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In Review: “We Cannot Pretend These Things Haven’t Happened”: One Mississippi Offers Authenticity and Hope in Our #metoo Moment

Jason Davids Scott (Arizona State University)

Many of the entertainment offerings that supposedly speak to and reflect the current zeitgeist manifest themselves in the form of films and television shows that take place in imaginary, fantasy-based, “what if” universes. In the comic-book-inspired franchises of the Marvel, DC, “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and other extended universes, heroes are reimagined as humans (or human appearing) with special powers, technologies, or abilities that are impossible (or effectively so) in the present world. Imagined historical places such as Westeros in “Game of Thrones,” Delos in “Westworld,” Gilead in “A Handmaid’s Tale,” a setting for any episode of “Black Mirror,” and even the all-too-real looking 1980s smalltown Indiana that borders a parallel nightmare universe in “Stranger Things,” serve as once-removed iterations of our own culture, settings where creative artists and audiences are finding more points of access to discuss issues related to gender, race, power, sexuality, as if they are equivalent to the struggles and conflicts we face in our own cultural moment. For example, the current “Year of Wonder Woman” facilitates discussion about how women’s power is understood in a universe otherwise dominated by men; “Stranger Things” uses science-fiction and fantasy-horror tropes to reflect the status of children’s bodies as sites of abuse and control; and Offred’s ongoing negotiation for survival, which includes compromising her sexual agency and her status as a mother, gives us a frame of reference when we approach the very real issues of women’s health care and reproductive rights.

It is perhaps surprising and refreshing, then, to see that one of the most resonant and salient examples of a show - made at just the right time, to prompt just the right kind of discussion - is a widely acclaimed but little discussed Amazon show, “One Mississippi,” which released a second season (of six half-hour episodes) just a couple of weeks before the explosive charges against film producer Harvey Weinstein accelerated and magnified the discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Although the entire season discusses and dramatizes a number of sensitive cultural issues, including religious and racial divides, in the guise of a character-driven dramedy, it is the complex and profoundly authentic representation of issues related to sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, witnessing, trauma, and recovery that the show should be recognized and embraced for.

I teach a required course for our film majors, an ethics survey course examining the production and representations of sex and violence in film and television. By sheer coincidence, I had scheduled the lecture regarding proper on-set behavior and representations of sexual violence in mid-October. As the Weinstein matter – in the wake of the events involving Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and countless other prominent male figures, including the current occupant of the White House – brought these issues into such stark, seemingly obvious relief, I struggled to find an appropriate real-life equivalent to discuss with my class. The problematic rape/sex scenes in “Game of Thrones” (so many of them) and the ordeal of Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale” was too much fantasy. I didn’t want to have to take my students to a time or place where the presence of the impossible or imaginary was so essential to having a discussion about this every day issue. It’s not that these aren’t powerful stories, often told beautifully, and in a way that generates positive discussion, it’s just that this particular week, I needed to discuss things that happen to us every day, now, here, and with real reaction and consequence that does not involve the fate of the known universe.

Then, the weekend before my Thursday night class, I decided to distract myself by diving into the “One Mississippi,” season two, and I found my lecture material for the week.

“One Mississippi,” which debuted last year, is created and produced by its star, Tig Notaro, playing a lightly fictionalized version of herself. An out lesbian comedian and writer who has recently earned more attention and gained more fans through her open and candid discussion about her battle with breast cancer and subsequent double mastectomy – in one of her performances, she strips naked to the waist to show off her post-surgery body – Notaro is an “honest” comedian unafraid to speak her mind, though it’s usually done with quiet sarcasm and subtlety, in a manner described as deadpan and understated. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t demand laughs, and is more in the tradition of monologists like Margaret Cho or Mike Birbiglia, as much a master storyteller than a jokester.

In the Amazon show’s first season, Tig Bovaro (Notaro) moves away from Los Angeles after her cancer surgery and breakup with a girlfriend, and relocates to her hometown in Mississippi (the fictional “Bay St. Lucille,” located on the Gulf Coast near Biloxi). Her own mother has recently died, leaving Tig’s longtime stepfather Bill (a brilliantly rigid John Rothman) and brother Remy (Noah Harpster) behind. A wry comic storyteller like her off-screen counterpart, Tig begins broadcasting a radio show, produced by a lively and winsome Kate (played by Notaro’s real-life spouse, Stephanie Allyne). The first season, while offering some strong acting and characterization as Tig wrestles with her own issues and adjusts to being an out, lesbian progressive in a very conservative, religious environment, was entertaining but not necessarily impressive or memorable.

