Sep 16 2013

Courtroom drama “Silk” hits the usual misogynist notes

Once, just once, it would be great if a TV crime drama could feature a woman in a recurring lead role who doesn’t either

a) eventually end up in a scene where a maniacal predator chains her up by the wrists in a dungeon or

b) accidentally get pregnant, sensibly determine that having a kid would alter her career trajectory for the worse, but abruptly cancel the abortion appointment after catching a glimpse of her glowing and fecund self in a mirror and cupping her magical abdomen with lily white hands to reel with wonder over the miracle of life.

The aforementioned aggravating phenomenon has blipped on the Spinster HQ radar again because of “Silk,” a recently aired Brit courtroom drama on PBS that adheres to most of the accepted rules for packaging compulsory pregnancy as female empowerment and selling it as entertainment.

“Silk’s” heroine, Martha, is a bewiggened barrister bucking for a big promotion in her cutthroat London law firm. In contrast to her foil — a womanizing, ethically challenged male rival — Martha is down-to-earth, overworked, and unimpeachably principled. Also, she’s an awesome barrister. Just when things couldn’t look worse, she relies purely on chutzpah and wits to win her tough cases. You go girl. But then, uh oh. Sure enough. Unbeknownst to Martha, one of her skeevy clients has been sneaking around her apartment nicking her hosiery (black stockings! I would have thought that in 2013, the only women still suffering those torture devices would be — well, nobody. And they say patriarchy is dead). The skeevy stalker sets the stage for some excellent TV lady-fear in an upcoming episode.

As an added plot device, the writers throw in an accidental pregnancy. As we have seen, rare is the TV lady of childbearing years who makes it to her series finale without getting knocked up; the contents of uteruses (and the genetic provenance of said contents) never fail to fascinate audiences. Thus we know that, from the minute Martha eyeballs the home pregnancy test, even though she will initially plan to have an abortion, it’s inevitable that instead she’ll wind up cupping the magical abdomen and keeping the fetus. The pregnancy device highlights Martha’s feminine vulnerability to her deranged predator, underscores her selfless feminine devotion to humankind, and sends a patriarchy-affirming message: abortion is the selfish choice.

Oh, and guess who the father is. That’s right. The womanizing, ethically challenged dude, who is currently sleeping with his hot blonde pupil.

My prediction for this series: violence will be visited upon poor pregnant Martha. I bet there’ll be one of those nailbiting bogeyman scenes — possibly in a dungeon with wrist chains — where the skeev leaps from the shadows and the Martha character gives the camera what it craves: a snootful of TV lady-fear. Suspenseful scrimmage will ensue. At some point Martha, her clothes ripped to reveal a tantalizing swatch of lingerie, will be down on the floor, bleeding from a photogenic cut on her forehead, making desperate, sobby, lady-fear noises, either scooching backward on her butt, or worming toward a weapon that’s just beyond the reach of her slightly bloody hand. The episode will conclude with a last-minute rescue by either the womanizing baby daddy or the law firm’s loyal clerk (the Brits say “clark.” Adorable!).

I dare this “Silk” show to prove me wrong. It won’t, though. I can’t even conceive of a universe where a TV lady would go unpunished for her promiscuity. She could never just have the abortion and go on to live a fulfilling, stalker-free life with neither man nor baby, concerning herself instead with stuff of a non-maternal nature. Even more unthinkable: that she would have a rudimentary pre-existing grasp of modern birth control techniques, and therefore wouldn’t get pregnant in the first place, thus leaving her character free to explore the vast array of non-uterus-related adventures that all male characters have pursued since the dawn of story-telling.


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  1. ew_nc

    Ah, damn. I didn’t catch it last night, but I had some hopes for it. Guess I’m a slow learner.

    There is a British series from a few years ago called Lark Rise to Candleford. While most of it is a quaint period/costume drama, there is the postmistress of the town (played by AbFab’s wonderful Julia Swahala) that in spite of having romances, never does marry and continues to live life on her terms. But of course this is mixed in with a healthy dose of miogynistic male characters, especially the heinous postman.

    At least PBS still has nature shows.

  2. Twisty

    I remember “Lark Rise”. Heartwarming, with three or four fully-drawn women characters, if memory serves. Julia always looked like she was sucking on a lemon.

  3. Cyberwulf

    I was going to mention Cold Case, but then I remembered the season two finale where a serial killer holds Rush at gunpoint in his decaying childhood home and makes her tell him all about the time she was assaulted as a little girl (thankfully only physically) on her way to the liquor store to get booze for her alcoholic mother.

