Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 4: The Female Addicts of Deadwood

Today, Points presents the final installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens four-part series on Victorian women and drugs. Today, Kristina looks at the constructed reality of drug use in the HBO series Deadwood.

Alma and Trixie, two of the women of Deadwood

For my last blog post, I turn from texts actually from the nineteenth century to a story created in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. HBO’s Deadwood was a successful television Western, set in a lawless gold-rush camp in the 1870s. While much of the plot revolves around male power struggles over the camp’s resources and financial opportunities as the frontier moves toward civilization, this post will focus on the show’s female characters, particularly the way Deadwood uses opium use to signal women’s attempts to escape a misogynistic society and form bonds with other women. It is striking that the three main female characters in Deadwood’s first season are all depicted as addicts: Calamity Jane is an alcoholic, while the prostitute Trixie and the Northern lady Alma Garret struggle with addiction to opium. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I will focus here on Alma and Trixie, asking what this says about the show’s depiction of femininity.**

In the commentary for the first episode of the series, creator David Milch says, regarding Alma Garret’s addiction: “When you’re raised essentially to serve someone else’s purpose sometimes you try to create an artificial environment where you can meet your own needs. I think that’s how a lot of junkies and alcoholics get started.” Though Milch suggests this description could apply to any substance abusers, male or female, his comment seems particularly resonant with the female characters on the show. Male drug addicts on the show are generally depicted one-dimensionally, being easily forgettable smalltime crooks. In contrast, drug addiction seems intimately, emotionally connected to femininity. After all, Milch’s comment follows an explanation of Alma’s background, which includes marrying her wealthy husband in order to get her father out of debt.

David Milch

Other scenes depict prostitutes getting high, presumably to escape the misery of a life of relentless submission to the violent desires of their male clients and employers. Although these prostitute characters are no more prominent to the plot than the smalltime male crooks mentioned earlier, their addiction is specifically connected to their profession in a way not implied with the male characters. Trixie stands in as representative of the other prostitutes and their addiction, and while she is never seen getting high, her past and present fit Milch’s description of being “raised essentially to serve someone else’s purpose.” Both Alma and Trixie mention that their addictions began early, around the time when they would be considered—in different ways and due to different circumstances—to be arriving at womanhood: Alma at seventeen, Trixie at twelve. 

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