Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” Is Strange and Familiar and Uncomfortable and Gay

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.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Interesting, you believe the Warrens were white in the book. I just finished reading “Little Fires Everywhere.” Friends suggested I read the book because I didn’t like the tv series and quit after a couple of episodes. In the book, Ng never assigns race to the Warrens. One of the more well-done aspects of the book is that the author perfectly paints a picture of the Blackness of the two main characters (Warrens) without ever mentioning their race. She goes deeeeep. It’s masterful.

    Everyone I know who read the book totally clocked the Warrens as Black (even though it’s literally never mentioned) and that Mia was kinda the weird one– because she’s an artist. She is odd and that can be hard in a black family. I related way more to the book and her character that way then how it was portrayed on screen. It was interesting that in a book setting, Ng doesn’t frame “whiteness” as normative. There’s also incredible detail about the Chinese American folks that is masterful, as well. You really get to understanding that the “value” of whiteness is BS. That did not come through in the show.

    • My audiobook had the cover from the Hulu series. I did assume Mia and Pearl were black for much of the book. They do have dark, frizzy, curly hair.

      I eventually realized that the book was portraying them as white. The other white characters don’t have their race mentioned because in shaker heights white is the default, the norm that is not commented on. But you are told that Izzy’s boyfriend is black and her best friend is Asian, and BeBe’s lawyer is Asian. I feel like that the Warren’s blackness would have been commented on.

      Also Mia and Pearls nomadic life has an extra level of difficulty if they are black. And the man who approached Mia to be their surrogate is extra unusual to be wealthy black Wall Street broker than a white guy.

      • Here’s a quote from Celeste Ng: “I’m really excited to see Reese as Elena Richardson and Kerry as Mia Warren — they’re both such excellent actors and perfectly suited for their roles. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Kerry bring Mia to life as a black woman; I’d wanted to do that in the novel, but didn’t feel I was the right person to do that. Kerry is, though.”
        https://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/author-celeste-ng-believes-cultural-visibility-should-include-everyone

        • Dee,

          Thanks for the article. It seems to back my read of the book that the Warrens are black and that she didn’t want to do a deep dive into “blackness” because that is not her culture. Given the brouhaha I saw play out on social media in the “romance” literature community, I think that was a wise move.

          I love that she was protective of how Bebe was portrayed. There are many ways that could have gone sideways and fallen into stereotypes of Chinese-American culture.

      • Interesting you read it that way.

        The reason I stopped watching the show is that I thought Kerry Washington’s character was poorly written. I don’t want to get into authentic or inauthentic portrayals of blackness, but I couldn’t relate to her at all. The time setting for the show, I was around the daughter’s age and lived in A2 in a 99.9% white community. I felt like something in the show should have felt familiar to me, but the entire time I was like what the hell?! I don’t know…have not met…any black people who respond to situations as they did (especially after 14 years on the run). I actually looked up whether Kerry Washington’s character was adopted by white people in the book as an explanation. Again, I don’t want to questions of blackness or say there is only one way to be black, but it struck me as odd. I later went back and watched the episode that gave Kerry Washington’s character’s backstory. That just made everything that happens in the show seem more absurd to me. She was raised by Caribbean parents and sold her picture for some woman she barely knew and didn’t keep it to ensure her child could go to college. (Nah)

        After I complained on FB that I thought the show was for white people’s consumption, many of my black female friends commented that was not the case with the book. All of them felt the Warren’s were black in the book. After reading the book, I would have to agree. IMHO, the Warrens are black and the author leaves it to the reader to figure out from their interactions with the Richardsons and the rest of the characters in the book. Reading the article the person posted below, Ng even says the Warrens were black.

        I would like to add that there has always been a black upper/middle class. Black wealth helped build Marthas Vineyard. It was not a stretch for the wall street guy to be black and wealthy. Also, many many black people live nomadic bohemian lifestyles. I’ve dated many black women who grew up with lives on the move.

    • this conversation was really interesting and i really really appreciate you sharing your feelings about it and illuminating an angle I didn’t speak to. i’m still thinking but just wanted to say that for now.

  2. Interesting. I just listened to the audiobook and there’s a single paragraph which basically points to Mia being asexual … she tells the girls that she understands that they’re interested in boys and sex but then muses that’s she/Mia has never been interested in sex or boys.

    That fits with her history of not dating in high school or college and never having a romance or lover who impacts her nomadic life where she leaves everything behind but Pearl.

  3. I loved this show and overall thought that the changes they made in adapting the book to television were interesting and made the story stronger…but Mia’s sexuality was a really big disappointment to me. The labels aren’t explicitly used, but from Mia’s internal dialog in the book, she’s very clearly aromantic and asexual. Losing that representation in the show was a bit of a gut punch, honestly. I don’t think the show made Mia gayer; she was already queer but they just chose to erase an aspect of her that’s already pretty marginalized with queer communities, in favor of making her sexuality something that’s a bit more “mainstream.” The way the showrunner focuses on book!Mia’s virginity suggests to me that they probably didn’t have any aro/ace folks in the writer’s room and did not even know what they were doing :-(

    On top of that, Pauline and Mia’s relationship felt predatory to me. Idk, I think that bit’s open to interpretation, but Mia was so young and the way Pauline treated her read like grooming to me from the start, so their relationship was not something I rejoiced in.

    Izzy, on the other hand, was awesome, and Mia’s relationship with her was so much richer and satisfying in the show.

