Little Fires in Our Hearts: Audre Lorde’s the Erotic in Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere explores queerness and what Audre Lorde calls “the erotic.

“How can we see ourselves when we’re afraid to look at who we really are?” Mia Warren, a Black queer woman, says as she ends up preaching to a group of privileged white women about Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.” It is 1990-something in Shaker Heights, Ohio – a picturesque Midwestern town that has all of the elements of a campy television sitcom.

Motherhood, sexual identity, and race clash in the TV adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere. The novel, written by Celeste Ng, and the series take an intricate look into the lives of two different families in the 1990s. Elena, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a seemingly perfect example of what entitled white womanhood looked like during the 90s. She is the wife who works, the proof of second wave white women’s liberation’s sacrifices in action. We then meet Mia Warren, played by Kerry Washington, a Black woman travelling with her teenage daughter named Pearl.

As with all things that are seemingly immaculate, inside Shaker Heights lies a cesspool of darkness and secrets. While Little Fires Everywhere explores many topics, this essay will reference the great poet Audre Lorde and her theory of the power of the Erotic. Utilizing her theory, we will explore the dynamics between Elena and Mia and how they each use their innate abilities to tap into this “erotic” in order to gain a better sense of who and what they are; whether that be for the best or the worst. 

‘’When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lifes.”

Audre Lorde in “The Uses of the Erotic” from Sister Outsider

Audre Lorde was a lesbian warrior poet who wrote the above essay about the power of women and the power of the erotic. Traditionally, the term “erotic” has been associated with pornography. It has also been used to either subjugate or control women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy for the heterosexual, patriarchal gaze. Lorde argues that to tap into the true erotic, one must accept the great divine feminine as an ultimate force in women’s decisions in life.

Ultimately, The Erotic is defined by Lorde as being “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.Little Fires Everywhere is a perfect entre point for exploring the erotic because it takes an intricate look at how two women from two different walks of life handle their own divine feminine power in a particularly complex and interestingly dramatic story. 

Little Fires Everywhere
Image courtesy: Hulu (screengrab)

We are introduced to Mia and Pearl as they are racially profiled by Elena. The mother and daughter had been resting in a parking lot in a tattered blue hatchback as Elena trekked to her run of the mill job at a local newspaper. Immediately–despite having no interaction with the pair–Elena calls up the local sheriff to “check it out,” clearly concerned that a homeless Black woman and her daughter represent some undefined threat.

This type of introduction sets the precedent for Elena’s character – a sheltered, well-connected woman in a community where she clearly holds capital. In a twist of fate, Elena ends up renting her former home (her parent’s property) to Mia and Pearl, though Mia is unaware of Elena’s intentions and the fact that Elena had them profiled. Perhaps Elena does it because she wanted to counterbalance her racist act of profiling with her desire to be “progressive?” Whatever the reason, her ominous decision is the catalyst for our exploration of the erotic between the two women. 

Little Fires Everywhere is steeped in melodrama and novella-esque plot twists, but there are also moments where explorations of the erotic become explicit, particularly in the queer romance of young Mia and Pauline Hawthorne (played by Anika Noni Rose). Before Mia and Elena cross paths, we are shown the two women and how they meet.

Mia is a young student who had just started her year at a fine arts school in New York. Pauline is a famous artist and professor who teaches about what defines our homes, and what makes us so “uncanny.” Her debut scene is filled with a monologue that hints towards the divine spectrum of power Lorde wrote about. While the scene boasts Sigmund Freud for inspiration, the chemistry between Mia and Pauline can be seen as their relationship develops. It is not sexual or perverse, but introspective and enlightening.

The power to own your flaws and to intuitively use them for the greater good is quite possibly the best example of the erotic to date.

Audre Lorde states that “there are frequent attempts to equate pornography and the eroticism, two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual.”  Not only were Mia and Pauline connected to this divine power through their art, but also in recognition of each other’s souls.  While the idea of a professor/student romance sits uneasily with me, it can be said that their relationship on Little Fires Everywhere is defined by Mia’s self discovery and growth – rather than a gross, hypersexualized, hetero fantasy. Pauline is the one who teaches Mia about “the uncanny, repulsive” entities all humans possess. Ultimately, Pauline argues, the power to own your flaws and to intuitively use them for the greater good is quite possibly the best example of the erotic to date.  The erotic is non-rational and to accept ones flaws goes against any type of rational identity. This is the spark that lights the match in the small town of Shaker – and sets aflame the realities of two very different women.

Image courtesy: Hulu (screengrab)

Pauline and Mia as a couple represent the ultimate idea of what the erotic is able to accomplish. Mia maintained her freedom to create her art and to live by her convictions; whereas Elena saw her life’s achievements to be having the perfect house, the perfect family, and the perfect spouse, she ends up regretting the choices she made in order to appease everyone except for herself. Her mother, who is a functional alcoholic, tells Elena that it is okay to “let men be men.” That advice requires Elena to, using Lorde’s theory, subjugate her own divine power in order to live the life she was “meant” to. “Your generation and this obsession with having a career!” her mother drunkenly remarks. Her mother balks at the idea of Elena rejecting the life that privileged white women should be grateful for–the life that Elena not only imagined for herself but also, with all of the perks the women’s rights movement, marched for.

Elena wanted to embark on a career as a journalist and could have done so had she braved the harnessing of her own divine power. Instead of holding herself accountable for her own shortcomings, she finds the next best thing to project her own failure upon: Mia. 

On Little Fires Everywhere, both Mia and Elena’s lives are defined by the choices they make. In order for Elena to assimilate to her privileged destiny, she had to cut off her connection to the erotic, which in this case manifests as her power to make decisions. Mia, risking being disowned by her family to take charge of funding her own art school tuition, takes drastic measures in order to create a life with Pearl. Unlike Elena, Mia listens to her first instinct, which seems to be a manifestation of the erotic’s influence. Through this power of honoring herself and her growth, Mia embarks on an adventure that is unpredictable, yet on her terms. Harnessing her own power makes her a threat in Elena’s life, which ultimately leads Elena to sabotage her own family by becoming obsessed with Mia.

The tangible storyline asks us to see past the black and white of self discovery and to examine the milky grey of our innate ability to live wholly and honestly.

“This erotic charge is not easily shared with by women who continue to operate under an exclusively European-American male tradition,” Lorde writes. By participating in the patriarchy and giving up on her dreams,  Elena continues the tradition of suppressing her wildest desires – and resenting those who dared to go the distance. 

Lorde was insistent on the fact that women who harness the power of the true erotic are dangerous. While both Mia and Elena participate in questionable behavior on Little Fires Everywhere, where they end up happens almost karmically. The tangible storyline asks us to see past the black and white of self discovery and to examine the milky grey of our innate ability to live wholly and honestly. Most importantly, it teaches us to embrace all aspects of our true selves that are not so desirable, so that we may pursue the things in life that make us all truly divine. 

All quotes are from Audre Lorde’s Essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” from Sister Outsider. 

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