Three Women, Stan review: with pleasure comes punishment

A non-fiction book gets adapted into a fictional series in Three Women: but does it work?

Three Women was journalist Lisa Taddeo’s bestselling, award-winning 2019 debut book: an exploration of three real American women’s intimate experiences. Taddeo has now adapted it into a 10-episode series from Starz, arguably TV’s home of raunchy melodrama – which partners in Australia with Stan. This material is a good fit for the home of Outlander, Power and The Girlfriend Experience.

Shailene Woodley stars as Gia, a Taddeo-like writer struggling to fulfil her book contract.

Gia spends eight years on the road researching the book in America’s heartland – and working through her own family and relationship issues. But in the four episodes available to preview, Gia mostly narrates from offscreen.

Instead, we follow Lina (Betty Gilpin), an Indiana mom trapped in a lonely marriage; Sloane (DeWanda Wise), a beautiful, sophisticated Massachusetts event planner who risks her open marriage; and Maggie (Gabrielle Creevey) in North Dakota, who at age 23 accuses her former high-school English teacher of an inappropriate relationship.

What genre is this?

What made Taddeo’s nonfiction book striking was that it read like a novel, so it couldn’t be adapted as a documentary. Instead, it’s closest to the melodrama of female self-discovery: pioneered by Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel The Group, and made popular in nonfiction by memoirs such as Eat Pray Love (2006) by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012).

Sloane’s storyline is perhaps the most melodramatic. At 40, she enjoys an enviably luxurious lifestyle in an idyllic island community, where she and her chef husband Richard (Blair Underwood) cater upscale events for wealthy vacationers.

They also have an arrangement: Sloane can have sexual encounters with men and women, but only if Richard approves, watches and sometimes joins in. The series uses music playlists to underline their ritualised sexual power exchanges: when Sloane is running the hookup, she puts on her all-female playlist; Richard puts on his playlist when his fantasy animates the encounter.

And he doesn’t approve of Sloane’s attraction to Will (Blair Redford), a brooding oyster farmer and boatbuilder whom she meets through her business. And then there’s Will’s girlfriend Jenny (Lola Kirke), who’s not only a talented florist whom Sloane wants to employ, but also a cool chick who’s fast becoming Sloane’s friend.

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In Taddeo’s book, Sloane is a white restaurateur; but here she’s Black and stages catered events, which complicates the class politics, aligning her story with genre tales of Black excellence – such as Black-ish, Scandal, Our Kind of People and Bel-Air.

There’s even the cautionary air of an erotic thriller to the envy and disapproval Sloane courts from other women, and the dynamic of emotional cruelty and defiance between her and her overachieving mother Dyan (April Grace). Sloane’s racial identity can’t really be disentangled from her perfectionism or her need for control.

The camera’s gaze

In voiceover, Gia describes Sloane as “the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen up close”. The erotic energy of her marriage also comes from Richard’s desire to watch her. What unites these women is that they are all to be looked at – by lovers, families, peers, neighbours.

I kept noticing how often they look into mirrors, and that they sometimes break the fourth wall with their eyes. Even in the moment, they’re aware of the gaze – and that Taddeo, as Gia, is processing their intimacies for public consumption.

But as Gia muses, “Lina, Sloane and Maggie were not people who wanted to be watched. They were women who needed to be seen.”

And the camerawork invites us to share their subjectivity, slowing down when they lose themselves in horny reveries or bittersweet flashbacks. Shots linger in an almost tactile way on faces, hands, skin.

Kudos to intimacy coordinator Claire Warden for choreographing onscreen action ranging from solo scenes to orgies. There’s nudity aplenty – including lingering close-ups of various prosthetic erections – but the series mostly manages to emphasise the characters’ experience over prurient spectacle.

For me Lina’s story is the most hopeful. Because her endometriosis and fibromyalgia are invisible illnesses, she’s constantly gaslit by doctors and by her husband Ed (Sean Meehan) refuses the intimate touch she craves. When she’s diagnosed by a sympathetic holistic doctor (Ravi Patel), she finally feels seen. And through Facebook she contacts her first love, Aidan (Austin Stowell), with whom she embarks on an all-consuming physical affair.

Thanks to both the story’s subjectivity and the magic of television, the intervening years have made Aidan smoking hot. But Betty Gilpin – so excellent in GLOW – really sells both Lina’s mousy repression and her newfound exuberance. When she and Aidan first reconnect, she’s so overwhelmed that her hands flutter helplessly over her own face – for me, the show’s most unforgettable moment.

Pleasure and punishment

But the show gloomily insists that with pleasure comes punishment. Maggie’s story is prefaced with a legal disclaimer that it’s based on her claim that she had an inappropriate relationship with her high-school English teacher Aaron (Jason Ralph), who denied Maggie’s allegations and was acquitted of three of the five charges brought against him. (The other two were declared a mistrial, and dismissed.)

This knowledge troubles the ambiguous spectatorship the series has set up, in which we know the protagonists are ‘real people’, but we can treat them nonetheless as characters. Maggie’s story shifts Three Women into the grittier terrain of true crime.

That’s probably also because sexual predators who groom teenagers often follow the same depressing playbook. They choose victims in vulnerable moments, isolate them from family and friends, alternately love-bomb them and withdraw, and then deny everything.

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That Maggie’s abuser was her English teacher adds an unfortunate literary dimension to his grooming, which begins when she submits a first-person essay about a summer romance with a much older Army guy (Brandon Finn). Aaron confesses his feelings in text messages – whose banal impact on their reader director Cate Shortland literalises as illuminated signs.

If this had been fiction, it would’ve been simply too tasteless that they meet secretly in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and that Aaron asks to borrow her favourite novel, Twilight, then annotates it to identify himself and Maggie with its Gothic romance between a teenager and a vampire.

The weakness of Three Women is that by using genre tropes from fiction, it undermines its claim to represent ‘real women’. Including Gia as an author figure only makes Sloane, Lina and Maggie seem more like characters. Woodley has a warm onscreen presence, but even the memory of her appearance in the tonally and thematically similar Big Little Lies – which was a novel – reminds us that someone else is telling these women’s stories.

Three Women is streaming now on Stan.


3.5 out of 5 stars


Shaleine Woodley, Betty Gilpin


Format: TV Series

Country: USA


Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).