Friends and the representation of women


Friends has arguably dated, and dated poorly. The series, released on Netflix this month, has once again attracted discussion regarding its representation of homosexuality in particular. While this subject has, quite rightly, attracted much discussion, the representation of gender, especially women, has not received the same attention. This discussion is entirely warranted, and needed, given the objective influence of the series. Such is the hyperreality of the series that viewers regularly view themselves through the lens of the characters, questioning which character they most resemble, or using the narrative of the series to influence the manner in which they interact within their own relationships.

When teaching English Language A Level, there was a specific clip from the series which was regularly used to demonstrate the supposed differences between gender and language. The clip regularly garnered both laughter, and recognition from students, with students genuinely believing that the clip represented an accurate depiction of the manner in which men and women interact, as well as view pivotal moments in relationships. While this may be true for some, the fact that the clip is often the starting point, rather then merely a reflection for the majority is concerning. Many viewers of a particular generation grew up watching the series, and indeed, viewed these gendered interactions and assumptions about relationships before they were in relationships themselves. Subsequently, then, the series has been viewed as a learning tool, encouraging the viewer to use the myriad of relationship difficulties depicted in the series as a model through which they can position their own.

This in itself is questionable enough, but the very depiction of the women in the series, particularly the three female leads, must be questioned. Each woman, despite her own identified independence, is ultimately diminished by the men around her. Each, forging their own successful career, is compelled to compromise both their original ideals and their own concept of their career.

Rachel for example, proving herself to be so successful within the fashion industry is offered a job in Paris. A role that she readily describes as both exciting and scary. Despite the potential of this role, she is, once propositioned by long-term romantic interest Ross, quick to return to New York. There is then little mention of her career prospects, suggestive that ultimately, it is family that is the ultimate goal.

This idea of family as being the true measure of success is echoed in both Monica and Phoebe. Monica’s life is deemed complete once she is able to adopt two babies. Her previous lack of success in conceiving a child with her husband is, seemingly for Monica, some marker that highlights her as lacking. The topic, of the difficulty in conceiving, is given little rumination and all suggestion of difficulty is quickly forgotten once the prospect of adoption is proffered. In earlier episodes Monica is regularly seen at work, forging a career as a successful chef, but as the series continues, these insights into her work seem more sporadic, suggesting that this is no longer important to Monica’s character development.

Similarly, Phoebe heralded as the quirky and eccentric member of the group who disdains convention becomes utterly conventional. In marrying Mike, Phoebe shows that her attempts at kookiness were entirely superficial. Her lifestyle, previously a defining feature of her character, is entirely uprooted. She struggles with spending money on her wedding and considers donating it to charity in order to help people who have had similar experiences to her. Rather rapidly, however, she is willing to use this money for her own means, decrying it as deserving considering her previous life. It is surely at this moment that Phoebe has consciously rejected her own nature, and instead, freely submits herself to convention and married life.

Each character, when comparing the first series to the last, is entirely unrecognisable. Of course, character change over the duration of a series, particularly one that has the duration of Friends but these characters have not merely naturally progressed, but rather rejected past incarnations of themselves arguably in order to submit to the men around them.


Stranger Things: Eleven’s lack of agency

Note contains spoilers.

When a series, or indeed any media text, so embeds itself within the public consciousness, as is the case with Stranger Things, it is necessary to interrogate the representation of the marginalised. Much discussion surrounding the series has focused on the representation of women. The series, notably, features a roster of women from a variety of ages and roles. Each of these roles represents not only a worthy opportunity for the actress involved but an opportunity for the writers to depict a progressive representation.

As noted before, the series’ representation of Nancy, in particular, is hugely successful. Nancy is both intelligent and capable, and this depiction continues in the second series in which she once again readily participates in aiding others against the threat of the inhabitants of ‘The Upside Down.’ When potentially confronted with hundreds of creatures towards the end of the series, Nancy is the only character who readily, and willingly wields a weapon in order to help protect others. She stands on the defensive line with the other men, ready to fight if necessary.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a depiction that should be similarly applauded. Her maternal instincts compel her to both fight and act decisively.  Towards the end of the series, when Will’s conscious state alerts the being to the characters’ whereabouts, Joyce willingly and freely injects Will with a sedative in order to protect the others. This desire to protect, much like Nancy’s, compels Joyce to act and think logically and in a measured manner. Her love for her son, while never in doubt, does not allow her to lose control of her emotions or act hysterically.

It is these successful and positive representations then, that serve to emphasise and highlight the failings of the depiction of Eleven/Jane, who suffers an entire lack of agency for much of the second series. Eleven has spent much of her life being dominated by the men around her. Her pseudo father in the first series manipulated and controlled Eleven without regard to her own personal feelings or desires.

