Saturday, November 17, 2018

When TV drama is used to promote messages of diversity and inclusivity


(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, November 14.)
In the opening episode of Bodyguard, a BBC drama series screening on Netflix, an off-duty police terrorism specialist (a man) confronts a female suicide bomber on a crowded train.

It’s convincingly tense, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other post-9/11 plotlines – that is, except for one thing.

The commander of a police anti-terrorism squad that boards the train is a cool and efficient black woman. Nothing remarkable about that, in itself. But then we see a police sniper waiting to get a clean shot at the suicide bomber, and the sniper is a woman too.

The next cop on the scene is an officer who has the perilous job of defusing the bomb. Wow, another woman. There seemed to be a pattern here.

Fast-forward now to when the crisis is over and the cop is back at the office telling his boss all about it. And waddya know, she’s a woman too.

She has some news for the cop: he’s been assigned to protect a high-profile politician. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that she, too, is a woman.

By this time it was clear that Bodyguard wasn’t just a well-made drama series; it was also making a statement about gender equality.

The message was that women can be just as tough and fearless as blokes. And actually, I’m okay with that. The days when granite-jawed men got all the good parts and women were in subservient roles are far behind us.

It makes perfect sense, for example, that the new Doctor Who is female. What took them so long, for heaven’s sake? In the 21st century, no man should baulk at seeing women calling the shots.

In fact, when I think about it, I realise that many of the TV dramas I’ve enjoyed most in recent years have had women in central roles. There was the grim but outstanding Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, and The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame.

There were two series, River and Unforgettable, which featured the wonderful Nicola Walker, and a swag of Scandi-noir crime series, whose names I can’t recall because they all seemed pretty much the same, in which the main characters were female. And I shouldn't omit the dark but stylish Killing Eve, starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

I also recently enjoyed repeats of some early episodes of Prime Suspect, which is credited with being one of the first TV dramas to put a woman front and centre, and which derived much of its drama from her struggle against the sexism of her police colleagues.

On reflection, I wondered whether Prime Suspect was really such a big deal, because even in the 1960s and 70s there were shows in which women had the star billing.

There was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which first screened in 1968. Not only was she female, but she was black too, and a solo mother to boot. And even before that, Lucille Ball had her own long-running comedy show.

Later came The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Policewoman and the first female take on the “buddy” cop show, Cagney and Lacey. Perhaps this was one area in which Hollywood was ahead of the Brits.

No one made a big fuss of these programmes, and why should they? What could be more unremarkable than making TV shows in which the sex that represents 50 percent of humankind takes centre-stage? But the preponderance of women in Bodyguard seemed a bit over the top. 

I had read in the British media about the BBC’s slavish commitment to policies of inclusivity and diversity. Was that what it was all about? Did Bodyguard reflect the world the way the scriptwriters think it ought to be?

It wouldn’t be the first time TV programme-makers have bowed to identity politics. In 2011 the co-creator and producer of ITV’s Midsomer Murders was forced to stand down because he objected to being told to include ethnic minorities in the series.

He wasn’t being racist. He just thought it would be inconsistent with the tone of the programme, which was set in a mythical, timeless and quintessentially English village. And I think he was right.

We watch TV dramas for entertainment, not to be morally improved or have our cultural sensitivity enhanced. When a TV show is used as a means of ideological virtue-signalling, as I suspect has happened with Bodyguard, it rankles.

At worst it conveys a faint but unsettling whiff of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, which used art to enforce ideological orthodoxy and ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t conform.

How sad it would be if the BBC, which was once greatly admired for boldly pushing the boundaries and defying the establishment, had meekly fallen into line with the “progressive” political agenda. But I suspect that’s what it has come to.

5 comments:

hughvane said...

Thoroughly enjoyable reading - no it wasn’t. What the Netflix movie (I haven’t seen it) did was to go out of its way to emasculate males, to put us in our place, as it were, driving home the contention that women can not only do as well as men in traditionally male-dominated scenarios - and why not - but that they can dominate and overrule. Good grief, have they not visited their local libraries, schools and social service centres? Barely a bloke male to be found! Spare us from movie producers doubling as social engineers.

hilary531 said...