    And I was going to say “At least Rush shoots the guy and doesn’t have to be rescued” but then I remembered that her lieutenant and father-figure Stillman was creeping up the stairs with a rifle to come get her.

  4. KittyWrangler


    I was recently watching Season 1 of the crime drama “Wallander” (the British one with Kenneth Branaugh) and as soon as his beautiful college-aged daughter stepped on screen I called it: there’s no way that character won’t end up captured and whimpering at least once. Aaaaalmost made it through Season 1 without the “money-shot.” And it was so unnecessarily wedged into the plot.

    The show also featured, of course, a pant-suited female colleague with no inner life whose single purpose was to stare with concern and amazement at Our Hero and who uttered nothing but breathless questions, always ignored by Our Hero who was too distracted by being One Step Ahead to answer. Which makes her indistinguishable from any other lady-colleague on any other crime or legal drama, really.

    Gah, that show. I stopped watching, but now that you mention it, Twisty, I’d place money on a pregnancy and other uterus-adventures for the pretty daughter in upcoming seasons.

    The Swedish “Wallander” (with Someone-r-other Menkell), by the way, was much better in general with vastly more interesting lady-characters. Not feminist, but much better than British “Wallander.”

  5. Val

    Oh yes. Thank you for saying this. I’ve watched so many of these shows, begging the lady detective / plucky heroine ‘ please don’t go singlehandedly down to his creepy house where you will inevitably get tied up and have to be rescued by a man’, until I finally started turning it off at that point. Better to curse the screen writers, though.

  6. Twisty

    Detective Eames? Pregnant.
    That US Marshall on the witness protection drama whose name I can’t remember? Pregnant.
    DCI Banks’ pant-suited (nice detail, KittyW) sidekick? Pregnant.
    Bones? Pregnant. Also, chained by wrists and saved by Angel.
    Olivia Benson? Not pregnant, but nearly raped about a billion times, and always saved by dude.

  7. Cyberwulf

    At least Rush never got pregnant off any of her co-workers. Oh wait, her estranged sister had a baby with a violent drug-dealer who had her hooked on painkillers and Rush and Valens had to go rescue her in the series finale.

    It’s too bad because Cold Case had an ethnically diverse cast, each of whom used to get about six or seven episode mini-arcs to themselves, and a lot of the cold cases went into racial and gender issues of the past/present.

  8. Helen Huntingdon

    Ugh, in that case I probably won’t bother with Silk.

    I miss Prime Suspect’s Tennison — had the abortion and never looked back.

    I really liked the Lark Rise to Candleford postmistress until she got the Great Female Completion of Motherhood by taking in a waif.

    I’m starting to like nuns as characters just because they’re usually, “Kids? Nope. Been a bit busy.”

    I couldn’t watch Bones anymore after a few episodes into her pregnancy, since her sperm donor started his “pregnancy is a hilarious occasion for physical bullying” schtick. I found him barely tolerable before that, but after that, no way.

  9. quixote

    Eons ago, mid-1980s I think?, I watched a British show where Helen Mirren played a detective or a police chief or something. I don’t think she was even the main character. A pregnancy test comes back positive but it’s a side issue to the plot.Eventually, she decides to have an abortion, and that’s the last you hear of that. The main plot never worries about it.

    So it is possible, I guess. Or at least, it was.

  10. Tehomet

    May I recommend Call the Midwife? It’s well worth watching, IMO. It’s based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife and nurse in a poverty-stricken part of London in the Fifties. She lives with an order of Anglican nuns devoted to providing midwifery services in the days before birth control and helping people living in poverty. It’s very funny at times, very well-written throughout, and absolutely unflinching in its depiction of the realities of life for women at the time. Astonishingly for a series with an almost all-female cast, it’s been a huge success.

  11. Twisty

    Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect”! I can’t believe I forgot about that show. So disappointed when Mirren showed up a few years later all playboyed-out in red satin boudoir-wear on the cover of Vanity Fair.

  12. Kali

    I was going to say “Prime Suspect”. Really liked that show.

    A tangential aside – A few years ago Helen Mirren was starring in some movie and the movie ad was in the newspaper. My friend and house-mate at that time looked at the ad and said “What an ugly bitch”. I said, “Hey, that’s Helen Mirren, you don’t know her?” and she said “Yes, I know who she is”. I still haven’t figured out what was the purpose of that gratuitous insult.

  13. quixote

    Hah. Well, shows you what my memory for tv is like. Mirren was the main character and it was mid-1990s.

    I always thought she was beautiful, and then she did that all playboyed-out thing and all I could think was Et tu, Dame Mirren.