It is interesting to note then, that Hopper, in adopting the role of Eleven’s patriarch does, worryingly, mirror many of her previous Papa’s actions. While Hopper’s intentions are purer, in that he cares deeply for Eleven and wants to protect her, his methods are similarly controlling. Bribing her with food, and the promise of additional television, he hopes to keep Eleven hidden away supposedly for her own safety. Given that when Eleven does emerge from the isolated dwelling she demonstrates herself as being entirely capable of defending herself, and controlling a situation, Hopper’s previous assertions are immediately brought into question.

He hopes to effectively control Eleven, seeing her as a replacement for his deceased daughter. Eleven is never given the opportunity to truly decide if she is happy for this role to be impressed upon her. Later, after meeting her mother, she does express a desire to connect with Hopper but arguably this is only after she notes that any relationship with her mother is not possible. Perhaps then, this relationship is one that Eleven feels compelled to embark upon.

A similar lack of agency is demonstrated when visiting New York. Eleven, meeting her sister, hopes to find a community in which she can happily exist. She has, hitherto, found herself misunderstood and isolated. Her so-called sister represents a familial tie with who she can develop a truly meaningful relationship. While Kali does show some understanding, she too hopes to manipulate and use Eleven for her own ends, admonishing her when she exerts her own will and desire. Even her dress, representative of a new, empowered character, is one that is not of her own choosing. Rather it is foisted upon her without question, resulting in her supposed empowerment feeling shallow and superficial.

Mike, in his continual admiration and care for Eleven, is the only character who really recognises Eleven’s own agency. For him, similarly feeling misunderstood, Eleven is a kindred spirit. One who he can care for, and who he can seek care and comfort from. While Eleven does happily submit to Hopper’s patriarch, it is important to note that it is only when Eleven herself agrees to the dynamic that the relationship can function. This can only take place once Eleven has demonstrated her abilities, and her worth, returning to save her friends.




Blade Runner 2049: the depiction of women

Objectively, Sci-Fi has long been co-opted by the patriarchy. The genre has, almost since its incarnation and increasingly so, been primarily seen as a genre that is designed for and appeals to, exclusively men. Arguably this perception is one that has been rather foisted upon the genre, rather than created by design, but there can be little denying of its impact.

As such, it is hardly surprising that much of the rhetoric surrounding Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner 2049 has focused on the depiction of women, receiving both acclaim and critique in equal measure.  The detractors note the proliferation of the commodification of sexuality with many of the women onscreen fulfilling the role of sex workers, or simply performing a narrative function.

Thus Mackenzie Davis’ character is afforded little real agency and is instead instructed by a more powerful character to carry out a specified task. Similarly, Joi (Ana de Armas), the AI technology that is entirely sold as a commodity, fulfils the role of female partner for Ryan Gosling’s Office K.

Joi, being a creation seemingly without true consciousness, is able to flit between roles. Indeed, when K first arrives home, Joi quite literally embodies a performative role, adjusting her dress and manner in accordance with his wishes in order to indulge his every whim. For those who have criticized the film, it is the character of Joi that has attracted the most derision. Her look, her very body, is one that is used by the corporation that created her. Joi’s appearance is not unique to the AI version that K has purchased, but rather is an image that is resold and redressed according to the desires of the buyer. It is this aspect, and her seeming lack of agency, that has seen the most discussion levelled.

Certainly, Joi’s character is problematic, but arguably, it is intended to be so. While some may not question the nature of her incarnation or existence, many will note that her character, and her desire to achieve physical realness, is one that affords her consciousness. Her relationship with K is one that achieves connection despite her lack of physical embodiment. Despite her incorporeal nature, her presence affords K an opportunity to feel something more. This is not to suggest that she is somehow subservient to K or is there to provide him with mere pleasure, her role is more than that. It is Joi that suggests the apparent nature of K’s parentage, and it is Joi, recognising the vulnerability she posits towards K, that insists on being removed from the hard drive in order to ensure his safety.

Similarly, it should be noted that Villeneuve intentionally subverts the rather tired trope of the heroic male. Rather than, as K almost too willingly believes, K being the projected leader of an impending replicant uprising, it is an unsuspecting, thoughtful and sensitive woman who is revealed to be the true miracle. This woman is a creator in a myriad of ways, capable of creating memories ready to be implanted into replicants. Her revolution, one suspects, will not be one of death and destruction, but rather one that empowers, much like the capabilities of the memories that she so lovingly develops and designs. Too often, it is the male protagonist who serves as the focal point of the film, but as Villeneuve seems to suggest, we have been paying attention to the wrong character. K, while a key role, is only the helper if considering Propp’s character types, it is this woman who is the hero.

