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The Independent Culture
"We're talking about money, sex, power - and nothing between men and women will ever be the same again," said Susan Tully, fixing the lens as only a professional actress can. In other words: "Please, please don't switch off, we absolutely promise not to use the words demographic shift and really, this stuff is sensational." Combined with its disaster-movie title sequence (in which a concrete rendering of the title, Genderquake, succumbed to seismic social forces), the opening minutes of Channel 4's new series about changing employment patterns suggested that the makers weren't taking any chances with the perceived aridity of their raw material. "Methinks she doth protest too much," methought - but Genderquake proved rather more substantial than its own doorstep sales gimmicks.

Hiring Susan Tully as the presenter was the most conspicuous of those gimmicks. Unless she has embarked on a new career as a social economist since her departure from Albert Square, her enlistment presumably involved a simple calculation that she would give a current affairs programme a marketing edge with the soap shoppers. Apart from the East End demotic (a lot of talk about "peepuw skiiws"), the only authority she could bring to the subject was a pretended one. She did perfectly well, even if thespian sincerity sometimes seems a little inappropriate for such matters; there was something distractingly winsome about the fake pensiveness with which she delivered the line "Our men have got a lot to live up to - or is that down?", complete with a quizzical frown halfway through.

The other main gimmick was to find three unemployed men and get them work in the sort of service jobs traditionally reserved for women. During 1995, women's employment went up at twice the rate of men's, evidence of a general shift to lower-paid, part-time work which is leaving men beached above the tide-line of economic recovery. But is it that "the men don't want the jobs, or the jobs don't want the men?" At first glance, this looked like a slightly shallow exercise - but the results were sobering. None of the men seemed to doubt their ability to do "women's work", though they were notably gormless in action. "How do you tell when the chips are done?" asked Bob Cooper, who had taken a job as a dinner lady. "It's just basically common sense," replied one of his new colleagues, clearly unaware that Bob might not have brought any with him.

What was most shocking, though, was not the hapless floundering of the guinea-pigs when confronted with these simple tasks, but their apparently cheerful return to unemployment at the end of the experiment. Though two employers had offered the possibility of more work, it was declined, on the grounds that it would leave them little better off than on benefit (a calculation those in well-paid work would do well not to dismiss lightly). But neither seemed to think that being in employment might lead to something better, that it might, indeed, have a value in itself. You already knew this statistically, from the programme's survey of attitudes to employment, but to see the prejudices in action (and to have your own prejudices tested by the image of a young man working as a chambermaid) was an effective piece of popular television.

An image presented as premonitory fantasy in Genderquake - ranks of women trooping off to work down suburban streets while hubby stayed at home in his dressing gown - appeared for real in Law Women (BBC1), as June Venters disappeared out of the door for her successful solicitor's practice, leaving her husband to walk the dogs and tidy the kitchen. To be fair, he followed her a bit later to work as her business manager - but then this film was less instructive about sexual politics than about the pressing difficulties of life as a legal-aid lawyer - things have got so bad that Venters appears to be down to her last Mercedes.

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