Victimhood and responsibility: Fargo’s critique of feminism
Fargo, Noah Hawley’s anthology series inspired by the classic 1996 Coen brothers film, has been one of television’s most acclaimed dramas since it began its run on FX in 2014. It has rightly been praised for its innovative cinematography, surprising music choices, sharp writing and superb acting, and noted for sometimes taking its stories in a riskily avant-garde and surrealistic direction.
The second season, which aired in late 2015, was its best, achieving a moral balance which the first and third lacked in various ways, and giving plenty of screen time to one of Fargo’s greatest strengths: its protagonists, who are not the dark anti-heroes offered by much of today’s prestige television, but decent, everyday folk who face evil and then return home to a normal life with their families.
Season two was distinguished even further from many other great contemporary TV dramas by its strong critique of feminism, especially of a certain New Age variety of women’s liberation. Set in 1979, it portrays a series of events on which feminism exercises a significant and decidedly negative influence.
PART 1: “A prisoner of ‘we’”?
Central to the story is Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a hairdresser and butcher’s wife in Luverne, Minnesota. In the first episode, Peggy accidentally hits a member of the Gerhardt crime family with her car. Instead of calling the police, Peggy drives home and parks in her garage with the man still lodged in her windshield. It is this somewhat inexplicable choice, and others following upon it, which unbeknownst to Peggy lead to the bloody escalation of a turf war between the expanding Kansas City crime syndicate and the smaller Gerhardt family based in Fargo, North Dakota.
So why does Peggy choose to commit a hit-and-run instead of reporting her accident to the police? It is evident that Peggy suffers both from some kind of mental illness and from a profound restlessness or acedia. These psychological and spiritual maladies turn out to provide fertile ground in which New Age philosophy and the rhetoric of women’s liberation can take root, her personal problems and the bad ideas exacerbating each other.
An early sign of her psychological ill-health is her hoarding of uncountable stacks of fashion and travel magazines—far more than can be explained by her job as a hairdresser. The hoarding of travel magazines also clearly indicates a desire for escape. She repeatedly voices her desire to go to California, apparently the land of glamour and self-fulfillment.
Her other source of dissatisfaction, by which she justifies her actions throughout the series, is a sense that she is not living up to her full potential as a woman and a human being. But for all that she says she wants to “self-actualize”, she doesn’t seem to have a clear picture of what that would look like. By thinking she can solve her problems by going somewhere else, she is actually fleeing herself. And as we will see, she is pathologically unable to face the consequences of her choices.
Her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) harbors a more traditional dream, to buy the butcher shop where he works some day and have a bunch of kids in the home where he grew up. He doesn’t evince much of an inner life, and perhaps this deficient sense of self makes it harder to understand his wife’s desire to be “the best me that I can be.” More charitably, this simple man doesn’t understand Peggy’s dissatisfaction because he himself is happy with the way things are headed. This fundamental disconnect between the two holds until Ed’s last words to Peggy as he dies of a gunshot wound in the season finale: “You’re always trying to fix everything, but sometimes nothing’s broken. Everything’s working just fine.”
One might attribute this disconnect between Ed and Peggy to a tragic failure of communication—except that as it turns out, Peggy is deliberately deceiving her husband, who is so open about his own plans and dreams. Specifically, she pretends to share Ed’s desire for children, but secretly uses the Pill. This is shown briefly and without remark, but is arguably more significant for understanding Peggy than some of her more overtly destructive choices. (I am reminded of a similar, albeit far more explicit point in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.)
Peggy has a rare moment of honesty in a conversation with Sherriff Larsson (Ted Danson), admitting her desire for escape: “I’ll tell you what, if it was me, and we had to run, I wouldn’t look back. For what? The dazzle? This house? This is Ed’s house. He grew up here. His mom washing his undies, his father taking his paper to the commode. You ask me how come I buy all these magazines? I’m livin’ in a museum of the past.”
When is a house like a museum? Peggy may think that having children would be the final nail in the coffin, trapping her so she would never become her “best self”, but this is because she mistakenly equates rootedness with stagnation. Having children roots us, but also challenges us, more than just about any other human endeavor, to grow and become the best version of ourselves. Children are what bring a house to life—no child can live in a museum. (“Museum of the past” could aptly describe picturesque, childless Europe.) It is the pursuit of domestic bliss excluding children which threatens stagnation and entropy.
