Tuesday, 23 March 2010

BBC4's Women Documentary - bad

I was really looking forward to BBC4's series Women and so was really upset by how disappointed I was.

I really enjoyed the first episode despite the shocking omission of BME women and context. However it was inspirational for me to hear the voices of women I admire such as Marilyn French and Susan Brownmiller. But why no mention of Gloria Steinem? Or, ffs, Betty Friedan? I know she had her faults but she invented NOW! She was incredibly influential.

I missed the Mothers episode so caught up with the series last night for the Activist episode and was horrifically disappointed and frankly very angry.
I cannot understand or believe that Engles did not talk about the feminist movement across the country and only focused on LFN. This is not a criticism of LFN, but to just focus on one group was completely absurd.
For starters, by only focusing on LFN the impression was given that the modern feminist movement is a small group of white, middle class women living in London. This is simply not true. The feminist movement is all over the UK and from all different backgrounds. Although I don't expect Engles to go to every town in the UK and talk to every feminist, to not even mention activism in other cities was so odd. At the time she was filming this doc I was writing in the Guardian about the rise of feminist networks in the UK. I live in Bristol and am a member of BFN - I could easily have just interviewed women from Bristol, but I didn't! I interviewed women from all over the UK because, just as feminists don't just live in Bristol, they don't just live in London.

The other problem of just focusing on LFN is that it makes it look as if all feminists in the UK agree with or are 'governed' by LFN. No disrespect to Finn McKay who I admire as an activist and passionate advocate of women's rights, but to describe her as 'the political brain behind the feminist movement' was ridiculous. She may be the political brain behind LFN, but that is LFN, not the feminists all over the UK! Nor did she 'start Reclaim the Night'. Again, please don't take this as a criticism of Finn or LFN as I'm sure they didn't and wouldn't describe themselves in those terms. It just made me and I'm sure other feminists all over the UK feel invisible.

There were moments that were really good, one woman talking about how her daughter's friend was gang raped and that this galvanized her to become involved in feminism was incredibly moving. And the work and co-operation between young and old women was heartening.

As I say, although I admire the work of LFN I strongly disagree with some of their stand points, such as excluding men. I felt that by representing feminism as LFN was doing the wide range of view points and debates within feminism a massive disservice. Also, the blatant transphobia on display was hideous and again, did not honestly reflect the other opinions and view points of feminists around the UK.

I also felt Engles' attitude and questions was appalling. Asking women about why they painted their fingernails, surely we're not still on this issue! She repeatedly asked the women whether they're angry people - as if there is something wrong with women and that they're not justifiably angry about the gross inequalities women face. And why did she keep talking to their parents - as if these women were angry children and not autonomous, independent women? I cannot imagine this happening with any other documentary about any other movement.
So, all in all, i was grossly disappointed. I wish Engles had spoken to a wider range of women and actually given the young women the respect she gave to the second wave women. It was a real shame that what could have been a real inspiration and a real chance to show the world what feminism is doing so patently failed to do that.


Hannah Mudge said...

I've recorded this to watch tonight! I was still catching up an watched the Mothers episode last night but if you missed it and had issues with Part Three over its white, middle-class focus you would have found the second part even worse. All the families the documentary focused on were obviously pretty affluent. Even the couple of families which seemed less affluent were clearly not struggling for money. There was no element of necessity in the choices made by the women. None of them talked about having to go back to work because the family needed the money. Footage showed the women taking their children to schools which were obviously private schools and when one couple were asked what they last argued over, the only thing they could come up with was 'lighting the Aga'.

It was interesting to see the dynamics between the couples and very telling that some of the men did nothing around the house and felt that they shouldn't have to. The one family with a working mum and stay at home dad wound me up the most due to the fact that the woman seemed hell-bent on putting her husband down and mocking him for 'doing nothing' all day despite the fact he cared for the children and did all the housework, which was pretty sad.

I expect that a lot of women watching would not have been able to relate to these families at all. I get the impression Part Three may be the same!

sian and crooked rib said...

i heard it was very much aga ladies who lunch - i went to see germaine greer talk last week and she mentioned it. so strange - it just doesn't really reflect a wide range of reality. most women don't have the choice not to work, most women don't have the choice to send their children to private school.

i just felt so angry that the documentary ignored such wide swathes of the feminist movement, just as it sounds like the mothers episode ignored a wide range of women.

nicola said...

I too felt a massive disappointment with the last two progs in this series. Engles made it seem that feminist activity begins and ends in white, middle class London! Does the BBC budget cuts mean it's impossible send a camera up the M1?

Enda said...

I thought it was an interesting programme but agree with the comments about interviewing the parents. It was fascinating to meet the families of some of the activists but the line of questioning seemed to go along the lines of thee being 'something wrong with them' for pursuing the life of an activist and trying to explain why. If I was one of the parents interviewed I wouldn't be best pleased with how I'd been represented - but I guess that's television for you.

Hayley said...

It was SO frustrating. It made the feminist groups out to be weak and naively impassioned as far as I could see. The documentary maker focused on "rage" all the time, which was extremely negative and not at all displayed by the women featured. Asking questions simply to make the women look silly when they didn't have straight answers (the nail varnish question) and generally sneering at them, I thought.

Awful and depressing

Kate said...

I was totally disgusted by how the women in the documentary were portrayed, it was the most biased piece of film I have ever seen.

Showing footage of them discussing and cooking the food they were to provide for the conference made them appear petty, and why were their parents interviewed? This made them appear as if they were silly little children who are going through a difficult phase. It was extremely obvious that none of them had media training - to agree to answer questions such as "Are you an angry person?" or "Don't you think painting your nails is at odds with your feminist convictions" served to dignify them which was just plain stupid.

Key people in the current feminist movement in the UK were totally omitted - err Kay Banyard author of the Equality Elusion??? Hello???

I thought this documentary was a cheap shot at the women's movement in this country, and served to highlight just how much work we need to do.

Kate said...

Apologies for the tyop - I meant Kat Banyard of course!

sian and crooked rib said...

thanks for all your comments! glad i wasn't the only one who was left absolutely furious! keep them coming. perhaps we should all make our own show...

Jennifer said...

Hi everyone,

I completely agree with pretty much all of your comments. I was actually screaming at the TV through half of it. I could not believe the number of times it was asked if the ladies involved in LFN were generally "angry people". I was disgusted that the audience were supposed to believe that all feminists are constantly furious, middle class white women who apparently should have "nothing to complain about" and that it's all just a phase some women go through. Like the rest of you, I was also astonished that middle class London was concentrated on so heavily. Did we not already face this issue during the second wave when feminism seemed to be heavily dominated by the middle classes? It was established 30 years ago that ALL women from ALL backgrounds should be educated and included in the feminist movement, otherwise what's the point if we don't reach everyone? I was disappointed to see Engles try to undermine all the hard work she had shown the LFN doing by asking why one woman had her nails painted. How ridiculous. I'm currently sporting a bright purple nail varnish. Does this erase all the work I have done with women's charities in Reading for the past 5 years? Engles would have us believe it does.

Liz said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who had a problem with it!

Amy said...

Yes, 'Activists' left me a bit pissed off too. Especially the stuff with the parents - I can't understand what their opinions added to the documentary. Especially the dads - disappointing that the only two dads featured both said ridiculous sexist things ('boys will be boys', 'cats chase mice' ffs) and that this was just left out there, uncriticised. It was just irrelevant and yes, the tone of that bit was definitely portraying feminism as a silly phase, how patronising.

I was annoyed by the questions about make up, clothes and nailvarnish too. And the questions about anger. As though you would only be a feminist if you were naturally an 'angry person' (implication: feminism is irrational).

Also, who knows what was said/recorded that was later edited out. What interesting footage was ditched in order to show many minutes of food preparation?!

The second programme 'Mothers' was *unbelievably* middle class. All the families were wealthy. All the stay at home mums were interviewed in huge rustic country kitchens; their partners all had very well-paying jobs. All couples except one were white. Money was never mentioned, so there was a lost opportunity to make the point that some mothers don't have a choice about staying at home.

It was quite interesting (and depressing) to see how easily the couples had lapsed into traditional gender roles (apart from one role-reversed couple, and one relatively equal couple), and their (somewhat defensive at times) justifications for this. It could've been a really informative and thought provoking programme about gender roles within families - Engles could have shown a spectrum of races and levels of income, abilities, and included families with step parents, or same sex parents - but she didn't. The concentration purely on wealthy nuclear families really spoiled it for me. I couldn't relate to it.

Oh and - a lot of the women in the 'Mothers' programme were asked, 'Are you a feminist?' To which their first answer (most of them) was 'No' and then they said 'Actually I'm not sure what feminism is'. If you don't know what it is, how do you know you're not it?! Unbelievable.

Michelle said...

I thought the inclusion of the parents' perspectives was quite interesting & thought-provoking, on a personal level for me. Although I didn't like the line of questioning that seemed to suggest it wasn't quite right, or not understandable, that these white middle-class women would get involved in feminism. I blogged about here: http://lonergrrrl.wordpress.com.

I'm not surprised the programme didn't look beyond London for its portrayal of contemporary UK feminism- such is the nature of the BBC and mainstream media in general. It is frustrating, but I don't think we should get too down about not getting validation from mainstream media... it's unlikely & we can get somewhere without it.