Little (Sociological) Fires Everywhere
April 2020 | Edited April 2020
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
What do Little Fires Everywhere and sociology have in common? Among many things, their critical assessment and exploration of gender, race, and class structures. As this article from The Undefeated puts it, “an entire library of history and sociology lies embedded in [the characters'] interactions.”
The Hulu miniseries based on the novel of the same name written by Celeste Ng tells a painfully realistic story about two families living in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland known for their social experiment to combat the white flight that took place in 1970s. The story focuses on the mothers in each family and the relationships they build up and break down—yes, that is a reference to Ingrid Michaelson’s original song for the series soundtrack—mostly in reaction to the connections between their children.
From the get-go, the series challenges its viewers to think critically about the concept of family. The Richardson’s represent the traditional, and white, nuclear family with two married parents, four children, a male breadwinner as the head of the household, and an unnecessarily large house to wrap it all up. The Warrens, on the other hand, represent what is typically labeled as a “nontraditional” family, made up of an African American single mother, Mia Warren, and her only daughter, Pearl. We expect the Warren family to have secrets, and the show sets its viewers up to follow that biased expectation. But, the show also exposes its viewers’ biases by revealing secrets from each and every family represented in the show. It really pushes our preconceived notions by showing that traditional nuclear families are surrounded by lies, secrets, and trauma just like any other family who we might expect such things from.
Turning our idea of family on its head, however, is only the beginning of the sociological conversation starters in this series. The series tastefully adds to discourse on gender, race, and class structures, and how each are intertwined and inseparable—an idea that has been a part of the sociological discipline for decades thanks to black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Krenshaw, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and others.
You cannot watch the series and walk away without a curiosity about how society frames motherhood and womanhood, and how each are often conflated by our traditional ideas of gender. One explicit scene in the show that highlights this sociological phenomenon is the book club scene where the women of Shaker Heights are discussing the Vagina Monologues. Most of these women are mothers, with the exception of the woman who chose the book. The scene invites a heated discussion on what many women see as the sole responsibility of the vagina: to bear children. Of course, the woman who is voluntarily childfree quickly becomes offended by the idea that her vagina is meaningless having not borne children, bringing up an important discussion on women’s roles in society and the often-conflated roles of “woman” and “mother.”
Another important scene inviting a critical interrogation of motherhood involves a discussion around a woman’s right to choose. As a young Elena Richardson, matriarch of the Richardson household, becomes unexpectedly pregnant for the fourth time just as she returns to work after having her third child, she grapples with exercising her right to choose (ironically, in a state that now restricts that very right). Upon discussion with her mother—who we later learn was a long-time board member of a local women’s clinic that provides abortions—the idea that “choice” is actually reserved for those without it surfaces. The comments from Elena’s mother bring up an important sociological discussion on “choice” and whether or not individual choice really ever exists. If women who have the financial and social resources to bring another child into the world are expected to do so while women who don’t are expected to make the difficult choice to terminate their pregnancy, does a woman’s right to choose ever really exist regardless of the legal landscape?
The series also exposes biases surrounding which women are labeled as “fit” or “deserving” mothers and why. As a custody battle plays out between Bebe Chow—an undocumented Chinese immigrant mother who was forced to either abandon her newborn or watch her starve—and the involuntarily childless white woman who took the abandoned child in, the audience is forced to wrestle with how race, ethnicity, and citizenship status are imbedded in our ideas around who is a fit and deserving mother.
Each of these sociological scenes not only touch on the conflation of womanhood and motherhood in our society and the value of women in society, but also the longstanding discussion in sociological research on the dichotomy of motherhood. We see mothers as either stay at home moms or working moms, but rarely as anything in-between. And, we have internalized values associated with both categories of mothers that provide us with a judgement of that mother’s worth as a woman. Little Fires Everywhere brings these sociological realities to our living rooms in a way that media rarely does.
In addition to the nuanced themes surrounding gender that run rampant throughout the series, sociological themes on race are also recurring. The carefully crafted scenes on race are no surprise given that the production team was tasked with reading sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. From micro-aggressions to explicit racial discrimination, the show touches on the undeniably impactful and constraining ways that black people are forced to navigate life in white spaces.
The relationship between Lexie Richardson, the oldest of the four Richardson children, and her black boyfriend, Brian Harlins, exposes many of these themes. After Brian learns that Lexie stole Pearl’s discrimination story as her own to earn a spot at Yale, their relationship begins to deteriorate. The relationship eventually comes to a grinding halt during a discussion where Lexie claims that she was raised not to see color, demonstrating just how damaging sociologist Bonilla Silva’s concept of colorblind racism can be.
Lexie’s character sparks an important discussion on race again when she uses Pearls name on her abortion paperwork. When Pearl finds out, Lexie apologizes, saying it would actually be a big deal if her name got out, as if the trope of young black women as hypersexual and irresponsible meant her actions were okay. This exposes a gendered view on race that black feminist sociologists like Patricia Hill Collins have been writing about for decades. In her book Black Feminist Thought, Hill Collins touches on what she calls the sexual politics of black womanhood, explaining how the very trope exposed by Lexie’s actions is embedded in historical relations of race and gender that still play out in our social interactions today.
