Note: Spoilers for Mare of Easttown and also The Holiday
Here’s an important and (as far as I can yet tell) unaddressed question for Mare of Easttown criticism: when, exactly, did Mare Sheehan stop dying her hair blond?
This question may seem trivial compared to more pressing Mare of Easttown questions, such as “was that ending good?” and “is this copaganda?” However, don’t worry: all these are the same question. In Mare of Easttown, police try to rescue white women from sexual harm; the show narrates the fantasy, entertained by many, that protecting white women is what the police do (whether it indulges or interrogates that fantasy is precisely the question). So to think about Mare of Easttown means to think about how Mare, a police detective, relates to her own white womanhood, of which blond hair is one of mass culture’s most powerful symbols. I called this essay Mare’s Hair but when a friend suggested I call it “Discipline and Pony Tail,” I felt very seen, and also right.
I have consulted with several friends and we all agree that Mare’s roots index a year or two of neglect, max. What happened? The major trauma we’re given is Kevin’s suicide, but I think, based on the hair-studies evidence of Siobhan’s standard-issue-white-girl-bob in the death-scene flashback, that Kevin’s death predates Mare’s last visit to a salon (it doesn’t take long to physically cut your hair, but moving from bob to lesbian asymmetrical undercut is often a lengthy personal journey). So at some point in her grief, Mare went to a salon, I’m imagining with Lor, to get a touchup. Or maybe she went totally blond then. We just don’t know. It seems, from the photo in the Register (which features Mare’s face, not her famed basketball shot) that Mare was blond in high school (sun in?), so it could be that since then she’s either maintained or recreated that look; she’s pretty blond when Kevin and Carrie corner her in the bathroom. I think of Mare as someone not great about roots at the best of times — defining herself against her mom, who clearly gets her hair “rinsed” on the regular — but that just makes the blond more interesting. We could ask Brianna for her read on Mare’s hair, maybe; since Brianna’s post-crime back-up plan is to go to cosmetology school and do the hair of “rich main line women” and since she is mean, Brianna could likely generate some pointed observations about Mare’s grooming. White women are good at detecting the precise level of white womanhood other white women are achieving. That’s what I’m doing right now.
Based on available evidence, our known facts are only 1: at some point in Mare’s semi-recent past, she believed constructing a little white femininity would be a good idea, either as a balm or basic upkeep, but, 2: by January 10, 2020 (the day the show begins) she has not felt that way for a long time.
This is the narrative stasis in which Mare of Easttown begin: once upon a time there was a sad white lady detective who could neither take care of her own femininity (her roots) nor the town’s femininity (Katie Bailey). By the end of Mare of Easttown’s eight episodes, however, this crisis of identity has been resolved: Mare’s white femininity and her police power have reunited, which is what allows her to solve the crime (Katie Bailey), and also to solve the other crime (Erin McMenamin), and also to deal with her feelings about the death of her son. The opening hair crisis is the visual clue as to what path this story is on.
So here’s the next question: how does Mare get back the power of her white femininity? How does she, as it were, recover her roots? This mystery is easier to solve. Mare’s white femininity reactivates when a white man finds her beautiful. (This is how white women always get their cultural power, by white men validating their exchange-value as objects of white male attention.)
Further, the solution to Mare’s femininity crisis is the same as the answer to another question criticism has raised, which is what is Richard doing here? I’ve seen some speculation around the internets that Richard must be involved in the murder somehow, because otherwise isn’t it just so convenient that he shows up right around Erin’s murder and leaves right when it’s solved? Yes, he’s involved: he just doesn’t actually murder anyone (yet; in this show, sexual harm remains a constant potential). Instead, Richard’s narrating eye changes the character that Mare plays within the story. No longer a failed detective, mother, and wife, she becomes “a beautiful woman.”
In one of the most resonant recent discussions of beauty, power, and whiteness, Tressie McMillan Cottom describes the functions beauty serves in our political economy. Beauty, she says, “can be political, economic, external, individualized, generalized, exclusionary.” She goes on: “and perhaps best of all a story that can be told.”
