easy marks for his manipulations, in his quest to gain total power over Atlantic City.

Read more of ShaynaLeah’s thoughts after the jump.

Women are very much at the mercy of men in this show: When Irish immigrant and mother of two, Margaret Schroeder (played by Kelly Macdonald), needs help protecting her children from her abusive husband, she goes to Nucky, who takes care of the situation by having her husband killed (and uses that murder to further his own purposes), and forcing the owner of the dress shop at the Ritz-Carlton to fire a competent assistant and hire Margaret — who has no experience in retail. Nucky later throws over current girlfriend Lucy Danziger, a dancer from Ziegfeld Follies, for Margaret and moves her and her children into an apartment. The apartment is not in just any building — on her first night, Margaret meets a neighbor who explains that it is filled with “the concubines” of the powerful men who work with and for Nucky.

The power women wield in this show is largely associated with sex, and generally, it is not power that they wield, but power associated with them that men wield against one another. One gangster’s mother is a topless dancer at one of the Atlantic City hotels, and plays a pivotal role when she sleeps with a rival gangster — and detains him until her son can come to collect him, so that he can be turned to their advantage. That same gangster, Jimmy Darmody, spent time in Chicago and became close to a prostitute there. When another gangster wanted to retaliate against Jimmy, he viciously attacked the woman’s face with a knife.

The show is compelling despite — or perhaps because of — the iniquities so brazenly portrayed. Not only between men and women, but between Jews and Christians, blacks and whites, and even competing gangs which are split between Irish, Italian, and Jewish lines. It is the organized crime that The Sopranos television series hinted at: unapologetic, ethnic, and decadent with seamy edges.

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Photos courtesy of HBO

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