Feminists have long debated the merits of fairy tales. Do the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers’ Grimm promote sexist visions of princes charming and distressed damsels, or do they actually contain stories of bold young women unafraid to actively pursue their desires? Either way, they’re worth considering carefully: Fairy tales and fables tell us things about our culture, values, and how one can define a happy ending. As one feminist writer put it back in the ‘70s, “Fairy tales are the bedtime stories of the collective consciousness.”
So, what do the women-centric fairy tales of Roar, Apple TV+’s new magical realist anthology series, say about our collective consciousness? Created by GLOW showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the series is based on a 2018 short story collection by Irish writer Cecelia Ahern. With a dazzling guest cast that includes Issa Rae, Betty Gilpin, Cynthia Erivo, Alison Brie and Nicole Kidman (who also serves as co-executive producer), this feminist take on The Twilight Zone tackles issues of modern womanhood through fanciful tales that can be summed up by their titles: “The Woman Who Solved her Own Murder,” “The Woman Who Disappeared,” “The Woman Who Was Kept On a Shelf.” Yet, despite its excellent performances and glossy production, the series has almost nothing novel to say about womanhood.
On paper, Ahern’s short story collection, which takes its name from Helen Reddy’s second wave anthem, is great anthology series fodder. The stories are built around fantastical conceits, and each protagonist is simply called “the woman,” nodding to the fables’ familiar themes. Take Roar’s first episode, “The Woman Who Disappeared.” In the book, it’s a parable about aging, and in case we miss the metaphor, it’s all spelled out: “As women age,” Ahern writes, “they are written out of the world, no longer visible on television or film, in fashion magazines, and only ever on daytime TV to advertise the breakdown of bodily functions and ailments.” In the TV adaptation, the disappearing woman is played by Issa Rae, and her sudden-onset invisibility is due not to age but to the erasure she experiences while navigating white professional spheres as a Black woman. It’s an altered allegory, but not necessarily any more piercing.
Some of the protagonists were given names on their journey to the small screen, but not fully-formed personalities. Instead, they’re types: Burnt-Out Millennials and Harried Moms. In-depth characterization within the confines of a half-hour anthology series would always present a challenge, but paired with the series’ tendency to rehash well-worn cultural talking points, Roar starts to feel empty. Even its other-worldly elements don’t necessarily make the series more engaging. In “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks On Her Skin,” Erivo plays a high-powered working mom struggling to adjust to her return to the office after the birth of her second child. As she contends with her husband’s resentment, a male coworker’s designs on her job, and being forced to pump in a storage closet, her skin becomes covered in gruesome bite marks. The culprit? She’s being eaten alive, in the most literal sense possible, by mom guilt. Many other episodes follow the same formula, combining Big Issues that anyone who reads the news is already familiar with (the pressures and inequalities of working motherhood, life in the sandwich generation) plus one vivid impossibility (spontaneous bite marks, a talking duck). In the end, most of the women solve their own problems, many of which are societal and systemic, with a simple attitude adjustment. It’s as though they’ve been given a girl power booster shot.
The series is at its best when examining the anxieties of older women, whose psyches haven’t been as endlessly plumbed in pop culture as those of their millennial counterparts. “The Woman Who Returned Her Husband” stars Meera Syal as a lady in late middle age who’s fed up with her milquetoast husband. Luckily, she inhabits a world in which spouses can be purchased from (and, if necessary, returned to) your local big box store, where they wear Ikea-style price tags and lounge on showroom furniture until someone comes along to buy them. Kidman’s episode, “The Woman Who Ate Photographs,” is another high mark. The story is slight—Kidman plays a woman who retreats into flights of nostalgia by literally consuming family photos, in order to cope with the stressors of her son’s departure for college as her dementia-suffering mother joins her household. But Kidman’s performance (in her native Aussie accent!) is a treat, as is the fact that she’s paired with the great Judy Davis, who plays her ailing mom. Davis is far from the only notable supporting performer in the show, as actors like Daniel Dae Kim, Alfred Molina, Ego Nwodim, Nick Kroll, and Hugh Dancy all make appearances.
All the starry turns and strong performances can’t make this anthology series cohere into a show that has something to say about contemporary womanhood. One of the few episodes to venture slightly beyond pop feminist cliché is “The Woman Who Was Kept On a Shelf,” which stars Betty Gilpin as a model who marries a wealthy man. Gilpin eventually discovers that he merely wants her to spend her days sitting on a high shelf, forever admired by him and his guests but unable to fully participate in the world. She’s constantly surrounded by working-class women—a cleaning lady tidying busily below her as she poses, a mail carrier and meter maid she encounters after scrambling down from her perch, and a clerk at a Sephora-like beauty supply store. Is the series juxtaposing Gilpin’s character’s personal angst and material comfort against all these women who must labor for their livings? Is it suggesting that, though her husband’s demands are misogynistic, her domestic feminist struggle is far removed from the concerns of less wealthy women? It’s unclear, because despite generally disdaining subtlety, these are some of the only questions Roar refuses to answer. Doing so would perhaps underscore the series’ own tendency to fixate on the upper-middle class: For all the supposedly universal themes the anthology mines, not one episode is rooted in the experience of poverty,
which is an experience that women disproportionately share.
If Roar’s fairy tales are the bedtime stories of a collective consciousness, the collective is likely one that’s upwardly mobile and disproportionately white. Oh, and probably well-versed in Twitter talking points. Its insights and intentions seem well placed, but anyone who’s had even the slightest curiosity about the state of women in the world will find little illuminating here. That’s the problem with bedtime stories—they’re supposed to lull you to sleep.