The book, Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, published in 2017, was recently adapted for a T.V. miniseries on Hulu earlier this year (Shelton et al., 2020). The show takes place in the late 1990s and centers the interconnectedness of four families in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Through intimate portrayals of the family dynamics in each home as well as the interactions between them, the Hulu adaptation does as stellar job at showing the complicated nature of family. Little Fires Everywhere raises issues of importance on reproductive justice, racism, classism, and motherhood in modern America.
Reproductive justice is founded on three basic human rights: “(1) the right to have a child under the conditions of one’s choosing; (2) the right not to have a child using birth control, abortion, or abstinence; and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments free from violence by individuals or the state” (Ross, 2017, p. 290). This theme is present for nearly every adult female character in the show and is the connection that binds all of the characters together.
Elena Richardson is an upper-class white woman with a husband and four high school aged children. The image she portrays to the world is one of perfection, as someone confident in her life plan and her life choices. It is only when viewers get a glimpse at her past that they discover the sacrifices Elena has made for her family and for herself. Elena and her husband, Bill, already had three children when she discovered she was pregnant yet again. Elena sobbed at the new information, understanding that for her as a woman this meant giving up her career and a life that she had imagined. She considered an abortion but was talked out of it by her husband who cavalierly said, “four will be just like three,” and more sternly by her mother who tells her daughter that though they’ve held signs advocating for women’s choice, abortions are “not for people like us.” With this statement Elena’s mother segregated her family from “the type of women” who would need an abortion, showing that access alone to reproductive healthcare does not destigmatize it.
In contrast, Elena’s daughter, Lexi, becomes pregnant during the show and decides to have an abortion. While at the clinic, Lexi writes down the name of her Black friend, Pearl, because of the perceived level of shame if anyone in her mother’s world found out that she had an abortion. After the procedure, Pearl takes Lexi back to her house to avoid Lexi’s father finding out. This scene shows that abortion remains a politicized and stigmatized choice for women, a choice that is even more limited for women in the state of Ohio today than it was in 1998 when the show was set (Norris et al., 2020).
On the opposite side of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies are the families who want and are unable to become pregnant. Pearl is the only daughter of Mia Warren, a Black single mother, who has moved around a lot. The family explained their moving by Mia’s job as an artist; however, later in the show the real reason for their constant moving is revealed. Mia was desperate for money to complete her education and became a surrogate for a couple struggling with infertility. During the pregnancy, however, she became attached to the baby and couldn’t bring herself to surrender the child to someone else. Mia told the couple that she had a miscarriage and gave birth to Pearl, a healthy baby girl. Their on-the-run lifestyle was necessary, so that the couple hoping to become Pearl’s parents would never find them.
Through Mia’s misguided attempts to resolve her own guilt around keeping Pearl, she becomes involved in a legal custody battle for her coworker, Bebe Chow, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, who had abandoned her baby at a fire station after not being able to feed her. By coincidence, Bebe’s daughter, Meiling, is being raised by Elena’s friends, Linda and Mark McCullough, who had miscarriage after miscarriage and are hoping to adopt Meiling (renamed Mirabelle). The custody battle that ensues over Meiling between Bebe and Linda McCullough mirrors the conflict between Mia and Elena which centers the questions, what makes a good mother, and what makes a good childhood?
Shaker Heights is depicted as an upper-class community of good-doing, liberal people who live with the best of intentions and little self-reflection. However, in this world of colorblindness, Pearl faces racism at her new high school when her school counselor won’t allow her to switch into the advanced math class and assumes based on his limited knowledge of her that she will need the subsidized lunch forms. Pearl again feels the ramifications of structural racism when she and Elena’s son, Moody, are caught trespassing. Elena writes off the experience as not a big deal; however, Mia’s reaction is one of fear, scolding Pearl by saying, “Black people don’t get passes like them” (Shelton, 2020). Pearl rebuts that a community security guard picked them up, not a police officer, but Mia knows all too well that the scenario could have played out differently.
Interpersonal racism is also depicted from the Richardson family toward Mia and Pearl. When the show begins, Elena, the watchful white woman, calls the police unnecessarily on Mia, a Black single mother, for sleeping in her car – a scene that is all too familiar in the real world (Gutsche et al., 2020). Unbeknown to Mia that Elena was the one who called the police, Mia expresses interest in renting Elena’s property. Elena feels guilt for her earlier actions and rents the apartment on the spot at a discounted price. Later that evening, she seeks affirmation from her husband that she is indeed a good person.