Children could provide the rootedness and traditional family for which Ed yearns, and the dynamism and growth Peggy needs. She could fulfill her potential alongside Ed, and through raising children he too might expand psychologically.
Of course, it could be argued that Peggy may have been mentally incapable of entering into a marriage in the first place. Regardless, she cannot make herself happier by deceiving her husband—she would be better off living her current situation with integrity and generosity.
Instead, she seeks self-actualization outside of her marriage and dreams of moving to California. When she hits a gangster with her car, Peggy must somehow sense that this is her ticket out of Luverne. Unfortunately Ed, attached to his dream and oblivious that Peggy does not share it, is easily manipulated into doing something very foolish ostensibly to save that dream. Peggy tries to convince Ed to run away with her to California, and when he refuses, she convinces him that the only way to keep the life he wants in Luverne is to cover up the hit-and-run.
There is more influencing Peggy’s treatment of her husband than her own internal thoughts and feelings. She has a devil whispering in her ear: her boss at the salon, Constance Heck (Elizabeth Marvel). Constance has been encouraging Peggy to “self-actualize” and to think of herself and her personal growth independently of her marriage. Given the way Constance eyes Peggy’s body in their first scene together, it is reasonable to conclude that she wants to separate the couple in order to have Peggy for herself. Constance also seems to encourage Peggy her in small transgressions, as when she shows pleasure on discovering that Peggy has stolen rolls of toilet paper from the salon.
Constance’s main influence on the plot is that she pushes Peggy to attend a New Age seminar called Lifespring*, where she clearly intends to seduce Peggy. If California represents escape to Peggy, Lifespring speaks to her desire to fulfill her potential.
When Peggy tells her boss she may not be able to attend the seminar because it is too expensive and her husband is saving up to buy the butcher shop where he works, Constance objects:
Constance: What I’m hearing is you think your husband’s more important than you—his needs.
Peggy: No, I just—We got a plan, you know?
Constance: The word ‘we’ is a castle, hon, with a moat and a drawbridge. And you know what gets locked up in castles? ... Princesses. Don’t be a prisoner of ‘we.’
Constance further encourages Peggy to pursue her desires even at the expense of her marriage: “No man should be able to tell you what to do, not with your body or your money.” (The reference to Peggy’s body, strangely out of place in the context of a financial discussion, may hint at Constance’s sexual intentions, or suggest that she is the one who encouraged Peggy to use birth control, or both.) So Constance is pleased when Peggy decides to spend the money on Lifespring without asking her husband.
Meanwhile, as her life becomes increasingly chaotic, Peggy resolutely avoids confronting reality, repeating rhetoric taken straight from Lifespring, like “life’s a journey” and “things are flowing” (the latter on being forced to flee her home because her husband’s life is in danger!). While being questioned by Sheriff Larsson about the attempt on Ed’s life, Peggy changes the subject to how she wants to “be the best me I can be because these are modern times, you know, and a woman—well, she just doesn’t have to be a wife and a mother no more. She can be—there’s nothing she can’t be.”
But in her final scene in the series, Peggy will contradict herself strongly on this point.
* Lifespring was a real company founded in 1974, described by Wikipedia as being in the “New Age-human potential training” business. More than thirty lawsuits were filed against the company; Lifespring had to pay settlements to people who required psychiatric hospitalization after their training and to relatives of participants who committed suicide.
PART 2: “Two of the same”
There is an instructive parallel to Peggy in Simone Gerhardt (Rachel Keller), college-aged granddaughter of the Gerhardt crime family. Both Peggy and Simone are influenced by feminism, both make irresponsible choices contributing to the destruction of their families, and both try to excuse their bad choices with the words, “I’m the victim here!”
While Peggy’s victimhood is questionable, however, Simone truly is trapped in an abusive and criminal environment. If Peggy’s feminism is the product of more obscure spiritual and psychological factors, Simone’s is a simple reaction to the misogynistic abuse of her father, Dodd Gerhardt (Jeffrey Donovan). And where Peggy’s feminism takes the form of the pursuit of self-actualization independently of her marriage, Simone’s plays at sexual liberation.
