In tune with rising awareness of the world’s inequities, a slew of 2021 shows sought to unpack the nuanced dynamics of power and privilege through the lens of their leading ladies, portraying women from diverse backgrounds facing a variety of obstacles — both personal and institutional.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is “Squid Game’s” Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector who participates in the series’ deadly games for the mere chance to provide for her younger brother. Meanwhile, on “Succession,” Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) yields an inordinate amount of power as one of the siblings poised to take over her father Logan’s (Brian Cox) conglomerate Waystar Royco — yet this season has proven how easily the domineering titan dilutes her strength with as little as a callous, dismissive phrase. And “Hacks” sees its main characters — Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) — as two sides of the same coin, mirroring and juxtaposing each other’s advantages. While Deborah had to break the glass ceiling in the comedy world, she now reaps the benefits of her status and class; and Ava — raw after facing an online reckoning — must come to terms with her own privilege and arrogance under the veteran comedian’s begrudging wing.
Though these characters, as a collective, don’t provide a solid answer as to how a more equitable society can be achieved, they offer up authentic critiques and satires of power imbalances. By extension, these portrayals poke and prod at audiences, inviting watchers to stew in their indignance and, at times, discomfort. Natasha Rothwell understands the latter dynamic well. As Belinda, the spa manager at the titular resort in “The White Lotus,” she serves as the sole character with whom viewers wouldn’t be mortified to identify, offering a stark contrast to the guests’ out-of-touch elitism.
“It’s so funny to be the moral touchpoint for people,” she says, “for fear of them at all being connected to the other cast members.” It’s this authenticity around which Rothwell shaped her character’s essence, even as she caters to a majority white and wealthy clientele. The actor, who prepped for the part by consulting the head of massage at the spa at the Four Seasons, Maui (where the series shot during the pandemic), adds that it was vital for Belinda to “not be a caricature — the idea of Black girl magic and de facto white person healer.
“It is a complicated role, especially when you’re one of the only persons of color dealing with concepts of privilege and you have a person of color in a servile position, wanting to make sure that her humanity wasn’t lost in service [to] the other characters,” Rothwell says.
Belinda’s arc largely unfolds vis a vis Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya McQuoid, a disillusioned socialite who’s grieving the loss of her mother. After a brief moment of connection, Belinda is soon swept up in Tanya’s hurricane of influence with the promise of a fully financed independent spa venture.
“So much of their power dynamic is never spoken up between them,” Rothwell says of the two characters. “I think it’s so subtextual, and I think so much of the disparity of class, wealth and privilege is this insidious, unspoken way we view each other and the decisions we make.”
Like Belinda, Margaret Qualley’s Alex works in the service industry. As a domestic service employee in “Maid,” she juggles motherhood with navigating the endless bureaucracy of the U.S. welfare system, all while living under the poverty line and dealing with the fallout of an abusive relationship.
“I do come from privilege, and so I was learning — in real-time — just how impossibly tricky the system is,” Qualley says of the role. “Alex is learning in real-time how to navigate this, and every time that she thinks that she’s going to catch a break, another door shuts in her face. There’s another hoop to jump through, and it’s frustrating as hell.”
But Qualley acknowledges how much more “complicated” Alex’s circumstances and her place in these rigged systems of poverty and welfare would be if she weren’t white. “It’s almost impossible to navigate the system no matter who you are, but if you added on the extra layer of the implications of being a person of color in America, it might just be actually impossible.”
In this way, Alex is both privileged and not, though she eventually — through a network of support and sheer will — asserts her agency by the end of the series.
Similarly, Rothwell sees the duality of power and privilege within her character: While Belinda walks through the world “masked and silenced, for all of her powerlessness, she’s still able to see that she has power and has the agency and potential to change.”
Sandra Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim, a professor-turned-head of the English department at an Ivy-adjacent university in “The Chair,” embodies this “magic of nuance” well, according to the actor. In Ji-Yoon’s new role — for the first time occupied by a woman of color — she triages the interests of the ailing department, as well as those of her students and mentee Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a gifted Black professor who is up for tenure.
“She doesn’t win, but what we tried to portray — in my portrayal and the writing of it — is that here is the best of our abilities,” Oh says. “When you are as aware as possible, competent as possible, supported as much as the system really is supporting you [and] this is how far one can get, this is how difficult it still is.”
Finding herself blocked by a glass cliff of institutional barriers within academia and left to clean up the messes of her white patriarchal predecessors, Oh was “surprised” at discovering how much Ji-Yoon had been “sitting on her anger.”
Just as Oh tried to “pepper in” this exasperation throughout her portrayal, so did Rothwell, who likened her character to “a kettle on the stove” with a “quiet storm inside of her.” For Qualley, there are moments of frustration “sprinkled out” throughout the show as Alex regains her “strength” and “self-respect.”
While these women reckon with varying degrees of influence, each character offers a teaching point, if just an elementary exposé into structural inequities. Qualley sees her portrayal — and “Maid” as a whole — as the latest attempt to familiarize audiences with struggles they may not see.
“I think that because there’s so much shame baked into the topics, whether it’s poverty or emotional abuse or physical violence, that people are often reluctant to talk about it,” she says. “When you say something out loud, it takes a little bit of the weight off of it. If something’s being talked about, then we’re being educated about it.”