Has TV finally solved its woman problem?
In the week that Bodyguard became 2018’s biggest TV show, and Toni Collette revealed she is to perform the first female orgasm on BBC One, Helen O’hara praises the new-found power of women on the small screen
it’s been a long time coming, but this autumn’s line-up of TV suggests that something fundamental has finally shifted in TV bosses’ thinking.
Last week’s Bodyguard, starring Keeley Hawes, debuted to a huge 6.7 million viewers and has already sparked talk of a second series. Keeley, a 42-year-old mother of three who’s been a TV favourite since her Spooks days in the early noughties, was shown having passionate sex with her bodyguard, played by Richard Madden. At 32, Madden is a decade younger – a fact that, radically, isn’t granted even the most minor of mentions in the script.
Meanwhile this week, Wanderlust will begin [see Paul Flynn’s review], with Toni Collette playing a middle-aged wife and mother experiencing what the actor claimed was BBC One’s first female orgasm ( better late than never). Meanwhile, on Netflix, the latest seasons of Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards focus on the senior women and
leave the rest only scraps of air-time. At last, the signs are that TV is willing to focus on real women, over 40, living full and varied lives, sexual appetites and all.
It’s not that long, after all, since the media was full of stories about older women being sidelined, shuffled out of sight while their male contemporaries carried on until whatever age they chose to retire. The BBC has faced a raft of complaints of ageism over the last decade, from established names like Countryfile’s Miriam O’reilly and newsreader Anna Ford. Perhaps most famous of all was Strictly Come Dancing’s Arlene Phillips, dropped from the show in 2008 when she was in her sixties and replaced with Alesha Dixon in what was widely seen as an age-related decision. This, when her fellow judge Len Goodman carried on until last year, aged 73, and where host Bruce Forsyth worked well into his eighties.
For evidence that things have changed, we can now point to more than Silent Witness or Downton Abbey’s dowager countess. The presence of high-profile, buzzed-about programmes like Happy Valley, Doctor Foster and now Bodyguard – all of which star women over the age of 38 – have helped to even the playing field. Programmers are tuning in to what’s called the ‘grey pound’, too, with efforts like
Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, led by Jane Fonda (80) and Lily Tomlin (78), or recent addition Great News, starring Andrea Martin (71).
Of course, there are lots of reasons for the current wealth of roles for women, and ‘it’s about time that women got an equal share’ is only one. Women watch more TV than men, and adults over 35 watch more than younger people (fewer wild parties; more babysitting). That holds true of streaming and on-demand services as well as traditional telly. Showrunners can’t go wrong by catering to the people actually watching.
We also have a wealth of acting talent in this country that would be criminal to neglect. With Line Of Duty having cemented Keeley Hawes’ and Vicky Mcclure’s status as national treasures, what sort of TV commissioners wouldn’t want to build shows around them? That’s why we get Hawes in Bodyguard and Mcclure leading Warrington drama Mother’s Day. That’s why it is terrific to see Olivia Colman wearing The Crown and, after last year’s pay scandal, hopefully doing so in the certainty that she’s earning as much as any man on the show. Never mind the fact that it’s right and good to feature the female half of the population in leading roles: with this kind of talent all over the UK it makes for great drama, award wins, kudos and more secure jobs for producers and commissioners.
But there is some way to go. Solo female leads are still outnumbered by solo men; we may have a female Doctor in Jodie Whittaker, but we recently had five seasons of Doctor Who without a single female writer. And female creators comprise only 10% of writers overall, despite the success of, for example, Sally Wainwright with Happy Valley, or Nicole Taylor and Philippa Lowthorpe’s extraordinary work on Three Girls last year.
Still, the most heartening thing about the latest crop of female-led shows is that it portrays women as we are: flawed, fierce when we need to be, funny, horny (at any age) and fully-rounded humans. None of these women are there to be decorative arm candy or love interests for important men. And none are there solely to motivate men: they have their own thing going on. As do all of us. It’s magical to see that purpose and personality reflected back at us, the viewers. Whatever our age, it gives us hope for a future where our stories matter.