Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo | November 20, 2017
Netflix’s Alias Grace (2017) is the second series to be released this year based on one of Margaret Atwood’s novels. The six-part series is, like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) before it, an unflinching depiction of women’s precarious position in society, through a defamiliarised, yet uncomfortably familiar, setting.
Based on the true story of a woman convicted and then acquitted of murdering the man she worked for in addition to a fellow maid, Alias Grace has also inspired notable comparisons to Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) and the rise of “True Crime” sparked by the remarkable popularity of This American Life’s Serial (2014). However, it is perhaps closest to Netflix’s 2016 documentary on the eponymous Amanda Knox, which likewise features voiceover narration by Knox herself, who, like Grace, comes across as inscrutable and self-consciously performative. Furthermore, the Knox documentary also includes various accounts by the police and the media of how her sexuality led them to consider her guilty or construct her as such because it made a good story. The parallels are significant; both shows make the viewer deeply aware of the unreliability of the story they are being told, of the power of our own biases, of the generic and gendered expectations we carry as listeners, of our desire for closure, and of the female defendant’s intense awareness of the context of her story.
Indeed, Alias Grace is primarily a story about storytelling, particularly female storytelling within a patriarchal structure. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations (Alias Grace scriptwriter and producer Sarah Polley described her own interactions with Weinstein), the show serves as a cutting reminder that women and members of other marginalised groups (Grace is a working class immigrant) are rarely believed, and are always on trial. The expectation to remain silent is in tension with the expectation to provide a prescribed testimony of trauma and abuse, and women’s testimony is always already hermeneutically compromised and epistemically marginalised.
As Grace tells her story, or stories, we are shown scenes that are of ambiguous origin— possibly Grace’s imagination, possibly that of her listeners. Regardless, the cinematography provides us with various versions of events without ever determining the truth. This is not the story of a woman telling the pure truth and not being believed; it is far more nuanced, subtle, and complex than that. Grace is an unreliable narrator— there is never any question of that. The question the series does explore is why.
The answer may be found in the frequent references to the Book of Genesis, a story that serves as an allegory for Grace’s fate, for she gains knowledge and loses innocence. As a young, naive immigrant— adult Grace calls child Grace “ignorant” on numerous occasions— Grace becomes keenly aware not of a moral sense of right and wrong, but instead of narrative conventions and power hierarchies. She is painfully aware of the perpetual male gaze and its determining power over her fate. She learns that telling the right or wrong story may save her life or condemn her, and that the truth or her guilt have little to do with it.
Grace’s innocence is corrupted once she begins to learn that it is the powerful who determine the narrative and fate of the oppressed. This lesson begins when Grace’s friend, Mary, is pressured into a botched abortion by her master and lover and subsequently dies. It is cemented when she spends years negotiating with lawyers, public opinion, the media, and doctors of various kinds. By the time Grace is telling her story as the narrator of the series, she is doing so from a position of awareness of various factors. She is aware of her listener (the psychiatrist who has been sent to write a report exonerating her, whose interest in her as a patient is inextricable from his sexual interest in her); she is likewise aware of her gender and its implications, and of the different levels of discourse she has been through as well as the set of expectations each has demanded of her.
In order to survive, she tells the male servant ultimately hanged for the murders of which she is accused exactly what he wanted to hear. She tells the court what the lawyers want her to say to earn her freedom. She tells the doctor the version of her story that is most likely to please him. She is aware that male desire will dictate her fate— desire to see her as an innocent damsel in distress, or desire to see her as a guilty, fallen woman, deserving of punishment or abuse (it is heavily suggested that the prison guards, among a number of other men, rape Grace periodically). The narrative tropes into which she is placed decide her fate multiple times throughout her life, and hence, she learns that it is not the truth, or even morality, but a “good” story, that will save her.
In her book Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives (2017), Leigh Gilmore asserts: “Within liberal politics, the human has rights. Within neoliberalism, the human has a story. How the story comports with the genre— familiar or dissonant, conforming to expectations or unable to meet them— can determine how much access to credibility and care a witness can achieve” (15). Grace’s experience suggests that the power of a story described by Gilmore far predates neoliberalism. Grace’s innocence is compromised by the knowledge that she is trapped within narrative expectations, and that she cannot talk about or even know her own life outside of patriarchal language. While the truth of what happened is rendered unspeakable and unknowable, Alias Grace asks us, can there be innocence or guilt for those with no agency?
Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.
Article edited by Tomás Vergara, Madison Pollack, and Sarah Stewart.