May 23, 2021, 8:00 a.m.
HBO’s new series The Nevers is an anti-colonial parable that manages not to deal with colonial liberation movements or the colonies at all. It does this by turning a story about imperialism into a tale about the empowerment of white women. It is no coincidence that this is a feat that apologists often use to justify the logic of the empire.
The Nevers was started by Joss Whedon, who left the project when actors he’d worked with on other shows came forward to accuse him of racist and sexist abuse. His departure is on time, as the series itself is about prejudice and discrimination. The elevator seat for The Nevers is “Steampunk Feminist X-Men”. In an alternate London of 1899, many women and some men have begun to show remarkable super skills. “The Touched”, as they are called, are greeted by society and their families with a mixture of fear and curiosity. The philanthropist Lavinia Bidlow (Olivia Williams) sets up an orphanage where those who have been touched can be cared for and protected. The house is run by Amalia True (Laura Donnelly), a woman with a mysterious ability to see the future and even more mysterious combat skills.
In the X-Men, mutants persecuted by superpowers are often read as a metaphor for marginalized people. The Nevers reinforces this analogy; The overpowering protagonists are almost all women, and the few men are generally poor and / or people of color. Conservatives, and especially the rigid aristocrat Lord Gilbert Massen (Pip Torrens) fear that the sudden empowerment of those at the bottom of the hierarchy will overthrow traditional British hierarchies. “Not a single man of stature is affected,” explains Massen bitterly. “The heart of our empire has been shaken to a halt by the whims and ambitions of those for whom ambition was never intended.” Britain’s fame, its global domination, depends on an order in which wealthy, white, straight men rule. By granting magical powers to people who are not rich, white, straight men, the public can dream different dreams. It threatens the building of the empire.
Massen believes that all oppressed are oppressed together. White women seem to be the most common of the touched. But when they rise, can the “immigrant and the deviator” be far behind? In his view, the colonies everywhere are threatened by social mobility.
It is true that resistance movements can inspire and build on one another, as was the case with the black civil rights movement and anti-war movements in the United States in the 1960s. But it is also true that empowerment can sometimes come at the expense of others – and historically, white women’s rights in Britain have not always led to colonial liberation. Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, for example, built her literary reputation on a story that portrayed a mixed race woman as some mad Gothic horror burned for the virtuous white governess to climb the classroom.
Colonialism has not only elevated white women symbolically. In her anti-racist feminist classic Beyond the Pale, Vron Ware explains that white women in England often viewed emigration to the colonies as an opportunity for “female independence and employment”.
White women also saw themselves as virtuous agents of civilization. Some hailed what they saw as a feminist duty to save Indian women from their own unenlightened Hindu culture – just as women’s rights have served as an excuse for recent American intervention in countries like Afghanistan. And Emmeline Pankhurst and her allies in the UK women’s suffrage movement temporarily gave up campaigning when Britain entered World War I. Out of opposition in principle, they turned to patriotism and militarism while calculating (correctly) that they would support the government in the crisis and would eventually win them the vote.
The Nevers occasionally suggest that taking power to a group of people in the imperial center could have disadvantages for other people. Horatio Cousens (Zackary Momoh), a Jamaican doctor with healing, glowing hands, points out that white philanthropists like Bidlow are not necessarily trustworthy.
And in a meeting of the masses’ cabal of the upper class, a colleague describes an incident in which one of the Touched, who works in a factory, smashed a hydraulic press with her bare hands. A soldier in the congregation sees no horror, but an opportunity. “Well, I say report them! Show them to the bloody Boers! “Women in power could mean revolution. But colonizers with power can be used for submission purposes.
For the most part, however, the show does not pursue these pointers on how to put the power of white women at the service of the empire. Instead, it simply assumes that white women are the natural leaders of the dispossessed. True and her best friend, the brilliant Irish inventor Penance Adair (Ann Skelly), argue and contradict each other. Yet the handful of non-white people among the Touched accept their leadership without much questioning. Racism and discrimination (including against the Irish) are widely recognized as a problem in the UK.
But The Nevers doesn’t seriously entertain the idea that True or Adair might have their own prejudice, or that non-white women like Bonfire Annie (Rochelle Neil) and Harriet Kaur (Kiran Sonia Sawar) might be in a better position than certain types of oppression recognize and tackle. When Bonfire sits Annie briefly in True’s chair, the idea that she might lead is dismissed as a joke.
True’s relationship with imperialism becomes even more complicated in the sixth episode, the finale of the first part of the series. In a skilfully executed act, we finally find out where she got all the hand-to-hand combat training. It turns out to be a soldier from a dystopian future. She was put into a Victorian body by a mysterious species of alien called Galanthi.
So it is true that literally a foreign occupier has come to lead and save good-natured natives. She is a time-traveling colonial savior. More than that, the Galanthi are those who have given their gifts to the touched – including the gift of True Foresight. The aliens are smarter, wiser, more advanced, more compassionate, and more benevolent than humans. Like many imperialists before them, they promise to bring the invaders to their cultural level. On the one hand, the Nevers welcomes his Galanthi overlords – or at least seems to have been doing so so far.
The Nevers clearly want to present a criticism of the British patriarchy and empire. But due to Hollywood’s obsession with white leads and London backdrops, the show ends helplessly with the imperial logic of racism and benevolent invasion. Amalia True is an unequivocal fighter and in many ways breaks the mold of stereotypical Victorian femininity. But in other ways, the future it sees looks as uncomfortable as past empires.