While in town, Elena sees Mia working at a local Chinese restaurant. She again steps in with what she believes is a helpful offer. Elena asks Mia to be her “house manager,” which Mia accepts. The women develop a friendly relationship until the differences in their mothering styles and opposing stances on the custody battle between Bebe and the McCulloughs creates an unsurmountable hostility. Elena accuses Mia of being a “terrible mother,” arguing that “a good mother makes good choices” (Shelton et al., 2020). Mia comes back with a brilliantly executed line, “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.” Colorblind Elena is incredulous that Mia could insert a racial dynamic into the conversation. The fact that Elena can separate race and class from her role as a mother is a privilege. Mia sharply replies, “You made it about race when you stood out there on the street begging me to be your maid. . . White women always want to be friends with their maids. I was not your maid, Elena, and I was never your friend” (Shelton et al., 2020).
Just like her mother, Lexi uses Black people in her life to her advantage both consciously and unconsciously. Lexi befriends Pearl as a way of raising her social credibility with her boyfriend, Brian, who is also Black, and she uses both of these relationships to prove that she is not racist. As friends, the first egregious act Lexi commits against Pearl is using Pearl’s essay about not being admitted into the advanced math course as her story and her college admission essay to Yale University. Lexi expresses frustration that it isn’t her fault she hadn’t had any challenges in life and that she was being punished for it. Later in the show, when Lexi becomes pregnant, it is her first real challenge in life. Instead of taking full ownership of the consequences, Lexi again uses Pearl’s identity, this time her name, at the clinic. When Mia discovers Pearl’s name on the form from the abortion clinic, she poignantly tells Pearl, “it breaks my heart that she can’t see you for you – that she only sees what you can do for her” (Shelton et al., 2020).
The conflict around class status first arises between Elena and Mia, with Elena’s obvious disdain for Mia’s lifestyle. As Pearl becomes closer to the Richardson’s, she too begins questioning her mother’s choices. At multiple times in the show, various members of the Richardson family attempt to buy Pearl’s affection. Moody sweetly buys Pearl a bike, so they can hang out together, and Lexi buys Pearl a homecoming dress in what is understood as a direct transaction for letting her use Pearl’s essay. At both of these expensive gifts, Mia scoffs and demands that Pearl return them.
The differences in the two families’ values about money become apparent in these smaller incidences leading up to the main point of conflict over the custody battle between Bebe and the McColloughs, a dynamic between a poor, single mother of color and a wealthy, white married couple that replicates the identities of Mia and Elena exactly. The custody battle more directly compels viewers to ask themselves, does growing up in a white, affluent home make for a better childhood than growing up with one’s own biological kin? Before entering the courtroom, Elena’s husband, the acting attorney for the McColloughs says, “Linda is not going to lose her baby . . . because people like Bebe Chow do not win” (Shelton et al., 2020).
The Richardson children have no doubt learned to buy their way through life from their primary role model, their mother. When Bebe first makes her intentions known that she is hoping to get back her daughter, Elena goes to Bebe’s apartment and offers a $10,000 check and legal help with her immigration status to stop the custody hearing. Bebe refuses the offer and responds by her asking, “how much would you sell [your children] for?”
Throughout the show, Elena and the McColloughs try to portray Bebe as a bad mother for abandoning Meiling at a fire station in the dead of winter. Viewers see what Elena and the McColloughs cannot in the moments leading up to Meiling’s relinquishment. Meiling is hungry, cold, and crying profusely but will not accept Bebe’s breast milk. Bebe tries to go to the convenience store to buy a can of formula, hoping Meiling will drink that instead, but she is $0.70 short, and the snide cashier refuses to give her the formula. Desperate and unsure of what to do, Bebe leaves her daughter where she will be found and taken care of.
This scene is critical in the creation of two contrasting situations in the show. Later in the same episode, the Richardson’s youngest daughter, Izzy, takes the bus home from a school dance. When she holds out her palm of change, she says that she is $0.70 short, but the bus driver lets her on anyway. This, in comparison, to Bebe’s experience being just $0.70 short shows both racial and class privilege as well as the heightened ramifications something as small as pocket change can have for one person and not another.
Bebe’s struggles feeding Meiling are juxtaposed with Elena’s struggles feeding young Izzy. Izzy was a fussy baby, who, like Meiling, refused breast milk. While Bebe couldn’t afford one can of formula, the next scene with Elena shows her frantically filling up her grocery cart with tens of cans of formula. Her class privilege afforded her this opportunity without even thinking twice. However, when she returns home, the water has been shut off, and Elena cannot make the formula. In this moment, Elena is desperate, tired, and begins smashing porcelain dishes out of frustration. She abandons her family, location unknown, for the rest of the night, sees an old lover, and returns the next day with a pacifier for Izzy. This was Elena’s lowest point as a mother, yet the outcome was far different than what happened after Bebe’s lowest point. Elena had a husband and friends who come to watch the children. There were no consequences for her because of her financial privilege and her safety net of people. Bebe’s lowest moment resulted in the permanent loss of her child. This show argues that “no mother would want to be judged by the choice she made in her hardest, most desperate moment” (Shelton et al., 2020).