  4. “Being gay was okay from afar but rude up close.” That’s how I experienced the 90s and it wasn’t easy at all (even though those years wore an affirmative coat). Thank you, Riese, for this review. I read the book and liked it well enough but this adaptation sounds way better.

  5. I read Mia and Pearl as non-white in the book! I don’t think it specifies, though. When I saw that Kerry Washington was in the show, I was like, “Who will she play?” I never saw the Warrens as Black. But I am excited for the ways it complicates the narrative.

    I still haven’t seen the show, but I did like the book a lot. I DID read Mia as queer, though, even though that’s definitely not explicit in the book!

    I personally feel like making Izzy explicitly queer/questioning is a little bit on-the-nose for her “outsider” persona – I think it would have been more interesting if, say, her older sister had been outed as a young person and then reacted by trying to be All-American girl and have her jock boyfriend or whatever (my memories of the book are a little bit fuzzy, actually), but whatever!

    Excited to watch someday soon :)

  6. hi to address a lot of what has been said in the comments — honestly when i was reading the book i remember vaguely waiting to hear more about the warrens’ background and when i saw kerry’s casting — a few years later, barely remembering the book at all — i thought OHHH ok they were Black, that’s what it said in the book I just forgot that part. And thought that’s the lens from which i watched the show.

    It wasn’t until afterwards when i started reading other articles about it that I realized I’d remembered it wrong. Because every article and interview says that they were white in the book. they were for sure white in the book.

    From Buzzfeed:

    But Ng didn’t want to make the Warrens Asian American, because it would make some of the later narrative tensions — involving the adoption of an Asian American baby — too neat. “I also didn’t feel like I was the person who could bring a black or Latina woman’s experience to life,” Ng said. But when Witherspoon and her coproducer, Lauren Neustadter, brought up the idea of casting Washington, Ng embraced it.

    “I don’t want to do a J.K. Rowling and pretend that, all along, I had thought of this,” she told me. “I thought of her as a white character, but still exploring those larger issues of power. With Kerry, you have a way to explore the racial dynamics that I wasn’t able to explore in the book. And that, to me, told me that they were looking at the show the same way that I looked at the book. That they were going to look at these questions of power.”

  7. In the book, I definitely felt like Mia and Pearl were being written in opposition to Elena and her family, and in order to truly work as foils they had to be white — plus everybody else, like Nola Kat mentions, had their race named, there was nothing subtle about race. I read Mia and Pearl as outsiders, and I found it interesting that this translated into being Black in the show.

    I was really engaged in the conflicts around what love, both familial and romantic, looks like in various racial contexts on the show, and I think it makes sense that if they were going to shift the mom power struggle from being mostly about ideology and ethics to additionally tying that to race/privilege, the narrative needed the sexuality to be more overt (I also read Mia as queer in the book), so Mia would have some extra power to threaten Elena with by connecting with Izzy — and that connection was definitely one that moved me!

  8. thanks for this, Riese! i just binged all of the show over a few days. there were a lot of things i loved about it. once again we should be praising Kerry Washington’s incredible acting with every chance we get. all throughout the show the acting was top-knotch.

    and the queer elder/parenting/family relationship between Mia and Izzy was so beautiful. i was blown away by Megan Stott’s acting too. they really captured that moment of recognition of a young queer person finding for the first time another queer person who has wrestled with and is comfortable in their sexuality. that’s something that’s so true to experience, but not often portrayed; so many stories have young queer people figuring everything out on their own, in a way that’s incredibly lonely. it feels so real that these two queer characters would be so magnetically drawn to each other and instantly recognize each other, even if Izzy doesn’t necessarily understand it, while Mia clearly does.

  9. I read the book with the casting in mind, and loved it. I’m behind on the show right now but also loving that.

    I can’t put my finger on why I feel so ambivalent about the choice to make Izzy explicitly queer as a major plotline though? Like Abeni said, it feels too on the nose? One thing I found really interesting in the book was that Izzy was a more subtle foil to her mom in how it seemed like she was flailing around for a cause but oblivious to her privilege and what was going on. Which obviously is still possible if she’s gay! But I don’t get that same sense of undirected rebellion from her in the show. I’m just so confused why I wasn’t immediately like YES LESBIANS to the Izzy choice, when that seems like it should be right up my alley.

    But I’m so excited to get a chance to sit down and finish the season, and see how other things have shifted over the medium and see how it makes me think in new ways. I’m really invested in the way things with Lexie and Pearl and the clinic shifted; that was great.

  10. I agree that it was refreshing to see the 90s without camp and I loved the music. But I hated the show.

    I think I watched it too soon (a couple months) after reading the book. I was excited to see Kerry Washington in the role, but disappointed with what they did to Mia, Bebe, and even Elena and Pearl. The women on the show seemed melodramatic and one-dimensional which took away a lot of the real emotion and feeling the book brought up for me.

    And as much as I love gaying things up, I couldn’t even watch that part of the Mia storyline. I thought it was kind of cool to have an asexual character in the book and was looking forward to seeing a newer (for tv) aspect of queerness. But then not only did they change that, but they took away a loving healthy lesbian relationship and supportive inter-generational friend/mentor ship and replaced it with a predatory lesbian professor preying on a teenage student.

    I’m glad I read this before I watched it—I think if I’d only seen the show I never worked have picked up the book.

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