The Undeniable Power Of Donatella Versace In American Crime Story

Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Daly/FX.

If the premiere episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story focused on the violent shooting of Gianni Versace on the front steps of his Miami mansion in 1997, episode 2 — set partly in 1994 — tackles a very different brush with death. This time, the assailant isn't handsome serial killer Andrew Cunanan, but Versace's own body.

The rumors about Versace's HIV-positive status remain unconfirmed to this dayVanity Fair contributor Maureen Orth, whose book the show is based on, first reported the fashion designer had HIV back in 1997, but there haven't been any significant breakthroughs since then.

Still, I'm not here to comment on Gianni Versace the man, but Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) the character. And the character, according to Ryan Murphy's vision, starts off "Manhunt" by seeking treatment for a unnamed disease we are meant to deduce is HIV. This unforeseen development means Donatella (Penelope Cruz) is called upon, three years before her brother is eventually murdered, to start thinking about what the empire they've built will look like with herself at the helm.

We catch a glimpse of her vision later in the episode when Gianni, feeling a renewed sense of purpose after the medication starts controlling the symptoms, dismisses the models she's hired for a fashion show as "morbid." He wants his brand to celebrate life. She feels they're just going in the same old direction — there's fresher, younger talent in the news now. They need to compete to stay relevant. In the end, Gianni gets his way, describing his final look: a Versace bride.

"She will be proud, and she will be strong," he declaims. "And that's how I will end my show."

"Our show." Donatella corrects him.

It's a haunting exchange when you consider that only a couple of short years later, Gianni would, in fact, hand his show over to a woman prouder and stronger than he could have imagined.

As the episode pivots back and forth between those earlier years and the direct aftermath of Gianni's death — not by disease, but by a random act of violence — we see Donatella struggling with her competing ideas about the direction the company should be heading in, and her insecurity at having to replace the man known worldwide as a creative genius. The fact that Tom Rob Smith, who wrote the episode based on material from Maureen Orth, chose to portray this ambivalence is significant. Power isn't something women of that generation — and still today — took for granted. Often, it was obtained in chaos, when no other recourse was available.

Watching this episode, I was struck by the parallels to Meryl Streep's performance as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in The Post. Like Donatella, Graham was thrust into the spotlight in the aftermath of a tragic event: her husband's 1963 suicide. In the years that followed, she took the local paper she had inherited and turned it into one of the most powerful and iconic American journalism institutions, navigating ethical and political crises like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate along the way. What's interesting about Liz Hannah's script, however, is that, like Smith's, it doesn't shy away from the real feeling of helplessness and inadequacy that many women feel when they are handed the keys they were denied for so long.

It's fascinating to see a woman like Donatella Versace, now so indissociable from the brand she has been in charge of for over 30 years, and a fierce female force, feeling inadequate. But it's also strangely comforting.

Imposter syndrome, or the feeling that you don't belong somewhere you've worked long and hard to arrive, is something even the most successful women struggle with today. We have undeniably made strides since the late '90s: young girls are no longer being taught that their dreams are limited to that small space between the kitchen and the bedroom. But that doesn't mean we are always welcome in the boardroom, or in the laboratory, or government. It's okay to feel uncertain and afraid. What matters is how you face those insecurities. Then, like Donatella, you, too, can become a boss bitch.

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