Succession‘s Shiv Roy Is a Rorschach Test for Fans’ Understandings of Feminism

Shiv isn’t a victim of sexist writing so much as she is of her own misread of her surroundings throughout the series. That hasn't stopped the online backlash.

Succession‘s Shiv Roy Is a Rorschach Test for Fans’ Understandings of Feminism
Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Snook in Succession. Photo:HBO

The series finale of Succession on Sunday night marked the gutting conclusion of a brilliant era for television—and also, a semi-welcome conclusion to some of the most nauseating debates on the internet. Many of these have reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the show, like, say, who would ultimately “win” the role of CEO and run Waystar when, as TV Guide’s Allison Picurro put it, Succession “was never concerned with who would win” but instead “what the characters were willing to give up in their efforts to win.” As it turns out, they were all willing to give up quite a lot (if not everything), and not even just to win. In Shiv’s case, her last move on the show saw her possibly consign herself to a life of unhappiness, all to not see Kendall—who she’s always resented for the privileges accorded to him as “eldest boy”—win.

There are infinite ways Shiv’s decision-making in the finale can be interpreted and we can argue about it until the cows come home. But her final move—to vote “yes” on the GoJo deal and align herself with husband Tom Wambsgans, who double-crossed her to become CEO—has sparked the most debate, amounting to something of a Rorschach test for fans’ understandings of contemporary feminism. As a highly complex fictional character whose actions throughout the series have been widely open to interpretation, Shiv has long been subject to rampant fan speculation and projection about her intentions—Sunday’s finale only intensified that speculation of Shiv: as feminist martyr or oppressor, as savior or just as selfish as her brothers.

It’s fairly obvious that the show ends with Shiv—who once took pride in distancing herself from her family and having her own career—following, somewhat, in the footsteps of her mother. Like Caroline, she’s about to become a reluctant mother in a complicated, if not irreparably broken, marriage to a CEO who, like Logan, has done unconscionable things for power. It’s a humbling conclusion for Shiv’s character, as she spent the entirety of the show implicitly or explicitly flaunting her superiority to Tom and disparaging her mom, both for being an absentee parent and never rising up to be more than a wife and mother—the most undignified status a woman can hold, in Shiv’s corporate feminist perspective.

Viral tweets, drawing a smattering of eye-rolls from many, have since argued Shiv’s ending was anti-feminist—even “tragic for women,” as she’s ostensibly been a “gladiator” for us in the corporate world. Some argued her last-minute decision to throw Kendall under the bus was erratic and inconsistent with her character. Before we go any further, let’s get the facts out of the way: The only woman Shiv has ever really advocated for is herself, and that’s what made her such a fascinating—and despicable—character to watch over the years. In Season 2, she leveraged the implicit, gendered trust between herself and a sexual assault survivor to convince the woman not to testify against her family. She made a fuss about her brothers working to install crypto-fascist Jeryd Mencken as president, only to try to make a deal with Mencken the following day. And for all her misgivings about the intractable evil of her family’s business, and particularly ATN, she threw away a career in Democratic politics at the mere prospect of running the company.

Shiv isn’t a victim of sexist writing so much as she is a victim of her own misread of her surroundings; throughout the series, she clearly buys into the notion that if she distinguishes herself from other women by shrugging off the misogyny that’s innate to corporate environments (and certainly conservative media empires), by being the “cool girl” in the room full of suits a la Gone Girl, she can win. She listens to GoJo’s Lukas Matsson describe harassing his ex-girlfriend-slash-employee by mailing her liters of his blood then chooses to work with and help cover for him, anyway—earning her recognition from Matsson as “cool” and “like your dad,” able to “take a joke.”


Matsson, in the end, predictably betrays Shiv specifically because he wants a sexual relationship with her, disqualifying her from being CEO—and, of course, because he’d rather have his CEO be the man who “put the baby in her” than Shiv (the “baby lady,” as he put it). This turn of events perfectly encapsulates how, for all Shiv’s determination that she could succeed by differentiating herself from other women, she never actually had a chance—because the corporate world in which she so badly wants to hold power is unforgivably misogynist. No amount of deal-making with Muskian technocrats and neo-Nazi presidents could ever change that.

There’s also the theory of Shiv as savior, freeing herself and her brothers from the curse of their dad’s company, from remaining trapped in perpetual, miserable competition with one another. Maybe she saw the toll that all of this strife had taken on Kendall, his family, his mental state; maybe she worried about what Roman might become. I, personally, call bullshit on all of that—nothing Shiv’s done in the past suggests she really cares about anything but herself, like everyone else in her family. And, just as she didn’t take issue with Mencken posing a threat to democracy so much as she did her brothers holding onto power, it seems a lot more likely she made her decision because—in her own words—she couldn’t “fucking stomach” Kendall, and likely saw Tom, the future father of her child, as her best chance to remain along the margins of power. White feminism, at the end of the day, is all about making choices that place you in the greatest proximity to power, often at the expense of literally everyone else.

The end of Shiv’s arc wasn’t out-of-character or unfair to her: She ultimately stayed true to herself until the bitter end. Her disgust with Kendall and her accurate appraisal of him as unworthy and entitled could ironically be applied just as easily to her if she held so much as a crumb of self-awareness. Shiv resents Kendall because as a man, he was always the presumed heir to the company; she sees herself as a victim of circumstance (her gender) rather than her own stupidity and ineptitude in putting her trust in men as sexist and depraved as Matsson or, before him, Logan. Even after Matsson casts her out—again, because she’s pregnant and he sees her as fuckable—she’s still too stupid to see who he really is, insisting to her brothers in the final minutes of the episode that at least Matsson “believed in me.”

If Shiv were as intelligent as she and some of her Very Online fans seem to think she is, she would have realized long ago that no amount of posturing as “one of the boys” and sly maneuvering would ever win her a crumb of success in her father’s empire, that she could easily have found a less toxic environment and path in life and applied herself to that. But she didn’t, and now here she is. The finale sees Shiv and her brothers all make decisions that doom them to varying levels of unhappiness—even Tom, despite “winning,” had to endlessly debase himself and is now working under the thumb of a man who intends to fuck his wife.

But the ironic thing is, they could all live happily ever after—with all their billions—if they were to open their minds even a little and consider wanting literally anything else in life other than a job. The fact that they (at least, Kendall and Shiv) can’t do this speaks to the emptiness of their characters—an emptiness that audiences readily saw in the haunted hollowness of Kendall’s eyes, but remain in denial about, even now, in Shiv.

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