By Stephanie Younger •
Little Fires Everywhere is a limited series on Hulu, based on the book the book authored and published in 2017 by Celeste Ng, that aired 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 homeless Black woman and her daughter from the streets of Shaker, Ohio. 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, but only 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). Elena then does an unauthorized background check on Mia.
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 is fighting for Bebe and May Ling, 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.” No one else, including Mia, seems to have her best interest. Having stole Pearl from her parents as a baby, Mia moves her from place to place all of her life, and never prioritizes the basic parental care, including a stable home. In the first episode, Pearl says,
“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.”
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 tries to make Pearl repeat a math class instead of moving up to the next level, assuming that Pearl transferred to Shaker High School from an underresourced school in Cleveland. 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 Harlins (SteVonté Hart), learns that she stole Pearl’s story, she tokenizes her to mitigate her actions, and even gaslights Pearl by claiming that she ‘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 that “if this got out, if people found out, it would, like, actually matter.” 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 with Mia and Pearl, Elena travels to New York to dig up information about Mia’s past, including her 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 that 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 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 sees her. Because of the racist, xenophobic “justice” system, the court rules in favor of the McCulloughs, leaving Bebe devastated.
However, even after the verdict, Elena continues to dig up more information about Mia and Pearl’s lives at the abortion clinic where her friend works. Late at night, she confronts Mia again with the assumption that Pearl had the abortion. Mia immediately corrects Elena, and says that it was actually Lexie who registered for an abortion under Pearl’s name. “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, doing an unauthorized background check on her; and it ends Elena evicting the two of them. Yet, she often entertains her belief that she has “always had the best 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 who claim to be ‘feminists,’ and even claim to be on the side of Black liberation, while being oppressors of Black women by doing what ever it takes to ensure that America continues to work in its interest, which is the delusion of white supremacy.
Lexie Richardson believes that having being in an interracial relationship with Brian Harlins absolves her of her complicity in misogynoir, while silencing him when he calls her out for forcing Black women and girls to carry her burdens—like that of her mother, Elena. “Whenever I tell people I got into Princeton, the first thing that goes through their heads is ‘Oh, it’s because he’s Black.’ But when you get into Yale? They don’t think it’s because you stole a Black girl’s story,” Brian says to Lexie. Despite stealing a Black girl’s real experience with misogynoir to water it down and pass it off as her own fake story with sexism, Lexie is still accepted into an Ivy League. On top of that, she used Pearl’s name to protect her own reputation, and then implied that Pearl doesn’t matter. The way Pearl was erased from her own experiences and thrown under the bus can be linked with the ways Black women and girls are erased from our own narratives, and our struggles and language are co-opted by white women whose interest is gaining the same capital as white men. In 1984, bell hooks warned us of people, namely white women and Black men, 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, with no regard to our humanity. We are often guilty of projecting this onto each other. Mia Warren is a Black woman, herself, but she has no regard for Pearl as shown through the ways she has stolen Pearl from her family, and gatekept her life, and refused to advocate for Pearl when she needed it. 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, without considering ourselves first.
Watching 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 adults, 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 ‘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 collective liberation.
Stephanie Younger is an 18-year-old student who created Black Feminist Collective in 2017, and an abolitionist whose work focuses on the intersections Black feminism and womanism have with world abolished of prisons, the police and systems of policing.