Note: Full spoilers follow.
Passably good entertainment, but it could have been so much better.
When I heard that Anita Diamant’s bestselling novel The Red Tent was going to be turned into a miniseries for Lifetime, I felt the familiar mix of trepidation and excitement I always feel when I hear that history, especially women’s history, is going to be given a mass television audience. Well, having seen the first part of this miniseries, I can say that those feelings were well-placed, as I am currently experiencing a strange blend of emotions.
The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah (Rebecca Ferguson), the daughter of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob (Iain Glen) and his wife Leah (Minnie Driver) , as she experiences, and struggles against, the limitations imposed by the patriarchal life of the ancient Near East. She eventually falls in love with and marries (without her father’s permission), the young Prince Shalem, after which her vengeful brothers exact a blood massacre of the prince’s people (including the prince himself).
On the one hand, I am immensely pleased with the politics of this effort. Dinah’s opening narration, in which she takes to task those who have scrupulously and ruthlessly excised the voices of women from the Biblical narrative (read: men), hits the proverbial nail on the head, leaving us in no doubt where the series’ allegiances lay. As modern viewers, we are expected to sympathize with these women and condemn (with good reason) the oppressively patriarchal culture of the ancient world. At the same time, we are also asked to marvel (again, rightly so) at the ingenious and rebellious ways in which the women of this era managed to assert agency and create their own spaces.
Of course, the most important space in the film so far has been the eponymous Red Tent, a space where the women go during menstruation and to give birth and where they also worship in secret the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna. I was pleasantly surprised at the emphasis placed on the relationship among these women, of the way they share the duties of child-rearing and create a world outside the purview (and even the understanding) of the overbearing men in their lives. When this comes crashing down around them after Jacob’s discovery and subsequent destruction of their idols to the goddess, one cannot help but feel a profound sense of loss.
At the same time, however, I also found myself frustrated by how good this show could have been if it had really tried. Rebecca Ferguson is a good actress, and she has played a similarly rebellious historical personage before (as Elizabeth Woodville in Starz’s The White Queen). Yet her rebellious nature here sounds far too modern to be completely convincing, almost as if a 21st Century feminist were plopped down in the middle of the ancient Near East. I can’t help feeling there were better (and more complex) ways of engaging with the issues of female empowerment in the ancient world than those executed here. We are, after all, allegedly living in the Golden Age of Television, and yet we still struggle to articulate women’s experiences in an aesthetically complex way.
Even more vexing, however, was the blatant whitewashing of the principal cast. We are, after all, dealing with the Near East here, so I find it incredibly unlikely (and, frankly, insulting) that almost every character of note is blindingly white. While Dinah is the most obviously example, it also carries over into the rest of her family. One does not get more white than Iain Glen nor, for that matter, Will Tudor (who plays her brother Joseph). Her other, more sinister (and more blatantly misogynist and patriarchal) brothers, meanwhile, appear notably swarthier. It’s worth noting that even those of darker complexion who aren’t complete villains end up dead in the end, because of course brown people can’t help killing each other. Coupled with the white-casting of Ridley Scott’s Exodus, one gets the feeling that Hollywood is determined to expunge people of colour from every Biblical narrative they can.
Despite its aesthetic flaws and sometimes clumsy delivery, The Red Tent does manage to convey a good sense of the violence and brutality of the ancient Near East, as well as the constant peril that women experienced as a result of their subaltern status. The ending scene in particular–which was highly reminiscent of the infamous Red Wedding of Game of Thrones–highlights the the brutality of the culture portrayed within the Old Testament. This is indeed a world where a woman’s worth is measured through her obedience and through her body’s sanctity, and where life itself is in a state of constant endangerment. As we head into the second night of this event, it remains to be seen whether Dinah will be able to carve out an identity, and a life, out of this dangerous landscape.