The Undoing: A Story of Power, Privilege and Violence
The Undoing! Like many, I was fairly obsessed with this Television mini-series. The glossy crime thriller was bursting with big names from Hollywood, including Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.
Grace Fraser (played by Kidman) is the protagonist in the story, she is a clinical psychologist with a successful private practice, and she lives with her husband and young son, in New York City. The husband, known as Dr Jonathon Fraser, played by no other than Mr Grant, is equally successful in his profession. He is a hard-working paediatrician specialising in child cancers, a real do good-er and perceived as having such a good sense of humour by their supposedly hollow social circle. This latter point becomes evident when Grace shares with her husband an underlying loneliness she experiences in shiny Manhattan, when she says, “When you think about it, we don't have a lot of close friends.”
The couple’s circle includes other parents from their son’s private school, and like any good WASP’s, the Fraser’s take their parental duty seriously by engaging and participating in school fundraisers, events, and various mommy meetings, which seem only inclusive of other “WASP moms”. In comes Elena Alves (played by Matilda De Angelis), a young Hispanic woman, uber-sexy and unafraid of showing it through provocative statements and what initially appears as a sexual obsession with Grace. Elena is a mother to a little baby girl, and a son who is a scholarship student at the prestigious and overly expensive private school they are all connected through. She is married to Fernando, a man of Hispanic heritage who we do not know huge volumes about, but as an audience we are shown images of the husband in both a vulnerable and menacing light and certain clips of their relationship show tones of abuse too.
But there is a curve ball in the story, Elena was having an affair with Dr Jonathon Fraser the whole time and then suddenly, she is found by her young son, murdered, with a face that has been smashed in a bloody violent rage by someone. We are left in suspense in this whodunnit drama and rotate through characters who we think are guilty of killing this woman. I know one moment I thought it was Jonathon, then Fernando, then Grace, then Grace’s father Franklin (played by Donald Sutherland), and then I even wondered if it was Henry (Grace and Jonathon’s son). But in the end, it was the man she was having an affair with, the (un)faithful doctor.
Towards the end of this drama, a picture is built of Dr Jonathon Fraser as a narcissist, masquerading as the benevolent child oncologist and supposedly dedicated husband and father, with that old British boy charm, that Hugh Grant often displays in many of his roles.
At the heart of it, this show is really about privilege, power, and violence.
The protagonist Grace came across initially to me, as the lovely unsuspecting wife, helping people through her profession, a dedicated mother who wants the best for her son, husband, and family. She and her son are suddenly pulled into a media-frenzied court case due to her husband’s murderous actions, all the while coming to terms with his unfaithfulness in a very public scandal. Grace is a character wronged by her husband and a victim of his betrayal, narcissism, and entitlement; and most importantly she is undeserving of this.
Having said all this, such an analysis ignores the complexity of how layers of privilege underpin and how power plays out in this character’s tale and the overall story.
The truth is, the character Grace, whilst a victim of betrayal, is a white woman from a very privileged background, both racially and economically. Grace herself is very well to do, running a successful private practice, living in a beautiful home surrounded by beautiful chic décor. She and her husband undoubtedly work hard (or so we may presume!). She is also highly educated, which one could imagine was financed by her extraordinarily wealthy father, also of white heritage. We are shown a kind of distance between Grace and her father and we hear she refuses to take money from him. But it is in fact her father’s wealth, which brings a port in the storm, it creates connections and enables her to access the brightest and most expensive lawyer in New York (who creates “muck”). Her father’s wealth brings undeniable power and its this that Grace utilises.
One could argue that Grace is a woman in a horrid situation, and she needs support to get through this and naturally she has turned to her nearest and dearest. It is not her fault that her father happens to be rich! Well of course this is not her fault, and this is not a discussion about blame. The aim of this article is to raise deeper questions about womanhood within the context of race, wealth, health, disability, class, and overall systems of inequality and power. Is it that Grace is inevitably stuck and left to utilise male dominance and power to her advantage? Is this what comes with navigating a patriarchal world in which one must untangle oneself from the web of toxic masculinity? A web that has been weaved by that same male dominance. Do women unavoidably have to end up utilising male power to female advantage, as and when necessary?
However, the story is not just about patriarchy. This is also about a complex interplay between race, wealth, and health. As a white woman, Grace not only has access to her own wealth, but also her father’s wealth, which seems inordinate, and could likely have come from family inheritance, further exemplifying white (male) privilege and its transgenerational effects. Now I realise, on the surface, this may seem presumptuous because we never even hear how the character Franklin made his wealth, but in real terms, such an assumption is not outrageous. In fact, in August 2019, the global consultancy firm McKinsey and Company released an eye-opening report, discussing the continuing black-white racial wealth gap in America.
They identified four main components that maintain the racial wealth gap: family wealth, family income, family savings and community context. We know that much of American white wealth was born from slave holdings. And even with the abolition of slavery, which supposedly decimated the Southern American slaveholding family’s wealth, it took only a single generation for white slaveholding families to regain their wealth. And this was because of social and community connections with families who were not completely involved in the slavery business. It was these relational connections that preserved an elite status for many white families. So, such assumptions are not far-fetched when we consider extreme white wealth.
Bringing it back to the protagonist, Grace was privileged through multiple factors, which enabled her to have the choices she made and do the things she did, including empowering herself. If this was a non-white woman, with a dire financial situation and limited access to wealth, either her own or through the family system, then such a person may not have had the options that Grace was privileged to have. Let us dig even deeper, if this was a woman also navigating a road without health privilege (which could well impact her productivity and thus ability to generate enough wealth), then she would have had to think very carefully about survival, were she considering walking away from a husband with - let us be honest – status, wealth, privilege, power, and a clear propensity for violence against women. Could such a woman with many disadvantages risk triggering such a violent man’s wrath? Its highly likely she would face risks with this. But Grace was not living such an intersectional identity.
What I am hoping to raise through this article, as a conversation, is that the story of The Undoing was story of power vs. powerlessness. Let us take this beyond just Grace’s character. Elena for example, was a victim of a horrifying crime, but she was also someone who utilised her youth and sexual prowess and we could argue these were her privileges of youth and age. We could also argue that having an affair with a married man, indicates a thoughtlessness and even callousness on her part. But she was marginalised in various ways too (gender, race, and wealth).
In contrast, Jonathon’s character was the embodiment of the most sinister forms of privilege – male entitlement, narcissism, racial and wealth privilege. And the totality of power in these multiple forms, brings with it privilege violence, which was brutally played out in the bludgeoning of Elena’s face. The Undoing was a portrayal of gender, race, wealth, capitalism, health, social and class privilege and how they can come together to form power. Most of these various advantages (gender being an exception) came together and enabled Grace in multiple ways to empower herself, which would have been a severe struggle for a less privileged woman. Its not that Grace did not suffer, of course she did. But we need to start acknowledging that the degree of our suffering is proportional to our intersectional privileges and advantages in life.