Did you watch the finale of “Succession” on HBO this week? If so, did the final shot of Tom and Shiv in their car make you think of “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” Deniz Kandiyoti’s 1988 article that is a classic feminist text?
Me too! And not just because “Bargaining With Patriarchy” would make an extremely literal three-word summary of the entire series. For while “Succession” was not overtly about the patriarchy, it is unquestionably about a patriarchy.
“Succession,” for those unfamiliar, follows the exploits of the Roy family: literal patriarch Logan, an aging media baron in the mold of Rupert Murdoch, and his adult children. Most of the show’s plot was driven by his son Kendall’s various failed efforts to dethrone or succeed him, some of which roped in Kendall’s sister, Shiv, and/or his brother Roman.
Which brings me to Kandiyoti, the feminist theorist whose groundbreaking work is surprisingly helpful for understanding today’s HBO hit.
The “bargain” of her article’s title refers to the side deal that patriarchal systems offer to women: If they help protect men’s interests by serving their husbands and sons, and conforming to the conventions of propriety that protect their family’s reputation, then they can also enjoy some privileges — and even exercise limited power over other, less-fortunate women.
The traditional bargain for many Indian women, for instance, was that they wouldn’t own their own property or inherit family assets, but would be supported by their husbands while young and by sons in old age.
But the benefits of those bargains were always contingent on women’s relationships to men, Kandiyoti wrote. In the wake of a relevant man’s divorce, death or estrangement, the protections and power derived from him would crumble, with no guarantee that another man would take his place.
(Now for the required warning: “Succession” spoilers appear below.)
One way to view the events of “Succession” is as the story of Kendall’s tragic misapprehension of his position in the family under his father’s patriarchy. He thought that as a son — the “eldest boy,” as he yowled angrily (and incorrectly) in the final episode — he was set to inherit everything. But actually, in patriarchal terms of power and position though not actual gender, he was effectively as vulnerable as a wife or daughter trapped in Logan’s orbit.
It’s one of the oldest political stories in the world: Someone supports an oppressive system thinking that they will one day be on top, only to discover they have played into the mechanisms of their own oppression.
The Roy children’s mistake was that they failed to realize that they only enjoyed privilege through Logan. If the kids played by the rules of that patriarchy, he granted them money and sinecures and even sometimes authority over those outside the family.
But it was all dependent on their relationship with him, which was horribly abusive. Over the course of four seasons, he insulted, belittled, manipulated, gaslit and even physically attacked his children. He controlled their money, undermined their relationships and demanded absolute loyalty. He cut off avenues of escape, promising them the world but never delivering it.
So none of the children had independent power bases that might have come from, say, building their own companies or from doing real jobs within their father’s empire. (Tellingly, the show rarely depicted the Roy kids actually working for the Waystar Royco empire.) The patriarchal bargain was all they had.
Kendall, in particular, had no skills useful to the rest of the world. As he correctly told his sister when begging her to support his bid for C.E.O. in the final episode, he was a cog that had been made to fit only one machine. Except that the machine in question was not, as he had thought, the Waystar Royco corporation. The machine was his relationship with his dad. And that died with Logan.
This is the dirty secret of patriarchal systems, Kandiyoti wrote: Once women have been co-opted into giving up power, they have no ability to enforce the bargain that drew them into that situation in the first place, especially once new men take control.
“For the generation of women caught in between,” she wrote, “this transformation may represent genuine personal tragedy, since they have paid the heavy price of an earlier patriarchal bargain, but are not able to cash in on its promised benefits.”
For Kendall, tragedy came not only when he lost out on the corporate power he craved, but also when his siblings abandoned him.
But perhaps a lifetime of ambient misogyny meant that Shiv Roy, the only actual daughter of the family, was best placed to recognize that situation for what it was. That could explain why she ultimately backed her husband as the new C.E.O.: At the last minute, she may have realized that her old patriarchal bargain was worthless, but unlike her brothers, she managed to strike a new one.
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