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gender issues

Boardwalk Empire’s Lady Problem

So, last night’s Boardwalk Empire was pretty great! Seven episodes in and the show is blossoming, the story developing, the characters becoming more nuanced, more interesting. This week we learned about Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi) not-so-great childhood, Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) continued to map the limits of her special relationship, Jimmy (Michael Pitt) took further steps toward becoming a full, frightening bad guy, and we were introduced to a psychologically rich, heartbreaking character who had half of his face blown off during the war. It’s in the context of this — the series’ now established ability to create compelling characters with deep psyches — that we have to call bullshit on one of the show’s now established tendencies: to use the female characters not named Margaret Schroeder as little more than purveyors of the tits, ass, and, in last night’s episode, hot lesbian action HBO feels contractually obligated to provide its viewing audience.

Last night, it was revealed that Angela (Aleksa Palladino), Jimmy’s baby mama, is having sex with a woman. Previously, it had been intimated that she was having sex with said woman’s husband, but nope! Angela is actually in the throes of a Sapphic affair, rendered in golden light, with half-opened robes and much protracted nudity. We’d be more optimistic about this as an interesting character development if, up until now, the character had been interesting. Prior to this, Angela’s been accorded little solo screen time. Mostly, we know that she’s unsettled by Jimmy’s postwar personality but is willing to go down on him anyway, and that she’s not really keen to abandon her toddler son to be raised by his stripper grandma.

Sure, Boardwalk is taking place in a different time, when women were more likely to be thought of as sex object or mothers than equals — but so does Mad Men, and even Betty Draper's a model of the well-rounded character compared to these chicks. Furthermore, Boardwalk is taking place as women are about to get the right to vote, a historical moment the show has written about. Yet, somehow, this looming event only affects the life of Margaret Schroeder, the show's one well-developed female character. The other three women are stuck without the vote, just naked plot devices.

This leaves Jimmy’s mother, Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who has flitted in and out of this season, trailing suggestive relationships with both her son and Nucky behind her. Mostly, however, she has appeared servicing Lucky Luciano and his formerly malfunctioning penis. Despite services rendered, he still calls her a “slash” in public. Gillian, like Angela and Lucy, is another underdeveloped character with an overdeveloped sex life.

Sure, Boardwalk is taking place in a different time, when women were more likely to be thought of as sex object or mothers than equals — but so does Mad Men, and even Betty Draper's a model of the well-rounded character compared to these chicks. Furthermore, Boardwalk is taking place as women are about to get the right to vote, a historical moment the show has written about. Yet, somehow, this looming event only affects the life of Margaret Schroeder, the show's one well-developed female character. The other three women are stuck without the vote, just naked plot devices.

In the first episode of the series, Nucky and his crew arrive at a working funeral home to inspect the distillery hidden underneath. A mortician is readying a body for burial: It’s a completely naked woman, with autopsy scars and a bouffant of pubic hair. Creepy goofball Mickey Doyle, who has since proven to be a distasteful, sneering moron of the highest order, leeringly points her out. Nucky and Jimmy, our heroes and protagonists, are unimpressed, too mature and worldly to get cheap thrills off a naked body. Maybe in the second half of its first season, Boardwalk Empire will remember to follow their lead.

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO