Tag Archives: TV

Orphan Black: TV’s most woman-centred drama

*Contains spoilers

A woman gets off a train and picks up a phone; in a few sentences we learn that Sarah is a grifter, in town to sell stolen drugs and collect her daughter Kira. At the other end of the platform, we notice a woman stepping out of her shoes, shrugging off her jacket and putting her handbag on the platform. As Sarah walks in her direction, the woman turns round; she has the same face – but then she steps under a train. Sarah looks down and picks up the handbag…

Those were the stunningly economic first few minutes of the Anglo-Canadian techno-thriller series Orphan Black which has managed, in two seasons of ten episodes, to be the most stunningly woman-centred action drama on television.

In the middle of a hokum-filled plot that is mostly about conspiracy, kidnapping and running around dark cities late at night, it manages to make some quite fascinating observations about nature, nurture and free will. Sarah steals, temporarily, the life of dead Beth, only to find that Beth, a cop with morals as sketchy as her own, had problems; a dead civilian, phone calls from mysterious women, and more clones.

The drunken soccer mom Alison says, “we don’t mention the c word”, but the rapidly evolving alliance between Sarah, Alison and lesbian German biologist Cosima rapidly reveals how entirely the same three women can be in some respects and how utterly different in others. And that’s before we meet feral assassin Helena and corporate bully Rachel…

It’s a show that passes most of the tests we now ask of popular media – not just the Bechdel test, because obviously these women find a lot to talk about apart from boys – but also the more recent Trinity test for strong women. All versions of Sarah are strong women – it’s as intrinsic to them as their chancer ruthlessness and sly smile. Strong women who actually do things, albeit in very different ways.

Sarah sleeps with Beth’s fiance, Paul, and realises that he is not to be trusted, even before he works out that she is not who he thought. It turns out, for example, that they all – except for Sarah – have someone in their lives who is spying on them, and reporting back to a company, Triad. In a revealing moment about the different forms that ruthlessness can take, Cosima seduces her colleague Delphine, knowing that Delphine is her monitor.

It’s a show which could easily have drifted into comic book misandry – but Sarah’s gay painter foster brother Felix would clearly die for her, and Beth’s fellow cop Art is almost as loyal. Even Alison’s bumbling husband Donny, and Sarah’s abusive ex-lover Vic, are rich and complex characters who can surprise us.

This is a show which brilliantly alternates excitement, scabrous comedy and moments of still emotion. There are no duds in the cast, but the show rests primarily on a stunning central performance from Tatiana Maslany as Sarah and all the others. It’s not just the well-established and radically different body language and speech of all the clones; it’s the moments of farce when Sarah and Alison impersonate each other, or of tension when Sarah confronts the terrifying, pathetic Helena. For a while, the second season seemed on shakier ground than the first, but latterly it came together, and established stunningly that things which seemed random clips of narrative were nothing of the kind.

Now we have to binge re-watch, noticing extra points of cleverness, while we wait for Season Three…

Roz Kaveney is a Contributing Editor to Feminist Times. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Photo: CrazyTVTalk

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Charlotte Raven

My last word on Reality TV

On the few occasions I’ve taken part in a radio discussion, I struggle to say what I mean, even if the subject is close to my heart. I can’t think quickly enough to be spontaneous, but don’t want to sound stagey and on message like a politician. While I’m adjudicating, they are still asking questions! I always think of the thing I most wanted to convey or the argument that would have clinched it on the bus home. I’m not sure how common this commentator’s version of ‘esprit d’escalier’ is, where one thinks of a perfect retort too late.. One of the pleasures of having this platform is that I don’t need to sit at home cursing myself or ask the producer for another go.

“Is there anything else you want to say?” they often ask at the end of a recorded interview or studio discussion. I always say no, because I don’t want this painful process to be protracted, then regret it. In a soon to be aired discussion about the dilemmas of reality TV, with Mel from the first Big Brother, I missed a golden opportunity to revisit the question of whether the consent given by the by the participants of reality shows is in any way informed.

Everyone thinks they are fair game because they signed on the dotted line, and knew what they were letting themselves in for. I don’t buy this argument but know the rationale: like turkeys voting for Christmas, the people on Big Brother and other reality shows are the architects of their own fate – or the engineers of their doom.

