Impressions of BBC4’s Women series

BBC4 recently broadcast a three-part series entitled Women, which was meant to give some kind of history of feminism from the radicals and “libbers” of the late 1960s and early 1970s through to the young feminist activists of today. Part 1 focussed on the early period or “second wave”, featuring interviews with Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Sheila Rowbotham, Susan Brownmiller and others. Part 2 was a diversion into how modern families divide the labour in the house, while part 3 concentrated on women campaigning against the sex industry and the revived “reclaim the night” marches of the past decade. It was a fascinating programme, but somewhat disjointed and had too much of a focus on white, middle-class women. The focus also narrowed part by part, taking in American contributions to feminism in part one, to the UK in part 2 and finally to London alone in part 3.

The least problematic of the three parts was the first: it introduced several of the best-known figures of the time, interviewing them (usually in their home) about their books or their part in major landmarks of the movement, such as the storming of Miss World, or about the public or media reaction to their books. There was also some highlighting of some of the movement’s sillier moments, such as the women shown chirpily singing about wanting abortion on demand, or the suggestion that women should give up men altogether and become lesbians, which clearly didn’t appeal to a lot of them. There were some quite emotional moments, such as when Marilyn French, in one of her last interviews, was asked whether she was proud after receiving letters from women saying how her book The Women’s Room, about a woman walking out of an unsatisfactory marriage, had reflected things that happened to them, replied that she had felt anguished. And she looked it.

The second part, titled simply “Mothers”, consisted of a series of interviews with various families, mostly in southern England (one in Lancashire) about how they divide the labour in the house. And they all did live in houses, not in flats. Nobody seemed to be in a council house either. They all seemed fairly affluent, and all but one family was white. There were different models on display, including several women who had given up work to look after the children and one house-husband whose wife was a freelance illustrator, but there was an example of the overburdened working married mother whose husband was not doing much after work, and that couple split up while the programme was being made (whether because of that, they didn’t say). Others have said they found the interviewing style of Vanessa Engle, the presenter, intrusive and one blogger called it interrogation. The programme consisted of one of these interviews after another, and there was no attempt to find out how things were done in less well-off families.

Finally, we come to “Activists”, shot entirely in London among groups like the London Feminist Network and OBJECT, following them as they organise a conference, campaign against the sex industry and finally revive the Reclaim the Night marches through London. The women themselves mostly came across as very reasonable, and their campaigns were not against men in general or femininity per se but against objectification of women’s bodies, the sex industry and rape. The LFN, the main group featured, is women-only and the public campaigns by OBJECT were entirely conducted by women also. They picketed the Playboy store, trying to draw people’s attention to the fact that paraphernalia was being sold to children, and strip clubs of the sort they found mushrooming on their own streets. One lady told how she became involved in feminism after a friend’s daughter was gang-raped; the assailants were acquitted as a result of a small snatch of mobile phone footage which appeared to show her acquiescing to it, and she was later charged with an offence herself.

Three of the women’s parents were interviewed, and none were particularly supportive of their daughters’ activities. (Come to think of it, why was it just their parents, not their brothers or sisters or anyone else in their families?) In fact, some of them seemed to think that their daughters were just going through a phase, or acted as if they had got involved in some strange cult or extremist political movement, when all they were doing is campaigning against the exploitation of women. One father did point out that her daughter’s revealing clothing and excessive use of make-up were rather inconsistent with campaigning against over-sexualisation and objectification, but her dress was hardly extreme, by today’s standards.

This particular programme was criticised on some blogs for not casting its net wider than London, as if there were no similar campaigns in other parts of the UK. This blog has a fairly useful criticism of its narrow focus. This blog also has fairly comprehensive reviews of all three episodes, and is worth reading. There was nothing on what happened in between about 1975 and about 2000, and it made the “Mothers” programme look out of place in between two programmes about feminism. All in all, too focussed on white, middle-class women, and even then, it all too often makes them look over-sensitive and extreme when they are often pretty reasonable, even endearing, and justifiably concerned about what they see.

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  • I wasn’t that impressed by programme #1 and stopped watching after that. I didn’t disagree with its central narrative, thin as it was, but the show was too interested in creating “good TV” by asking questions about orgasms and lesbianism, rather than telling a story that is compelling enough in itself.

  • Old Pickler

    The first programme was very interestng, especially comparing the older, often mellower women with their younger selves. But at least those women had real battles to fight.

    The young women in the third programme were rather dull in comparison, and seemed to be determined to get angry come what may. They seemed to be from quite privileged backgrounds and it would have been interesting to hear more from non-white, and/or Muslim women, some of whom are genuinely oppressed by their families.

    I missed the second programme, but was told it wasn’t as good as the first.

  • OP: You can watch part 2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rjs4f/Women_Mothers/">http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rjs4f/Women_Mothers/“>here.

    As for part 3, I think the programme makers set out to make them look like petty women who were angry about really nothing. I really don’t think the pressure on girls to look sexy at a younger age, the marketing of porn paraphernalia to little girls and the ever more visible sex industry and its effect on the women who live nearby, are nothing. Yes, it’s true that the feminists of the 1960s “had battles to fight”, but the enforced sexualisation we see today wasn’t one of them.

  • Liz

    Hi there, just wanted to say this is a great review, so many people seem to have the same criticisms. Thanks for linking to me :) .-= Liz´s last blog ..UK Feminista =-.