The Duchess: An Inside Mug, Outside
‘Motherhood is near to divinity’, wrote Howard W. Hunter, 14th president of The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, ‘It is the highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind.’
I wonder if Howard would feel the same having sat through six (forgive me, anachronistic) episodes of Katherine Ryan’s The Duchess (Netflix, 2020).
And that, I’d wager, is the beauty of Ryan’s creation; not that it proposes a ‘correct’ way to look at the corner of life it represents, but that it won’t allow you to walk away feeling exactly the same as you did before.
This is true of both the small and the monumental. For instance, the scene where Ryan’s character drops her daughter at school with a mug of tea in hand. Outrage ensues: ‘A mug of tea from home?’, Lululemon-ed mothers heckle from the playground. ‘Yeah’, replies Ryan, ‘It’s an inside mug, but you’re seeing it outside. I know.’ And with that, Ryan dryly whisks the rug from beneath a nation of tea-drinkers’ feet: why have we arbitrarily drawn hard lines around what is acceptable and what is not? More importantly, why are we so afraid of those who tread a different path?
The same question is asked of us with more gravitas in scenes that focus on Katherine (if I wrote a Netflix series I would name the main character after myself too) and her daughter Olive’s relationship. Katherine does all the things women of the ‘highest, holiest service’ should not: she swears, drinks, gossips, plays the alpha and dresses provocatively. She makes sculptures of naked women. She is arrogant and flippant with others’ emotions. Some things that she does are harder to stomach than others, but all are designed to shock. And shock you, Howard, they shall: we are confronted with an image of womanhood that is indiscrete and unashamed. We are shown a way of mothering that obscures a recognisable, fierce loyalty with bad language and worse behaviour.
It would be ridiculous to interpret Katherine’s ‘wild’ antics with any kind of sincerity. Ryan is obviously not suggesting that this is the way to parent a child, just as Walter White is not suggesting that you cook up a drug emporium from your kitchen to pay off your debts. What The Duchess does is create a safe space in which to consider an alternative to what has been socialised into all of us for centuries: that womanhood, and motherhood in particular, is gentle and soft and quiet. Ryan is doing what Shakespeare did with Lady Macbeth 400 years ago, but without losing her nerve at the end and killing us all off in a knee-jerk reversion to misogyny.
This might seem like high praise, but the series certainly has its flaws. The scene in which Katherine and Olive attempt to adopt a baby is crass and sits uncomfortably. Ryan has said she likes comedy which makes people squirm, ‘because that’s where progress comes from’, but there is little to be gained from shouting ‘Eat a d*ck; I’ll stick with the kid I’ve got and you can keep your secondhand crack babies’ at a social worker. Ryan would do well to remember that just because you say something ironically or in jest, it doesn’t mean you didn’t say it. To think so, or to not think about it at all, is to forgo empathy.
Still, there are moments where she does achieve ‘progress’. In a fertility clinic, a setting infamous for making women feel like they are not women at all, a doctor with furrowed brow asks Katherine: ‘What’s your reason for wanting a child in this way?’ By this he presumably means without a husband/boyfriend/long-term partner. The spectator is aware that Katherine views a sperm-donor as ‘the safest way’ for her to fall pregnant (a reasoning that partner Evan disregards, too preoccupied by his poor, benched sperm), but she replies: ‘My entire family are dead (to me), so when Olive was born I was all alone, but now we have each other.’ This parenthesised quip is a small act of disobedience in a space where women and their bodies are poked and prodded into compliance. There is something brilliant about this defiance, even if the rest of the appointment is bizarre.
The Duchess, for all its oddities and average-to-poor acting, reframes a demographic that has rarely been given the chance to develop beyond a gooey homemaker. It asks you to think a little further afield, to take your inside mug outside, if only for a 25-minute window. That can only be healthy.
Hannah Webb graduated from university in 2019 with a BA in English Literature. Since then, she has travelled around Indonesia and South America (pre-COVID) and spent a lot of time reading and watching Come Dine With Me (COVID and beyond).