Sunday, 8 February 2015

Ghosts of Women Past, Present and Still to Come?

Here’s a question that comes loaded with preconceptions: do you think you can you keep a secret?
Men will tell you they can & women can’t; women will tell you men simply weren’t listening in the first place so there’s nothing for them to tell. Whatever the truth, research suggests that keeping secrets causes stress – I defy anyone watching Mark Rylance’s tortuous portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall to disagree with that. 

This show is why I was thinking about secrets in the first place – I had to do something to stay awake other than googling pictures of Ben Miles & timing the pauses between Rylance’s words. The Tudor Courts were rife with secrets – apparently there were  more spies gathered around Elizabeth I than in the Cold War Kremlin – & the BBC is milking this with every shadowy corner hiding another close-lipped man. Secretive men, tv does love them but when it comes to the women, read On TV Dramas, Men Have Secrets, Women are Crazy & you’ll find a very different story. This article includes Carrie in Homeland, one of the most ludicrous characters on television.

Could she be brilliant at her job & just a bit troubled, like many a male detective I could mention? Oh no, she has to be full-blown crazy. A bit conflicted about being a mother? Obviously she imagines drowning the child, as you do, whereas Walt from Breaking Bad gets to be a ‘good’ father. Perhaps he puts crystal meth on the dummy & I just missed that bit.

I know crazy women are a staple of literature – can you imagine trying to organise a girls night out with Mrs Rochester, Madame Bovary & Esther Greenwood? Actually, let me think about that for a minute…Seriously though, 'crazy' stereotyping has a nasty misogynistic side & leads to the kind of ‘humour’ perpetuated by ‘outspoken gun-rights advocate’ (you don’t say) Dana McLendan whose crazy-hot matrix video has had over a million hits on Youtube. I’m not helping you find it, you won’t thank me.

And so in the way these musings do, I got to thinking about a tv series where the men are ‘mad’ (yes I know it’s word play) & its really the women who have secrets. Actually, let’s put one myth to rest right now – the male characters (& forgive me Don for briefly I had such hopes) are either seriously dull or sad stereotypes who are only going to get more cliched:

I have added some of the excellent research into the portrayal of the three main female characters - Peggy, Betty & Joan - in Mad Men onto my website. These are women standing at a turning point in female expectations: Betty's traditional housewife trapped & frustrated in suburban mommy hell; Joan, also the traditionalist, using her sex-bomb physicality to manipulate men & as frustrated as Betty by the shallowness of her 'achievements'; Peggy, the 'career-girl' still battling gender stereotyping & innuendo. The past, present & future? Perhaps although I have a feeling they'd recognise our world a little too well.

All three have secrets - Peggy's baby, Joan's rape, Betty's affair - it would have been easy to portray them as 'crazy' as a consequence but the writers (who are mostly female) don't. All 'cope' in believable ways - Joan's evolution in particular is one of the show’s strongest comments on its changing times.

So which historical heroines get the recasting call for what I should perhaps be calling 'The Three Faces of Eve?' in keeping with the theme?

Joan was simple - her complexity comes from the fact that she uses sex as a manipulation tool & that. overtly, is what defines her but this persona belies the abilities/intelligence she keeps well-hidden, often to her own detriment. Joan's recast had to be Cleopatra - a powerful Pharoah in her own right who kept the formidable Roman army from swallowing up Egypt, strengthened her country's economy & pretty much reinvented herself as a living goddess. How thrilled would she be to know her legacy lives on as Egypt's top temptress & all anyone ever talks about is her boobs.

At first I was going to pick a suffragette for Peggy - she's a trailblazer after all - but Peggy's a bit more conflicted than that & a bit more susceptible to a dodgy bloke (seriously, Pete - was that some kind of punishment for succeeding?) so I'm going with Mary Wollstonecraft. I love Mary, she wrote the first feminist bible A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she had affairs with some fascinating men and her eventual husband was one of the UK's first anarchists. And her daughter wrote Frankenstein & married Shelley - I know Mary was dead by this point but what a role model.

And so to the last of our three, the beautiful ice-maiden Betty. The dresses, the comfort-eating, the seriously dodgy parenting skills - how much therapy will Sally need? My first thought was Jackie Kennedy, a perfect fit but too close a timescale so I'm going with another pillar of the ancient world, Helen of Troy. Both women are representations of an ideal of feminine beauty - something that exists almost independent of the woman who wears it. Their lives are controlled by the actions of the men around them - they wait & they are chosen - & both, in their respective worlds are lost to us beneath a surface that hints at contradictions but is too tight a mask to penetrate. Of all of our 'Mad' woman, Betty is the one I think we all dread becoming - her absence from her own life is painful to watch.

So here's a plea - stop taking the lazy way out and let's have more female characters who are complex not crazy. There's a brilliant video on my website that sticks the blame for any tipping over the edge firmly back on the husbands - 

or you could just stop talking to men like these...



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  3. A quick poll of available teenage daughters reveals an excellent female spy hero for you. Mary Watson from Sherlock who is most certainly not crazy. Other female heroes for her (only one was available at time) was Catniss from The Hunger Games trilogy and Clara version 2 from Doctor Who, who was much improved after, coincidentally, criticism on poor recent female main characters and how only one writer out of 22 were female. It was a shame because Dr Who has had some great female characters.

    The annoying thing there have been some astonishing coverage recently of women spying behind enemy lines in WWII and using their brains, nerve, and yes – femininity and sex appeal when necessary, for truly heroic deeds. That would make for interesting viewing but sadly you can imagine how that could be mishandled in the chase for viewers.

    Have missed Mad Men completely. Carrie could be a great character if she was not just so absurdly overblown and unrealistic. Pamela Landy was a good female spy in the Bourne films.

    1. That's a good shout and one I will look at - I also agree that Catniss is an interesting character as, coincidentally, is Jennifer Lawrence. Don't know Pamela Lundy but will take a look - as for Dr Who, I've never felt the female characters were well depicted and must confess to having given up post David Tennant. Thanks for the comments.

    2. Oh no Catherine - Madame Vastra and her cohort Jenny? Donna? River Song? Rose Tyler? I'm not a Dr Who obsessive but I must mildly protest...

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