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Women deserve better than Netflix’s faux-feminist Godless

Though hailed as a feminist western epic, only 27 per cent of the lines in the first episode are spoken by women

As two men on horseback drift into the town of La Belle, one asks, “Where are all the men at?” This ironic question about a lack of men, as discussed by men, sets the tone for Godless, Netflix’s new show. The braggadocios trailer highlights a town in 1800s New Mexico populated solely by women, offering a modern spin on the classic western-style show. The trailer is brimming with powerful moments from the women of La Belle, like when Mary Agnes (played by Merritt Wever) jeers, “Mister, we’re a lot fuckin’ stronger than you think we are,” or when Wever and Michelle Dockery savagely gun down men on horseback. The poster for the series echoes the same sentiment, with a brawny Dockery aiming her gun at a herd of cowboys, juxtaposed with the show’s slogan: “Welcome to No Man’s Land.” Every Godless advertisement and trailer promised a feminist western with a deadly cast of women, set in a town without men. This isn’t that story.

Godless was written by Scott Frank, the latest man to profit off feminism and the stories of women. What Frank and his promotional materials fail to disclose is the actual plot of the show, which is a blood feud between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). Yes, this western about women is actually led by two men, and the female characters are repeatedly shafted. Though Dockery is second billed, her character is a mere pawn in Goode and Griffin’s story. In fact, all of the women are defined by their relationships to male characters. The show is filled with unnecessary rapes, voyeuristic violence against women, and frivolous female nudity.

To temporarily dock the chauvinism of Godless, the tagline of the show isn’t even sincere. The official description on IMDB boasts that La Belle is “mysteriously made up entirely of women.” There’s nothing “mysterious” about it – it’s not like a group of early 1800s feminists staged a coup and colonised elsewhere. The only reason the town is (supposedly) devoid of testosterone is because 200 men died in a mining accident two years earlier.

Also, La Belle is not populated solely by women. The sheriff is male, his associate Whitey is male, and there’s one male survivor of the mining incident. Throughout the show, groups of men flock to La Belle seeking business opportunities, and Frank Griffin rides into town with 30 men to find Roy Goode, who took up shelter in La Belle at one point. So, even if I wanted to believe that La Belle was a town without men, it’s just fucking not. These male producers literally used feminism for clicks and views.

To add insult to injury, Godless isn’t even set in La Belle, but rather the town is sprinkled in whenever it benefits the male characters’ storylines. In a show that suggested the town was a character of its own, La Belle is by no means the main feat. And yet, here’s a promo shot from Netflix:

It’s absurd to use this image as clickbait when women aren’t empowered or featured in the show – Godless barely passes The Bechdel Test. Every single female character exists in relation to a man. Dockery’s character, Alice Fletcher, is double widowed with a newfound attraction to Roy Goode. Every secondary or tertiary character – because almost none of the women are protagonists – are either talking about men, mourning men, or talking to men in their woman-only town. Even Mary Agnes, the resident truculent butch of La Belle – and the only woman who believes she’s better off without her husband – is introduced as the sheriff’s sister.

A Twitter user combed through the first episode and counted how many lines were actually spoken by men as opposed to women. They found that 73 per cent of the lines spoken were by men, and 27 per cent were by women. But the deceptive trailer tells a completely different story. In the trailer, a man seeking business in La Belle asks a table full of women, “How has the town fared without any men around?” He’s met by a response from Mary Agnes, who asserts, “Someone’s gotta look after things around here,” insinuating that the women of La Belle get on just fine without men.

“Just because there are women shooting guns it doesn’t make it feminist. It’s insulting”

But in the actual show, that scene plays out in the complete opposite way. When he asks, Mary Agnes says, “We’ve done alright,” but is corrected by Charlotte Temple, who condescends, “Well, it’s been difficult. It’s been quite difficult. As you can imagine, a town full of ladies is ripe fruit for the wicked.” Charlotte laments about how often people try to take advantage of them – and we watch that belief play out over and over. So, not only are the female characters defined by their relationships to men, but they’re consistently disrespected, belittled, propositioned, or patronised by men, too.

