My new form of weekly masochism is watching The Curse, a show so intensely uncomfortable to behold that I resent creators Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie for making me witness it at all. The Showtime series follows aspiring do-gooder Whitney Siegel (Emma Stone) and her husband Asher (Fielder) on a disastrous mission to ethically gentrify the city of Española, New Mexico, while Asher’s childhood friend Dougie (Safdie) films their clumsy efforts for an HGTV show. Of course, gentrification can never be ethical, and showrunners Fielder and Safdie — two experts in causing severe audience distress — love to marinate in that dissonance.
At the center of The Curse’s satire about privileged people failing to do good is Whitney, the daughter of two New Mexico slumlords using the properties her parents let her sell to prove she’s not like them at all. In some ways, Whitney genuinely wants to make the world (and maybe even Española) a better place. But between her embarrassing efforts to befriend the local residents and her desperation to feel and act like a Good Person, it’s impossible to root for her. Stone nails exactly the type of white woman who would be installing eco-conscious, mirrored houses all over a largely working-class town: self-absorbed, passive-aggressive, and obsessed with what other people think of her. So many of Stone’s mannerisms in the show speak volumes about Whitney, like the way she crinkles her nose into a performative giggle that fluctuates between cute and deeply grating. Or the voice she uses to speak with her neighbors, which is laden with such forced familiarity that it actually betrays just how out of her element she is. But there’s one detail about Whitney that tells us everything we need to know: her gentrification pants.
The pants in question are a pair of white Collina Strada trousers — straight-leg, cropped, and dotted with oversize jewel-toned stars. Like many trendy workwear-inspired bottoms, they have reinforced knees, whose purpose here is not to protect their wearer from copious kneeling but to layer another cutesy pattern — squiggly paisley-like shapes with wonky smiley faces — on top of the star print. Thanks to the patches, these pants exude the quality of a quilt without actually being quilted, an alarmingly spot-on metaphor for the flimsy sense of homeyness Whit wants to telegraph about both herself and her houses. They also have hammer loops, another popular manual-labor accoutrement that Whit will surely never use — for all her home-building talk, we’ve yet to see her engage in much physical work, probably because she pays people to do that for her. Speaking of: This particular pair is sold out, but a similar one is listed on Farfetch for $422.
The pants, which slot gracefully into Whitney’s endless collection of crêpe tees and chore coats, first show up in episode five. It’s a pivotal episode for understanding how this woman operates: We watch Whitney completely spiral out while trying to find a buyer for one of her homes, and for the first time she truly reveals the bratty, privileged side of her she’s been trying so desperately to hide. Her carefully constructed, secretly expensive closet, which is meant to scream “humble” and “laid-back,” is a major part of that image — particularly these pants, a doomed attempt to play the role of a charming grassroots activist. It takes 37 minutes for her to start screaming “Española is MINE!” in the back of her parents’ SUV, but the writing was on the wall from the beginning of the episode: The most admirable thing about Whitney is her cute $400 trousers.