Women, power, and reality

The BBC’s recent hit drama Bodyguard received mostly praise for its thrilling plot, but there was significant backlash online over the noticeable number of women cast in roles of power and skill. Some were grateful for the show’s female representation, but most were unhappy, either proclaiming political correctness gone mad or simply stating it was unrealistic. The writer, Jed Mercurio, said to i newspaper that he felt the backlash was odd as ‘It doesn’t really occur to [him] that certain jobs and certain roles are male specific or female specific’. Whilst it’s great that he feels no gender bias in casting, does he, as a white male, have the right to be perturbed when women are shocked by seeing themselves represented for once?

What powerful female characters did he write? There was the Home Secretary, the Head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, the Chief Superintendent, the Explosives Expert, and a Police Markswoman. Is this so many? Lest we not forget that the lead was male. Yet when watching, it was notable, it did stand out. Perhaps in part because the women playing these roles were older, the age of women in these jobs in reality. They were not leggy 25-year olds whose characters were all sex appeal and no substance, which may be what we have come to expect. Their integrity, fullness of character and essentialness to the plot could be what threw people off, rather than their numbers.

Or maybe the response was not purely due to Bodyguard but the rise of truthful powerful female characters elsewhere. In Killing Eve, for example, both the heroine and the antagonist are women; the show is ultimately about them, not the males in the supporting cast. Even here we find the ‘head of the Russian desk’ to be female. Or that the new Doctor is a woman and that her female companion is a Police Officer? Or Line of Duty which features multiple capable women.

But should we be troubled by this change in representation or the backlash it has received? Possibly not. Surely television and media are not just there for entertainment, but also to challenge long held beliefs and to reflect back to the audience previously unnoticed phenomena? If all those characters had been men, would it even have been discussed? Perhaps by a few but not to this extent. Not because we necessarily believe that men should have these roles, but because it is what we have come to expect. Through challenging viewers’ expectations, the media might change hiring behaviours and change people’s prejudices.

However, arguably the show is a fairly good reflection of reality. We have a female Prime Minister, our previous two Home Secretaries were women, the Head of the Metropolitan Police is a woman, the most recent woman to die in Afghanistan was a Bomb Disposal Expert and over 50 percent of the Civil Service is female. Sound familiar?

Moreover, in both Bodyguard and Killing Eve, when looking at who sat on board tables, the women made up less than 30 percent, reflecting what is said anecdotally by real women in these positions. But given the relative accuracy of the show, why were so many people so surprised by it? This could be the saddest point of all, that women are doing these jobs yet going unrecognised and unnoticed. So, we should thank Bodyguard for its ‘outrageous’ reality and hope that in a year or two, if another show dares to be so realistic again, we are upset that it hasn’t gone further.

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May 2022
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