Little Fires Everywhere paints a complicated portrait of motherhood. No mother in this show is wholly good or right, but each loves their child fiercely and believes what they are doing is the best thing for them. Both Izzy and Pearl, feel misunderstood by their own mothers and seek comfort from the other’s mother. Pearl wants the stability, luxury, and perceived “normalcy” of the Richardson’s lifestyle, while Izzy wishes her mother could be like Mia and accept her sexual orientation, cultivate her creativity, and allow her to be her own person instead of trying to mold her into an illusion of perfection. The solace they both find in another mother shows each of these mothers’ faults and disproves Elena’s notion of being a good mother or a bad mother, mothering in the right way or the wrong way. For most mothers, they are simply mothering in the way they know. On a larger level, this speaks to society’s unrealistic expectations of motherhood and that there is a magical formula for an ideal mother that few women can ever reach. This same burden is not placed on fathers as long as they are providing financially for the family, and this too can be seen in the relative absence of Bill and Mark.
In addition to questioning what makes a good mother, the show also asks viewers to think about simply what makes someone a mother. Linda McCollough and Bebe Chow’s roles are pitted against each other in this nature versus nurture debate. In an effort to protect her hopeful adoptive parent friend, Elena disparages Bebe by saying, “Just because you birth a baby doesn’t make you a mother” (Shelton et al., 2020). Is Bebe Meiling’s mother, because Meiling came from her body, was nourished with her milk, and was cared for by her for one year? And after she loses the custody battle, is Bebe still a mother even though she does not have the legal right to her child anymore? Mia sympathetically says to Bebe, “a mother is a mother and you will always be hers” (Shelton et al., 2020). On the other hand, Linda considers herself Meiling’s mother, because Meiling calls her mama and has spent the last year of her life with the McColloughs. Linda beautifully says, “When she’s afraid, she reaches for me. She didn’t come from my body, and I’m sad about that. But that doesn’t make me any less of a mother.” And just like the other complicated conversations this show elicits, there are no easy answers around motherhood. Both of these women are mothers in their own right.
One final theme presented on motherhood is the use of children to fulfill personal needs, which leads to possession. Elena is socialized to want a beautiful home in the suburbs, a husband, and a stable life. In her attempt to achieve this goal, she leaves behind her dream career and a man she loves. Because of these sacrifices, Elena’s children must be perfect in order to prove to her that this was truly the life she wanted. She molds each child to her form, and her life begins unraveling when her teen children prove to be imperfect beings. While Mia does not conform to society’s standards the way Elena does, she does use Pearl in a similar way to justify her own worth. Additionally, Mia lost her brother in a car crash, lost her girlfriend to cancer, and lost her parents to estrangement. When she became pregnant with Pearl, she had lost everyone important to her and could not bear to lose someone else. Thus, Pearl becomes her everything. Mia shows possession over Pearl when she screams, “she’s mine!,” desperate to hold on her (Shelton et al., 2020). Linda’s love for Meiling fills her deep desire to be a mother and relieves some of the pain from her past miscarriages. Linda’s unresolved grief over her infertility does not allow her to see Bebe’s perspective, as she simply tells Elena, “I can’t lose another baby.” In a later scene, Linda struggles to give Bebe her supervised visitation with Meiling and hisses to a news camera, “I’m her mother!” Lastly, though Bebe’s position is perhaps the most understandable of the other mother figures in the show, Bebe’s kidnapping of Meiling without a plan, a new source of income, or any resources shows a level of possession, as well. Each mother’s need for personal fulfillment through their child allows them to view the child only through their own narrow lens and blinds them to their children’s actual needs and interests.
Little Fires Everywhere is more than a family drama. It is an examination of race, class, and privilege in America and the hierarchal structures that impact families and communities. In the show, Bill is afforded work opportunities that Elena does not have because of his gender. Elena exercises privilege over Mia because of her race and truly believes she is helping Mia and Pearl. Though poor herself, Mia still has financial privilege over Bebe and uses her resources to help her. Bebe, in her moment of desperation, thinks she is helping Meiling. The McColloughs also have financial privilege over Bebe as well as legal immigration status, which are both used in their argument of being able to better help Meiling have the childhood she deserves. Little Fires Everywhere asks people to reflect on their actions and the true motivations behind them, and shows the damage that can be done in the name of having the right intentions.
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