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If She’s No Madonna, He must be Herod

May 8, 2014

British dramas. British dramas, British dramas, British dramas. I don’t like them very much. That is to say, pure dramas, not sci-fi dramas, comedy dramas, thriller dramas or other genres in addition to drama, which as a country we do better. Actually, all genres must have an element of drama in order to be taken from mildly interesting and titillating to actually meaningful and affecting.

The problem with pure dramas in Britain is an obsession with realism. I maintain that American dramas, for all their other faults, have done a better job at understanding that interesting is more important than “realistic” and that realistic is a cul-de-sac; life is extremely complex, so accurate representations of it are weird and often branded pretentious, not a good starting point.

When we say realistic, we actually mean gritty. Dull, dark, brooding and dimly lit, all alleyways and shadows, people passed out in puddles of murky water after overdosing on methadone. This, of course, is not realistic. Real life is funny and quirky, throwing up odd bits of good fortune at unexpected times. Most people’s lives are OK. Few people get murdered and most people get a good run at life before falling ill and dying. In some people, seemingly insurmountable traumas are lived through with an astounding level of grace and poise.

Grit is shouting and screaming, the end of the world in a great flood of emotions, either flopped out willy nilly or constricted unnaturally until bursting point. In short, grit lacks subtlety, and as the name implies, should really only ever come as light dusting on a harder surface. A garnish, not a whole meal. Too much grit turns into a big pile of grey sludge before too long.

There are a few ways to make grit. You can have everyone be depressed and moping all the time, children abused by shady characters who are supposed to be trusted figures, or tragic accidents happening with a suddenness and frequency bordering on the absurd. There can be grisly murders and grim, unsmiling heroes. That, and a healthy grey filter strategically placed on the camera lens to bring out the foreboding of grimy urban streets or foggy moors.

Humour, of course, is not allowed. Neither are thrills. People must have extended monologues about how rubbish life is, in all manner of contrived contexts. Unnatural silences must fall, but tears must stay firmly attached to eyeballs until the last moment, when they will run free amid ear-piercing screams and shouts, much weakened in potency by previous outbursts of much the same kind. Perhaps one glimmer of truth is hidden in about half an hour of brooding looks and cryptic utterances, leading nowhere. And swearing, lots of swearing. To prove it’s all Very Serious Indeed, and realistic.

Is it? It seems to me to be larger and louder than life, yet considerably flatter. Characters have one-dimensional roles designed by a GCSE drama student: Friend, Partner, Lover, Colleague, Bastard, Villain, Bully, Suspect, Maverick, Finder of the Truth No Matter What the Cost.

My least favourite of these is always the partner, by which I mean life partner rather than work partner. This is one of the most important roles of a character-based or relationship drama, since our main character must interact with them every five minutes or so. The main actor can be as good as they like – if their support is inferior, it will be like trying to bounce a firm rubber ball off a wet sponge.

In the past, our main characters have usually been male. Thus by fault of script, direction and casting it was women that came off the weakest; whiny, clingy, totally dependent or purely decorative, with no lives beyond waiting on aggressive or dismissive men. It is the killer of empathy, in both directions; she is no one, and he treats her that way, which makes him not worth caring about.

In latter years, we have started to correct this, up to a point. It is the mistake of many a well-meaning male director to think that the answer is simply to make main characters female. This is a start, but current cultural understanding undermines it; while we can put women into “male” roles and traits, such as aggressive or dismissive, it doesn’t sit comfortably with viewers to have men in “female”, or submissive, roles. So, when the partner is male, he remains just as clingy as ever but that clinginess takes on a new edge. And what an unpleasant edge it is.

Violence and aggression between partners happens, of that there is no doubt. Sometimes, it happens because of fear or some inferiority complex by the man. A sensible drama detailing this point is fine with me. Not so fine is the she-goes-to-work-and-he-seems-OK-but-when-she-gets-back-home-again-later-suddenly-he’s-an-arsehole storyline. It happens so fast, with no rhyme or reason.

We as viewers are supposed to accept this relationship as something which has existed, presumably in relative peace and happiness, for years before the camera roles. He is a Nice Guy, when all is going well (i.e., his way). And yes, fear and frustration can do funny things to people, but as far as I’m aware they don’t change your personality in the space of a few short hours. I can be a bad tempered little toad sometimes, but never violent. I argue that few men are so possessed by the concept of control that they lose it completely after a few short prods with a flimsy stick. I stress again: 90% of the time, these are male representations of men. We don’t think of ourselves this way, so why on earth do we think it of each other?

I’m not sure why this has become such a pervasive trope. Sometimes I think it’s some kind of a guilt trip; the male director thinks, well, men can be bastards sometimes, so let’s go ahead and show that. Woe is me! I am a man! But a humble man, with humble man’s faults. I see this, so please forgive me and my brethren!