Yet, Godless is hailed as a feminist western. The Hollywood Reporter published an interview with Jeff Daniels titled, “Jeff Daniels on his Outlaw Turn in Netflix’s Feminist Western Godless”. Jeff Daniels plays a lead in this show – a feminist western – yet somehow gets to reap the benefits of starring in a ‘feminist’ Netflix show. As all women know to be true, the only thing that makes a feminist story interesting is… men!

A review called Godless “The Western Women Have Been Waiting For,” except, no it’s fucking not. The show is brimming with violent misogyny and rape. Trigger warning: A nameless, faceless woman gets gang raped in the first 50 minutes of the series. In a flashback, Alice Fletcher is violently assaulted, cut, and – once again – gang raped by a tribe of men. In one episode, Frank Griffin wakes up next to a naked woman who is sobbing and paralyzed by fear, and we assume she’s been raped before. All together, there are three rapes, which offer zero background or development to the story. The sexual violence doesn’t stop there: At one point, we see a man strip and repeatedly strike his daughter’s bare buttocks, which doesn’t drive or aid those characters’ arcs.

Then there’s the gratuitous female nudity. In one scene, a fully naked woman arbitrarily rides by on a horse, and other women chalk it up to her going crazy. We don’t even know who the woman is, and there’s literally no reason why we needed to see her at all. We also see Michelle Dockery’s breasts while she’s being raped, and we see Frank Griffin’s victim’s full frontal while she’s screaming, trying to escape. If that sounds graphic, it is. This show is overflowing with chauvinistic norms. If it were really a ‘feminist’ show, none of that would’ve happened. Just because there are women shooting guns doesn’t make it feminist. It’s insulting.

Godless should’ve taken a hint from Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, as they share common ground. Diana Prince hails from a land that’s actually occupied only by women, Themyscira. The Amazons are powerful leaders with zero connections to men – they exist proudly as their own entities. Outside of Mary Agnes, the women of La Belle don’t want to be independent. They often seek approval and sexual attention from men, who call them ‘naïve’, or belittle their professions by reducing them to ‘fine’. Don’t give me that “it’s a reflection of the way things were” crap. Wonder Woman was set during World War I – before women could vote – and Steve Trevor never treated diminished Diana.

“What justice are we doing the feminist movement if we can’t let women tell their own stories?”

Godless and Wonder Woman also share the use of the phrase ‘No Man’s Land’. In Wonder Woman, No Man’s Land is the pivotal scene when Diana crosses a battlefield that Trevor notes, “no man can cross it”. The unspoken pun, of course, is that Diana is no man. Wonder Woman celebrates the rare absence of men, while Godless grieves it.

The women of Godless are not the heroes like they are in Wonder Woman. Even at their most powerful moments, they look to men to save them. When Alice is raped, she’s saved by the sheriff. La Belle need outside male investors to save their mining business. Alice asks Roy to help at the ranch because she can’t break her horses. Frank stumbles upon a disease-ridden house and a woman who’s failing to save them, then sticks around to help mend them and bury the dead. Every time, women are portrayed as helpless.

At the end, when Frank Griffin’s 30 men come storming through town, looking to kill Roy Goode and the women of La Belle, the show promises an epic battle of the sexes. Mary Agnes arms every woman in town, strategically placing them in windows and rooftops, and when Griffin’s men gallop in, they pick them off in a cathartic girl power-scene. However, they almost lose the fight, until Roy Goode and Sheriff McNue return to finish what they started. How can a show be lauded as a ‘feminist western’ when the only heroes are men?

Scott Frank wrote and directed the show, with Steven Soderbergh serving as executive producer. There’s only one female producer. I’m not saying ‘stay in your corner’, and I’m not saying men can’t write stories about women. But what justice are we doing the feminist movement if we can’t let women tell their own stories? The Billie Jean King biopic, Battle of the Sexes, was written by a man. I, Tonya, the upcoming film about Tonya Harding, was written by a man. Even Wonder Woman, in all its glory, was written by men. When we look back on our most cherished, badass female protagonists, like Buffy, The Bride in Kill Bill, or Ripley from Alien—they’re written by men. We need to give women more opportunities to write strong female protagonists, and we need to give those characters a fair shake.

2017 was a traumatic year for women. In a time when we’re finally confronting sexual harassment and sexual violence head on, I can’t believe a show like Godless gets to be brandished as your new favourite ‘feminist’ show. Women deserve better than Godless.