But season two takes the hard work that Notaro, co-creator Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “The United States of Tara”) and fellow producer/writer Kate Robin (“Six Feet Under,” “The Affair”) did in season one and allows the characters to soar through a range of experiences and moments that resonate at a deeper level, almost all of it is triggered by Tig’s season one confession and admission that as a child, she was repeatedly molested by her step-grandfather (Bill’s father), who has long since died. In season one, the confession was an important dramatic moment, but more for defining Tig’s character and setting her apart from the emotional reactions of those around her as she revealed the abuse. They were also wrapped up in multiple revelations regarding Tig’s late mother, who had another child Tig and Remy were unaware of. While authentic in delivery, the element of Tig’s trauma seemed more like a B-story, less interesting than her developing flirtation with Kate, a straight woman, but one who is quickly taken in by Tig’s wit, honesty, charm, and genuine emotional interest.

In the first episode of season two, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” Tig and Kate (who serves as an on-air sidekick as well as in-studio producer for Tig’s radio show) broadcast a program on “Great American’s Day,” a Biloxi-area “holiday” that celebrates the birthday of both Martin Luther King Jr AND Robert E. Lee (“Those guys didn’t even have the same birthday,” complains Kate as the radio show goes live.) Tig then discusses the idea of “great men” by telling a story about a neighbor from childhood named “Steve,” who once invited young Tig into his house to watch “Little House on the Prairie.” Tig’s joke without a punchline is that Steve “could have” molested her, but in fact they just sat and watched the program together without any incident. That prompts Kate to brag that she, too, was “almost” molested – and horrifies Tig by telling stories about coaches and older men in high school who violated their students by grabbing their breasts while playing basketball, or one teacher who insisted that he could tell if the students were on their period by smelling their crotches (which he proceeded to do). “You were molested,” says Tig with some exasperation, to which Kate responds “Yeah…but not really, though, I mean, that kind of thing happened to me all the time, it happens to everyone all of the time,” as if the frequency of these experiences mitigated the definition of the action. Ultimately, Kate and Tig agree that the men who perpetuate and commit abuse are not “great Americans,” and, for the moment anyway, the issue is put to rest.

In the context of current news, we see Kate’s acceptance of harassment and assault as reflective of the ways in which men and women excuse milder forms of this behavior as a given part of everyday life. The same cultural script that says “boys will be boys” or that “locker room” talk is acceptable (even when not in a locker room) offers a seemingly safe emotional space for both victims and predators alike: like death, taxes, or jury duty, it’s just something that happens that we have to endure. Having herself experienced a more violent, taboo, and invasive form of this abuse because of what happened at the hands of her step-grandfather, Tig’s immediate definition of Kate’s experience as “molestation” underscores the ways in which victims of all sexual misconduct are measured and segregated by the specific intensity or severity of their personal history. “Rape” is someone else’s story: even as an ally, without the severity of that experience, I am reluctant to categorize the transgressions against me as equally damaging or egregious. Kate wasn’t “really molested” like Tig was, and that separation of their trauma then limits their ability to converse, discuss, or empathize.

Because of the on-air conversation between Kate and Tig, along with Tig’s open disdain for many of the cultural values of her audience, her show loses sponsors, and is in subsequent episodes removed from the air. Fortunately, Tig’s following means that the show is picked up by a more progressive station. The new bosses are station owner Ezra (Philip Casnoff) and manager Jack (Timm Sharp). “Woke,” intelligent, supportive, and eager to add Tig’s show to their rotation, it’s a boost for both Tig and Kate, who start to talk about doing a series of shows from New Zealand as “Trump refugees.” These plans are complicated by their mixed feelings about each other: Kate seems determined to remain straight, conceding to Tig that she feels emotionally close but insisting they will never by intimate; while Tig pursues a short relationship with a female country singer, which seems to make Kate jealous.

