'Cable Girls' Is A Period Piece With A Modern Feminist Message

by Samantha Atzeni
Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix

In its first episode, Cable Girls (original Spanish title, Las Chicas Del Cable) opens with a theft, a gunshot, and an arrest, as main character Alba says to the audience via voiceover, “only those that fight achieve their dreams.” With Netflix’s recent announcement that the show has been renewed for a second season, all the consequences of this fight are still unknown. However, the premiere introduces each character and her definition of freedom, which is represented through a job at the largest telephone company in 1928 Madrid. As the episode continues, the characters learn an all-too important lesson: female independence comes with a very hefty price.

Cable Girls offers the aesthetic of a period piece while keeping its feet planted firmly in the daily challenges facing women today. The flapper dresses may be prominent, as well as the vermouth, but there is an all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness, of trying to move beyond traditional expectations of marriage, children, and home. The new title lacks feminist agency (when will we stop calling women "girls"), but the characters still speak for the struggle for independence outside of those traditional and domestic expectations. However, it is clear the mounting pressures of expectations cross both cultural and liminal spaces, manifesting themselves into new pressures that face women today. Despite its historical backdrop, the first episode of Cable Girls asks the age-old question: can women have it all? And what obstacles will they face as they seek out new opportunities?

In its first episode, Cable Girls chooses to address a more serious issue too: violence against women. The first two women viewers meet are Alba and Gimena, who are cornered in the street by Gimena's abusive husband and his gun. Gimena is faced with a choice: return to her husband or watch him kill her best friend. As Gimena agrees to go with him, Alba rushes toward the husband, causing both Gimena and her husband to be shot. Alba lies in the street with Gimena’s body watching her friend’s freedom fade away with her life.

As quickly as Alba and Gimena had a chance to escape, her husband and his gun took it all away. While this scene is used to set the dramatic tone of the show, it establishes a sobering thought that moves beyond the early twentieth century. According to the facts and figures from UN Women, "1 in 3 women still experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner." In this heartbreaking moment, Cable Girls addresses a feminine yet universal desire and fear: the desire to be free and the fear of violence that comes from wanting freedom.

Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix

As Alba sits in a prison cell for the murder of two people and facing the death penalty, one police officer offers a deal for her freedom: she needs to use her skills as a thief to steal from the wealthiest family in Madrid, who just opened their telephone company. As Alba sits trapped in her prison cell with a man in power looming over her, she has no choice but to agree, once again placing her in the same position as other women trying to achieve power in a man's world.

Through a series of underhanded techniques, Alba becomes Lidia Aguilar and manages to secure a job in the phone company where she meets the other cast of characters: Marga, a young innocent woman from a village who is terrified of the big city, Carlota, a fiery young woman who keeps sneaking out of her parents’ home so she can work, and Ángeles, a wife and mother who is being forced to give up her job so her husband can be the primary breadwinner.

Each character is representative of a different pressure that not only reflects the time period, but also the challenges surrounding women today. Through blackmail, Alba/Lidia must choose between her life and her morals in order to gain her freedom. Carlota yearns for independence from an abusive father, but is faced with either homelessness or marrying her boyfriend for security. In contrast, Marga represents the young woman who sacrifices her life taking care of her sick mother and grandmother and struggles with asserting herself through self-care. Finally, Ángeles represents the woman who is great at her job, but is forced to take a backseat to her husband, who believes that having a job outside the home is tied to his masculine identity.

Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix

In Cable Girls, these pressures are illustrated through Ángeles, who is viewed as having it all: the job, the child, and the husband. What the show does well is to highlight what women of the 1920s had to sacrifice in order to get that job which would lead to independence, minus the home life.

Today this independence is translated into newer societal expectations of not only professional, but personal accomplishments as well. Too often, women are pressured to “have it all” in what Radhika Sanghani identifies in The Telegraph as “an unspoken list" of eight expectations that emphasize the contradictions that women need to define success. Women must be successful in their careers, yet open to being a wife and mother. They must be able to work long hours to get that promotion, but also have a house worthy of HGTV. Women are also expected to well-traveled, but not too well-traveled because there is still a home and mortgage to worry about.

Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix

The final moment of the premiere comes down to which cable girl will help the King of Spain make his first transatlantic call to the President of the United States. Lidia is chosen over Ángeles (hinting at future episodes of competition in the workplace), which she uses as an opportunity to cause a distraction so she can get to the safe. As Lidia watches the flurry of activity to connect the call, she muses, "The world is in the hands of women."

As cliffhanger in the first episode of Cable Girls and the current political climate indicate, this statement may feel true. But women still have a fight ahead of them.