Womankind hasn’t received especially enlightened or flattering treatment on screen. Film critic Molly Haskell summed things up neatly in the title of her book From Reverence to Rape, while the tenacity of broader female stereotyping has lately been demonstrated by the title of Phyllida Lloyd’s film The Iron Lady – a phrase as putatively ironic or contradictory now as when it was first applied to Margaret Thatcher in 1976.
The traditional options – high school sweetheart or femme fatale, Mrs Gump or Pussy Galore, Amélie or Gigi – are less prevalent in the post-feminist age, but there is still a dichotomy at play. There is the housewife, who recognises her duty to her husband and children but fails to take advantage of new possibilities; then there’s the careerist, who may realise her potential in terms of independence and worldly success but who neglects her children or is defined by childlessness. Underpinning this is a normative view of women as practical in the home (if not behind a steering wheel or on a football touchline), as kind and nurturing (though prone to irrationality).
The small screen, more immediately responsive than cinema – and a better barometer of public sentiment – isn’t currently overrun with programmes that deny or do without these views of female characteristics and modern womanhood; it has programmes that either support them or attack them.
Of the new comedies concerned with a woman’s sense of her self, Stella (Sky 1 Fridays) is by far the strongest. It is written by Ruth Jones, who co-wrote Gavin and Stacey and who stars here as a Welsh working single mother with three children, all troublesome in their different ways.
In middle-class society, to have a job and a family is to have it all. Sharon Horgan, in her enjoyable but disappointingly frivolous programme How to Be a Good Mother (Channel 4 Wednesdays), admitted that stay-at-home mums “scare me”, before being bowled over by the to-do-list lifestyle of a supermum.
The same set-up in a small town in Wales proves to be an imposition rather than a privilege. Stella would have enough to contend with if she were solely dedicated to her children – making a costume for one son, visiting the other in jail, attending to the failing grades and teenage pregnancy of her daughter – but she must also make time to do the ironing for a local woman of means. Being a family sitcom, Stella has its share of compromise and hugging but for most of their length (a little excessive at 40 minutes) the episodes follow the titular character as she struggles to juggle.
In New Girl (Channel 4 Friday), a popular US sitcom now in the second week of its British run, Zooey Deschanel plays Jess, a loopy, harmless schoolteacher with a taste for chick flicks and a tendency to break into song. She moves into a flat with a group of men who, though boyish and undeveloped, know enough about the world to give her a few pointers. In tone and manner, the programme is hard to dislike, but it also reinforces a vision of the male-female dynamic whereby the woman has certain valuable lessons to impart while remaining essentially reliant.
Women learning how to survive in a man’s world is the subject of two considerable dramas: one of them, The Good Wife (More4 Thursdays), returning for a third series; the other, Borgen (BBC4 Saturdays), new and promising. Both of them serve as a counter-weight to the return of Desperate Housewives (E4 Sundays), in which the women are portrayed as vain, bitchy and cocktail-drinking.
The Good Wife started out by speculating about the fate of women such as Eliot Spitzer’s wife but the programme has moved on since then. Alicia (Julianna Margulies), the good wife who stood by her husband, a disgraced state attorney, is now a determined and illusionless estranged spouse, fulfilling the legal career that she gave up while retaining a domestic conscience. At the end of the latest episode, having won a tricky case, she is shown picking a sock up from the floor.
In an early episode of The Good Wife, Alicia’s new boss told her that “men can be lazy, women can’t”. In the exciting and well-judged Danish series Borgen, one of its two heroines, the ambitious politician and mother-of-two Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is constantly being reminded of such double standards. But she is also being advised by colleagues about how to combat them. Competing in a man’s world doesn’t require a woman to become a man – whatever that would entail – merely to improve at playing the games that men play.
Television is as reliant as cinema on drawing rooms and corridors of power, environments in which women have tended to assume the role of wife, mistress or maid. The figure of the career-minded mother, who is forced to make sacrifices but tries to compensate, makes possible drama that is varied in its settings, as well as in its sources of conflict – from offices to bedrooms, from negotiation to domestic squabble.
On the other hand, perhaps the real step forward, away from the old model of reverence/rape and the new one of liberation/enslavement, would be more television programmes that neither accept prevailing attitudes nor aspire to do battle with them – that have a protagonist who just so happens, without fuss or fanfare, to be a woman.