Wading through America’s television offerings, as a woman, can be hazardous to your self-esteem. From shows that feature only a token female as support or love interest for a cast full of male characters, to reality-shows presenting women as looking to snag Mr. Right, vague “Housewives” who appear to do nothing but gossip and shop all day, to scheming, predatory women in offerings like “Scandal” and “Mistresses”, what the US market specializes in is glorifying a vapid, stereotyped vision of what a woman is.
For years, I have been more drawn to the shows that are available on UK television rather than what I see when I scroll through my own TV guide. There are a variety of reasons why you should check out women-centric British television series, and boycott the portrayal of women on American screens, but here are the top five compelling reasons:
1. British Shows Don’t Have a Prerequisite Age/Weight/Appearance Requirement
American television is obsessed with a specific type of woman. Generally the cookie-cutter ideal is young, thin and “sexy”. From their perfectly coifed hairstyles to impossibly straight, white teeth, impeccable makeup (for some reason, every American female under the age of 50 wears false eyelashes), the standard female lead is trim and fit, yet still sporting plenty of curves. Anything other than that is usually delegated to the supportive Grandma roles, or the unattractive but friendly “sidekick”.
On the other hand, British television embraces women of all makes, models, ages and sizes. In fact, they often manage to put them all into one show, as they have with the women of Downton Abbey. Other shows worth mentioning are Miranda Hart’s self-titled comedy Miranda and My Mad Fat Diary. Hart’s fearless humor, non-pandering slapstick comedy and self-embracing, down-to-earth appearance and attitude is sure to put you at ease. In My Mad Fat Diary, instead of the typical fresh-faced, perky cheerleader, Rae Earl is a young woman grappling with myriad issues, such as depression, self-harm, body-image issues and self-acceptance. This important teen show reveals all of Sharon Rooney’s character’s dark, petty or even silly thoughts in all their honest glory. Imperfect teeth or chunky body type doesn’t disqualify a British actress from a lead role.
2. British Shows Don’t Force Social or Moral Judgement
American television loves to present female characters that eventually “get what’s coming to them” for not being perfect. Whether it’s ridiculous humor or crime dramas, British women are allowed to be flawed without being punished for it. They’re allowed to drink, do drugs, and generally sleep around without any judgment at all.
In the ensemble female comedy Absolutely Fabulous, the main characters Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) can’t possibly be more flawed, outrageous or entertaining. The middle-aged duo’s drug use, alcohol consumption, destructive behavior and promiscuity is without peer. None of the women in the show are ever apologetic about any of their excesses or failures.
In Vera, Brenda Blethyn plays a work-obsessed Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Vera Stanhope, who is driven by her own demons. She slogs along in a constant state of dishevelment. Forth-right, and undeniably fond of alcohol, she still has a calculating mind, and despite her short-tempered, prickly personality, she deeply cares about both her work and comrades.
The title should give you a clue what Coupling is about. The comedy features plenty of drinking and bed-hopping by the three main female characters, Susan, Sally and Jane, but they have little to no shame about any of it. British comedy also allows teenage girls to be just as crude, rude and ridiculous as the teenage boys in The Inbetweeners, as the hilarious Some Girls proves.
3. British Shows Feature Real, Complex Women
There’s more to women than the stereotyped roles of wife, career-woman, friend, lover, temptress, bitch, or support system, as American television would have us believe. In fact, in real-life we are the original multi-taskers who can be a combination of any or all of those at once, which British shows reflect in their female characters.
For example, in Broadchurch, a series about the search for a boy’s murderer, detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) is a conflicted wife and mother who is dedicated to her job. Unlike the quirky, chirpy character she plays on Peep Show, Colman is pensive, deep, and definitely struggling inside. Likewise, Happy Valley is a gritty story about strong-willed police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), who is attempting to come to terms with her daughter’s suicide, and Blue Murder’s Janine Lewis (Caroline Quentin), a single mother of four and detective, works at balancing issues raised by juggling her demanding career with battling her ex-husband and raising her young family.
While there are a variety of female leads as detectives, British female characters have other occupations during various time periods as well – The Bletchley Circle is about female codebreakers in a post-World War ll world, while Call the Midwife is set in a convent housing both young midwives and nuns, and The Crimson Field focuses on a volunteer World War l nurse. These shows feature women of every age group, and tackle issues such as health, sexuality, race, religion and female friendships with humor and strength, while exploring the dynamics of the roles women played in society during their respective time periods.
4. British Humor Isn’t Based on Gender Stereotypes
British humor really lets women shine, without making them the butt of jokes as women – their shortcomings and foibles are due to being human, not being female. For example, self-centered Hyacinth Bucket (who insists on being called “Mrs Bouquet”) is a social-climbing snob who never thinks about anyone but herself in Keeping Up Appearances. She is constantly being put upon by her lower-classed family’s behavior, such as sister Rose’s promiscuity and husband Richard’s lack of stately manners, yet she is portrayed as a likeable character despite her obvious narcissistic nature. Likewise, in AB/FAB, Patsy and Eddie are funny because they are Patsy and Eddie — not because they are portraying female stereotypes. Part of the appeal of flawed British characters is that it’s based on their individual personalities, not gender, and they don’t know they’re flawed, so it doesn’t get in the way.
5. British Shows Feature Independent Women
British television shows typically feature female characters that may perhaps struggle with relationships, but their lives don’t revolve around men. They are strong and self-reliant. In The Fall, Gillian Anderson shines as detective Stella Gibson – a relentless, brilliant, unabashed feminist. She never misses an opportunity to critique misogyny or call out sexist double standards, which cleverly deconstructs how the media so frequently portrays women. Other feminist heroes exist in detective Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) and detective Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones), lead by DC Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore) in Scott & Bailey. The series was created specifically to provide female roles that weren’t the love-interest, side-kick, mother-of, wife-of or mistress-of male characters, but were fully developed, complete characters, rather than one-note plot devices or caricatures.
In contrast to the one-dimensional portrait of women blasted on American television, British TV provides realistic, positive, yet flawed female role models in period pieces, crime drama and comedy. From battlefield nurses, high school students, midwives and detectives to high-society, women of all ages, backgrounds and sensibilities are represented on British TV.
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