By Stephanie Younger •
Little Fires Everywhere is based on the book authored and published in 2017 by Celeste Ng, and was adapted into a limited series that aired on Hulu from March 2020, to April 2020. The series takes place in 1997, and begins when Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), an itinerant artist and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) move to a property in a “progressive,” affluent, white neighborhood in Shaker, Ohio.
Journalist, landlord and housewife, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) calls the police to remove who she thought was a houseless Black woman and her daughter from the streets of Shaker. To relieve her guilt, she rents her property to Mia and Pearl, allowing them to stay. When Mia begins her job at the Lucky Palace, a Chinese restaurant in Shaker, Elena asks Mia to be her maid, and then quickly modifies it to “house manager.” Mia accepts the job to protect Pearl when she learns that she has befriended Elena’s children, Izzy (Megan Stott), Moody (Gavin Lewis), Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), and Trip (Jordan Elsass).
At the Lucky Palace, Mia allies herself with her co-worker, Bebe Chow (Huang Lu), a mother and an undocumented Chinese immigrant. One year before Little Fires Everywhere took place, Bebe was impoverished, and could not take care both herself, and her baby, May Ling. She left May Ling at a fire station in Cleveland, hoping that someone would take care of her until she was able to provide for both herself and her daughter. Mia then realizes that the couple taking care of May Ling happened to be the Richardsons’ family-friends, the McCulloughs. When Elena learns that Mia was fighting for Bebe to gain custody of May Ling in court, she accuses Mia of accepting a job as the Richardson’s maid to “worm [her] way into [their] lives,” and claims that “a good mother makes good choices.”
Mia responds, “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices. Options that being rich, and white, and entitled gave you.”
“Again, that’s the difference between you and me. I would never make this about race,” says Elena.
“Elena, you made this about race when you stood out there in the street and begged me to be your maid…I took this job to protect my kid…from you,” says Mia.
“I thought we were friends,” says Elena.
“White women always want to be friends with their maid,” Mia continues. “I was not your maid, Elena, and I was never your friend.”
Mia’s 15-year-old daughter, Pearl is often reduced to what labor she can do for other people. Pearl says that she has “always had what [she] needed, but [she has] never had what [she] wanted,” and says in the first episode,
“I am tired. I am tired of moving around. I am tired of going wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there. I am tired of not even having a home…I want more than just one wall.”
No one else, including Mia, seems to have her best interest. Having stole Pearl as a baby, Mia moves her from place to place all of her life, and never prioritizes the basic parental care, including a stable, predictable, home. Mia also does not advocate for Pearl when she needs it. For instance, Mia doesn’t go beyond saying, “you know how to advocate for yourself,” when a guidance counselor at Shaker High School discriminates against Pearl. The guidance counselor assumes that Pearl is from Cleveland (a predominantly Black city) and attended an under-resourced school, and tries to make her repeat a math class, instead of moving up to the next level.
When Pearl looks to Elena for help, Lexie Richardson steals her story, and uses it for her application essay to Yale, in which the prompt entails overcoming hardships. After Lexie’s Black boyfriend, Brian learns that she stole Pearl’s story, she continues to use Pearl to mitigate her actions, and even gaslights her by claiming that Pearl “inspired” her Yale essay. Despite Mia’s warnings against her, Pearl insists on being there for Lexie. When Lexie gets pregnant (due to having unprotected sex with Brian), she registered at the abortion clinic under a false name: Pearl’s. She wrote Pearl’s name down at the abortion clinic instead of her own, and attempts to rationalize her dishonesty by saying “it’s just, that woman in there is my mom’s friend…And if this got out, if people found out, it would, like, actually matter, you know?” Lexie ironically believes that “no one should have babies if they can’t take care of them,” but when those words don’t come to her convenience, she throws Pearl under the bus, and demands that she and Mia take care of her. This is how Mia responds when Lexie asks her if she thinks she made the right decision.
“…My daughter skipped school to help you, and you thanked her by using her name, and demanding that she take care of you. I spent two months cooking your dinners, working in your house and you never so much as uttered a “thank you,” and now you want more. Pearl may love to give and give to you, but I do not. I’m done…You had plenty of places to go and plenty of people who care. You have no concept of what it’s like to not have anyone. Don’t insult your own intelligence by pretending otherwise.”
