Why Does Everyone Hate Nicole Kidman For Being Good at Her Job? A Defense of Lulu Wang’s ‘Expats’

Posted in Blog by - February 07, 2024
Why Does Everyone Hate Nicole Kidman For Being Good at Her Job? A Defense of Lulu Wang’s ‘Expats’

On January 26th, Expats premiered on Prime. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Lulu Wang, this limited series tells the stories of three American expats living in Hong Kong. Despite gorgeous cinematography, a killer soundtrack, and an ensemble cast of talented people, Expats immediately received more flack than any show in recent memory. What was supposed to be a TV “event” as Ms. Wang debuted her follow-up to 2019’s feted The Farewell, became a bona fide fiasco. But why? Could it be that we still hate women who are good at their jobs?

Perhaps the most blistering critique was this review in The Guardian, which accused the Expats‘ most famous star, Nicole Kidman, of “running on the fumes of her talent.” The article took issue with how often Kidman has portrayed suffering women in recent years. Like In The Undoing or Big Little Lies, Expats has Kidman portray a woman who has suffered a loss (in this case, it is the disappearance of a child with which she must grapple). But basic similarities aside, Kidman is still her dynamic self as her character navigates unfathomable grief while ignoring the suffering she inflicts on those around her. It’s a complicated, unlikeable character, and Kidman plays her well.  

Several other critics, including Andy Greenwald and Joanna Robinson, have made similar criticisms of what they characterize as a solid but unoriginal performance by Ms. Kidman. However, I ask any critic who judges Kidman’s work in Expats, how many other roles do they think are available for women of a certain age in Hollywood? If Kidman isn’t allowed to play a distraught wife and mother anymore, what would you have her do? Join the 4th Season cast of The Morning Show? Please allow an icon more dignity than that…

The truth is, I admire when a superstar like Ms. Kidman takes a role in an ensemble drama where she isn’t always at the centre. What’s lovely about Lulu Wang’s Expats is that it gives the space for an entire cast of talented women to shine. The criminally underrated Sarayu Blue portrays Hillary, a professionally high-powered professional married to a narcissist who bleeds her dry emotionally. And Ji-young Yoon shines as a tortured Korean-American girl who moved to Hong Kong for a better life and wound up accidentally losing another woman’s child at a Night Market. To round out the cast, Episode 5 contains star turns from the women who portray the titular Expats’ Philippine helpers, the great Ruby Ruiz and Amelyn Pardenilia. Even if Nicole Kidman’s performance – excellent as it may be – is reminiscent of the tortured wives she portrays in earlier series, why should that overshadow Expats’ other performances? And if you are still arguing with me about Nicole, answer this question: How many times have actors like Leonardo Dicaprio portrayed grizzled men who exhibit traits of toxic masculinity, only to be pelted with acclaim and awards? Men are allowed to return to their favourite well while female performers are expected to die of dehydration… 

Expats’ themes have also come under fire. The series tackles the entitlement and self-centredness of privileged rich Americans living abroad, and critics I will not name here have lamented that such issues and entitled characters are overdone in modern TV. To which I say, where were you when Succession and White Lotus – both made by white guys – were being dubbed the best shows of our time? When Succession wrapped just last spring, no one suggested they were sick of commentaries on the ultra-privileged. Is critiquing the behaviour of the wealthy only dull and derivative when a woman of colour decides to focus her lens on that demographic? The fact that Lulu Wang has been berated for diving into the same issues for which Mike White and Jesse Armstrong were lauded is troubling. The unconscious bias is more obvious than Taylor Swift’s PR strategy (no shots fired at Taylor, because if something works, it works!). 

Ultimately, it is a shame Expats has been dismissed by tastemakers, because it has a lot to offer. In addition to a lovely cast of capable performers, Wang lovingly pays tribute to the dynamic city of Hong Kong with stunning shots of everything from the natural majesty of its mountains to the peculiar – but striking – beauty of its vast highways. There are also some outrageously fun scenes, like when Nicole Kidman and Sarayu Blue dance to Blondie in a restaurant late at night. At its core, Expats is a watchable piece of TV with several compelling moments. So why the hate?

The truth is simple: Hollywood still has higher standards for actresses, even while offering them fewer roles to play.  And of course, we all know Hollywood hates female directors unless their latest project is unimpeachably perfect. Is Expats a masterpiece? No, but the better question is this: why should it have to be? Since when do women always need to be brilliant not to be considered bad? Oh wait…since always.

Let’s end the double standard. Expats is good. Stop hating on women for being good at their jobs…   

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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