Frontier: As Intersectional as Feminism Can Be in the 1770s

Netflix and Discovery series Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. How does Frontier treat women’s history in a time where their social roles were especially limited?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about character development and thematic events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

Last week we discussed how Netflix and Discovery series Frontier interprets the history of the fur trade in Canada during the late 18th century. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I’m back with Part II of the Frontier series, this time to talk about women’s roles in the show.

As you probably know if you’re into history or women’s studies (or if you’re aware of women’s rights movements such as intersectional feminism), women’s social roles were extremely restricted. Women couldn’t usually hold property and were usually made to marry to secure their future. With Indigenous women in North America, things were a bit different – certain Indigenous communities are matrilineal, meaning that women hold leadership positions rather than men. Indigenous groups still had/have gender-specific roles, but colonization marked a grim turn for women. Indigenous women were in many cases sold or “offered” to settlers as “country wives”, many being forced into non-consensual marriages.

Sokanon (Jessica Matten) dedicates her time to helping other women fight the effects of colonialism, such as forced marriages. The show tacitly parallels today’s ongoing issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo: Hypable

So with these often traumatic complexities in mind, how does Frontier interpret women’s history? With a great degree of respect and nuance, I’m happy to say.

Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) poses as a man to survive on her own. Photo: TVMaze

Frontier explores new world realities for women in the 1770s without disempowering them. Characters with no income such as Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Follows) and Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) must adapt to survive, latching onto benefactors who prove to be manipulative; but they both demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. I won’t drop a big spoiler, but there is one particular character whom I was indignant to see killed off before all her potential had been exercised. Yet for the most part in Frontier, we’re shown so many unique women with examples of strength and vulnerability (which are not mutually exclusive traits, I might add).

Prolific Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal plays Kamenna, chief of the Cree Lake Walkers who are integral trade partners to some of the fur traders. Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) runs her own company after the death of her husband, and she is a shrewd and calculating businesswoman. Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) steers the Brown Bros.’ company better than they do.

Clockwise from left: Kamenna (Tantoo Cardinal), Josephette (Karen LeBlanc), Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath), Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle).

Likewise, Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle) owns a Fort James tavern and uses intelligence as a form of power; she also literally wears the pants. I admit I underestimated her barmaid, Mary (Breanne Hill), thinking she’d be vapid as is often the case, but she proves to be fierce as heck, going so far as to attack and kill rapists who try to sexually assault women and girls in the tavern. Sokanon (Jessica Matten) also goes on a personal quest to save Indigenous women from being forcibly married off, and she and Mary join ranks (sisterhood!) to achieve their honourable cause.

Mary (Breanne Hill) and Sokanon (Matten) fight to escape a Christian convent preparing North American women, many of them Indigenous, to marry European settlers. Photo: FatherSonHolyGore

Some viewers might say “how are these roles accurate?” but if you honestly believe that women have taken centuries of oppression lying down and didn’t fight back, you’re mistaken. Frontier could go even further to establish their female characters’ nuanced experiences, but to the show’s credit it portrays women’s entrepreneurial talent, compassion, integrity, and ambition.

I said this last week and I’ll say it again – Frontier is by no means perfect. Nor is any interpretation of history, when you think about it, but the bigger question to consider is: does it treat the subject matter responsibly? As a woman who loves history, I feel that Frontier does.

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