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Review: “The Red Tent” (Part Two)

Note:  Full spoilers follow.

Immensely more engaging and well-written than the first half, proving that historical drama can say something meaningful about women’s historical experiences.

Going in to the second half of Lifetime’s adaptation of The Red Tent, I have to admit to being skeptical.  The first half, while engaging and entertaining enough, was far too aesthetically clumsy to really capture my attention.  The second installment, however, managed to correct some of the issues of the first half and, if not necessarily as explicitly feminist in its ideologies, nevertheless continues to emphasize the importance of female community and the connections among different generations of women.

After the brutal murder of her husband and his people by her jealous and vengeful brothers, Dinah curses her father for his unwillingness to punish them and flees back to the city.  Her mother-in-law, vengeful and angry at the murder of her son and her husband, takes Dinah back to Egypt, where she gives birth a son.  The queen, however, exacts her revenge by driving a wedge between mother and son, which is only healed after much suffering on both of their parts.  Dinah eventually gains a husband, while also gaining the forgiveness of her son, reuniting with her brother Joseph and her dying father.

A profound sense of sadness and melancholy pervades this second part of the narrative, a perfect orchestration of the too-late and in-the-nick-of-time moments that Linda Williams argues are essential parts of the workings of the melodramatic mode.  Here, they help us as contemporary viewers come to grips with the way in which, in the ancient world, one could indeed spend a great deal of one’s life away from one’s dearest family members.  There is something almost unbearably sad about Leah’s statement near the beginning of this episode that she will never see her daughter again, and so it proves.  By the time that Dinah returns to her father’s camp, both her mother and her aunt Rachel have died, and we realize that this world does not necessarily permit of the happy reunions and narrative closure we have been trained to desire.  Life for these ancient women is perpetually fragile, yet all the more precious because of that fragility.

While Dinah does not get to say farewell to her father (he doesn’t even recognize her, but instead thinks she is Rachel, her already-deceased aunt), she does get to revisit, for one last time, the Red Tent of her youth.  Here we see what is perhaps the series’ strongest message:  the power of intergenerational bonding among women, as the younger generation gathers about Dinah to hear her tell of her life and her struggles.  Despite the attempts of men to reclaim or mark this space as their, these ancient women endured, buoyed up by both their strength as individuals and by the knowledge that they are not alone, that they are surrounded by their mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and nieces.

As I was in the first installment, I was genuinely moved by the sight of women banding together to grant one another strength during childbirth.  Though most of us in the U.S. and Europe have forgotten it, childbirth is an extremely dangerous time, and it was even more so in the ancient world, when the odds were not in women’s favour.  Again the motif of fragility is particularly acute, but again it is through banding together that these women manage to survive everything that nature throws at them.  They endure, despite everything, and they even learn to forgive one another (as Dinah eventually forgives her vengeful mother-in-law), and even the father and brothers that betrayed her and robbed her of happiness.

Of course, tonight’s installment had a few hiccups in terms of storytelling.  The tantalizing glimpses of Joseph’s torments as a slave weren’t quite enough to justify his transition from sensitive prophet to prideful madman and back again, and his brothers still come across as one-dimensional bullies.  But then, this isn’t really a story about the male experience, so I’m mostly okay with those bits.  After all, don’t we have enough “complex” male antiheroes in the rest of television?  The romance plot between Dinah and her her carpenter husband also felt a little rushed and forced, and it seems rather extraneous, but I suppose that’s an unfortunate requirement of this type of fiction.  (Though one could, I suppose, argue that a woman practically had to be married in the ancient world if she wanted to have any measure of physical security).

In sum, this was a worthy entry into the annals of women’s historical television.  Although women’s historical fiction is a thriving market in the literary world, it’s only made a few in-roads into the world of television (The White Queen and the forthcoming The Dovekeepers being two notable examples).  Hopefully, if this series proves to be a success, we might see more of these types of narratives coming to the world of television, in the process writing women back into the historical record and helping us to gain an understanding, no matter how flawed, of what life was like for these ancient women.

Review: “The Red Tent” (Part One)

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.