Feminism in Boardwalk Empire Research Log

Research Log

For my article i wanted to look at how women are shown in the HBO hit series Boardwalk Empire as it is set at a time when women were perhaps not portrayed as equal as men were. I wanted to look at how the examples i find of feminism in this TV show can link to the power balance between men and women in a relationship we see today and how to relationship between men and women in this era may be exaggerated so i will be analysing the show through the eyes of a feminist. Below is the title i came up with for the article i am to write which clearly suggests the topics i will be looking at.

“What does the portrayal of women in Boardwalk Empire say about the power balance between men and women in a relationship”

Boardwalk Empire

America in 1920: The Great War was over, Wall Street was about to boom and everything was for sale, even the World Series.

It was a time of change when women got the vote, broadcast radio began and young people ruled the world. From Terence Winter, Emmy Award-winning writer of The Sopranos and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol became illegal throughout the United States.

On the beach in southern New Jersey sat Atlantic City, a spectacular resort known as The Worlds Playground, a place where the rules didnt apply. Massive hotels lined its famous Boardwalk, which featured nightclubs, amusement piers and entertainment that rivalled Broadway. For a few dollars, a working man could get away and live like a king legally or illegally.

The undisputed ruler of Atlantic City was the towns treasurer, Enoch Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a political fixer and backroom dealer who was equal parts politician and gangster and equally comfortable in either role. Because of its strategic location on the seaboard, the town was a hub of activity for rum-runners, minutes from Philadelphia, hours from New York City and less than a days drive from Chicago. And Nucky Thompson took full advantage.

Along with his brother Elias (Shea Whigham), the towns sheriff, and a crew of ward bosses and local thugs, Nucky carved out a niche for himself as the man to see for any illegal alcohol. He was an equal-opportunity gangster, doing business with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham).

As Boardwalk Empire begins, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Nuckys former protg and driver, returns home from the Great War, eager to get ahead and reclaim his rightful place in Nuckys organization. But when Jimmy feels things arent moving quickly enough, he takes matters into his own hands, forming a deadly alliance with associates of Nuckys that sets the Feds, led by Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), on his mentors tail. Complicating matters further is Nuckys burgeoning relationship with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) a woman in an abusive marriage whom he tries to help.

Season Two begins in January 1921, and sees Nucky’s rule of Atlantic City come under threat as a group of disgruntled former allies plot a coup to remove him from power.  This betrayal brings havoc to Atlantic City as deals are made with notorious criminals and much blood is shed as the balance of power is upset.

A relative calm is restored to the boardwalk in Season Three, as many of our heroes are forced to deal with the bloody aftermath of the attempt to oust Nucky as Governor. A new crime boss, Gyp Rosetti arrives on the scene and causes problems for Nucky’s business affairs and Eli struggles to cope with his new role in the political world of Atlantic City.  

The Feminism and Anti-Racism of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ 

Boardwalk Empire returned for its fourth season on Sunday, Sept. 8. This season is poised to continue important representation of struggles involving gender and race in the award-winning show, which is aesthetically gorgeous and well-written.The few, but incredibly important, female characters on Boardwalk Empire arefascinatingI wrote last year about the remarkable story lines in season 3 that focused on birth control and reproductive rights. Boardwalk Empire has alwayskept a keen eye on women’s issues–from suffrage to health care.

Season 4 is set up to be more of the same–long-form debauchery and violence with moments of poignant sub-plots featuring the female characters. Gillian is slipping deeper into a heroin addiction, and is selling herself instead of selling her house. Cora escapes a violent bedroom scene (which we will revisit in a moment). A young actress attempts to take Billie’s place in Nucky’s life for her own gain, but he rejects her. Richard has traveled to reunite with his twin sister, Emma, on her farm.

As often is the case in these seemingly masculine dramas, women are essential to the plot, even if they often aren’t the focus of most reviewers, or even the bulk of the action. Nucky is king, Al Capone is pulling strings, and Chalky is set to be a power player.

Drink, talk, shoot, repeat.

But those moments that the women of Boardwalk Empire are on screen are among the best of each episode. Their parts are small. Their scenes are brief. But each is meaningful and powerful. The women characters are complex–evil, moral, conflicted, good mothers, bad mothers, addicts and everything in between. They are three-dimensional. This is a good thing.

The female-centric subplots in Boardwalk Empire are treasures buried in a pile of empty whiskey bottles. Most reviewers, however, focus on the men. Hollywood Life only mentions the male characters (except for the mention of Nucky getting smarter about women). The Huffington Post mentions Gillian briefly and Cora (but not by her name). Rolling Stone does do a better job of fully describing and summarizing the episode.

The fact that critics often ignore or reduce women characters isn’t surprising, although it’s always frustrating. What’s horrifying, however, are a few critics’ responses to the aforementioned violent sex scene.

