Is Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley A ‘Feminist Drama’?

happy-valleyFirst things first. The shocking and awful events in California at the weekend make the question in the headline even more sensitive. Why? Once again, the acts of a violent, deranged and angry young man have brought the subject of violence against women to the front of the global debate queue. These awful, shocking and brutal acts of violence were sickening, and we’re currently wringing our hands and (quite rightly) asking ourselves why this could have happened in our so-called civilised Western society. It’s this self-analysis that reveals a cross-over with the very genre I set up this blog to discuss. I saw an article in The Daily Mail (quelle surprise some may be tutting) that carried the headline: “Dehumanising and anti-women? No, Happy Valley is feminist TV, its creators insist after show features brutal kidnapping of mother by rapist.” So with everything swirling around my tiny mind – the Daily Mail article and the shootings in California – I gave myself a challenge: try to write about these three huge, sensitive and complex issues as best I could.

Let’s go back to California for a moment. I’m not trying to be opportunistic here or ascribe a particular point of view to what was essentially an horrific and tragic crime, but it seems to me that the debates about a general misogyny in society and violence against women in TV and film are linked.

The fact that the perpetrator of the shootings in California used his escalating hatred of women as a narrowing focus towards the end of his life and this sorry process is perhaps the most disturbing facet of this whole tragedy. Many are debating the fall-out from this person’s acts. Some believe we live in a patriarchy that propagate men’s sense of sexual, financial and cultural entitlement. Some believe that the acute misogyny the perpetrator used in his manifestoes and terrifying YouTube videos was amplified and perpetuated by the mainstream media, who objectify and belittle women at every opportunity. Some also think that an almost steady torrent of rape and murder portrayed on our television sets desensitise us to violence against women.

These debates are happening – raging, in fact – all over the internet right now. They are questions that have to be addressed and it’s my personal belief that attitudes towards women have to change.

But in terms of crime drama and, specifically for this post, Happy Valley, there’s a debate to be had as to whether seeing acts of violence against women reflects society, exposes these acts or just merely fetishises it. The vast majority of crime drama features bad men doing awful, violent things to women. You can’t get away from that fact. From Cracker to True Detective, Hannibal to The Fall, women – mostly young women – are getting killed on television in varying degrees of horribleness. Many will argue that seeing endless (moving) images of men terrorise and physically abuse and murder women are part of a disturbing trend. We saw a shocking scene in last week’s Happy valley where Catherine Cawood (the superb Sarah Lancashire) was involved in a violent confrontation with Tommy, the father of her grandchild, but also a rapist and kidnapper. It was violent and hard to watch. But was it part of a trend? Was it even necessary to show?

These scenes made for completely uncomfortable, graphic viewing. Once I’d calmed down and exhaled deeply, I asked myself what I always ask myself after I’ve seen an affecting piece of drama (or piece of art or heard some challenging music or read a harrowing book) – How and why did it affect me?

This is what I tend to take away from any heavy, violent drama that happens to depict violence against women (which happens to be a lot these days): that I am appalled, shocked and I want the perpetrators to be brought to justice. That, to me, is part of the journey when you watch crime drama. Drama needs to show acts of horridness to really make the viewer want a resolution. It’s a dramatic conceit that has been used for decades and will continue to be used. It’s part of the viewer’s journey. It’s whether this depiction of violence is balanced or not, and conducive to the narrative and character development. That’s the tricky part to get right.

Seeing awful things on television doesn’t make me want to go and carry out a violent act against a woman. Quite the opposite. It makes me want to help promote the idea of solidarity between genders and even help smooth a way to a place where violence towards women doesn’t happen any more.

If that’s idealistic and wanky, I’m sorry. But that’s how I feel.

Behind the bluster, the Daily Mail article – here if you want to read it – actually does a good job of asking these questions and putting both points across. Both the writer, Sally Wainwright, and director Euros Lyn, say that the fact that Happy Valley doesn’t glorify violence or dehumanise women and the fact it has a ‘strong’ female character as its lead means that it’s a feminist drama.

This is where I do disagree – the fact that the series has a female lead doesn’t automatically mean it’s a feminist drama. To me, that’s lazy categorisation.

To begin with this piece was supposed to be about trying to find out what makes Sally Wainwright such a good writer. I asked a colleague – Luke from the excellent TV blog, The Custard – for his opinions on why Sally Wainwright is working at such a high level at the moment.

believe the majority of love for this series should be shown to the truly brilliant writer Sally Wainwright. Wainwright has long been a favourite writer of mine, probably up there with Jimmy McGovern. Sally doesn’t so much write characters, she writes real people. She has an uncanny ability to write characters that after moments onscreen feel like old friends.

Happy Valley isn’t really a crime drama at all. It’s a character driven drama.  Behind her no nonsense and caring exterior, central character Caroline is a woman still grieving for her young daughter. She’s a grandmother raising her grandson, and a woman trying to hold down her job whilst trying to confront the man who led to her daughter’s demise. Happy Valley has been unfairly labelled as ‘bleak’ and ‘grim’ by some close-minded critics, but at its heart it’s a very human piece of drama, the kind us Brits do better than most.

Of Course Happy Valley isn’t Wainwright’s first foray into the crime genre. Her hit ITV series Scott & Bailey is also a favourite of mine, cleverly blending horrific and hard to stomach crimes with strong lead characters and a more soapy feel. Two thousand and nine also saw Wainwright’s superb three-part serial Unforgiven, which actually felt very similar in tone to Happy Valley. I believe that all of our unique writing talents should be celebrated and Sally is without question one of our best.

 

Apologies to Luke after applying his opinions to a different context than originally requested, but he hits the nail on the head completely when it comes to Sally Wainwright’s writing and, ultimately, whether Happy Valley is a feminist drama or not. It’s because of Wainwright’s skill in writing well-rounded characters and the fact that it she doesn’t deal in clichés that makes it a feminist drama, not just because it has a female actress as the show’s lead.

As for the violence in Happy Valley I can stomach because the characters are so well written and this particular story almost demands it. There isn’t one moment of gratuity. It’s a drama where bad things have happened and will happen as part of a journey of redemption.

So there you have it. Three incredibly complex threads that somehow – just about… maybe – fit together. I hope I’ve done them some sort of justice and added to the debate.

For our Sally Wainwright interview, go here.

To keep in touch with Luke, follow him on Twitter here, or visit The Custard TV blog here.

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