Analyzing Shiv’s decision on “succession” with a feminist text

Did you see the “Succession” finale on HBO this week? If so, the final shot of Tom and Shiv in their car had you thinking about “Bargaining with the patriarchy,” Deniz Kandiyoti’s 1988 article Which 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” did not speak outright you patriarchy, it is without a doubt TO patriarchy.

“Succession,” for the unfamiliar, follows the exploits of the Roy family: literally patriarch Logan, an aging media baron in the Rupert Murdoch mold, and his grown children. Most of the show’s storyline was driven by his son Kendall’s various failed attempts to dethrone or succeed him, some of which related to Kendall’s sister Shiv and/or his brother Roman.

Which brings me to Kandiyoti, the feminist theorist whose groundbreaking work is surprisingly helpful in understanding today’s HBO success.

The “deal” of her paper’s title refers to the collateral deal that patriarchal systems offer women: whether they help protect men’s interests by serving their husbands and sons and conforming to fairness conventions 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 arrangement for many Indian women, for example, was that they would not own their own property or inherit family assets, but would be supported by their husbands when young and their children in their old age.

But the benefits of those affairs always hinged on women’s relationships with men, Kandiyoti wrote. In the wake of a relevant man’s divorce, death, or estrangement, the protections and power that go with them collapse, with no guarantee that another man will take his place.

(Now for the requisite caveat: “Succession” spoilers appear below.)

One way to view the events of “Succession” is as the story of Kendall’s tragic misunderstanding of her position in the family under her father’s patriarchy. He thought that as a son—the “older boy,” as he angrily (and incorrectly) yelled in the final episode—he was destined to inherit everything. But in reality, in patriarchal terms of power and position, though not of royal 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 they’ll one day be at the top, only to find they’ve played into the mechanics of their own oppression.

The mistake of the Roy children was that they didn’t realize that they only enjoyed privileges through Logan. If the boys played by the rules of that patriarchy, it granted them money and sinecures and sometimes even authority over those outside the family.

But it all hinged on their relationship with him, which was horribly abusive. Over the course of four seasons, she has insulted, belittled, manipulated, gassed and even physically attacked her children. She controlled their money, undermined their relationships and demanded absolute loyalty. She cut off escape routes, promising them the world but never delivering it.

Thus neither son had independent power bases that could come from, for example, building his own businesses or running royal jobs within his father’s empire. (Significantly, the show has rarely depicted the Roy children in reality working for the Waystar Royco empire.) The patriarchal pact was all they had.

Kendall, in particular, didn’t have skills that the rest of the world needed. As he correctly told his sister about her when she begged her to support her candidacy for CEO in the final episode, she was a cog that was made to fit in only one machine. Only the car in question was not, as she had thought, the Waystar Royco company. The car was her relationship with her father. And that died with Logan.

This is the dirty secret of patriarchal systems, Kandiyoti wrote: once women are co-opted to relinquish power, they lack the ability to enforce the covenant that got them into that situation in the first place, especially once they new men take over.

“For the generation of women caught in the middle,” she wrote, “this transformation can be a real personal tragedy, as they have paid the heavy price of a previous patriarchal pact, but are unable to reap the promised benefits.”

For Kendall, tragedy came not only when he lost the corporate power he craved, but also when his brothers walked out on him.

But perhaps a lifetime of environmental misogyny meant that Shiv Roy, the only real child in the family, was in the best position to acknowledge that situation for what it was. This may explain why she ultimately backed her husband as the new CEO: At the last minute, she may have realized that her old patriarchal pact was futile, but unlike her siblings, she managed to find a new one.