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‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: A complicated issue reveals the limitations of the show’s approach

In which female genital cutting is a B-story of a half-hour comedy

Season 3, Episode 6 | “No Child Left Behind” | Aug 21

 

The hallmark of Survivor’s Remorse is the way it finds new entry points for discussing social issues about which people are deeply divided. The efficacy of the show lies in its ability to reveal absurdities without falling into simple trolling. But the B-story of its most recent episode, in which Survivor’s Remorse addresses female genital cutting or FGC (also known as female genital mutilation), reveals the limitations of this approach.

Cassie (Tichina Arnold), still mourning the loss of her brother Julius (Mike Epps), decides to send a cheek swab to a company that will analyze her DNA and reveal the genetic makeup of her ancestors, which turns out to be chiefly Nigerian.

Eager to embrace her newly discovered Nigerian-ness, Cassie befriends Eka (Anniwaa Buachie), the proprietor of a local Nigerian restaurant. She invites Eka to host her daughter’s birthday party at Cam’s (Jessie T. Usher) house when Eka’s original arrangements fall through. When Eka’s daughter Inyene (Yasmine Wright-Capers) informs Cassie, who is standing next to Missy (Teyonah Parris) and M-Chuck (Erica Ash) that’s she’s ready for her “bath” — a euphemism for the ritual of FGC — Missy is horrified, and quickly informs a skeptical Cassie of what’s about to happen.

“You seemed so eager to embrace your heritage,” Eka tells Cassie. “Heritage is not a menu. You cannot simply take what you want and leave the rest.”

Still in disbelief, Cassie confronts Eka, who confirms that yes, they were planning to cut Inyene in the living room, where several men have been covering the furniture and rug with plastic sheeting. This leads to a showdown over FGC in which Missy offers a spirited condemnation of the procedure. “You seemed so eager to embrace your heritage,” Eka tells Cassie. “Heritage is not a menu. You cannot simply take what you want and leave the rest.”

Faced with a choice about whether to allow the bath or not, Cassie tells Eka she can’t perform the ceremony in Cam’s house. “Cl— are a gift from God,” Cassie tells Eka. “You gotta make them work for you.”

So what makes this particular episode less effective than others?

Last year, The Atlantic ran a piece dedicated to revealing how and why lack of knowledge about who supports FGC undermines the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating the practice. Sunday’s episode, however, seemed less interested in revealing American misconceptions, and more interested in conflating FGC with male circumcision.

The show’s final scenes pan from Inyene’s bath, which ends up taking place at Eka’s restaurant, to a bris Jimmy (Chris Bauer), Reggie (RonReaco Lee) and Cam are attending, while the audio switches from Inyene’s scream to that of a baby’s.

“What just happened?” Cam asks at the bris.

“I think they just cut a piece of his d— off,” Reggie responds.

Cam: “That’s OK?”

Jimmy, with the last word: “They seem to think so, and we get breakfast.”

It’s the television equivalent of “gotta hear both sides.”

If you were going to name the stage blocking, you’d call it “Amerisplaining.”

Male circumcision refers to the removal of foreskin. Men with circumcised penises are still able to achieve orgasm and experience sexual pleasure, and male circumcision has been linked to reduced rates of HIV transmission, and while American circumcision rates have fallen since the 1970s, most American male infants (which, more than likely, would have included Jimmy, Reggie and Cam) still undergo circumcision.

The practice known as female circumcision, of which there are several different types, refers to the practice of removing part or all of a woman’s clitoris, and in the most extreme circumstances, excising the clitoris and labia majora and minora, and sewing the remaining area together to create a tiny opening for urine and menstrual blood to pass. Anesthesia is rarely used, and the procedure is linked with extreme and prolonged pain, obstetric complications during labor and delivery, increased susceptibility to HIV infection, and death. It serves no medically justifiable purpose and results in either partial or complete elimination of female sexual pleasure. Even a less extreme example of a clitoridectomy would still be closer in equivalence to removing the head of the penis, not simply its foreskin.

It’s odd that Survivor’s Remorse would reach for an equivalence with Judaism, not just because of the anatomical differences between the procedures, but because the real-life practice of Judaism, like all religions, tends to be rife with picking and choosing (there’s a whole sliding scale, from reform to ultra-orthodoxy). One of the most iconic cultural celebrations of Jewish heritage, Fiddler on the Roof, is centered around revealing the limits of religious and cultural absolutism through Tevya’s internal conflict between being a good and compassionate father and reconciling that with the word of the Good Book.

But this episode also reveals a pattern in the show’s treatment of Missy, who ends up lecturing about the wrongheadedness of female genital cutting to Eka, who is clearly over it. “It’s not even legal in your own country anymore,” Missy says. “Not even everyone in your own tribe does it. Most Nigerians have evolved.”

The interaction is staged in such a way to depict Missy, who literally calls out the false equivalency between male circumcision and FGC, as condescending. She’s standing and Eka is sitting. If you were going to name the stage blocking, you’d call it “Amerisplaining.”

By giving Jimmy the last word, the show’s writers aren’t just critiquing Missy’s condescension — they’re saying she’s wrong. This is part of a larger pattern on the show. By continually giving Missy these didactic, preachy soliloquies almost every week — whether they be about etiquette, or colorism, or genital cutting — and then undermining them, the show runs the risk of turning the character, who is clearly the show’s resident feminist, into an insufferable know-it-all. It takes more than just sex scenes between Missy and Reggie to balance that out.


For more information on female genital cutting and the anatomy of the clitoris, check out these resources:

Alice Walker

Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women

Scarleteen

Innies & Outies: The vagina, clitoris, uterus, and more

The clitoris, the vagina and orgasm: Feelings and frameworks

With pleasure: A whole view of sexual anatomy for every body

It’s more than just a pound of flesh

The Atlantic

Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised

The Complexity of Female Circumcision: Your Thoughts

How Similar Is FGM to Male Circumcision? Your Thoughts

This American Life

Whose Great Idea Was This?

World Health Organization

Health risks of female genital mutilation (FGM)

Classification of female genital mutilation

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.