Then, in episode five (“Can’t Fight This Feeling”), Kate approaches Jack in his office to discuss her idea for a show in New Zealand. In a scene that lasts less than two minutes, Kate (and the viewer) become slowly aware that Jack is masturbating, his actions unseen under his desk: he feigns listening, clearly distracted, tells Kate to continue talking (himself a bit short of breath), then makes a small groan, and eventually reaches for a tissue. Kate’s pitch has drifted off, a couple of feeble attempts to continue the conversation plummeting into silent horror; Jack dismisses her with a “we’ll keep talking,” and Kate leaves the office. Later, after proving to be too distracted to contribute on the air during their show, Kate tells Tig about Jack’s assault. As with Kate’s previous confession about the creepy coaches from her childhood, Tig immediately defines what happened by taking action. She marches into Jack’s office, Kate following sheepishly behind, and accuses him (loudly) of masturbating in front of Kate. Jack feebly denies it, blaming “jock itch,” which only sends Kate into a frenzy as she and Tig walk away. She’s so flustered, she can’t find her keys. Tig reminds Kate that she’s in a state of shock, which Kate denies – but she does accept Tig’s invitation to come home with her to have dinner and spend the night to put the experience behind her.

It should be noted that, according to rumors and some veiled statements from Notaro herself, the story about Jack was referring to real-life incidents of comedians who would masturbate in front of women at inappropriate times and without consent. Notably, Notaro has allowed speculation that she was the target of a specific incident perpetuated by comedian Louis C.K., who has also been openly accused by other women of this behavior. C.K. and his producing partners, Dave Becky and M. Blair Breard (a female), are producers on “One Mississippi” (Notaro and C.K. have both averred that his participation in the show is in name only, a function of his production company). For his part, C.K. has called the stories about him rumors and refuses to discuss them openly.

Criticism of Louis C.K. is particularly difficult, as his own success in recent years, built on his seemingly relentless self-examination of himself as a compromised masculine figure attempting to accept and embrace situations where he lacks control and agency, has provided outlet for some of the more “woke” moments on recent television. Though problematic, the speech given by performer Sarah Baker (a “fat girl speech”) in a May 2014 episode of “Louie” is distinctively counter to the usual male-driven perspective (the speech was written by C.K.). Furthermore, C.K. is an active writer and producer of longtime colleague Pamela Adlon’s FX series “Better Things,” which contains moments in every episode that completely subvert the usual model of “single mom” comedy, with Adlon emerging as a major talent on both sides of the camera, and the show’s diverse cast almost entirely absent of cis-gendered, straight men (all of the regulars and most of the supporting characters are female). “The masterstroke of “Better Things” is that it ignores 98% of what mainstream television has told us about how families operate and how grown women relate to the world,” notes one reviewer. C.K.’s contributions as creator, producer, and facilitator of this feminist/progressive comedic programming, along with the equally notable work of his colleagues Becky (a producer on “Insecure” and “Masters of None”) and Breard (C.K.’s award winning self-produced “Horace and Pete), do not in any way mitigate or excuse the behavior others have accused him of, no more than Harvey Weinstein’s charitable contributions to progressive causes can excuse him. But until he gives a fuller accounting or defense of the accusations against him, it’s likely that other elements of his professional reputation are likely to give him cover.

Regardless of its veiled connection to Louis C.K. or other male comedians, the scene with Jack now feels all too real when considering the actions of Weinstein or director James Toback, including multiple stories that these men would masturbate in front of women in a professional (or social-professional setting). Even though the act as rendered in “One Mississippi” is not quite seen, by either Kate or the audience, the violation of personal space and rejection of what Tig’s Mississippi neighbors might call “common decency” is evident, and as horrifying as if it were “completely” exposed.

And, like C.K. or some other perceived “good men” or “regular guys” who have been accused of this behavior, Jack’s boss Ezra reacts in disbelief when informed by Tig and Kate about Jack’s actions (in the season’s sixth and final episode, “I’m Alive.”) “There were rumors,” concedes a legitimately horrified Ezra, before citing Jack’s progressive politics and asking if Kate is “sure” what she saw. Ultimately, Jack promises to “turn this over to HR,” saying that his hands are tied in terms of firing Jack or calling the police. You don’t need to be an activist or directly impacted by the limits of systems of power to recognize the all-too-familiar dance around dealing with potential acts of abuse and assault, by which nearly everyone is forced into silence while an “investigation” of dubious value must be engaged. Tig and Kate are briefly disgusted, but realize immediately that they are being asked resigned to the fact that they’ll have to work with Jack, and that he is likely to not face any retribution.

