Television’s Women’s Worlds

What do Orphan Black, Bletchley Circle, and Call the Midwife have in common? All three of them only have men as supporting characters — important ones, often, as in the case of Felix, but still, the shows place women front and center. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Scandal, though President Grant occupies a much more key role than any of the men on the previously mentioned shows. This makes all four shows rather a standout in a landscape where dramas are typically dominated by men, with women cast in the role of being supporting characters there to make the men look good, advance storylines, or simply pretty up the set.

Bletchley Circle and Call the Midwife both stand out as historical dramas in which the roles of women are acknowledged as critically important within the context of their era. Set in the 1950s, Bletchley Circle highlights the lives of women codebreakers in postwar Britain who met while working on top secret projects that played a key role in taking down the Axis powers. Women were used in places like Bletchley Park not just because men needed to be sent to the front, but because they were good at what they did; the Park included women who were brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and more, working on complex cryptography research. These women in postwar Britain are living in an era when women have played a vital role in the war effort, and they know their own worth. They’re not afraid to assert themselves, even as they’re sucked into a terrible series of crimes that only they can solve.

On the East End of London in the 1950s, the women of Call the Midwife attend to the business of caring for pregnant women, helping them deliver, and assisting with post-partum needs. In an era when most women gave birth at home, midwives played a key role in the lives of women and babies, and they were highly trained, very skilled professionals who often dealt with complex problems without the assistance of the doctor — who shows up as a supporting character in the drama, not as an all-seeing, all-capable man who can swoop in to save the day whenever needed.

Meanwhile, Orphan Black takes us to an approximation of the present day, in which a series of clones are trying to figure out who they are, what they were made for, and how they can fight back against forces larger than themselves. This is a drama where, again, women are front and center, they’re independent, they’re strong, and they’re fighting back against evil which often comes in the form of masculine forces. I’ve heard fans jokingly refer to the show as ‘misandrist,’ in a tongue-in-cheek, loving way, but in many ways, it is a sharp send up of masculinity, male-dominated culture, and male abuse of women. It’s not ‘misandrist’ in the sense that men’s rights activists use the word, but it is a challenge to assumptions about masculinity and society.

All of these shows are, in and of themselves, totally fascinating. They’re interesting dramas with strong characters and rich storylines and I tune in for them every week when they’re airing because I love them ferociously and I’ve grown deeply attached to them. Yet, they’re also framed as ‘women’s worlds,’ rather than general interest television, much like literature about women is ‘women’s literature’ or ‘chick lit’ rather than just ‘fiction’ or even ‘literary fiction’ (this most high of honours is reserved primarily for literature about white men going through life crises). This is television that, like Scandal, is supposed to be primarily of interest to women: by women, for women, not for general consumption.

I’ve written extensively about how the ‘everyman’ in pop culture is, literally, a man, and the same holds true here, where drama that revolves around women is shunted to the back of the room when it comes not just to viewers and promotions, but also recognition and awards. These are excellent programmes with dedicated followings that include not just women but some men as well, and yet they’re ignored in favor of programmes like Mad Men, with its male-heavy retro focus. The trials and tribulations of Don Draper are perceived to be of more general interest than the lives of ordinary women leading extraordinary lives, whether they’re in London’s East End, or Toronto.

Why are ‘women’s worlds’ continually isolated in a corner without recognition and respect? Why don’t critics treat them with the same fairness and dignity that they extend to other programming, and why are they viewed as special interest television rather than serious forays into pop culture and the social lexicon? The success of Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and their ilk has proved, for example, that society has a thirst for vintage drama — yet these shows aren’t getting nearly the same press, and a large factor in the disparity lies in who is being depicted, and how.

For all the domesticity of Downton Abbey, it’s a show in which male power and struggles feature very dominantly, and it’s a show not so much about the work of the women belowstairs who keep the manor running, but about the glamorous lives upstairs. Belowstairs serves as dramatic relief, not as a key component of the drama, and while we come to know and love characters like Daisy, they are not the stars of the drama in the same way that Lady Mary is, in a constant reinforcement that the wealthy and powerful are who we should be interested in.

It’s time for ‘women’s worlds’ to be ‘everyone’s worlds,’ because they are. The Allies benefited greatly from the work of the women at Bletchley Park in the Second World Way — indeed, one might argue that their work has dramatically shaped much of the West today. Midwives played and continue to play a key role in the lives of many of us, because all of us are here because someone, at some point, gave birth. While human cloning might be science fiction, the very real struggles of the clones are not fictional at all — and it is not just women who question their identities and fight the man in a quest for personal freedom.