Feminism in Boardwalk Empire

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

In my article I wanted to focus on 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. This American period crime drama projects all of the illegal based activities carried out by gangsters during this era and covers all of the difficulties with family and business life combining the fear of losing lives, the intentions to grow the separate crime based families and the many difficult and confusing love lives. As one can imagine, women are a large theme that runs throughout the show raising concerns towards how the audience can judge how the show has modeled women to be seen as objects that may stir opinions of those who are feminists. Nucky Thompson is the main character of the show that is a corrupt politician played by American actor Steve Buscemi. The audience follow Nucky through the growth of his criminal career in Atlantic city where we see the protagonist character of the show come across many issues such as balancing the life of a politician, a leading member of Atlantic City’s gangster/mafia activity and looking after a family being Margaret Schroeder and her children. Nucky Thompson is the centre to a lot of the bootlegging activity in the city that even spreads to wider parts of the country as the criminals are making the most of the high demand and high price of alcohol due to the introduction of the prohibition era.

As mentioned before, women are a very strong theme in the television series and play very important roles in the running of the series. Women in Boardwalk Empire are seen as quite powerful figures in the show with Margaret Schroeder and Gillian Darmody being examples of these. Despite these women being given main roles in the television series plot, audiences can easily interpret that women are being objectified and unfairly treated by the male gender of the show. There are a lot of mature scenes and sexual references involving the females of the show which directly links to the qualities that a feminist critic would look for as women are often sexualised and only valued for their attractiveness. Evidence of this is the constant referral and use of prostitutes in the show such as Jimmy sleeping with Pearl, a prostitute in an Illinois brothel, whilst he was still with Angela. These concerns run throughout the show as women are often only seen for their physical appearance but the males of the show are responsible for painting the women in this light due to the language, text and actions of the show where perhaps the producers are portraying an unfair image of males of the setting of the show. One particular scene where males clearly disrespect the female population of the time in ways that would anger a feminist critic due to the dialogue used in the show. During a get together at a table with Nucky Thompson and associates a lot of the talking is anti feminism such as the joke “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, She’s already been told twice” ( see online video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poGtVi55RoI) which is clearly an indication towards the views that women are seen as being inferior and weaker than men at this time. These quotes will quite likely discuss the audience of the show due to the change in equalities between men and women in more modern times. Although this quote was said in terms of a joke, the audience still senses some truth in the quotes due to the violence shown towards women in the series as analyzed in the next piece of text.

The women of the show are also shown as seen as a way to get revenge on rival gangsters which the couple of examples involve Jimmy Darmody. This scenes show that the women are again seen as being inferior to men as they are being used to get to the men which shows the injustice which may have been towards women of this time. The first example of this is Pearl which was a prostitute based in Chicago with links to Jimmy who came in-between forcing the links of male violence towards females in this era. Whilst with Pearl, a rival mobster says “you’re friend there jimmy, he’s got good taste.” ( see online video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhL7Ak-qyG0) The mobster then slashes her face just to send a message showing the injustice towards females and another example involves Angela Darmody. Again, in aim to getting revenge on Jimmy Darmody, Philadelphia based butcher and crime boss entered the house looking for Jimmy and ends up killing Angela and her mistress. His final words to her were “The most important thing in life darling, you have. Your husband did this to you” (see online video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwlqC7SNxN0) showing that women are being used to give a message to the males of the show again showing the injustice to the females of the show. These scenes enforce the point that those who follow feminist critics showing that they are seen as being physically weaker than men and again that they are seen as being objects.

One of the main plots of the television series is Margaret Schroeder making advancements to try and gain women the rights to vote. This is where the show takes more of a positive approach towards women in the show as Margaret Schroeder as portrayed as a very intelligent woman especially during her speech in season one episode four. The speech came as a shock to the males in the show due to the fact that they couldn’t believe a woman was speaking with so much knowledge and confidence making Nucky Thompson impressed with how much she knew on the topic. Despite the intelligence shown by Margaret with her knowledge on politics and general running’s, the exact opposite side is shown in the same episode in the same scene as mentioned before. The below is the dialogue from the scene when Lucy Danziger was asked about the league of nations she replied:
Lucy – “The what?”
Nucky – “The league of nations, it was a big meeting in Paris three years ago”
Lucy – “Well I don’t know about that league thing but Paris sure sounds swell. Want to take me daddy?”
Whilst these conversations were going on, Nucky Thompson had an embarrassed look about him which could resemble that Nucky was impressed with Margaret Schroeder’s intelligence possibly signalling the want for more equality between men and women in a relationship. This can also be conceived by the audience that the woman is playing with the men of the scene to appear dumb in order to gain control using her gender to her advantage. However those who are more sceptical to the balance between men and women in the show will not be too happy with the way the show has portrayed women’s intelligence in this scene. Lucy Danziger also has another example of where a critical audience may be unsettled by some of the contents of the show. When Lucy becomes pregnant with Van Alden’s child, he locks her up in an apartment to which she responds “this is a jail” (Season 2 Episode 4, A Dangerous Maid.) These scenes go on for a number of episodes where Van Alden keeps Lucy in the apartment and isn’t allowing her any freedom to go out and even denying her talking to anyone. This would concern those who are judging the TV show in the eyes of a feminist critic as the female in question is being kept against her will and is shown as being domesticated and again seen as being inferior to men where the man in this situation clearly has all of the control.

This television series has many examples of how women of the shows era may have been unfairly treated mainly through objectifying and sexualising the females of the show. These qualities of the show may be exaggerated such as some of the violent scenes however the show portrays an unbalanced relationship between men and women of these times where men are seen as the more powerful and the ones who hold the most control. This may be an unfair analysis to make from this show due to the types of men being focused on and the dramas of gangsters and criminals lives. The Margaret Schroeder story is more of an example of the balance between men and women in a relationship and perhaps an indication to the advancement of women being seen as more of an equal in a relationship showing more of a reflection to how the balance in relationships are in current day.



Boardwalk Empire Season one Episode four ‘Anastasia’ written by Lawrence Konner and Margaret Nagle air time October 10, 2010
Boardwalk Empire Season two Episode four ‘A Dangerous Maid’ Written by Susanna White air date October 9, 2011