Particularly agitated, the normally more casual Tig immediately opens her next radio program by saying that she “has a problem with a co-worker,” and is instantly cut off by Kate, who puts on a song. “That’s my story to tell,” says Kate off-air, forcing Tig to recognize that she does not or cannot claim Kate’s victimhood. Kate suggests that perhaps Tig is so anxious to talk about what happened with Jack because it has triggered memories of her own about her step-grandfather. Back on the air, Tig confesses the story of her grandfather to her listening audience. Wrapping up the story, she and Kate playfully imagine that there could be a “reverse black book” of some sort for women only, an online resource that warned women away from abusive men.

From a narrative standpoint, that provides the final dramatic action revolving around the incident with Jack. But it is in the final 11 minutes of the episode (and the season) that the dramatic impact of the event seems to mushroom into a whirlwind of cathartic emotion and confession that makes for some of the most gripping, moving, and honest moments of series programming in the last thirty years.

Throughout the season, Tig’s pursuit of Kate and their mutual actions regarding Kate’s abuse by Jack are balanced by love stories involving Bill and Remy. A northerner by birth, Bill is himself a out of place both regionally and psychologically, a fastidious, methodical, and rigid man (he is an executive at a frozen foods company) who in no way shape or form wants to admit that he is emotionally adrift without his wife, whom he has mourned only superficially. At one point, he begins having stilted but delicately charming conversations with a woman who works in his building and takes the elevator at the same time every day that he does – an African-American executive at another company named Felicia (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who is seemingly as rigid, methodical, and compulsively organized as Bill. Having found a companion who experiences life in the same measured terms that he does, Bill expresses his emotion for her by reading up on the history of African-American oppression, attempting to become a Black Lives Matter-worthy ally as quickly as he can. He is entirely sincere in his pursuit, and Felicia is impressed by his dedication to learning about systemic racism, but is met with polite and hilarious skepticism by her family at the wedding of Felicia’s daughter. “I want SO MUCH to apologize,” he says to Felicia’s no-nonsense mother (Beverly Frank), regarding three centuries of racial exploitation. “That’ll fix it,” she retorts back, absolutely unimpressed. Regardless of his awkward self-presentation, Felicia falls for Bill, and they end up in bed together.

Meanwhile, Remy, a fun-loving, gentle sort – a soft-bodied introvert trying to overcome his loneliness and previous failures with women - finds himself in a very new and intense relationship with Desiree (an impossibly charismatic and delightful Carly Jibson), a heavily made-up, plus-sized single mom with an infant daughter who makes a living selling her breast milk online. A Christian who belts out gospel songs and seems to have no filter about her own emotional intentions, Desiree falls instantly for Remy’s innate kindness, and the two move in together after a couple of dates. At the beginning of “I’m Alive,” Desiree wakes up Remy to initiate lovemaking, but he seems both unable and unwilling to perform, specifically citing the presence of her baby in the crib across the room. “She don’t know what we’re doing,” says a playfully exasperated Desiree, while Remy avoids her touch. Later, Remy takes advice from a gas station attendant on which over-the-counter “enhancement” medication he should take, his sudden sexual issues completely counter to the other ways in which Desiree and Remy are truly ideal for each other (they pass their minister’s “compatibility” test with flying colors while not talking about their suddenly dormant sex life). Later it is Desiree who calls Remy to the radio as Tig starts telling the story of her abuse. Holding her child and weeping for “poor Tig” before noticing her husband crying, she asks Remy, “Did you know?” “Yes,” Remy nods, clearly admitting this to her for the first time. “I saw it,” he admits, affirming that he had actually been in the room when Tig was violated on multiple occasions.

Bill is at Felicia’s daughter’s wedding when Tig broadcasts the show. When he returns home with Felicia, Desiree runs into his arms, saying she is “so sorry his daddy was a monster.” With Felicia standing by quizzically, Bill has no choice but to explain to her about Tig’s abuse. We don’t see the explanation, but we get the aftermath: a sympathetic Felicia doesn’t hold Bill responsible, of course, but she does challenge him to get therapy and to get in touch with his feelings before departing politely. He’s not ready for a relationship, because he is not in touch with his own feelings.

