Author: Siobhan Denton

The ‘good’ woman: Me Before You

As has been discussed at length, women are often categorised into two simplistic dichotomies: wholly good, and wholly bad. These two versions and ideas of womanhood are entirely reductive, not allowing for any subtlety. Encouraging reward and punishment for the good and bad respectively, they teach audiences that women are only one of two types.

Me Before You’s Louisa Clark is one such example. Entirely good, completely flawless and consistently exuberant, her unrelenting positivity is not only irritating saccharine but thoroughly damaging. Her character is so boringly good, that there is little else to define her aside from this identified ‘goodness’. Indeed, it is this kindness and unstoppable happiness that provides the very nature of her character and encourages admiration from other characters. Seemingly, this naïve positivity is supposed to be endearing, and encourage engagement, but in reality, it makes her character unrelatable, promoting her to a position of unachievable perfection.

Louisa, losing her job at the local café from which funds were used to support her family, applies for a job as a carer to Will. Will, paralysed in an accident two years previously, is initially antagonistic towards Louisa, but is soon charmed by her idiosyncrasies. These calculated idiosyncrasies include a predilection for brightly coloured clothing and slightly bizarre hairstyles, in an attempt to further highlight her endless positivity and sunny disposition.

While Louisa initially finds the job difficult, she continues, at the encouragement of her sister, to work for Will’s family. When discovering that Will intends to end his life, struggling with his disability (a decision which has received much-deserved criticism), she determines to create a bucket-list of sorts, intending to change his mind and show him that life is worth living. This decision and this bucket-list are only made possible by Will’s extreme wealth. A fact that is presented without question. Similarly, the superficial nature of this venture is never analysed or presented for critique.

Regardless of the events and experiences that Louisa organises, Will determines that he will still end his life, a decision which Louisa eventually accepts and supports. Louisa, demonstrating a total lack of agency, uses the money Will bequeaths to her to start a new life, following his instructions to visit Paris.

Louisa’s presentation is problematic for numerous reasons, and her innocuous nature demands further analysis. Her goodness and her continued ability to act good and pure is utterly unrealistic. She is entirely selfless, willingly contributing to her family’s income without any desire to fulfil her own ambitions. When this is questioned, she refers to having previously been offered a university place to study fashion, and there is a suggestion that she was compelled to rescind the place, but this decision is never interrogated. Her sister, presented as academic, is afforded the opportunity to renew her studies, leaving Louisa to continue to provide for the family without question or complaint. Louisa’s desires and needs are never fully realised, and her ambitions are refracted through others. Even at the end of the film’s narrative, now supposedly afforded the opportunity to travel and realise her aspirations, she is still carrying out the desires of others.

As her desires are never fully explored, Louisa is only ever a one-dimensional character. Will’s attraction to her seems to be based on a series of signifiers. Ones that highlight her as being slightly and endearingly eccentric, childlike, and continually optimistic. There are no shades of grey in Louisa’s character, and any moments of unhappiness are caused by her love and care for Will, rather than any decision or want of her own.

Presenting viewers with such a limited construct further emphasises the problematic nature of the representation of women in romantic dramas in particular. Will’s ex-girlfriend, who marries his best friend, is demonised for her decision to move on with her life after Will’s accident. There is a suggestion that Will was difficult, as she states to Louisa that she tried for months to continue their relationship, but the audience is led to believe that her character is somehow weak and shallow for embarking on a new relationship. There is no investigation or discussion surrounding this event, it simply uses a female character to juxtapose the goodness of Louisa. Emphasising Louisa’s perfection by contrasting her with a woman who has been found wanting is lazy and further contributes to the tired discourse of women continually battling against one another without support.

The myths perpetuated by ‘Child Genius’

Now in its fifth series, Channel 4’s Child Genius has developed from its initial conception. Originally the programme was rendered as a documentary style series which explored the lives of gifted children, but more recently has progressed to a reality TV series in which young children with high IQs are encouraged to compete against each other.

The series depicts these young children and their families as they proffer insights into their child’s very specific form of genius. Thus we hear that nine-year-old Fabio is much better at spelling than his older sister Olivia, who normally wins everything. Fabio and Olivia’s mother hopes that Fabio will perform the best in the series in order to improve his confidence. Quite how standing up in front of peers and parents and offering his best phonological assumptions in order to spell a range of preposterous words is supposed to imbue him with esteem is entirely questionable.

Indeed, the entire conceit of Child Genius is completely questionable for a myriad of reasons. At its core, the very idea of pitting young children against one another in a pressurised environment is thoroughly cruel. Regardless of the child, encouraging such competition, as well as the form of judgement that the show includes, is highly destructive. For many of these children their intelligence and high IQ has come to define their very being. Their definition and the manner in which they perceive themselves is through the lens of their intelligence. Bringing this into question, and forcing them to confront their level of intelligence in relation to other children, compels them to question their own identity.

Many of the children are left bereft after failing to recall a particular spelling or the exact order of a pack of cards that they have been instructed to memorise. Scenes depict the children endlessly revising with their parents, spending all of their free time working to expand their knowledge base. These children don’t appear to have fun. There is no real joy of learning here, learning is only done in the pursuit of gaining intelligence and recognition, not for the love of learning itself.

The manner of testing in the series is also questionable, with its very narrow definition of intelligence. The spelling round, for example, would render a dyslexic child a failure simply because of their difficulties with spelling. These children may have excellent memories, and an interest in reading or physics at a young age, but this is never depicted as being applied to developing analytical skills. The series uses lazy signifiers as a means of highlighting intelligence. Thus, we hear of one boy posturing his ideas regarding Brexit as evidence of his interest in current affairs, and therefore, evidence of his intelligence. The fact that his opinion is not only superficial, with little critical thinking, but is also clearly repeated from his parents, is not questioned. Rather, it is held up as further consolidation of his superiority.

Encouraging children to use these forms of signifiers forces them to consider intelligence in a restrictive and reductive manner. Furthermore, these cultural signifiers do not take class privilege into account, and it is no coincidence that the majority of the children featured are from privileged backgrounds in which they have had access to books, additional tutoring, and a stable education.

The aimless pursuit of this superficial title becomes increasingly bizarre when, in the first episode of the latest series, one boy chooses to continue to partake in the competition despite his mother being in intensive care. He states that he is doing so to make his mother proud, and certainly, it would appear that this is what she would want him to do, and yet, the scene in which his father nearly breaks down over the situation feels voyeuristic. Similarly, those familiar with the series will recall the countless occasions that the children, after failing on a task, become children once again, no longer the mini-adults that their intellect portrays them as being. The fact that the series effectively encourages children to negate their childhood in the pursuit of a prize and a title is, rather simply, wrong. The very nature of the series is entirely insidious.