“Plays” is the key word. That is, Simone thinks she is liberated, but she is only reacting to her father’s brutal chauvinism. Not only that, but the man she is sleeping with, Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), is a Kansas City operative, using her not even primarily for sexual pleasure but to gain information about the Gerhardts to facilitate his organization’s hostile takeover. Milligan puts no value on Simone’s life whatsoever, and has no qualms about turning from seduction to assault to get what he wants from her. Most interesting is that like Constance with Peggy, he uses the language of women’s liberation in order to exploit Simone the more easily:
Simone: [My father] called me a whore.
Milligan: Well, darling, technically—
Simone: It’s my body. I got every right.
Milligan: Of course you do. We’re in full agreement, you and me. A beautiful body, and you can do what you want with it.
Simone is a classic embodiment of the contradictions of feminism. She claims to hate men, yet tries to act like one, saying things like “Sometimes a girl just wants to bust a nut.” At one point her grandmother, Floyd (Jean Smart), who sometimes protects her from Dodd’s abuse, strikes a nerve by exclaiming in frustration that Simone and her father are cut from the same cloth: “I swear, I thought your father was the problem—his nature, and towards women. But you’re two of the same! You’re porcupines! You’re half crazy, always lookin’ for a fight!” Simone is not at all happy to hear this.
Floyd is one of the more likeable Gerhardts, and if the show offered any hope for feminist viewers, she would be it. Tasked with running the family after her husband suffers a stroke, she exhibits a quiet strength, grace and stoicism that one cannot help but admire. She is all the more attractive by contrast with her eldest son Dodd, who impatiently demands his throne, not content to wait until the Kansas City crisis has been averted. To Dodd, the idea of “a girl” running things is inherently ridiculous.
According to actress Jean Smart, Floyd is a “woman who was liberated without thinking she was liberated.” She obviously loves and respects her husband, and only takes charge of the family out of absolute practical necessity in a crisis, perfectly happy to step down as soon as the crisis is over.
Unlike her son, Floyd cares about more than her own personal power and gratification—though we shouldn’t forget that her responsible attitude is aimed not just at preserving her family but at the vain glory of “empire” and the continued success of a murderous crime organization. Interestingly, she seems to excuse her crimes in terms of motherhood, saying to the police: “Don’t you look at me with those eyes. None of you are mothers.”
Floyd speaks in feminist language only once, when she is trying to give Simone a sense of purpose as part of the family: “You need to take my example. Be a leader. This is our time. No such thing as men’s work, women’s work anymore.” But Floyd’s exhortation to responsibility is not entirely out of concern for Simone’s well-being—she also needs to cement her granddaughter’s evidently waning loyalty to the Gerhardt crime family.
Ultimately, two internal factors in the downfall of the Gerhardt family are Dodd’s refusal to let his mother lead, motivated by chauvinism, and Simone’s “liberated” betrayal of the family, motivated by hatred and terror of her chauvinist father. The tale of the Gerhardts offers a critique of both chauvinism and feminism, while showing the latter to be in some cases a pathological reaction against the former. As Floyd says of Simone and her father, feminism and chauvinism are “two of the same”: two sides of one coin.
PART 3: “Our privilege”
Though the Gerhardts often refer to the importance of family, it is really the Minnesota Lutheran version of la famiglia, the family business, which takes priority. Individual members treat the family as an extension of their personal power. We see virtually no domestic scenes and, with the exception of the matriarch, we never meet any of the men’s wives.
Compare them to the family of our hero, Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson). Like Marge Gunderson in the 1996 film, Lou has to leave normality behind temporarily to face down evil, and then, the job done, returns to his family, the source of his peace and joy. There are many domestic scenes of Lou with his wife, Betsy (Cristin Milioti), their six-year-old daughter Molly (Raven Stewart), and Betsy’s father, Rock County Sheriff Hank Larsson. Each one of these characters finds their value as part of the family, while also having their own attractively idiosyncratic personality and inner life (though they all share a wry sense of humor). The family’s main source of suffering is not dysfunction, but Betsy’s losing battle with cancer.
These are simple folk and northern stoics, not inclined to state their life philosophies aloud, but they are given a chance to explain what drives them in response to someone rather out of place in the show’s milieu: Albert Camus. Camus enters by way of Noreen (Emily Haine), Ed’s young co-worker, who is reading The Myth of Sisyphus. Taking care of bedridden Betsy and little Molly while Lou is away, Noreen remarks, “Camus says knowing we’re gonna die makes life absurd.” Betsy responds:
Well I don’t know who that is, but I’m guessing he doesn’t have a six-year-old girl. …We’re put on this earth to do a job, and each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over, and you stand in front of the Lord, well, you try telling Him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.
Having a child apparently keeps Betsy rooted in the realities of life and immune to stupid philosophies. Taking on her responsibilities, Betsy has a strong sense of self, unlike Peggy Blumquist, who is forever seeking a personality but is actually rather vapid. And of course, she is happier than Peggy despite suffering from cancer.
Lou, on the other hand, embraces an image from Camus, though certainly not in the way the philosopher intended. He gets it fourth-hand from Ed Blumquist, who heard it from Noreen. While being interrogated by Lou halfway through the season, Ed tries to explain himself thus:
I can’t stop thinking about [Noreen’s] book…It’s about this guy who, every day, he—he pushes this rock up this hill. Like a boulder. And then every night, it just rolls back down. But he doesn’t stop. You know, he just—he keeps goin’. And—and he wakes up every day and starts pushin’. By which I-I-I guess I’m—I’m sayin’ it doesn’t matter what they throw at me. I’m gonna take care of what’s mine.
Ed’s determination to protect his wife and potential family is admirable, but the tragedy is that he fails to exercise his authority as well as his strength. Going along with Peggy’s choices, he becomes an accomplice. He is so attached to his dream of family that he will not risk it in order to save it. This costs him everything.
Lou borrows the Sisyphus image and pays tribute to Ed’s (misguided and incomplete) manliness in a monologue in the season finale. As he drives Peggy back to Minnesota in custody, Lou describes an event he witnessed in Vietnam (based on a true story), in which a helicopter pilot saved a baby against astounding odds. He concludes: “Your husband, he said he was gonna protect his family no matter what. And I acted like I didn’t understand, but I do. It’s the rock we all push—men. We call it our burden, but it’s really our privilege.”
For Lou, male “privilege” is essentially a duty to protect those under one’s care, and to serve those who are weaker and more vulnerable—not power to exploit them.
Fargo explicitly contrasts this self-sacrificial responsibility with feminist victimhood by having Peggy give her own speech immediately following Lou’s:
Peggy: I never meant for any of this to happen. …Not to Ed. Not to anybody. I just wanted to be someone. …I wanted to choose, be my own me, not be defined by someone else’s expec— …Cause I’m a victim, too. Was a victim first, before him.
Lou: Victim of what?
Peggy: You wouldn’t understand. You’re a man. It’s a lie, okay—that you can do it all—be a wife and a mother and this self-made career woman, like there’s 37 hours in a day. And then, when you can’t, they say it’s you. You’re faulty…like you’re inferior somehow. And like—like, if you could just get your act together— until you’re half mad with—
Lou: People are dead, Peggy.
Some critics have interpreted Lou’s interruption of Peggy as insensitivity, a failure to listen to a woman’s legitimate grievance. But aside from the fact that Peggy has just gotten her husband and a number of other people killed and this is a singularly inappropriate moment to make this all about her victimhood, Lou is anything but dismissive of women. His daughter Molly (who he will raise largely on his own) will grow up to be an excellent police officer and the strongest character in Fargo’s first season.
Moreover, who was it who told Peggy that she should be both a wife and mother and a “self-made career woman”? Certainly not the patriarchy. Speaking to Sheriff Larsson, Peggy had justified her irresponsible behavior in terms of this precise ideal, but when reaping the miserable consequences, she portrays herself as a victim of those expectations. But all is not lost for Peggy: she still holds out the hope of being allowed to serve out her prison sentence in California.
Season two of Fargo offers a critique of feminism that is unusual, to say the least, in a prestige TV drama. Its themes are brought out further by multiple parallels between characters.
With Peggy Blumquist and Simone Gerhardt, we can see the bad influence of different forms of feminism and how such aberrant ideologies have more room to wreak havoc in those who are more vulnerable. Yet these same women, in one sense victims of feminism (though, of course, Simone is far more a victim of her father), also use it to excuse their own evil behavior. We also see how feminism has been useful to predators (male or otherwise) by observing how Constance Heck and Mike Milligan both use the language of women’s liberation in strikingly similar ways in order to exploit Peggy and Simone sexually.
Finally, in contrast to the Blumquist and Gerhardt families, we have the Solversons. Lou and Betsy model male and female responsibility. Each has a strong sense of self but finds meaning in serving the common good of the family, which, according to Betsy, is a mandate from God Himself.
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