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

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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.

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