Hear you. Am watching Bodyguard but it got a bit lame once the 'attraction' took hold & the way the shooting went down stretched credulity bigtime. Hmm..

David said...

The new series of Doctor Who feels like it is an exercise in ticking boxes, with all the right characters of the right genders and ethnicities, and scripts so worthy and moralising they are cringe-inducing.

I am not at all talking about Jodie Whittaker being in the title role. I have loved Jodie since first seeing her in Broadchurch and was looking forward immensely to seeing her in Doctor Who, a show I have followed since I was a kid and which I have on DVD right back to the first episode, screened on BBC1 on November 23 1963, the day JFK was shot. There have been several woman time lords (such as Romana, and the Rani, and of course, Susan, the first doctor's granddaughter) and even a time lord who has regenerated from man to woman (the Master became Missie). So having a woman doctor is not an issue in the canon of the series, the way it would be if the next James Bond is a woman, for example.

It is the scripts which have become almost execrable in their attempts to lecture us. The worst so far has been Rosa, where the Tardis went back to Montgomery Alabama in 1955 to ensure there were enough white folk on the bus to ensure the driver ordered Rosa Parks to stand up. The episode was ridden with lengthy lectures on the evils of white racism.

Having had a deep interest in the American Civil Rights movement since my university days, I was frankly appalled that the BBC could run a storyline where Rosa Parks only got to stay seated because a white woman from Yorkshire got on the bus deliberately at the right moment so Rosa could be told to stand. It made what Rosa so deliberately did (as an activist in the NAACP) appear accidental and needing a white person's help to ensure the event happened.

Earlier Doctor Who storylines tackled these issues without the cringing worthiness of the present series (which has also devoted a whole episode to trashing Trump, and which featured a contrived Hindu-Muslim wedding at India's actual moment of independence on the then-new India-Pakistan border, courtesy of Doctor Jodie and her box-ticking companions -- one an older white dude, one black dude [with a disability, and step-grandson of the white dude] and one young Indian Muslim policewoman).

For example, 1988's Remembrance of the Daleks was set in 1963 at the Coal Hill School of the very first story (it was the 25th anniversary). Companion Ace befriended a young man there and went to his house, where his mother took in borders. Ace winced as she saw the "no coloureds" sign in the window, and that was all it needed to make a powerful point.

That 1988 storyline reminded me then and still does of how society was until the 1971 Race Relations Act. Newspaper ads for flats and houses to let almost always said "no Maoris or Islanders," something I found shocking when I first became aware of them when I started at the Herald as a cadet in 1977 and saw some of them in the files; and something I still find shocking today. But I don't need to lecture anyone in 2018 on why they were so dreadful in the 1950s and 1960s and even 1971.


Anyway, rant over. I don't have Netflix so I haven't seen Bodyguard. I usually watch a DVD from my huge collection if I want to watch the big screen in the corner, but there are some quality dramas (and documentaries) sneaking in to TVNZ On Demand. I recommend The Little Drummer Girl (BBC), available here an hour after it screens in the UK (Sundays, UK, Mondays here) and up to part three now; and some fascinating historical series like Tales of the City (1993, Channel 4 UK) set in San Francisco of 1976 and so daring that PBS only showed the first series, with many scenes cut or pixilated, and didn't risk showing the later ones. Oh, and Doctor Who's latest episode is on On Demand from Mondays from about 8.30am, after its screening in the UK at about 7.30pm Sundays.

Karl du Fresne said...

David,
Thanks for that revealing insight into the current iteration of Doctor Who. Things are worse than I thought.

khrust said...

I am half-way through "Bodyguard" and am enjoying it so far. The casting of women in so many key roles does seem quite artificial and politically proscribed.
I agree it is sad how the BBC seems to be caving-in to identity politics pressures. The UK in general is much further down the PC path than NZ. It is coming our way though.