Major spoilers included for the entirety of Little Fires Everywhere
I don’t know where to begin. I’ve been trying to write this — essentially an introduction to an interview with the Little Fires’ showrunner about Mia and Izzy being queer — for weeks! I’m not sure where to start. I will say, first, that I don’t think this will be our only post on the show, because my focus here is on sexual orientation and there’s so much more to discuss than that.
Okay. This show seared right into me. I mean of course it did: I was in high school in 1997 and 1998, I lived in a mostly upper-middle-class Midwestern town mostly stocked with excessively-educated white families (although ours were a bit more liberal than Shaker Heights), I had obscenely wealthy friends with houses that made my jaw drop (one had an indoor pool!), I watched Real World: Boston marathons, we lowered our car windows and asked each other if we had any Grey Poupon, I listened to those songs. The songs are different in the show, though — slower and sadder, like we didn’t realize what they really meant until much later. So much of this adaptation relies on what we didn’t see at the time.
I read the book, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, two or three years ago. I recall it as well-written and impeccably crafted but not particularly resonant for me, personally, although it was a critically acclaimed bestseller included on basically every “Best Novels” list of 2017.
But the Hulu adaptation, a project initiated by actors Reese Witherspoon (who chose it for her book club) and Kerry Washington and adapted with Ng’s support, elevates the source material, complicating its investigations of race and class and also giving two of its leads the greatest gift you can give a character: making them gay.
The first shift readers will note, however, is that Washington’s character, Mia Warren, and her daughter Pearl, were white in the book and, obviously, are Black in the show. This adaptation heightens the narrative into a more wide-reaching interrogation of the actual racial dynamics of a Cleveland suburb initially and proudly created by an integration-focused coalition of black and white families in the 70s. Little Fires is unsparing and exacting in its portrayal of a specific time and place — the late 90s, the midwest — when brutish racism (and sexism, for that matter) had been somewhat hidden from view, replaced by a facade of We Are The World multiculturalism, whitewashed fantasies of “not seeing color” and what Ta-Nehisi Coates describes as “elegant racism” — “invisible, supple and enduring,” underpinning every aspect of American life.
That said; minimal care seemed to be taken around Bebe Chow’s character, whose story never rose past her circumstances — in a show full of strong personalities with distinct interests, Bebe had neither. What she did have generally conformed to other stereotypical portrayals of East Asian women as unstable and hysterical.
Where a culture like this — socially liberal-to-moderate, not particularly religious — stood on gay people can be a little fuzzier. I experienced this dissonance constantly growing up, but I’ve never seen it examined like this on television. Everyone was left-wing, everyone supported equal rights, everyone watched Ellen even after she came out, everyone cried for Jack on Dawson’s Creek, gay men were considered stylish and everyone went to see the AIDS quilt. Yet, that tolerance often ended at one’s own doorstep. Being gay was okay from afar but rude up close. High school, well past the ’90s, was a hotbed of homophobia, and of course far moreso in the ’90s. It was entirely and absolutely socially acceptable — even expected — for students to tease and exclude both out queer classmates and anybody who displayed any traits associated with being gay, like a girl with short hair or a boy who did theater.
For women, the ridicule arrived at the intersection of misogyny and homophobia, and is perhaps best summed up in Episode 7 by the teenage boy who playfully chides “it’s the 90s, right?” when Izzy’s spin-the-bottle bottle lands on April, thus earning them a trip to the closet to make out, and then the entire room is horrified to open the door and find the two girls actually kissing. April pushes Izzy away and says she came onto her and it is social homicide for Izzy, from which she will never recover. Her classmates call her “Ellen” and we all know what that means. Similarly, we are to know and we accept that Lilith Fair, too, has a lesbian connotation, despite the festival itself having only two out queer musical acts on its main stage in ’97 and ’98 (and a very small percentage of out queer acts on the smaller stages).
Mia’s story of her own sexuality, meanwhile, starts somewhere else altogether — the early ’80s New York City art world, where artists were defining and building movements, Soho and the East Village were international epicenters for the up-and-coming and buyers were paying top dollar to get a piece of it. It was the kind of place I dreamed of being as a teenager, and Izzy does. She wants out of the suburbs so bad she can’t even see the privileges she has within them. When Mia met Pauline — love really was love, because it was really about the art, about connection, about what’s possible on the fringes. But in the book, neither Izzy or Mia were queer, at least not overtly so.
Little Fires is an opportunity to look at the particulars of the late ’90s with the benefit of 2020’s relaxed social conventions for what can be shown on television. Shows actually airing in 1997, as Ellen’s temporary demise revealed, couldn’t tell those stories. Even abortion — also tackled in Little Fires — was generally avoided by giving pregnant teens pre-appointment miscarriages.
In many ways, we’re more capable of telling an accurate 1997 story now than we were in 1997. It’s not just about social conventions — it’s that late ’90s media was an active part of denialism that characterized conversations around racism in the ’90s. Watching it was a reckoning. I can’t figure out how to explain it, specifically, but Little Fires somehow gave shape to the scattered memories I’ve accumulated of the prevailing attitudes around race I grew up with, specifically those delivered by “well-intentioned white people” in abject denial of white supremacy’s impact on everything we said and did, and how that continues to shape everything we say and do. (Sidenote: this is an interesting piece about what’s happening in Shaker Heights now.) My memories of how homophobia played out are less scattered but Little Fires deepened those outlines, too. I wasn’t the only one who could see what I think I saw. As Mia herself says in Episode 6, “The Uncanny,” “art should either bring something new into the world or something strange and familiar and terrifying, or at the very least uncomfortable.” Little Fires did that for me — it was uncomfortable.
It also felt very grounded in realism, beginning with its organic treatment of ’90s pop culture, which wasn’t as campy or deliberate as we’ve seen in a few other shows set in that time period. After seeing the first seven screeners of the season, I reached out to Little Fires’ bisexual showrunner Liz Tigelaar to ask about queerness on the show. That started with pop culture — which was spot-on throughout, from music played at school dances to comparing our sex lives to Brenda and Dylan’s, In recent years, ’90s-set shows have tended to be comedies (Fresh Off The Boat, Everything Sucks!, On Becoming a God In Central Florida) or biopics (People Vs. OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace), where the albeit beloved nostalgia’s pretty campy and deliberate. In Little Fires, it just is.
Q: The pop cultural artifacts you integrated into the show, like Ellen’s coming out and Lilith Fair — even The Real World: Boston marathons and Loveline at night — were dead-on. What was the process around deciding what to reference?
A: With Izzy’s story, we wanted to reference cultural moments that would feel specific to her. And, of course, ones that resonated with me at the time, too. We were also a writers’ room compromised of writers who really came of age in the 90s, so we wanted to include those specific touchstones for us. “The Real World” was a huge one. So was “Beverly Hills 90210”. And, of course, the music and fashion – who doesn’t relate to Tevas and Steve Maddens?
Q: Tell me about the decision to have Izzy be queer and struggling with her sexuality in the adaptation, which wasn’t in the original text. Was that something you decided you wanted to do immediately after reading the book, or did it happen later on?
A: As soon as I read the book, that jumped out at me as so obvious – the way she felt within her own family, the way her mom couldn’t handle Izzy not being an extension of her or molded in her image, the way Mia felt like this life raft. And Celeste said she’d been thinking about Izzy being gay, but hadn’t had the real estate to include it in the story. It felt like something worthy of exploration – in this town, in the Midwest, in the 90s. Obviously, queer kids still struggle enormously, especially in certain communities or parts of the country, but as a whole there has been tremendous change since the 90s in terms of laws and mindsets and inclusiveness. So now, in a 2020 world, where so many kids identify as queer or simply don’t want to be declarative and box themselves in, it felt like it would be meaningful to explore a time when our society’s thinking was so narrow.
Also, the book felt so intersectional in so many ways. Including a queer character felt like the right addition. And I also love the idea that Izzy doesn’t know what she is. She just knows her first real feelings and experiences were with her best friend, who has broken her heart. And it hurts. And she knows that she feels this deep connection to Mia – she may not understand her feelings, but she knows her life feels livable because Mia is in it.
I wanted to explore Izzy – a character who’s never afraid to say the truth – still having so much trouble saying and admitting this. And that through her story with Mia, she’s able to really say: ‘This is me.’
Q: Were there other elements of Izzy’s book-character that had to shift to make space for that, or was it a pretty organic integration?
A: It felt like an incredibly organic integration. I think we made her even more isolated in our version. It’s why the Toothpick Prank that I loved in the book had to come out in the adaptation. It felt like she had too much support with Moody and Pearl participating with her. I wanted her to be on this island, and whenever she thought or hoped someone would join her, they wouldn’t. We wanted to show that her dad was really the only person on her side, and Moody, if it didn’t jeopardize his own status with his siblings.
Q: What parts of her story are you most proud of?
A: I am so proud of Izzy’s story and really proud of the way Megan Stott embodied her. It’s not an easy role and we wanted Izzy to feel real. We knew an audience would naturally root for her as an underdog, but wanted to also show – from Elena’s perspective – how hard it is to have a child that’s constantly acting out, or backtalking, or being anywhere from generally bratty to actually destructive. Megan worked so hard on Izzy – who is very different from who she is – and she embodied her so fully. When I see the later episodes and Izzy’s pain and rage and heartbreak comes across so fully, I’m so proud. And when we reveal her backstory with April, both Megan and Isabel Gravitt played their relationship so truthfully and bravely. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with both of them and bring their whole relationship to life. I think that’s what I’m most proud of. And I also think it can’t be underestimated how meaningful it is – to many viewers – to have a story like this told.
Q: Tell me about the decision to have an explicit romance portrayed between Mia and her mentor! (I also really love how that set up another point of connection for Izzy and Mia, I cried) Was Kerry Washington part of those conversations?
A: It was something, again, that felt so obvious from the book. Pauline was with a woman in the book, Mia idolized her, and I think that line can be so blurred – do you want to be someone or be with them? Can someone feel like everything to you at once – your mentor, your idol, your best friend, your lover, your mother? Plus, it was the art world, in New York, in the 80s. Mia was of age, though certainly we would look at that power dynamic as inappropriate now.
It felt like it could be a great point of connection for Mia and Izzy, and for Mia to show Izzy “there’s always another way.” Mia was obviously more boundaried with Izzy than Pauline was with her, and the lines between Mia and Izzy aren’t blurred with romance on Mia’s side – but I think she can feel how Izzy relies on her, how Izzy wishes Mia’s home was her home. And I think when Izzy gets older, she will look back at her relationship with Mia and realize that in some form that was intense love – it isn’t sexual, but it’s romantic. Mia represents to Izzy who Izzy could someday be, and having Mia’s love and attention and compassion feels like a life raft to Izzy. And yes, Kerry was a part of all of those conversations in terms of building who Mia was and her relationships to every character, including Izzy and Pauline.
Q: As a bisexual woman, was there a specific angle you wanted to take when portraying Mia (who I assume is meant to be bisexual), in contrast to perhaps how you’re used to seeing bisexuality portrayed on television?
A: It’s interesting. In the book, Mia was a virgin. And that was almost lost on me the first time I read it, but when we got into the writers’ room, we really debated that. Obviously, there’s something profoundly interesting about her being a virgin and having had a baby, but we also wondered if we were perpetuating stereotypes of black women. One of our writer/producers, Shannon Houston, was really vocal about this – she made some really compelling arguments about not painting Mia to be perfect or angelic or Madonna- like. She referred to the fact that black women are historically either presented as hypersexual beings or implied virgins, whose sole purpose is to care for white people and their children while remaining loveless and sexless themselves. Also, given that she was a surrogate and an outside-of-the-box artist, we didn’t think she’d be precious about her body. Plus – because of her rejection of her parents’ beliefs – we didn’t think that she’d be overly-religious as it relates to sex either. So, in the end, we all agreed it was a stronger choice to portray her as woman who didn’t perpetuate stereotypes and was very comfortable with her sexuality and sex – first and foremost, for her character, and, secondly, we wanted her to really be a beacon to guide both Izzy and Pearl. And we loved the idea that she got pregnant while still a virgin, but later actually lost her virginity to Pauline.
We created the backstory that Mia fell in love with Pauline and hasn’t been with a woman since then. She casually sleeps with men whenever she wants to or needs it, but it doesn’t carry any meaning to her. Sex is just sex and that’s okay with her. She’s not looking to connect or to open up or to share her life with anyone. She gave that up long ago, when Pearl was born. And I think, deep down, to be with another woman might feel like a betrayal to Pauline.