Just like Boardwalk Empire has woven in subplots of women’s struggles, it has also presented the endemic racial tension in Nucky’s world in a way that makes viewers uncomfortable (especially since our culture is still so steeped in racism). Not everyone seems to get this, though.

From left, Dickey, Cora, Dunn and Chalky.

At Chalky’s new club, he sits watching the new talent with his right-hand man, Dunn, and a white talent agent, Dickey, and his girlfriend, Cora. Cora sketches an erotic drawing of her and Dunn, and asks him to come upstairs. The two start having sex, and Dickey makes himself known in the room as he draws a gun against Dunn. Dunn scrambles to put on his pants, and Cora immediately says he had forced her. This is all a game, though, for Dickey and Cora. Dickey forces Dunn to resume having sex with Cora, and all the while Dickey is throwing racial epithets, heavily peppering his slurs with the N-word and claims about how black men behave.

Dickey starts masturbating. “It’s all just some fun,” Cora says with a smile.

Then Dickey says, “There’s no changing you people.” With this, Dunn breaks a bottle over Dickey’s head and proceeds to stab him repeatedly and viciously. We are surprisingly comfortable with this outcome of the scene, because Dunn’s humiliation and objectification is so visceral, as is the racism. This scene is indicative of not only the racism and degradation of black Americans at the time (echoed by Nucky’s almost-mistress who says the Onyx Girls are “deliciously primitive”), but also the demand that they perform as objects for whites’ entertainment and sexual purposes, without agency. The power that Dickey wields over Dunn–his whiteness, his gun, his hand down his pants–is nauseating and historically accurate. This scene is about racism. This scene is about power, humiliation and resistance when one is caught up against a wall of disgusting degradation.

However, the aforementioned reviewers had a different reading of this scene.

From Hollywood Life:

“…Chalky finds out that being the boss requires a lot of cleanup. Like when after his sidekick Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), in the most awkwardly violent scene of the episode, murders a booking agent after the guy catches him sleeping with his wife — and then forces Dunn to continue while he watches. Boardwalk Empire, ladies and gentlemen!”

Certainly a brief show recap isn’t always the place for heavy cultural analysis, but to brush off the scene with such flippant commentary? Privilege, ladies and gentlemen!
Not to be topped, the Huffington Post saw Dunn’s actions as self-defense:

“So Dunn did what he had to do, smashing the guy’s head with a liquor bottle to get himself out of danger. And then he went the extra murderous mile, repeatedly stabbing the guy in the throat with the broken bottle, because it’s Boardwalk Empire.”

Are you kidding me? Dunn murdering Dickey had nothing to do with him being in danger. It had everything to do with him being degraded and humiliated.

Rolling Stone acknowledges Dunn’s true motivations, but still misses the mark:

“He may have moved up the ranks from jail antagonist to kitchen worker to Chalky’s right-hand man, but Dunn doesn’t know shit about doing business, especially with white folks in 1924. I can’t blame him for pounding a broken bottle into Dickey’s face repeatedly – not only was he forced to have sex with Cora at gunpoint, but Dickey degraded him even further with regular use of the n-word and vicious taunts like, ‘There’s no changing you people.’ Except Chalky knows that you can’t go around killing Cotton Club employees (Cora manages to escape) just for ’15 minutes’ worth of jelly.’”

Yes, perhaps Chalky knows how to do business with white folks, but his “jelly” comment is inaccurate–that’s not what Dunn killed for. Except for killing Dickey (which even this reviewer acknowledges a motivation for), Dunn didn’t really do anything wrong.

And perhaps most egregious, buried in an approximately 2.5-million-word recap from New Jersey:

“‘It’s all just some fun,’ the wife assures. Not to Purnsley who, after they begin the humiliating deed, blasts a whiskey bottle clear across Dickie’s face. It’s doesn’t just stop there, however, the beating continues until the booking agent is dead and his wife, in horror, escapes through the window, naked. Purnsley stands there a bloody mess.”

There are some pretty pertinent details missing here. In this review, Dunn seems to be painted as a savage villain, lashing out for no clear reason. That’s not what happens.

Reviewers saw Dunn acting in self-defense (which further reduces his perceived power), not understanding how to do business with white people (blaming his sexuality and ignorance), or lashing out in savage violence without clear motivation.

Reviewers ignore the implications of racism.

Reviewers sideline female characters.

Reviewers do this because too frequently, the lens they are looking through is of the white male experience. This is privilege.

Even when the artifact itself deals with gender and race in a way designed to challenge viewers, reviewers often overlook it. I was uncomfortable, horrified and excited during the premier of Boardwalk Empire this season. I continue to see complex female characters and pointed commentary on racism.

