The air is electric with courageous women striking back at the awful acts of powerful men. Disgrace is being dragged out into the harsh light of day and, in very short order, we've seen boldface, showbizzy media names inducted into a newly built Hall of Shame.

There's more to come, no doubt, with little guarantee that when the dust settles our society will have somehow vanquished centuries of sexism and piggish behaviour.

But if what's going on in some way affects how we view gender in media - particularly on television - then it's all for the better.

Grace Marks, the antiheroic murderess at the center of Netflix's quietly compelling and beautifully rendered six-episode miniseries Alias Grace, which premieres later today and also stars Kiwi actress Anna Paquin, could have benefited from the current enlightenment on workplace harassment; unfortunately, she's stuck in an Ontario prison the late 1850s.


Forget what you've heard about woke Canadians - the men in Grace's life have all been predatory beasts in one way or another.

Having arrived as a teenage immigrant with her wee siblings (their mother died on the ocean crossing), Grace first suffers at the hands of her alcoholic, abusive father, who sends her off to find gainful employment. A job as a serving girl and maid in an alderman's mansion initially seems like an upgrade.

Grace (played by Sarah Gadon, who brings both luminosity and a creepy inscrutability to the role) is instantly befriended by another servant, the whip-smart Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), who takes a sisterly interest in Grace's well-being and self-confidence.

"You may be very young and ignorant as an egg," Mary tells Grace, with affection. "But you are bright as a penny, Grace Marks. The difference between ignorant and stupid is that the ignorant can learn."

Grace soon learns too much about harsh class dynamics and womanly despair when (spoiler alert) Mary has her heart broken by the alderman's lascivious son and dies of a hemorrhage after an illegal abortion.

Seething with grief and rage (and now fending off the son, who has turned his attentions her way), Grace quickly accepts a job offer in another town to assist Nancy Montgomery (Paquin), the head housekeeper for a wealthy widower, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross).

Anna Paquin in the new Netflix drama, Alias Grace.
Anna Paquin in the new Netflix drama, Alias Grace.

Eventually Grace realizes that Nancy is Mr Kinnear's mistress and therefore feels entitled to treat the help like dirt. Soon enough, a temperamental stableman (Kerr Logan) is conspiring with Grace to murder both Nancy and Mr. Kinnear.

Alias Grace is another recent adaptation of a Margaret Atwood novel (along with Lightbox's magnificent The Handmaid's Tale), and, as it happens, the series is produced and written by actress, director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley, one of many women who stepped forward last month to recall their bad encounters with film producer Harvey Weinstein. (Polley called him "a festering pustule in a diseased industry" in a New York Times op-ed.)


It's hard not to think about that while noticing the measured, methodical way that Alias Grace takes its story beyond the "did she or didn't she?" ambiguity of the double murders and instead becomes a thoughtful and provocative exploration of gender as a stacked deck.

Although it initially looks and moves like a PBS period drama, Alias Grace dares to suggest that Grace is the product of a culture that uses and disregards women - especially poor, working-class women. Expecting the series to behave strictly like a murder mystery probably isn't the best way to watch it.

Alias Grace is structured as a recollection of events: 15 years into her sentence, Grace agrees to meet each day with Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), an American psychologist hired to evaluate her mental fitness for possible parole. Jordan quickly realizes that Grace is an unreliable narrator, yet he's also obsessed with her and imagines rescuing her - with his penis, naturally.

Which means yet another man has objectified Grace, using her to some selfish purpose. The doctor takes copious notes yet doesn't know the first thing about Grace's life, which he proves by naively asking about her duties as a servant, as if he never knew housework existed.

"You were not making a joke," Grace observes. "You really don't know. Men such as yourself do not have to clean up the messes you make. But (women) have to clean up our messes and add yours into the bargain. In that way, you are like children. You don't have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what you do."

You tell him, Grace.