  14. FlameWriting

    I too hate that phenomenon. All female characters must be shown vulnerable and require rescuing, plus ‘good’ women don’t get abortions.

    Has anyone else seen the Irish TV show ‘the Fall’? There is female vulnerability and issues of this kind, but not (so far) with the main female character, who is played by Gillian Anderson (the first season had but 5 episodes, though, so unfortunately there’s still time). It’s about a serial killer who preys on women and the female detective trying to capture him but, refreshingly, Mr Killer is not portrayed sympathetically and the detective is. There is sexism, but you get treated to Anderson’s character steadfastly and uncompromisingly refusing to take anyone’s sexist bullshit (“I’m interested in catching the killer, not judgement [of the victims]”). There are parts of it that are pretty horrific though, and sexualisation of naked dead bodies, though the characters point out that the killer has left them that way on purpose. So it’s entertaining but still problematic.

  15. Helen Huntingdon

    Flamewriting, yes, I loved The Fall for the protagonist’s steely-eyed utter-calm resistance to slut-shaming of herself or of the crime victims.

  16. chacha1

    For those disappointed by Dame Helen’s playboyification, I really recommend the movies “Red” and “Red 2” in which her 60+ sexuality is celebrated while at the same time she is smarter, more effective, and less in need of rescuing than her male counterparts.

    These are not made to be smart feminist movies, mind you; they are crudely entertaining blowing-shit-up movies, but in terms of strong female characters they are above the usual standard.

    Twisty: I do not watch most TV crime dramas, for all the reasons you’ve stated so cogently and hilariously here and elsewhere. The damsel in distress trope is so fucking tired, especially when the damsel is supposed to be the hero.

  17. iorarua

    Re Jane Tennison and Prime Suspect … Yes, I marveled at the no-nonsense abortion storyline too. However, fast-forward to the very end of the series in 2006. By then, Lynda La Plante had sold the Prime Suspect rights and was no longer involved with the series. The last two episodes, Last Witness and Final Act, were written and produced by a mostly male creative team.

    So how did our Jane end the series? As I recall from viewing the last episode in 2006, she was aged maybe late 50s, her career in major decline and under massive pressure from above to retire out of concerns for her emotional health and professional judgment. Crippled by alcoholism (several scenes of her having vodka breakfasts and grabbing shaky-handed secret swigs) and FULL OF REGRETS about her earlier abortion (revealed in conversations with a pregnant Bosnian refugee), her resistance is finally broken by the death of her father (with whom she has lingering daddy issues) and she finally capitulates to retirement pressure.

    Her final scene shows her team of much younger colleagues making preparations for her sendoff – which they are doing only because they feel sorry for her, not because they’re sad to see her go. So embittered is she by her professional betrayal, broken life and the prospect of a bleak, grandchildrenless future, she sneaks out of the building, stoney-faced, and never looks back.

    Standard, by-the-book scriptwriting lesson on how to patriarchally destroy one of television’s all-time great female role models.

  18. Twisty

    iorarua: Well, that’s depressing. But unsurprising.

  19. emilybites

    I will not spoil Silk for you. But your rage will be great, Twisty.

    The Fall was great for a fairly unflinching female protagonist with sexuality she wasn’t ashamed of – there is a point at which she has slept with a (colleague? witness?) and when her creep pervy co-worker asks her to get the col/wit’s alibi for the last night she calmly informs him that she was shagging him and where.

    Scott and Bailey is an ITV show about two female police detectives in Manchester who are human, with personalities, flaws, achievements, a female boss – it’s almost fully awesome. But when one of the female detectives accidentally gets pregnant by her ex it lets you down in the usual way: she books an abortion but can’t go through with it (gag) and has the obligatory tragic miscarriage. Then she can be unencumbered for the script’s sake, but not a horrible selfish bitch who had an abortion because she is very dreadful and we shouldn’t like her. The tragic miscarriage drives me NUTS – this character is young, her ex just tried to kill her using a car and a hitman, she’s gunning for promotion, doesn’t really like kids, she’s an alcoholic…why SHOULDN’T she get a flippin’ abortion? But no, she has to go all Virgin Mary on us lest her decision not to sacrifice her life for a sprog be regarded as selfish, and be rescued by hypocritical pragmatism.

    Bones pissed me right off when they made Brennan preggers, and subsequently her misogynist, bossy gunman annoyed me even more, as others have said above.

  20. ptittle

    Christina on Grey’s Anatomy REFUSING to become a mom. And saying so QUITE CLEARLY.

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