Sally, Margaret and Gillian.

I’m disappointed, then (and even horrified), when critics ignore these aspects, or get them terribly wrong. Their recaps and analyses help shape the conversations surrounding these shows, and if they just focus on those smoke-filled rooms and the power brokers, without fully paying attention to the other characters, they are insulting women, people of color and those who work so hard to write about and represent them.

However, if we can look past the critics, there is much to be excited for in season 4. Still to come this season, Patricia Arquette will play a speakeasy owner andJeffrey Wright will play a Harlem gangster who is seeped in the politics of the Harlem Renaissance. These moments that have made Boardwalk Empireexceptional–the moments of clear gender and racial historical context and commentary–are poised to take center stage in season 4. Hopefully we can all look through the clouds of white male smoke to see what lies ahead.


Boardwalk Empire’s Lady Problem


So, last night’s Boardwalk Empire was pretty great! Seven episodes in and the show is blossoming, the story developing, the characters becoming more nuanced, more interesting. This week we learned about Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi) not-so-great childhood, Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) continued to map the limits of her special relationship, Jimmy (Michael Pitt) took further steps toward becoming a full, frightening bad guy, and we were introduced to a psychologically rich, heartbreaking character who had half of his face blown off during the war. It’s in the context of this — the series’ now established ability to create compelling characters with deep psyches — that we have to call bullshit on one of the show’s now established tendencies: to use the female characters not named Margaret Schroeder as little more than purveyors of the tits, ass, and, in last night’s episode, hot lesbian action HBO feels contractually obligated to provide its viewing audience.

Last night, it was revealed that Angela (Aleksa Palladino), Jimmy’s baby mama, is having sex with a woman. Previously, it had been intimated that she was having sex with said woman’s husband, but nope! Angela is actually in the throes of a Sapphic affair, rendered in golden light, with half-opened robes and much protracted nudity. We’d be more optimistic about this as an interesting character development if, up until now, the character had been interesting. Prior to this, Angela’s been accorded little solo screen time. Mostly, we know that she’s unsettled by Jimmy’s postwar personality but is willing to go down on him anyway, and that she’s not really keen to abandon her toddler son to be raised by his stripper grandma.

Sure, Boardwalk is taking place in a different time, when women were more likely to be thought of as sex object or mothers than equals — but so does Mad Men, and even Betty Draper’s a model of the well-rounded character compared to these chicks. Furthermore, Boardwalk is taking place as women are about to get the right to vote, a historical moment the show has written about. Yet, somehow, this looming event only affects the life of Margaret Schroeder, the show’s one well-developed female character. The other three women are stuck without the vote, just naked plot devices.

This leaves Jimmy’s mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who has flitted in and out of this season, trailing suggestive relationships with both her son and Nucky behind her. Mostly, however, she has appeared servicing Lucky Luciano and his formerly malfunctioning penis. Despite services rendered, he still calls her a “slash” in public. Gillian, like Angela and Lucy, is another underdeveloped character with an overdeveloped sex life.

Sure, Boardwalk is taking place in a different time, when women were more likely to be thought of as sex object or mothers than equals — but so does Mad Men, and even Betty Draper’s a model of the well-rounded character compared to these chicks. Furthermore, Boardwalk is taking place as women are about to get the right to vote, a historical moment the show has written about. Yet, somehow, this looming event only affects the life of Margaret Schroeder, the show’s one well-developed female character. The other three women are stuck without the vote, just naked plot devices.

In the first episode of the series, Nucky and his crew arrive at a working funeral home to inspect the distillery hidden underneath. A mortician is readying a body for burial: It’s a completely naked woman, with autopsy scars and a bouffant of pubic hair. Creepy goofball Mickey Doyle, who has since proven to be a distasteful, sneering moron of the highest order, leeringly points her out. Nucky and Jimmy, our heroes and protagonists, are unimpressed, too mature and worldly to get cheap thrills off a naked body. Maybe in the second half of its first season, Boardwalk Empire will remember to follow their lead.


Boardwalk Manpire

Warning: This post is filled with spoiler alerts for Boardwalk Empire. I tried to avoid them but it was impossible.

Boardwalk Empire is an HBO series based on the bootleggers during the prohibition in Atlantic City. It is written, produced, and often directed by The Sopranos producer/writer Terence Winter, stars ex-Sopranos actor Steve Buscemi, and is produced by Martin Scorsese. When these three men join forces to create a gangster series two things are guaranteed: the show will be brilliant and visually stunning and that the audience will not have to search hard to find sexist tendencies upheld. When I first began this blog I simply started writing all the sexist stereotypes I saw, but considering that this show has already logged 30+ hours of screen time the list became quite exhaustive. Through further analysis I have noticed that the ever apparent sexism can be simplified down to typical Freudian ideals exemplified by the fulfillment of the Oedipus complex, the Victorian virgin-whore dichotomy, as well as a strong case of penis-envy.


In Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique she points out how Freud supports the classical Victorian view of women(1) and Harry Bensoff’s paper(2) points out that the Victorian view of women includes the virgin-whore complex which is easily noticed in Boardwalk Empire. Perhaps the easiest character to fit into a stereotype is Lucy, as the quintessential whore. Buscemi’s character, Nucky Thompson runs the whole city politically and financially as a Republican political boss. To begin the series, Lucy is Nucky’s girlfriend . She is constantly the most provocatively dressed woman on the show (see above image), she is sexually agressive, and has no other role than to solidify Nucky’s role of masculine power by being a concrete sign of his own sexual endeavors. Nucky only introduces her at private parties and never during his public events. If Lucy ever attempts to speak to Nucky about anything substantial he deflects the conversation or ignores her altogether. Nucky leaves Lucy altogether when she takes her sexuality too far and scratches his chest. After Nucky, Lucy sleeps with a prohibition agent Nelson and becomes pregnant. Her pregnancy with Nelson does not reveal anything about her character (except that she is depressed when she cannot be drinking and sleeping around) but the interaction exists purely to develop the character of Nelson as Lucy’s pregnancy marks the beginning of a dramatic character shift. While one could argue that Lucy’s character is representative of a more sexist 1920’s, the fact that her only role in regards to character development and plot progression is to make for more dynamic male characters shows that the present day filmmakers are upholding sexist tendencies. In simpler terms, Lucy could portray the 1920 whore while still playing an important role in the show, but she doesn’t.


Margaret Schroeder is the main female role in the show and really the only female character that is arguably transgressive. She is introduced as the Irish Catholic, housewife, Victorian “virgin” stereotype. She is married to an abusive alcoholic husband, dresses in very modest clothing (see above image), and has no visual sexual life whatsoever. Her husband is killed and she is taken in by Nucky. As her relationship with Nucky grows she gains a personal voice and power in the plot. She becomes overridden with guilt as she becomes involved with such an immoral man. Her guilt is first exposed in this scene with her priest:

She expands her virgin stereotype to become a religious zealot and lowers her own standards to those of the greedy bootleggers that surround her. This leads her to become distant if not disliked by many of her formal friends. This show celebrates men who disregard morals to support their alcohol sales/rise to political power but as soon a women takes part in semi-ganster activities to support her church and other benevolent causes (such as a prenatal center in the hospital) she is ostracized by both her fellow characters and the audience.

Outside of the Lucy-Margaret, virgin-whore complex Freudian sexism comes to light in the form of the Oedipus complex played out by Nucky’s right hand man Jimmy. The Oedipus complex can be summed up by saying every child has the inner desire to kill their father and sleep with their mother. Jimmy doesn’t fulfill the Oedipus complex is some metaphorical way; he LITERALLY kills his father and sleeps with his mother. While Freud presents this complex as applicable to both sexes, it really is male centered. The character of Oedipus was a male and the entire theory rests on the age old father-son competition. A main opponent of Freud was Carl Jung and he recognized the fact that the Oedipus complex was too male centered so he developed the Electra complex, which is the female counterpart of the Oedipus complex (3). So Jimmy fulfills the perfect Freudian man as he adheres to his unconscious desires. Although this didn’t prove to be helpful to Jimmy’s character the exploration of the Oedipus complex shows how Boardwalk Empire is entirely male-centered.

Another way the Oedipus complex can be seen as sexist is by looking at Freud’s proposed mechanism for coping with our unconscious desires; men develop castration anxiety and women develop penis envy. It does not take a psychology expert to understand how that phallic centered viewpoint does not bode well for feminine expression. There is a case of penis envy in the show as well by the female character Gillian. It is first introduced in this clip:

It is then supported (more metaphorically) throughout the season as Gillian constantly battles for the power that the men have over the city. She is sexually expressive as a female but she still desperately craves the authority that comes with being a man in this era.

It is very difficult to understand feminine role in Boardwalk empire because it is a modern day show set in a more sexist society and it falls into the gangster genre which is historically male dominated. It is up to every viewer to decide how much of this sexism is by design and how much comes through subconsciously from the filmmakers. I believe that through the scope of Freudian psychology it can be understood that the show is entirely male centered and the opportunities for women to grow into favorable, powerful roles are shut down by the filmmakers just as quickly as the women would be shut down in the 1920s. And by doing research into the full cast it can be seen that 2/20 credited producers, 0/4 cinematographers, 0/4 art and production designers, and 2/9 writers are women(4) it is tough to argue that the filmmakers are paying particular attention to the role of women.

-Max Jacobs