Cottom means “story” I think in the sense of “accepted cultural logic.” In Mare of Easttown that logic is literal, because an actual writer enters the plot. In the first episode, Mare, having been publicly shamed for failing to protect a white girl from sexual predators, meets a white male writer who tells her “you’re a very beautiful woman.” He’s not writing about Mare, but he’s story-fying her just the same: when he sees her as beautiful, she acquires beauty’s value as a tool she can use. And Mare’s no fool. So even though she knows about beauty’s dangers (and so do we, because this meeting appears intercut with scenes of Erin getting catfished: beauty, as Cottom says, is “not good capital”) Mare and Richard have sex. Mare styles her hair before their dates so that, in combination with date-night lighting, it signals “blond” rather than “not kept up blond”; she begins to use her attractiveness to sway the police (Colin) to her will; she ultimately she solves the cases. Yay!
Mare of Easttown withholds no evidence as to how white women’s beauty matters to police power. Mare, declared by the police chief to be “worth saving,” loses her badge and gun, but immediately uses her beauty to gain control over another police officer’s badge and gun; the transition is virtually seamless, though even Mare seems to find it a little embarrassing. Who will Mare’s date be with, the writer or the cop? Trick question; it’s because of the writer that she’s discovered her ability to date the cop; fucking one leads directly to her date with the other. The police are completely narratively enmeshed with the story Richard tells about Mare’s beautiful womanhood.
In this regard the answer to the question of “is this copaganda?” is yes, because an idealized symbiosis of white femininity and carceral power is basically the happy ending that American mass culture wants all of us to hope for. (That the chief of police is one of several framing Black characters only adds to the white carceral feminist fantasy, in that the show aggressively separates the police from white masculinity’s dangers.) But that “yes” comes with ambivalence, because this show is inside of white femininity deep enough to recognize white femininity, much like a police station, as a grim and dangerous place. But in a world where whiteness and carcerality have a lock on power — which, just saying, is not the only world we could imagine — that grim danger might feel, to the lucky some, the safest place available.
Mare of Easttown’s power as ambivalent copaganda hinges on a key feature of the Mare of Easttown viewing experience: watching Kate Winslet play Mare. Kate Winslet makes the relationship Mare embodies between white femininity and police power seductive, at least to me, in a very particular way.
Kate Winslet is a woman whom American culture has decided is a Beautiful Woman, although probably not as beautiful as other thinner women, like Cameron Diaz (again, here I’m not talking about personal preference, but rather cultural value and narrative power). And the thin point matters, although it’s gross, because there’s been so much policing of Winslet’s weight over the years (using that verb on purpose) that her body has become a location through which mass culture debates whether white women who do not look like Cameron Diaz can still have beauty-power, and to what degree.
I mention Cameron Diaz because the relation between what kind of access Kate and Cameron have to the white beauty story is literally the plot of one of twitter’s favorite movies, The Holiday. In The Holiday, Kate and Cameron swap lives to find love and the spirit of Christmas, experiences from which Cameron had sadly been estranged despite being fantastically beautiful and white. To help Cameron re-recognize the erotic and spiritual pleasures to be found in white beauty, the movie sends her to snowy England where she is costumed in a series of increasingly beautiful white coats (you know this is a gift of narrative because Cameron is from Los Angeles and brings only two suitcases). Kate, meanwhile, goes to Blockbuster with Jack Black to learn, from watching movies, that while she is hot, she is not hot enough to be loved by Rufas Sewall. At the movie’s ending, Kate and Cameron are both happy but the movie is really clear that Cameron’s is the beautiful-er love, which you know because the man who sees her beauty is the uber-white dude, Jude Law, not second-tier white dude Jack Black. All of this is very explicit in the final scene — there’s the thin rich blond couple and the rounder poorer darker couple, all in a conga line that Cameron leads — and thus beauty’s order has been restored. Noteworthy here is that while Kate Winslet is blond, all of The Holiday’s publicity material emphasizes that she is not as blond as Cameron.
It’s worth saying that the difference between Kate and Cameron is definitely a difference of degree rather than kind (here read Cottom pg 45-47), in that even debating the question of their comparative beauty just reinforces a beauty standard shaped around how racial capitalism values whiteness. Images of “beautiful women” always protect and serve dangerous fantasies.
But even so, if Cameron Diaz (who by all accounts is a really great person, this is just her image) had been cast in the role of Mare Sheehan and gained a bunch of weight to look like she ate Mare’s pizza-and-cheesesteak diet, and also if she had done some complicated dyed-out-blond-hair-thing, this would be a very different show, because the meaning of her weight and her hair would include a particular meta-textual wink to the audience, of the kind I normally hate. When someone’s beauty fuels their rise to prominence, I don’t want to be coerced into any celebration of their oh-so-brave willingness to temporarily suspend the privilege of their physical capital. I would not like it if Cameron Diaz were playing Mare. The effect of watching Cameron-Mare would partly be to tell watching white women that an inner Cameron Diaz waits inside them, if they just got their shit together.