There is much reference to the replicants’ ability to procreate being evidence of their humanity, and it is surely worth mentioning this. It is the maternal figure that will ultimately provide the replicants with their salvation, not a hyper-masculine, antagonistic hero.

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 problematic nature of Don’t Tell the Bride

Don’t Tell the Bride is, as it will readily admit to being, trash TV. It is not supposed to be taken seriously, and it is clear, in its contrived notion of reality, that its simple objective is to entertain. It is purported simplicity and throwaway nature though, that makes it so questionable in its representation of gender. A TV series that is eminently watchable, popular, and easy to engage with at any point in the episode (encouraging casual viewers to begin watching at any point in the episode) should always be brought into question. Its professed casual nature and silliness mean that its viewers are more susceptible to any moments of insidiousness.

Those familiar with the concept of hyperreality will recognise the importance of highlighting the pseudo-reality of Don’t Tell the Bride, particularly given its proliferation and popularity. The continually reasserted trope of women being princesses on their wedding day, or of men selfishly using a large proportion of the wedding budget to provide themselves with a decadent stag do, allows such negative concepts to gain traction, and in turn, gain belief with viewers.

Each episode follows the same format, with the bride professing her desire to have a special day juxtaposed with the groom’s desires to have a showy, themed wedding. There have been occasions where the groom has considered the bride’s sensibilities, but there are rare, given that they don’t generate the manner of entertainment that the show has become associated with.

Too often, the women in Don’t Tell the Bride, despite harbouring very real complaints against their counterpart, are portrayed as harridans, whose absence allow the groom to enact his masculine proclivities of drinking, playing computer games and indulging in sport. Reinforcing these outdated stereotypes, and setting genders as so diametrically opposed is hardly progressive. Rather, to reinforce such demarcated gendered roles is damaging. Grooms who express their love for their bride and neglect to engage in with standard stag do behaviour are held up for mockery, with their fellow stag do attendees laughing at their devotion. While brides who profess a desire for a particular form of a wedding are heralded as demanding.

The show revels in depicting men as indulging in behaviour that has become associated with typical masculine pursuits, intentionally contrasting shots of men drinking, or indulging in juvenile behaviour, with shots of the bride wandering around a country estate as she discusses her dream wedding.

This concept itself is questionable. The idea that the wedding day must be perfect, one in which the bride feels like a princess and has every whim catered for, encourages the infantilising behaviour. The idea that a grown, adult woman, desires to act and be treated like a princess is entirely suspect. Following, and encouraging this model of gendered roles encourages the couple to be perceived only through a heteronormative lens that allows for little else.

While Don’t Tell the Bride is, and certainly can be, enjoyed as an indulgence, its reinforcement and purveyance of such roles should, and must be acknowledged.

In praise of Fresh Meat

It would be easy for the casual viewer to dismiss Fresh Meat as another hyperbolic comedy. Certainly, its comedic moments, while often grounded in reality, do frequently present as entirely inane and improbable. Its characters too, for some, are largely unlikeable, with their selfish nature preventing true audience engagement. Yet, to believe this is to not truly engage with the brilliance of the series.

Highlighting the all too recognisable types that students meet, or aspire to become, at university, the series offers a realistic insight into university life, while employing ridiculous moments of humour, moments that, in stemming from reality, offer as cautionary conceits.

What largely helps to make the series so wonderful, is its dedication to character development, particularly the development of the female characters. Each character embarks on a clear trajectory, and each is left changed by the series end. The series initially presents each character as a clear type, utilising well-known tropes to convey to its audience their characterisation. This simplistic use of stereotyping is effective, particularly when these stereotypes are so clearly subverted as the narrative progresses, encouraging the audience to question their previous misconceptions.

Take Josie, for example, a character whose seemingly sensible nature and devotion to becoming a dentist is rapidly unravelled as she struggled to truly embed herself within university lifestyle. Her Welshness is initially used to convey a familiarity, and the other characters, perhaps through her nationality, perceive her as the group’s matriarch. She cooks food for her housemates when ill, and is the one character who is studying a course that will lead to a clear career.

The breakdown of her relationship with Dave, who she has left behind in Wales to start university, causes Josie to question the nature and state of her life and results in a rapid spiralling out of control. Quickly, Josie begins to act in an increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature, resulting in her being forced to leave her course. Her subsequent relationship with Kingsley does, briefly, bring her stability, but she quickly realises that this form of traditional stability is not one that she wishes to embark upon. Through her breakdown, Josie is compelled to question her actions, and in turn her own nature.