After her program, Tig and Kate had returned to their office only to discover that the show has gone viral – and that a listener had already claimed their suggested domain name for a “reverse black book” and started the project. For the first time since any allegation of abuse was experienced or shared, both Tig and Kate actually feel optimistic that change might be possible. Her recent experiences with Tig have forced Kate into a stronger understanding of her own intimate needs, and she tells Tig that she is ready to acknowledge that she is in love with her. “But…?” Tig asks. “No but,” says Kate, “just and.” Kate initiates a long, emotional kiss, which Tig breaks off, and suggests that the two “date” for a while: “Besides,” notes Tig, “we’re at work,” a line presented as a casual excuse or deflection, but which underscores the way in which Tig understands that no matter the context or situation, intimate contact in a workplace environment is something that should not be encouraged.

Now, arriving home, Tig finds both her father and brother in an emotional shambles. Although she is the one whose story of violation was the one that was told, she acts as caretaker and identifies for each of them their own victimhood as “bystanders” to her abuse. She encourages Bill to not think of his relationship with Felicia as irreparable, giving him an emotional strength and permission to begin the process of acknowledging the losses in his life, from the revelations about his father’s heinous behavior to his wife’s recent death. “Maybe you can change a little,” she says about him learning how to address his deepest feelings. “What if I can’t” Bill replies. “What if you can?” says Tig. “I think you can.”

With Remy, who stops her in the hallway in an almost literal emotional puddle, she embraces him and reassures him that there was nothing he could have done about her abuse. Harpster’s performance is riveting as he blubbers “I knew it was wrong, why didn’t I do anything, why didn’t I do anything?” “You were scared, you were molested too,” she says, again helping someone label their own experience. “No, I wasn’t, Tig” he says, shaking his head forcefully, again trying to create a separation of their experiences. “You were, just in a different way,” she says with a soft voice. “Even though he didn’t touch you, witnessing it? You were molested too.” The impact of her abuse on the ability of the men in her life who loved and cared about her is not presented as “collateral damage,” but as part of the shared impact on how sexual abuse and assault destroys networks of intimacy. In this web of trauma, where the repercussions of actions taken long ago are magnified by the abuses of the present, it is, significantly, the most self-aware and open “survivor,” Tig, who emerges as the dominant moral, emotional, and narrative force.

Using the stories of real characters, immersed and connected to the real world of political conflict, identity politics, social networks, religious difference, and sexual identity, “One Mississippi” tells us a story of our current time and place without resorting to the fantasy of imaginative fiction, post-apocalyptic worlds, or immediate-future sci-fi. Rather than mythological origin stories, secret identities, government experiments, or supernatural forces, Notaro and her co-creators have elevated the drama of everyday life that we so often want to look away from to a place where multiple perspectives, audiences, and understandings can be identified, represented, and brought to light. The world we live in, a world of trauma and abuse for far too many, does not need the magical sheen of impossible technologies, radioactive spiders, or (truly) totalitarian governments, for us to look at it. Unvarnished, unadorned, and presented as a plain, evolving truth, “One Mississippi”’s tale of abuse, acknowledgment, and recovery serves as a potential model moving forward in having a more productive cultural conversation about the impact of and possible solutions to these most important issues.

In her conversation with Bill about recognizing the emotional impact of his father’s actions, Felicia tells him, “We cannot pretend that these things haven’t happened. We have to feel them, fully, before we feel anything else.” It is this line that I read to my class after watching “I’m Alive” in its entirety. After a week of #metoo stories and daily revelations from famous and not-so-famous men and women who have suffered in effectively forced silence, the true value of listening to each other, of sharing our experiences, and of acknowledging and even embracing and joking about our shared networks of trauma feel more than ever like the first step towards learning how to feel love, compassion, and human decency once again. The real-life Tigs (including Tig herself) who have forced this conversation into the open are not just victims with a story to tell, but compassionate leaders: leaders who can teach us how to recognize and give voice to our pain, acknowledge our responsibility in counteractive practices from “ranking” abusive experiences (“I wasn’t ‘really’ molested”) to complicit silence, and remind us that in community and with eyes and hearts wide open, we can take control of the narrative and create a better and safer emotional world in which to live.

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