While Lexie stays overnight at Mia and Pearl’s house, Elena travels to New York to dig up information about Mia and Pearl’s past, including Mia’s family and her education, claiming that she is writing a story about them. At Mia’s parents’ house, Elena learns that Mia’s pregnancy with Pearl was a surrogacy, and she is not Pearl’s legal parent. When Elena arrives in Shaker in time for the court preceding, she threatens to hold everything she learned in New York against Mia. Elena demands that her husband, Bill Richardson (Joshua Jackson), the attorney representing the McCulloughs, holds that information against Mia at the next court preceding. When he refuses, Elena tells Pearl the truth as soon as she saw her. Because of the racist, xenophobic “justice” system, the court rules in favor of the McCulloughs, leaving Bebe devastated.
Even after the verdict, Elena continues to dig up more information about Mia and Pearl at the abortion clinic where her friend works. Late at night, she confronts Mia again with the assumption that Pearl was pregnant. Mia immediately corrects Elena, and says that it was actually Lexie who had the abortion. “If she had the mother she deserved, she might have had the courage to put her own f*cking name down at the clinic, and she might have not needed to spend the night here in my arms when her own f*cking mother was gallivanting at my parents’ house,” says Mia. That conversation ends with Elena evicting Mia and Pearl that night.
Throughout Little Fires Everywhere, Elena Richardson constantly weaponizes the police, the “justice” system, and her power as a landlord and a journalist to intervene in Mia and Pearl Warren’s lives. The series begins with Elena calling the police on Mia and Pearl, talking Mia into being her maid and doing an unauthorized background check on her; and it ends Elena evicting the two of them. Yet, she often entertains her belief that she “always has the right intentions,” by frequently centering her singular experience at the March on Washington, and claiming that her mother “helped integrate Shaker.” Despite demanding labor from Mia and seeing her as a threat as soon as she allied herself with another woman of color, Elena claims that “no one supports a woman’s right to choose more that [she does].” Elena personifies white women believe that saying “Black lives matter,” or calling themselves “feminists” makes them exempt from oppressing Black women, while doing what ever it takes to ensure that America continues to work in their interest, which is the delusion of white supremacy.
Like Elena, Lexie forces Black women and girls to carry her burdens, and believes that having a Black partner absolves herself of her complicity in misogynoir. Despite stealing a Black girl’s real experience with misogynoir, watering it down, and passing it off as her own fake story with sexism, Lexie Richardson is still accepted into an Ivy League. On top of that, Lexie used Pearl’s name to protect her own reputation, and then implied that Pearl’s name doesn’t matter as much as her own. Pearl being erased from her own experiences and thrown under the bus by Lexie can be linked with the ways Black women and girls, are erased from our own struggles, by white feminists who co-opt and water down the language of Black feminists, and do so in the name of “feminism,” to gain the same power as white men. Lexie’s actions reflect white women that Black feminist bell hooks warned us of, who prioritize their proximity to white men, while maintaining the oppression of other communities.
“White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of Black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others. – bell hooks’ “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” (1984)
Little Fires Everywhere shows how harmful the “strong Black woman” trope is, as shown through the ways Black women and girls are forced to carry the burdens of people who demand labor from them and erase them from their own experiences. The “strong Black woman” trope makes it difficult for Black women and girls to be vulnerable when our worthiness of being valued is limited to what labor we do for people who believe we exist for their consumption, and that we don’t hurt like everyone else.
Binging Little Fires Everywhere during quarantine was the beginning of a wake-up call for me. When I was younger, I related to Pearl in the sense that my worthiness of being valued as a Black girl was often reduced to the labor I do for white women, while being praised for being “strong” in the midst of facing misogynoir. I’ve experienced this from peers at school, from teachers, and among other activists. In March of 2020, the main source of my stress other than the pandemic was doing labor for people who believed that I existed for their consumption and who saw me solely for what I can do for them. White feminists glorify the idea of Black women and girls carrying their burdens by calling us “strong,” and they do so in the name of “intersectional feminism.” When we remind them that we don’t exist for their consumption, their proximity to ruling class white men matters more to them than our liberation.
Stephanie Younger is 18-year-old student who created Black Feminist Collective in 2017, and fights for a world abolished of prisons, police and systems of policing, and is passionate about its intersections with womanism.