Updated: Jan 22, 2021
'Little Fires Everywhere’, the groundbreaking Hulu 2020 mini-series is centred around race and racial issues.
Set in the 1990s in Shaker Heights, in a wealthy American suburb in Ohio, the series charts the relationship between the white Richardson family, led by wealthy, perfectionistic matriarch Elena and their new tenants. A bohemian black single mother named Mia and her daughter Pearl.
Image Credit: Laughing Place
The series has been appreciated by fans as a damning commentary on the insulating realities of white privilege and the problematic aspects of discourses of ‘choice’ when it comes to the Black experience.
The original book still contains racially charged subject matter, but actually has little to do with this specific configuration of race.
Mia’s plotline plays harmoniously aside Chinese immigrant Bebe’s plotline, where she struggles to reunite with her lost daughter May Ling who has been adopted by a white American family. This drives the thematic crux of the story.
But, In the original 2017 novel by Celeste NG, Mia and Pearl’s race is unspecified. And in an interview with Vulture Celeste, who is Asian-American, said she pictured Mia as a working-class white woman.
Meaning while the narrative still centres on the clash between both mothers and families, the racial commentary on black and white American relations which defines the Hulu series is starkly absent.
So, naturally, we as audiences are driven to ask the question- why make such a fundamental change to the story? To ‘generate conflict’ isn’t a sufficient explanation, considering the source material is jam-packed with clashes and questions of race, class and motherhood.
Naturally, it can be argued this racial commentary is an inevitable product of the decision to cast Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood as Mia and Pearl. However, the performances, writing and subtext of the show go far beyond just accounting for newfound racial differences- they render ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a show about race itself.
Considering this, there is another explanation for why director ‘Lynn Shelton’ greenlit such a fundamental change to the story. It created an opportunity to retell a story that has been a part of the Western cultural imagination since ideologies of race began.
Through using the stereotypical community of American suburbia, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ challenges the threat of racial undertones, caused by the ‘White Americans’ in the story.
The setting of ‘American Suburbs’ and how it was problematic for racial harmony.
Image Credit: Medium
The American suburb, like Shaker Heights, used to be viewed as the homeland of ‘Wholesome American Values’, happy nuclear families and white picket fences. The suburban nation emerged in America in the 1950s and 1960s out of ‘White Flight’.
‘White Flight’ describes the social phenomenon of large scale white migration from areas becoming more ethnically diverse, to white homogenous areas.
This has led to a fear of ethnic minorities ‘invading’ the white suburb which continues to hold influence in contemporary US politics. Of course, we all remember when former US President Donald Trump tweeted that the “Suburban housewife” should vote for him to stop “low-income housing”, a political ‘dog whistle’ for racialised others, from “invading their neighbourhood”.
White ‘saviourship’ and its connection to white supremacy.
In ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ this is communicated through Elena’s evolving white gaze of Mia’s black maternal body, which transforms from an object of domestic desirability into a threat which has “infiltrated” the Richardsons neighbourhood, lives and psyches.
The series begins on a note of white saviourship, where Elena allows Mia to rent from her despite her lacking the ability to pay on the terms of the agreed-upon plan.
Despite not knowing Mia, Elena imagines her as the archetypal ‘Suffering Other’ a helpless, homeless, former-felon, black single mother she can uplift and rescue. This fantasy mirrors that of the white imperialist gaze, which situated the violent crusades of colonialism and slavery as a moral endeavour to ‘civilise’ and ‘save’ the ‘other’ from their criminality.
This white saviourship continues when Elena offers Mia the ‘opportunity’ to work as her “house manager” aka her maid. There are moments when Elena treats Mia as the domestic, desexualised ‘Mammy’, treating her as if her only function is to be a maternal ‘surrogate’ for the White American family.
Elena’s daughter Izzy who had suffered at the hands of Elena’s policing of her sexuality references her help of Mia as evidence of her “compassionate nature” during the climax scene of their emotionally estranged mother-daughter relationship.
Here Mia, also acts as a trigger for the story to navigate Elena’s internalized insecurities and fears. Such as being forced to face problems in her marriage and change her view from ignorant to realistic.
Further exploitation of the ‘Black experience’ by the white suburbans in the story is reflected in the friendship between Elena and Mia’s daughters Lexi and Pearl. Lexi appropriates Pearl’s experience of racial discrimination within the education system, and turns it into a fake feminist narrative of her overcoming sexism to ‘spice’ up Harvard application.
We see this consumption of blackness as ‘spice’ today in the phenomena of cultural appropriation and online ‘blackfishing’. Where the aesthetics of blackness and/ or ‘racial ambiguity’ is fetishized and appropriated for its ‘exoticness’ overwhelmingly by white women who do not have to experience the racial oppression and double standards inculcated within such aesthetics.
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When Mia challenges Elena’s white privilege and authority, primarily through fighting in court for Bebe Chow’s right to keep her baby, she transforms in Elena’s gaze from the ‘Suffering Other’ into a monstrous figure. Someone described by Elena as barely a mother or woman at all, framed as infiltrating and staining her picture-perfect Shaker Heights neighbourhood, through this she has initially dehumanised Mia into nothing more than an aggressive threat as Mia’s presence has resulted in Elena having to step out of her bubble of ignorance towards real life issues..
To gain her husband’s support in her crusade against Mia, Elena takes advantage of myths of white feminine fragility to frame herself as Mia’s victim. Demonstrating how white women participate in white supremacy by manipulating narratives of their victimisation by racialized others.
In my own experience here in the UK, I have seen this myth play out in the media debates surrounding refugee intake, with tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail urging readers not to be ‘naive’ and get ‘taken advantage of’ by incoming refugees. Here, this myth serves to preserve Elena’s fragile sense of self, bolstering her victim complex and sense of moral righteousness whilst avoiding the question of her own responsibility in the conflict and chaos that has unfolded.
A responsibility which, is only acknowledged in the final episode, where Elena takes responsibility for the house fire her children started. Yes, she did not literally start the fire, but there’s no doubt her choices were the spark.
Her obsession of hunting for ways to ‘bring down’ Mia and her abusive, unforgiving expectation her children constantly perform a 1950’s rendition of white suburban perfection was inevitably going to backfire in rebellion. And it backfires spectacularly when Izzy, Elena’s rebellious, free-thinking teenage lesbian daughter and biggest disappointment in life reacts against her endless abuse, scrutiny and control- by starting the fire.
Which is why the final cataclysmic image of the series- the Richardsons family home ablaze- is such an ironic one. This is a visual metaphor that suggests the epistemological destruction of the white family, the bedrock of the white nation-state- a fire which according to racist discourses Mia should’ve started.
But in fact, Elena- the greatest defender of this symbol- forced her world to turn on it, as it was her children’s demands for freedom that ultimately ended in its destruction.
Considering this, the most fitting way to characterise the concluding message of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is not as a message, but as a warning- that the acceptance of racialized others into the white nation-state, symbolised here by American Suburbia, remains conditional on them upholding white supremacy. And the only way to embrace true freedom for all races is to dismantle these hierarchical forms of existence and rebuild a home that truly accommodates and accepts everyone.
By changing Mia’s race, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ doesn't just tell a story about one black women’s precarious acceptance into and eventual rejection from white wealthy suburbia. It tells a story about the production of race itself, the construction of Western nationhood through whiteness and most importantly, how women of colour are the greatest threats to this system.
By Rachael Brown