There is no such thing as ‘informed consent’ in reality TV.  Brian Winston’s book Claiming the Real, fleshed out what I had intuited; that the participants on reality shows and documentaries are all assumed to have given ‘informed consent’ but none actually have if you define it as rigorously as scientists and clinicians must.

“It has been well established in science that the informed consent of subjects involved in experiments requires that it has been obtained freely and without coercion; that the procedure and it’s effects and potential effects by fully understood by the subject and the subject be competent to give consent.”

The participants in reality TV can’t give informed consent because:

(1) They don’t know what’s going to happen. The subject of reality TV can’t foresee what’s going to happen until they have gone through it. The way a particular person will play with the public can’t be predicted, nor can their individual experience. Often their naivety is a seen as a bonus, as we watch them on a steep learning curve. It would be fair to say that many, if not most, participants in reality programmes are deluded when they sign the release form. No one goes in thinking the public and other participants will hate them, or that they will be abused and tormented on a multitude of different platforms rather than feted. They sign the form before all this has happened, when they still think they will be rich and famous.

The people on Channel Four’s Benefits Street were differently deluded. They thought the filmmaker would be an ally, and were probably told that the film would be a sympathetic portrait of the effect of the benefit cuts on human beings. Variations on this phrasing have been used to justify the most intrusive and exploitative ‘poverty tourism’, like Benefits Street and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The disparity between the thing that’s in their minds when they sign the release form and what appears on screen are often so great that legal redress is sought.  They feel violated, understandably, and don’t know how else to express it.

(2) They are differently coerced. Many of the subjects are vulnerable and might have trouble thinking through the pros and cons of this particular type of public scrutiny. Before she went in, would Jade have thought the public would interpret her lack of education as stupidity? Did anyone hint at this possibility that people would enjoy watching her because it made them feel better about themselves? Of course they didn’t. The omnipotent TV execs knew all this but didn’t tell her: she is being denied the information that would make an informed choice.

(3) They didn’t “ask for it.” Participants are assumed to be complicit in the whole process, from signing the release form to the moment when they are being publicly vilified. Once their uninformed consent is obtained they are held personally responsible for every envious tweet or journalistic brick bat that comes their way. The media and public wants this to be the case, otherwise the responsibility lies with them. It’s become so normal that we no longer see it as perverse.

Victim blaming is rife. It’s easy to blame the poor for their misfortune, women for sexual harassment and reality TV stars for their trolling on twitter. Women and poor people have people speaking up for them. But no one speaks for reality stars – they are the lowest of the low.

They often cut a ridiculous figure because they’ve been cast and emotionally styled into familiar archetypes; ‘the bitch’, ‘the weeper’ (Casey in CBB), ‘the one you love to hate (Katie Hopkins in The Apprentice). In this atmosphere, Hunger Games looks prophetic. If next year’s CBB housemates were asked to fight to death to maintain social order, they still wouldn’t get any sympathy.

Hating or loving reality TV stars makes you part of the storyline. I spent the last ten years doing exactly that – slagging off the crap and weird ones and hoping my favorites, like Mel, would make it through. I’ve been so engrossed in this three ring circus for so long that I never noticed how little I cared about the people, compared with how much I thought I cared.

(4) The pornographisation of reality. Reality TV is pornographic, by definition. The subjects are always dehumanised because the camera’s gaze is always objectifying, which explains why no one empathises with the participants. Like porn stars, they only exist for your pleasure. Reality TV is repetitive and addictive like porn: it doesn’t’ need to be innovate to keep you hooked. The same scenes are repeated over and over again ad infinitum, with minor variations, but we are still glued to the screen.

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TV (and Oprah) changed my life

Much praise has gone to the handling of the horrifying case of the three Lambeth slaves by Freedom Charity, the organisation the alleged victims reached out to, and the Police. But little praise has been directed towards the powerful catalyst at the heart of their consciousness raising, the spark that made the women feel they would no longer be held captive, that gave them the information to seek help – and that was TV.

ITV’s ‘Forced to Marry’ went out at 10.35pm on Wednesday October 9th, part of the same Exposure series that also outed Savile. This episode followed undercover reporters as they stung Imams in mosques around the UK who were prepared to marry 14 year old girls. It is reportedly this program that the three women watched and that motivated them to escape their situation.

