Sunday, November 18, 2018

Karl du Fresne: When TV drama is used to promote messages of diversity and inclusivity

In the opening episode of Bodyguard, a BBC drama series screening on Netflix, an off-duty police terrorism specialist (a man) confronts a female suicide bomber on a crowded train.

It’s convincingly tense, but there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other post-9/11 plotlines – that is, except for one thing.

The commander of a police anti-terrorism squad that boards the train is a cool and efficient black woman. Nothing remarkable about that, in itself. But then we see a police sniper waiting to get a clean shot at the suicide bomber, and the sniper is a woman too.

The next cop on the scene is an officer who has the perilous job of defusing the bomb. Wow, another woman. There seemed to be a pattern here.

Fast-forward now to when the crisis is over and the cop is back at the office telling his boss all about it. And waddya know, she’s a woman too.

She has some news for the cop: he’s been assigned to protect a high-profile politician. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that she, too, is a woman.

By this time it was clear that Bodyguard wasn’t just a well-made drama series; it was also making a statement about gender equality.

The message was that women can be just as tough and fearless as blokes. And actually, I’m okay with that. The days when granite-jawed men got all the good parts and women were in subservient roles are far behind us.

It makes perfect sense, for example, that the new Doctor Who is female. What took them so long, for heaven’s sake? In the 21st century, no man should baulk at seeing women calling the shots.

In fact, when I think about it, I realise that many of the TV dramas I’ve enjoyed most in recent years have had women in central roles. There was the grim but outstanding Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire, and The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame.

There were two series, River and Unforgettable, which featured the wonderful Nicola Walker, and a swag of Scandi-noir crime series, whose names I can’t recall because they all seemed pretty much the same, in which the main characters were female. And I shouldn't omit the dark but stylish Killing Eve, starring the great Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

I also recently enjoyed repeats of some early episodes of Prime Suspect, which is credited with being one of the first TV dramas to put a woman front and centre, and which derived much of its drama from her struggle against the sexism of her police colleagues.

On reflection, I wondered whether Prime Suspect was really such a big deal, because even in the 1960s and 70s there were shows in which women had the star billing.

There was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which first screened in 1968. Not only was she female, but she was black too, and a solo mother to boot. And even before that, Lucille Ball had her own long-running comedy show.

Later came The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Policewoman and the first female take on the “buddy” cop show, Cagney and Lacey. Perhaps this was one area in which Hollywood was ahead of the Brits.

No one made a big fuss of these programmes, and why should they? What could be more unremarkable than making TV shows in which the sex that represents 50 percent of humankind takes centre-stage? But the preponderance of women in Bodyguard seemed a bit over the top.

I had read in the British media about the BBC’s slavish commitment to policies of inclusivity and diversity. Was that what it was all about? Did Bodyguard reflect the world the way the scriptwriters think it ought to be?

It wouldn’t be the first time TV programme-makers have bowed to identity politics. In 2011 the co-creator and producer of ITV’s Midsomer Murders was forced to stand down because he objected to being told to include ethnic minorities in the series.

He wasn’t being racist. He just thought it would be inconsistent with the tone of the programme, which was set in a mythical, timeless and quintessentially English village. And I think he was right.

We watch TV dramas for entertainment, not to be morally improved or have our cultural sensitivity enhanced. When a TV show is used as a means of ideological virtue-signalling, as I suspect has happened with Bodyguard, it rankles.

At worst it conveys a faint but unsettling whiff of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, which used art to enforce ideological orthodoxy and ruthlessly suppressed anything that didn’t conform.

How sad it would be if the BBC, which was once greatly admired for boldly pushing the boundaries and defying the establishment, had meekly fallen into line with the “progressive” political agenda. But I suspect that’s what it has come to.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at


Brian said...

Shades of Lady Macbeth haunting the corridors of script writer’s minds?
Really Karl, You have transgressed against the long held knowledge known to the male establishment that “ The female of the species is more dangerous than the male”.!
Thanks again to Rudyard Kipling!
Your brave blog belongs with anther such statement coined long ago, by a Puritanical Preacher who said bluntly “Got defend us from this monstrous Regiment of women” John Knox circa 1513-1572. Scottish theologian.
Perhaps this Preacher saw well into the future, as well as being a contributing cause of that fatal Scottish Queen who lost her heart, as well as her head!
Not only TV dramas have seen an influx of the “weaker sex”; ## (whoever coined that phrase must have lived on another planet)## but even our News bulletins have resounded with their soprano tones. On various items from drainage, climate forecasts, child molestations and the latest President Trump’s “misdemeanours”!
The only thing I am unable to come to terms with, is a female sports commentator pontificating on a male rugby game!
Ensuring that, at a ripe old age I am still thankfully a “Male Chauvinistic Pig”; who still considers the opposite sex as wonderfully unpredictable, exciting, a la donna mobile; and above all different- “Vive la difference”?

Anonymous said...

Generally women in authority are a pain in the neck. And, I've yet to meet a competent African-anything, somewhat charming (if there is a perceived potential gain) and(over)confident, often.
A female Dr. Who is a good thing? For whom? Not for the male viewers of the show, I'll be bound (hog-tied for making these comments).

Mike L. said...

Perhaps we are so misled by the efforts of organisations such as the socialist BBC that we have not fully realised the extent to which the entertainment industry has been taken over by the fairer sex. I'm just waiting for another series of that wonderful detective Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn!