How 'Claws' Showcases The Best Of Unconditional Sisterhood Onscreen
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Television , Opinion

How 'Claws' Showcases The Best Of Unconditional Sisterhood Onscreen

The women of TNT’s Claws would kill for each other. In the premiere, one of them, clad in pastel pink fur, transparent heels and nothing else, shot an abuser dead as he physically assaulted another woman. At this stage of the game, the two women don’t even like each other that much, but the instinct to protect another woman from harm is so strong.

The series is set in Palmetto, a rather nondescript city in Florida less than an hour’s drive from Tampa. At its center is a group of women with pasts as brightly colored as the nails they manicure at Nail Artisans, a salon in a strip mall next door to a folk dancing school. In case you still don’t get it, the show’s kaleidoscopic choices in sets, costumes and hair, drive the point home. Desna, played by Niecy Nash, manages the shop and was coerced into laundering money through Nail Artisans by her “boyfriend,” Roller, for his family's opioid pill mill operation. Her closest friends work there with her.

It’s clear the women of Nail Artisans have a lot of baggage that would take a lifetime, and a lot of love and support, to unpack. Scarlet-haired Polly (Carrie Preston), just out of prison for fraud, uses pathological lying as a coping mechanism. Jennifer (Jenn Lyon), who looks like Country Girl Barbie, is a recovering alcoholic with a string of murdered relatives and a frosty relationship with her mother. Ann (Judy Reyes), is also an ex-felon having attempted to kill an ex-girlfriend who was also her ex-husband’s mistress. Although highly educated and from a respectable Cuban-American family, it’s clear she suffers from lifelong lack of emotional support. Asian/Black biracial Virginia (Karrueche Tran) is the girl everyone hates to love and is a newly retired sex worker. Fired from her position as a stripper/trapper, Desna gives her a job at the salon. Still, Virginia continues to have a love/hate relationship with the rest of the girls. Uniquely rootless, she appears to have had no family relationships at all.

Girlfriends, The L Word, The Golden Girls and Sex and the City stand out in the annals of TV history for their distinctive emphasis on the importance of female friendship. Perhaps it's based on the assumption that no one will have as innate an understanding of women's particular struggles as other women. In SATC, Samantha and her crew provided support to each other to withstand the brutal dating market of the big city. For the Golden Girls, Blanche and company needed each other while living as women who committed the cardinal sin of growing old. Isolated from their families, for the most part, they created a new one, whose members understood them more intimately than any blood relations ever wanted to, or ever could.

Claws’ characters do the same. These are women who realized at some point if they are going to survive, they must do so by being there for each other unconditionally. Whether it’s gossiping at the salon, unplanned pregnancies, picking out date outfits, divorce, annoying in-laws, bachelorette parties, regurgitation, burglarizing or beatdowns, the women of Nail Artisans have been there for each other. Ann betrayed her girlfriend and love of her life, to protect Desna. Polly, sensing Virginia is about to do something stupid, goes to have a lil' chat with her over pink frosted cupcakes and a big butcher knife. It’s her way of warning Virginia not to do anything that will get their friend in trouble.

Seasons one and two can be rough metaphors for the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, both of which aspired to an ideal rooted in simultaneous universal solidarity among women and the destruction of abusive patriarchy. In season one of Claws, we saw Desna with the help of Virginia, Jennifer, Polly and Ann try to get the boot of the Dixie Mafia off their necks. Like real life, it’s an even harder proposition given the fact Desna and Jennifer are literally in bed with them. Desna “dates” Roller. Virginia also dates Roller. Jennifer is married to Bryce, Roller’s brother, and a recovering crackhead. Roller and Bryce are Clay “Uncle Daddy” Husser’s nephews.

(l to r) Neicy Nash, Dean Norris in a scene from the TNT drama, Claws. Source: TNT.

Played with relish by Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Uncle Daddy is the consummate male exploiter. From his headquarters at his strip club She She’s, a Southwest Florida bastardization of Tony Soprano’s Bada Bing!, Uncle Daddy terrorizes and takes advantage of the women even as he proclaims himself their protector. By the end of season one, though, the Husser men get their comeuppance. Roller is made to understand how it feels to be objectified, assaulted and abused, and the male mafiosos lose everything in a takeover by female Russian mobsters.

Desna and her crew are also not afraid to be brutally honest with each other. That openness is the glue that keeps them holding onto each other through their roller coaster lives. The head of the Russian mob, Zlata (Franka Potente), initially traumatizes and intimidates Desna by committing sororicide in front of her. Indeed, her violent overthrow of her sister is how she comes to be head of the operation. However, Zlata then makes Machiavellian notions of sisterhood and Desna’s need for approval and esteem to corrupt and control her. Desna seems to start to lose sight of her friends and herself. Fearing Zlata’s Slavic-inflected siren song is seducing her, the rest of the women intervene, forming a chorus of heavily bejeweled misfits begging Desna to wake up before it’s too late.

Claws tackles the idea of female solidarity across races. Although mainstream media insists that all working-class women look and live like Roseanne, Claws contends that working-class women come in all colors. And it is a willingness to seek that truth that can ultimately enrich our lives emotionally as well as materially. Claws also doesn’t shy from pointing out specific differences in experience between races either, without being didactic or interrupting the show's nice seriocomic rhythm. One of the biggest criticisms of mainstream feminism is its refusal to acknowledge that, as feminist cultural critic bell hooks remarked in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center: “The idea of ‘common oppression’ is a false and corrupt platform disguising and mystifying the true nature of women’s varied and complex social reality.” In an earlier episode from the current season, Desna lightly hints at these different experiences: “Do you know how many black women my age I know are married?” she asks her friends, “None!” If the show dares to continue to explore issues like these, it will deepen the quality of the relationships between these women even more.

The trick, of course, is to tackle the issues without losing the art, but if anyone can do it, this cast can. In addition to talent, the cast brings the richness and depth of knowledge older actresses communicate. Part of the reason even younger generations watch and grow to love shows like The Golden Girls and Sex and the City is due to the presence of these very qualities. Combined with smart, skilled writers who know how to make good TV as evidenced thus far on the series, it makes for characters and situations the viewer isn't likely to forget. Claws can and should go more in-depth into waters in which they've already dared to tread. The question of sisterhood is universal and provides endless material for dramatization. There is no questioning Claws' cast or writers' ability to do it, just their willingness. We don’t deserve such greatness, but we’d all be the better for it.