You often hear people on This Morning’s couch say “well, if this helps just one person”, but it blows my mind when I am reminded of the powerful, messiah-like change TV has the capability of catalysing. Live Aid is a perfect example of this; Russell Brand on Newsnight, well, didn’t quite change the world but hey.

We know the change the Savile programme instigated for the hundreds of victims who suddenly felt able to come forward, bolstered by TV legitimising their experience. What the establishment, thousands of individuals and the BBC had kept hidden for years, one programme split open in under an hour.

Looking back at my own life I can see how television has had a powerful revelatory effect. Whether in my home life or as part of my education, it’s given me knowledge and tools that I didn’t get on the streets of Worthing.

In the 80s That’s Life taught me that violence and sexual abuse were bad and that children could call a new number – Childline. For the first time children were told they had rights through the television, and from that moment every mum and dad had to be more conscious of their parenting.

The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, Simpsons and Roseanne taught me about race, sexism, body politics, sexuality, feminism, gender, politics and class. When Marge served up the Blinky to Mr Burns I learnt how one mum can make a big stand against the most corrupt and powerful. After watching Sandra Bernhard coming out in Roseanne I went to school feeling confident that being gay or lesbian was totally cool and fine by me, even though the education system I was in hadn’t quite cottoned on to that.

The biggest impact by far though was by Oprah. I’m not even sure how I watched her because we didn’t have ‘satellite’ – it was too expensive. Regardless, Oprah remains this dreamlike yoda figure from my childhood, omnipresent, but I never met her.

Oprah’s shows taught me about racism – she interviewed skinheads and neo nazis live on her show, was subjected to abuse, and all the while kept dignified as it got personal.

Oprah’s shows taught me about weight, eating, emotions and female body image – she’s been in full view, fat, thin and embarrassed in public by failing repeatedly.

Oprah taught me about sexual abuse by telling the world she had suffered. Then there’s a million other stories and ideas she’s helped spread in the world; imagine if she had been a monster. Imagine if Jeremy Kyle was that successful?

TV can be a much maligned medium, and no wonder with the likes of Geordie Shore, Ibiza A&E, Celebrity Undertaker clogging up so much time; sometimes it can seem like the whole schedule is taken up with guilty pleasures. (TV commissioners take note: I made up Celebrity Undertaker and have the entire pitch waiting for you if you want it.)

People are jumping ship. They don’t need to glue themselves to the Gogglebox for an evening when they can watch what they choose on Netflix or LoveFilm. But the wonderful thing about old fashioned telly was you were kinda stuck watching whatever Aunty or the others put on for you, and it’s that unwitting viewing that has the power to change. The wealth of ‘choice’ actually may be restricting our growth because don’t we just pick the same thing again and again.

Things I caught by accident the first time around – Louis Theroux, The Thick of It, Father Ted – I’ve been watching again and again. I’ve stopped discovering and am now merely consuming and regurgitating the same fodder because I trust it.

In a wonderful quote from Dr George Gerbner in a 1982 issue of Presbyterian Survey he notes that: “most people watch TV by the clock, not the program. They are more faithful to it than to church.”

Much like with the church, we don’t trust telly anymore. I don’t think we are too sure about how seriously the people behind it are taking the role of mass influencer. If TV seemed more aware of its power to raise consciousness, and this came through in the programming, then maybe people would give themselves over for a whole evening like they used to, and learn something they weren’t looking for.

Image courtesy of Alan Light

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Why feel sorry for people on The X Factor?

Feminist Times is building a dedicated Children’s section for phase two of the website. At the moment Anna is writing to bring a child’s perspective to an adult audience, but this website is not aimed at children.

When I occasionally watch The X Factor at my friend’s house I always feel very sorry people who try so hard and persevere and then the judges can just say that was horrible.

I think people have forgotten to feel sorry for the contestants and just watch it for the pleasure of people being sent off by rich people. They forget that all these people try so hard and persevere and just get sent off.

If I had my way I would say contests witch include people leaving with nothing should be banned because as I said people try as hard as they can. Also I don’t know why they get so worked up about a record deal from Simon Cowell I know this could start someone’s career but they could get it a fairer way.

This could damage the participants because they entered and some people hated them. Thats why people should tell white lies and not take sides. This could also damage society because in real life people may forget to feel sorry for the less fortunate.

So to sum it up I don’t really like The X Factor.


Image courtesy of Rocor

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