New sexism in TV land

'Is it really true that women are more sensitive and scrupulous than men? In the real world, good and bad behaviour are evenly divided'
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The Independent Online

Like most occasional watchers of TV, I experience frequent brick-heaving moments of rage at what is appearing on screen. There are times when its crassness, the simpering suburban values of its early-evening lifestyle programmes, its knack of finding the most annoying, grinning nonentity and elevating it to stardom, can be hard to take. Then, worryingly, even its better productions, like this week's Labour-bashing drama The Project, seem to have the power to get under the skin in a generally irritating way.

Like most occasional watchers of TV, I experience frequent brick-heaving moments of rage at what is appearing on screen. There are times when its crassness, the simpering suburban values of its early-evening lifestyle programmes, its knack of finding the most annoying, grinning nonentity and elevating it to stardom, can be hard to take. Then, worryingly, even its better productions, like this week's Labour-bashing drama The Project, seem to have the power to get under the skin in a generally irritating way.

The series was heart-warmingly biased. New Labour, it implied, has succeeded through the machinations of creepy, slug-like marketing types who are willing to go to any length to gain power and hold on to it. If the portrait of paranoia and bullying is even half true, then the rumoured hot line between government and Greg Dyke is likely to be hotter than usual right now. I liked all that. If the series played a few dirty tricks of its own – mixing fiction with fact, portraying the imagined background to speeches by Blair, followed by real footage of the speech itself – then those being portrayed were never above pulling a few stunts of that kind themselves.

It was another less obvious tipping of the scales that was both interesting and depressing. The story followed the fortunes of a group of Labour supporters from committed youth, in opposition, to compromised maturity, in government. By the closing scene, the two principle characters were faced with a moral decision: he, a political adviser, seemed to have decided to quit politics: she, a backbench MP, was staying. But along the way, a consistent gender assumption, familiar from much TV drama, had been made. When it comes to morality and trustworthiness, women are evolved, humane and led by their consciences while men skulk around like alley-cats.

In today's TV-land, this difference between the sexes appears to be a given. If a character is required to be a radio producer with high principles who is racked with guilt after moving into politics for reasons of emotional pressure, then that character must be a woman. If there is an MP battling for political principles in the face of a smear campaign conducted by enemies, or a tender-hearted nurse worried about what is happening to the NHS, then they will be women, too. The appliers of emotional pressure, the smearers and spin doctors, the cold-hearted technocrats should, as a general rule, be men.

In this, and virtually every other contemporary TV drama which wears its heart on its sleeve, the same message of female conscience and male ambition is purveyed – indeed, the assumption is so general that one ceases even to register it. Presumably some basic law of writing and directing for the screen is at work.

But is it really true that, in 2002, women are more sensitive and morally scrupulous then men? Maybe I move in peculiar circles but, from what I see, I could swear that in the real world, good and bad behaviour, probity or selfishness, are pretty evenly divided between the sexes. Yet, as the latest round of tabloid scandals has shown, it suits contemporary sensibility for men to be portrayed as ruthless, randy bastards and women as their victims. Look around, at the political scene, at the media, at public and private life, and it becomes clear that a convenient myth is being peddled in the press and in drama, and it is essentially sexist. For, behind the general assumption of female sensitivity in programmes like The Project, there lurks the idea that women are also less strong, more likely to be caught wringing their delicate hands over a moral quandary.

The political heroines of today, women thought somehow to retain a more direct line between what they believe and how they behave – an unlikely gang that includes Clare Short, Ann Widdecombe and perhaps even Mo Mowlam – are precisely those least likely to be leaders. Men, on the other hand, are untrustworthy and yet powerful. According to a recent report published by the Independent Television Commission, Tony Blair earnt a trust rating of a mere 7 per cent of those questioned. Kirsty Young, one of the few women to be listed, earnt 43 per cent, second only to Sir Trevor McDonald. With the mysterious exception of Cilla Black, all those at the bottom of the list were men.

It is annoying to see intelligent and imaginative people playing along with these myths, for they are insulting to us all. Once women appeared in TV dramas in stereotypical roles – the bimbo, the seductress, the battle-axe and so on. Now, all too often, they are there to bring conscience and sensitivity. It is the same old lie but in a different guise.

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