However, Lexie is not the only Richardson who ignites dialogue on race. Elena and Mia’s interactions throughout the show are rife with both symbolic and literal depictions of race relations in the U.S. The most obvious of those interactions unfolds after Elena fires Mia as their “house manager” and Mia tells Elena, “white women always want to be friends with their maids. I was not your maid, Elena. And I was never your friend.” Elena reacts to Mia’s words in the most subtle, yet textbook, white liberal feminist way. Her expression shows utter confusion, demonstrating her complete lack of awareness of the subtle racism that infiltrated their “friendship.”
Throughout the series, you can hear Elena pronounce her good values and intentions, touching on the important conversation of intent versus impact. Someone can have great intentions and still do another person great harm with those well-intended actions or words. Elena marched with Dr. King, something she made sure to always mention to her daughter’s African American boyfriend. Her mother helped integrate Shaker Heights. So how could she be racially insensitive? Importantly, when it comes to race in the U.S. context, those who get to claim “good intentions” are almost always white folks, while those who are on the receiving end of those well-intended words or actions are almost always racial minorities. Elena’s character is a frustratingly accurate portrayal of how “good intentions” are reserved for white folks to help them grapple with what sociologists call white guilt.
The custody hearing between Bebe and the white woman who claimed Bebe’s daughter, May Ling, as her own reveals yet another narrative on race. The youngest of the Richardson children, Izzy—a partially closeted queer character who brings meaningful discourse on sexuality to the story—makes sure this theme does not go unnoticed when she stages a demonstration at school to highlight the connection between the cost of adoption and racism in the adoption market. Unfortunately, she gets some of it wrong by dressing white dolls in blackface, which Mia explains to her is not her place as a white person. Dishing out some of the wisest advice white folks could ever take—including myself—Mia tells Izzy she does not get to be an exception just because she wants to be. This commentary on race and adoption may seem exaggerated to viewers, but sociological research reveals similar patterns as those discussed in the series. Take, for example, Barbara Katz Rothman’s book Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption.
As intersectionality theory tells us, gender and race cannot be understood separately, just as neither can be understood without attention to class structures that are embedded in both simultaneously. Each theme discussed above, therefore, is not explicitly only gender, or only race, which may be more obvious in some themes than others. Take the dialogue on a woman’s right to choose, for instance. The narrative presented for critique views gender and motherhood through a class lens. Wealthy women with resources are afforded one “choice,” while low-income women without resources are afforded another.
Importantly, while wealthy women may be expected to carry a pregnancy to term due to their abundance of resources, that same abundance of resources is what gives them access to more choices. They have the money to travel to a state that offers them the right to choose; they have the money to pay for the procedure; and they have the resources to choose to mother a child if they so desire. Does that mean their choice is easy from a moral standpoint? Not necessary. But, women without the resources to travel or pay for an abortion may be stuck with only one choice, giving them no real sense of choice at all. Yet, they are judged harshly for making that “choice” to bring a child into their world. Throughout the series, we hear both Elena and her daughter Lexie argue that women should not get pregnant in the first place if they do not have the resources to provide for children—as if pregnancy is always a choice. If you find yourself agreeing with that argument, I would encourage you to read Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women put Motherhood before Marriage by sociologists Katheryn Edin and Maria Kefalas.
We also see themes around class privilege surface in the series again and again as Pearl is exposed to the wealthy way of life that the Richardson’s are accustomed to. Her mother, Mia, is painted as a struggling artist who strives for a career that exists outside of the American capitalist structure as much as is humanly possible. It is only when she is forced with the difficult decision to sell a valuable portrait of herself or watch Bebe continue to fight for her child without legal help that she decides to sell the deeply meaningful photo for a large sum of money.
When Pearl discovers that she had been sitting on this valuable portrait for their entire lives together, she is quick to let her mother know that the life she gave her was not good enough—especially in comparison to the Richardson’s. We watch Mia struggle with conflicting thoughts of whether she did the right thing choosing to keep Pearl as a single mother living on a low-income when she could have let an upper-middle class couple raise her daughter, as was the original plan. Once again, we see discourse materialize around who is a deserving mother based not only on race, ethnicity, and citizenship status, but now also on class position.
Through Bebe’s story, we see the struggle of a mother who cannot feed herself or her own child. We also watch as the white women of Shaker Heights shape her narrative in a way that makes the abandonment of her child seem like a malicious choice. Yet, in displaying both sides of that narrative, the writers ensure the audience is forced to see those competing narratives and the ways in which each is constructed. The first, from Bebe’s perspective, shows her reality of having to make the most difficult “choice” a mother could. The second comes from a white and privileged perspective, and, when juxtaposed to the first, shows the ways in which we demonize low-income and minority mothers for making “choices” that are never really choices in the first place.
When we look deeper into the web of relationships, secrets, and trauma that unfold in the story, Little Fires Everywhere suddenly becomes a conversation starter of the decade. (Yes, I know it's only 2020.) Despite the ugly relationships and hateful actions, the story's ending brings hope and leaves viewers with much to contemplate not only about themselves, but, perhaps more importantly, about the society in which they live. The sociological analyses rampant throughout Little Fires Everywhere begs the question, what can we, as viewers, take away from this sociological commentary? And, I think the last few lines of Pearl’s final poem say it all:
“If we can finally see the lies and the town and the cage we’re inside of, we can see so many other things too. We can see the door. A way out. And we can fly away.”