Maybe it’s cleverer than that, or at the very least cautious; if the man is obviously so much more of a twat than the woman, no one can cry sexism on the part of the film-makers.

On other days, I think it’s another sign that the problem of gender representation may be even deeper a problem than we know. With the exception of certain cliché character types like the femme fatal, women in TV and films have a tendency to be The Good Ones, compared to their male counterparts. Perhaps if she is more aggressive, more dismissive, more “real” (gritty), he has to be a total and irredeemable bastard. That way, though she’s not perfect, at least she’s better than him, and all is right and good with the world.

The issue with this is obvious. If women are bound in all but the best of dramas to be “good” in the Madonna sense, then it means that they don’t have to be good in the well-rounded sense. Making some characters more lacking in order to artificially flesh out others is one of the oldest tricks of characterisation, and one of the laziest. It means that you end up with a drama where, not only is no one likeable, but no one is that interesting. They have no subtlety. Wanting to portray people as “good” and “bad” is the enemy of subtlety and good storytelling.

There is another more serious concern noted by many others before me. The bigger women get on the screen, the more likely their characters are to be “punished” with bad partners and nasty, abusive colleagues and superiors. It is a scourge of current television and I’m not convinced it is a coincidence. It’s as if we just don’t want women to do well and feel that the balance (that is to say, the accepted imbalance) must be restored, or the feature will lack credibility and a satisfactory resolution.

What’s more, you’ll notice all those listed men were in positions of power, either because of status or proximity. That’s significant because it’s not just some arsehole doing this, some piteous wretch who she can easily avoid, get over or bring to justice, the way real women often do. These are men who, even if she gives them their comeuppance, are still left with power; they lurk on in her mind, having destroyed her trust and proved overwhelmingly that women are waiting victims at the mercy of men.

What’s more, justice is closed, not public. Her victory is a secret and often illegal in this kind of fiction. The only thing to stop him holding it over her (since he has proof of a crime and she does not) is the flimsy concept of pride. This wouldn’t really happen and anyone watching knows this. What it says that is that it doesn’t matter, because women have no better option. In the courts, she would lose. Powerful men can be broken as people, but not as an institution. It is a subtle way of saying that nothing will ever change, that women will always fight alone and must always be underhand to order to get justice. This is not a message that should be allowed to sneak past us.

The effect of this message is impossible to prove; not even knowing the film-makers’ intentions would indicate anything, since any such process is likely to be subconscious. I suspect it is simply a symbol of our current preference for anti-establishment characters (note how few ever go to the police or even call an ambulance) and for seeing justice delivered by violence. In addition, our vague obsession with realism makes us convinced that it the violence inflicted on women is likely to be sexual, as men-don’t-beat-up-women, we reckon.

Sexual violence make the crime gendered and all the more uncomfortable to watch. Women are portrayed as victims the fullest sense – unlike with a good honest male-to-male punch-up, her fighting back does not usually hindrance her attacker to any great extent. Again, I expect this is thanks to an odious obsession with realism, insomuch as we know that women can be physically overpowered by men. Never mind that this is a selective realism that roundly ignores the true complex and varied circumstances of sexual violence.

It is impossible to prove the effect this portrayal has beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately, in our society obsessed with “proof” (contextless, unattributed statistics), what is hard to prove makes it all too easy for opposition to justify their point – as if our default position should be “Maybe it’s harmful… But hey, what the heck.” When it comes to depicting violence against women, now is the time to be taking the opposite standpoint: if in doubt, leave it out. The problem of violence against women, whatever the reason for its persistence, is nevertheless persisting. That is not debated. If there were ever a call for a zero tolerance approach, it is in regards to this.

I hear film-makers say that they intended to empower their female characters, presumably by making them “strong” in that reckless, masculine definition of the term. I don’t doubt them. But intention, while important, isn’t the whole story; the message sent out to viewers and the effect it has on girls and women is equally important. The message: “Don’t do well, women, or you will be punished,” might well be a by-product of fiction like this – and though male film-makers (and sometimes female ones – see The Politician’s Husband) may protest, they can no more testify as to the effect of their features than I can to their intention.

Women in TV are starting become more well-rounded, but this may fall unnoticed for some time to come, because the shows they are improving in are not worth watching, and their circumstances are just as shitty as ever. It is a trap to think that making women the leads is the best and only way to increase and improve their exposure in fiction media; I’d vote for 60 good supporting female characters over one average female main character surrounded by utter shit heads.

(As a side note, let’s not underrate a skilled supporting actor. Being able to provide a credible backdrop to a complex story is integral for shaping the overall colour of a film. Watch anything with Alison Janney in. Anything at all.)

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