I Hate Suzie and the Deconstruction of Female Identity
You know, a few years ago, I wrote an article wondering what it would look like for a show to deconstruct femininity the same way that so much contemporary television has deconstructed masculinity. At the time, I couldn’t come up with an answer to that question, but little did I know that it was on its way – specifically, in the form of 2020’s I Hate Suzie, created by Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper, and starring the latter.
Honestly, it’s a pretty simple premise, and one that I was drawn to as a long-time fan of Piper’s work – Suzie, a one-time child star turned genre actress, has her life flipped upside down when explicit photos of her and her lover are released without her consent. In a post-MeToo world, that’s an interesting enough place to start – but I Hate Suzie takes that and runs with it, throwing us into the midst of a brilliantly dense (and also funny, inventive, intelligent, and heart-breaking, but who’s counting) deconstruction of Suzie’s place in the world – not just as a person, but, specifically, as a woman.
I think one of the problems with really getting into the deconstruction of female identity is the fear that such heavy introspection of the feminine psyche will come across as anti-woman – because, if we’re being brutally honest, a lot of what goes on in there is influenced by a patriarchal system that tells us to value men and male pleasure over our own, no matter what form that comes in. To really get into the examination of women, you have to first come to terms with the reality that what goes on under the surface is likely to be far from the gleaming, radical feminist fantasy that we might hope exists there. No matter how much we educate ourselves on how women should be viewed and treated, the cultural messages are strong enough to bury themselves into our psyches in a way that takes decades to undo – shut up. Look pretty. Not like that. Be easy, but not too much.
What I love most about I Hate Suzie is that it takes these biases in Suzie’s brain (where we spend a whole heap of the entire season’s eight-episode run) and builds on the way her identity has been shaped by them from there on up. Because what the explicit photos of her represent is basically the downfall of all the things, culturally, that she had been built up to believe were of value in her as a woman – their publication reveals that she cheated on her husband, violating her place as a wife (and, to most, a mother, too). As an ex-child-star, she can no longer trade on the percieved innocence of her image, losing out on jobs due to the shift in the way she is viewed. Her sexuality now comes first, whether she likes it or not. Her image – and her self-image – is wrecked. So, what happens next?
The following eight episodes are an attempt to figure that out, and make for some of the finest TV of the year as far as I’m concerned. Suzie starts out just trying to kill it with kindness – she offers sweetness and self-flagellation in the face of what is happening, a last-gasp to maintain that idealized feminine image of complicity and non-combative gentleness. But from there on out, things start to take on a much darker turn – and a much more interesting one, too.
From a whole episode following a single masturbation session as Suzie tries to figure out what her true desires, beyond the realms of just trying to please men, actually look like, to one that perfectly encapsulates the creeping dread and fear of knowing that everything that you were expected to embody has been taken from you, it’s not a show that bows easily to pleasant wrap-ups, focusing instead on the anger and the rage and the betrayal that comes with realizing that so much of what you’ve built your life around just hasn’t been for your benefit. And, horribly, that you have to figure out how to rebuild it in a way that actually works.
In case you haven’t guessed yet: I Hate Suzie is one of the finest bits of TV I’ve seen in ages. If, like me, lockdown has been all about those existential mind journeys, I Hate Suzie is the magnificent piece of feminist fiction that you deserve – complex, beautifully-constructed, and focused on the construction and deconstruction of the female image, both public and private – it’s just what I’ve been waiting for, I can’t recommend it enough.
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(header image via Cosmopolitan)