Horrible White Neoliberal Feminism in The Curse

Curator's Note

The Curse’s Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) is an ideal neoliberal subject (see, for example, Rottenberg, 2018; Gill and Orgad, 2018; McRobbie, 2020) who resiliently manages herself, her relationship, and her business. Whitney and her husband, Asher (Nathan Fielder) can also be considered Horrible White People (Nygaard and Lagerwey, 2020) as they attempt to ‘ethically’ gentrify the city of Española, New Mexico. Neoliberal, late-stage capitalism has constituted a vital element of Nathan Fielder’s work thus far, as Nathan for You (Comedy Central, 2013-2017) and The Rehearsal (HBO, 2022-present) deal with improving one’s business, oneself and one’s relationships. While Fielder’s earlier shows fall into the broad category of reality television and centre around Fielder’s persona, The Curse (created by Fielder and Benny Safdie) is a scripted, fictional programme that centres around Whitney's resilient entrepreneurialism and performance of authenticity as she and Asher, together with a reality TV producer, Dougie Schecter (Safdie) film material for an HGTV reality show with the working title Fliplanthropy.

While The Curse deals with a number of complex and contentious contemporary issues, such as questions around ethics in the production of reality TV, gentrification, and the exploitation and appropriation of native land and the representation of Native Americans in popular culture, the narrative also works through familiar patterns when it comes to the portrayal of female leads on television. The Curse articulates a contemporary female subjectivity that is informed by neoliberalism, individualism, entrepreneurialism, self-management, and confidence (McRobbie, 2020; Rottenberg, 2018; Orgad and Gill, 2018; Dobson and Kanai, 2018). Emma Stone’s character, Whitney Siegel, is a ‘woke’ ‘girl-boss’, an initially strong female lead who is aware of her positionality as she constantly performs what she deems positive, marketable aspects of this awareness.

The depiction of Whitney’s interactions with Cara Durand (Nixhonniya Luxi Austin), a Picuris Pueblo artist whom Whitney sees as a friend and collaborator, highlights the exclusionary, performative nature of neoliberal feminism as their encounters with one another draw attention to power relations and privilege. Whitney tries to build and maintain a positive relationship with the local San Pedro pueblo, and featuring Cara’s art, as well as potentially Cara herself in Whitney’s houses (which Whitney considers art as well) constitutes a visible, performative way of including this in her TV programme. Whitney’s attempts to cultivate a meaningful friendship with Cara are always overshadowed by the opportunism that underpins them. Framing and visuals in conversations between Whitney and Cara draw out the discomfort felt by Cara (and, likely, the implied audience), which is most apparent in Cara’s facial expressions. When Whitney and Asher take Cara out to dinner in the show’s second episode to talk to her about her potential involvement in Fliplanthropy, their paternalistic behaviour (they urge Cara to order two meals when she cannot decide between two dishes) and their accidental revelation that they have been using Cara’s art to stage their houses without her knowledge or consent repulses Cara (see Figs. 1 and 2), who leaves for a ‘work emergency’ before the food arrives. Later in the same episode, Whitney and Asher visit an artist showcase where Cara stages a performance piece that involves her wordlessly offering freshly sliced turkey meat to participants, including Whitney. When Whitney proceeds to eat some of the turkey, Cara screams and asks Whitney, ‘Why did you do that?’. This scene, especially in juxtaposition with the earlier dinner sequence, highlights Whitney’s strained efforts to build and maintain a positive, performative relationship with Cara in the spirit of neoliberal feminism, where entrepreneurial women support each other while remaining ignorant towards her own exploitative behaviour. Moreover, both instances foreground Cara’s refusal to perform the emotional work (see Hochschild, 1983) of displaying gratitude and positivity Whitney and Asher are expecting in return.

By juxtaposing Whitney’s performance of constant positivity with Cara’s ambivalence and mistrust, the programme also draws attention to (and yet, can also be said to reproduce) the oft-seen pattern on television wherein a White protagonist is emotionally and otherwise supported by a person of colour. Much of the discomfort (see Hargraves, 2023) that frequently defines The Curse’s tone and atmosphere stems from supporting characters’ reactions to Whitney and Asher’s behaviour. Thinking further about Whitney and Asher as the programme’s Horrible White protagonists might include asking questions about what difference a programme’s acknowledgment of its practices within its diegesis makes to us as viewers (and scholars) and regarding its place in the contemporary US TV landscape.



Dobson, Amy Shields and Akane Kanai. 2018. “From ‚can-do’ girls to insecure and angry: Affective dissonances in young women’s post-recessional media.” Feminist Media Studies 19, no.6: 771-786.

Gill, Rosalind and Shani Orgad. 2018. “The amazing bounce-backable woman: Resilience and the psychological turn in neoliberalism.” Sociological Research Online 23, no. 2: 1-19.

Hargraves, Hunter. 2023. Uncomfortable television. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russel. 1983. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McRobbie, Angela. 2020. Feminism and the politics of resilience. London: Polity.

Nygaard, Taylor and Jorie Lagerwey. 2020. Horrible white people: Gender, genre, and television’s precarious whiteness. New York: NYU Press.

Rottenberg, Catherine. 2018. The rise of neoliberal feminism. Oxford: University Press.



Figures 1 and 2: Cara’s subtle annoyance, distrust, and discomfort is contrasted with Whitney and Asher’s strained efforts to involve her in their reality TV show when they take her out to dinner. Images from The Curse, episode 4, “The Pressure’s Looking Good So Far” (Showtime, 2023)

Figures 3 and 4: Whitney’s positivity is out of place during Cara’s performance art piece during which Cara turns exploitative behaviour into a metaphor involving slices of turkey. Images from The Curse, episode 4, “The Pressure’s Looking Good So Far” (Showtime, 2023)

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.