But I’m not 100% sure that’s what’s happening here. On the question of how Mare’s appearance relates to Kate Winslet’s, my group texts are unresolved, and not for lack of considering. Did Kate Winslet gain weight for this role? Does she normally eat pizza? How much? The question we’re asking is: does looking “real,” like a middle-aged white woman who is stretched thin in a way that makes her gain weight, fit within the economy of “beauty,” or is it a sign that beauty has been cast away? When Kate Winslet looks sort of like us (as in, not in her particulars but in the fact that she is inhabiting the femininity available to middle-aged white women who don’t have a lot economic resources to invest in the preservation of their physical capital), does that mean that we could be the ones looked at by the writer in the bar, that we could be seen as beautiful?
What all this has to do with copaganda is that, by casting Kate, Mare of Easttown is making a particular offer to viewers like me: white women who have matured (Kate Winslet is exactly my age) watching Kate Winslet navigate the disciplining power of the American beauty economy. It is a particular offer about our abilities, ourselves, to seize police power to do our bidding. Kate Winslet is not Cameron Diaz, just like I am not. So maybe I could be her, no matter the status of my disciplinary body shit. Maybe I could be beautiful, maybe I could be worth saving. Maybe I could be the special version of copaganda this show offers, which is where the gap in power between police and white women collapses, and one woman, Mare, or me, holds the weapons of both. Maybe, just as Kate is, I could be the one who could keep the other white women safe.
To get back to my original question: I think that Mare stopped dying her hair about a year before the show starts, after Katie Bailey disappeared. I think Katie’s disappearance precipitated a break between Mare’s detective self and her white femininity self, a devastating one, one that suspended her ability to believe in the fantasy the show offers its viewers like me — that the police (which Mare is) could protect white women (which she also is) from harm. I’m imagining Mare, increasingly disenchanted, staying late at the office, following leads with Dawn. I’m imagining her delaying, and then finally cancelling, her salon appointments. And I’m imagining, in this show’s aftermath, Mare getting her hair done again. It’s a part of the emotional feminine integration the end of this show represents.
A lot of things happen at the end of Mare of Easttown. Katie Bailey is rescued; she goes home. Ryan is arrested; he goes to juvenile detention. Carrie relapses; she goes to rehab. Siobhan gets out; she goes to Berkeley. And Mare faces what she’d been afraid of. She goes into the attic.
As someone who has read a lot of gothic novels, almost all of which have the goal of getting women (like Katie Bailey) out of the attic, I found the final shots of Mare climbing the attic ladder surprising. Even though I knew Mare was going into the attic to let the ghosts trapped there come home, it was a mixed genre clue, like the show hadn’t quite settled on what counted as escape and what was a trapped place. Is the attic more like Berkeley, or more like rehab, or like jail? What’s the difference between these institutions, or the stories they produce?
I want to juxtapose this mixed-signals moment with another one that’s been troubling me. The last time we see Ryan, he’s in juvenile detention, but he talks with his mother and family in a library. Detention isn’t so bad, Ryan implies. He likes his writing class. And I keep turning over in my mind what it means that, just as the writer Richard leaves, we see another white male writer being trained up. Will this man, too — this sweet boy, this murderer — turn his eye towards narrativizing white feminine beauty? The circuit between Richard and Ryan is offered to us visually, on the cover of Richard’s book.
Mare of Easttown seems, at its end, to be heading into its own attic. Its ambivalent relationship to the story of police and white femininity it tells manifests in how it offers up the future — as a choice between two kinds of storytelling. There’s the male one Ryan will produce, one connected to Richard’s novel, apparently called May’s Landing, which looks to me a lot like the kind of prestige women-suffering fiction that Mare of Easttown also is. Against that, it offers the one Siobhan will produce, somewhere off-stage. When Siobhan drives away, this is one white woman, the show wants us to believe, who has truly been protected by her mother, the police. She’s been guided into a different story, to learn how to tell a different story.
But what I like about the ending is how, probably against the show’s own intentions, Siobhan’s car driving away seems just like her mother’s ladder, another genre trap. Mare of Easttown is copaganda but it’s smart enough to show its careful viewer that white femininity is always a serial story, a repeat offender. No white woman rescued by the police, not even Mare, not even one who cuts her hair, can really get away.
Sarah Mesle: A little judgy.