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Is the Alienist’s Treatment of Women Accurate

There has been no shortage of discussion out there about Kreizler’s slap of Sara last week on the Alienist.  There are some that felt that the slap was merely a display of the same misogyny that seemed to define the era.  Some felt it was reasonable if not unacceptable for Kreizler to behave that way, some felt Sara was asking for it, some felt the slap was more an intentional display of the “anyone could become violent’ theme and still others felt the slap ruined the show and the character completely.  I certainly don’t condone slapping women or men for that matter, but I tended to side with the group who believed the slap was merely a normal emotional response to the stress he is under, the potential emotional instability plaguing him and the overarching theme of given the right set of circumstances anyone could be violent.  That to me begs the questions.  Is the treatment of Sara and other women on TNT’s Alienist accurate to the time, and what did the era ultimately do for the women’s movement of today?

First a brief history lesson.  I promise this will be short and painless.  The Gilded Age is a term coined by the great Mark Twain.  It ran from approximately 1870 until 1900.  The term was used for the surface opulence which hid the decay and grotesque deterioration of the city beneath.  The rich were 1%ers for sure and were often corrupt and apathetic at best.  Treatment of poor, orphaned children, animals and women, in general, was perfunctory and derelict regularly. 

This era marked a huge shift in social, economic and technological growth, and for all its flaws began the shift to a more positive America through the emergence of the Progressive era.  The 400 we hear so much about in the Alienist television series and novels by Caleb Carr were likely actors and recipients of the political machines of the age.  Extremely powerful political party bosses coerced votes to ensure the election of their candidates.  As a result, the rich were powerful in a way that far surpassed their city power and life and could ultimately impact the nation’s politics and social landscape.  Women were right on the cusp of declaring their political power and were becoming educated in far larger numbers than ever.  Troves of single, educated women were moving into the cities. 

These women had firm ideas of men, society and what ales it.  In particular, upper-middle-class women were moving their core Women’s Sphere values out of the home and into the city landscape.  The concept of changing womanhood became a hot topic at the turn of the century and famous artist Thomas Gibson’s art brought women to the forefront.  Every woman wanted to be a “Gibson Girl”, which is ironic.  For all the importance placed on women gaining influence they were still relegated to being called “girls”.  A fight was brewing between the established status quo and our power-seeking women.  Victoria Hull became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872 despite the fact that women were still not afforded the right to vote.

The first wave of feminism was all about the right to vote

​​Sara could have been a real women in this era.  She was raised by her father primarily which put her in direct opposition of the newly forming Women’s Christian Temperance Union, however, the values of societal welfare and duty are easily a hallmark of her moral code.  The WCTU believed in a “do everything approach” which meant their influence was felt in not just the later Temperance Movement but soup kitchens, orphanages, and homeless shelters.  Sara obviously feels a strong sense of duty to solve city crime but her motivations also seem to be an overwhelming desire to prove herself worthy.  Her education and single status would also make her typical of upper or upper-middle-class women of the time.  Her job as a clerk or secretary is very common for the types of jobs women held in this era if not the employer. 

In 1895, then real life Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt hired the first female to the police department as a secretary.  This was more a shrewd cost-cutting business decision to hire one woman to do the work of two men however it is the historic anecdote that he fought for her to receive equal pay as her male counterpart, something we still have not achieved in all facets of career today.  For all the independence women were achieving they were still thought of us physically and emotionally weaker as their male counterparts and that is accurately portrayed in The Alienist when the “women and the cripple” are kept out of the sting operation in last week’s episode.

Workplace harassment was as commonplace today as it was back then.  In episode one two men expose themselves to Sara at the police precinct.  If the sheer numbers of women coming forth in the last several months with the #Metoo Movement tell us anything things have not changed nearly enough since that time.

Kreizler is actually more accepting of the opposite sex and their intellect than most men of that age.  He is a morally black or white person who sees only intellect and morality not gender.  He continuously asks Sara for help and listens to her opinion.  His slap of Sara only proves he got emotional and she was the one who antagonized him.  He did not hold back because she was a woman even if he could have.  He is simply reacting to being called a liar and a coward by Sara when questioning him about his childhood abuse.  It is interesting to note that he repeatedly blames a lack of a strong mother for this abuse.  We do not yet know if this blame is literal as his Mother did the abusing or figurative as in his Father was abusing him and he blames his Mother for not stepping in and protecting him.

We are split in how we think the Alienist is doing with its women characters.

​​A quick counterpoint.  The misogyny of men in power gave rise to the concept of hysterical women. Society taught men the easiest way to deal with a hysterical woman was to slap some sense into them.  This incident tilts this trope a bit making Kreizler the hysterical one but its close enough that it gave me pause.  Moreover, one cannot ignore that he did slap her to quiet her.  Using physical violence to silence dissent is page one out of the domestic abuser’s handbook.  Couple that with his apparent interest in the one female character who cannot talk, Mary, and we have some interesting discourse about what he wants and sees in women generally.  As we discussed earlier he already blames his mother for his earlier abuse.  He is predisposed to be an abuser.  The real clue will be how Sara reacts in the future.  Hopefully, she will continue to speak her mind.  She is a real character with agency in an era that is just now dealing with the ramifications of giving all women agency. 

What’s interesting to note here is my female viewpoint is much more forgiving of Kreizler and his actions than Tyler who condemns the actions as a precursor to further violence against women.  Whichever reading you subscribe to, the complexity of these characters is part of the reason why I love this show so much.  What do you think?  Was the slap warranted?  Or is it an expression of toxic masculinity that could easily manifest into domestic violence?  Or somewhere in between.  Leave us a comment here, on Facebook, or on Twitter.    

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