Similarly, Oregon, aware of her class privilege, attempts to hide her origins as the horse owning Melissa, essentially adopting a costume through her assumed moniker. Her admiration of Vod, causes her to lose sight of herself and her roots and causes her to lose any sense of stability that she previously had. Her belief in her academic ability is never personally brought into question, and Oregon, despite her lack of self-belief in terms of her very personality, never doubts her academic ability until it is too late. This then forces to Oregon, like Josie, to question the preconceived idea that she had for her own life. Both Josie and Oregon started university with a clear plan, and by the end of their study, have rejected their previous notions of themselves.

Vod too is confronted with the idea that her nature is not static, but is susceptible to change and development. For Vod, a character whose troubled childhood is only alluded to, the idea that she can be academically and professionally successful proves to be a revelation. Interestingly, Vod, like Oregon, is dependent on her best friend. Both Oregon and Vod view each other through the lens of their friendship, and before the end of the series, allow this relationship to define their identity.

The male characters in the series are engaging, but their development is not as notable as that of the female characters. It is praiseworthy that Fresh Meat allows the female characters in the series the room to progress and grow. Notably, they are largely afforded this opportunity through the more stable nature of the male characters, who, while allowing themselves to become embroiled in various escapades, are largely dependable. Fresh Meat’s approach to its female character, while problematic at times, is relatively innovative and refreshing, allowing for thei

r trajectories to change and develop while also proving to be a source of comedy. Importantly, the female characters in Fresh Meat are allowed and indeed encouraged, to be funny. That this is still notable, demonstrates its vital nature.

Peep Show’s problem with women

Image result for peep show channel 4

During its twelve year run, Peep Show certainly achieved cult status. Its depiction of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb), two flatmates whose first person perspective and account of events make up the narrative of the series, remains both inventive and engaging. Creating a first person perspective through interesting and unusual camera use was initially the series’ USP and, in the early series in particular, the camera is continually bobbing and weaving across the screen, forever drawing the audience’s attention to its use.

The employment of the first person narration from both Mark and Jez allowed the audience to not only gain an insight into character motivations, but also their machinations. With both characters sharing thoughts with the audience that would never be said audibly, a form of kinship can be created. The audience is privy to Mark and Jez’ innermost wants and desires, ones that are often, fleetingly, dark for comedic purposes.

Initially, it is this strain of dark humour that is the show’s strength. Largely because, no matter how objectifying, or bizarre Jez and Mark’s thoughts are, the other characters are there to temper their actions. Thus, Mark’s call to Sophie early on in their burgeoning relationship, in which he phones and leaves a voicemail singing to her, is reiterated back to him by Jeff. Jeff, also in a burgeoning relationship with Sophie, recognises the strangeness of Mark’s actions, and uses the knowledge of it to mock him. While we may not like Jeff, and certainly first viewings do not endear his character to the audience, we align our perception with his. We too recognise that Mark’s actions are becoming obsessive, and it is the very nature of these actions that promote much of the comedy. Jez’ behaviour too, is tempered by those around him, including Mark. His sexual proclivities are often brought into question, and Mark regularly expresses distaste for Jez’ actions. Together the pair, while both individually questionable in their actions towards women, are initially able to monitor one another, largely preventing their actions from becoming too damaging.

It is later on in the series run, that their actions frequently become rather more repugnant. Take Mark’s treatment of Sophie. Throughout the series, almost until the moment that the pair finally got together, Mark had promoted Sophie to a position of high regard. He places his affections for her above anything else, and regularly proclaims his belief that she is ‘the one’. This belief, it quickly becomes apparent, is clearly based on Mark’s own projections towards Sophie. He doesn’t truly know her, or understand her character, and when he is finally in a relationship with her, does all he can to avoid spending time with her (joining a gym, nearly reneging on his decision to propose). Mark seems to accept that once in a relationship with someone, happiness doesn’t matter and isn’t the end goal. It is simply being in a relationship that is enough. It could, of course, be argued that the audience is supposed to question Mark’s actions and treatment towards Sophie. After their disastrous wedding, Sophie becomes a former shadow of her once vivacious self, and we see a woman who was once capable (being promoted ahead of Mark at work) become a liability. Yet, Mark’s actions, being used for comedic purposes, are never truly brought into question, particularly when the early episodes have spent so long attempting to commend Mark to the audience.

Mark’s treatment of Sophie is not his only misdemeanour. His treatment of women, in general, is hugely questionable, and, upon repeat viewing, merely highlights itself as outdated and tired. Take his actions towards the vulnerable university student that he meets under false pretences. After he purchases shoes from her while shopping, he tracks her down at her university, pretending that he too is a current student. Allowing her to share her fears and feelings, he quickly sets about attempting to engineer a relationship between the two of them, regardless of age disparity or lack of honesty. Similarly, when regretting the demise of his relationship with Dobby, we discover that he tracks and monitors her location surreptitiously. These actions are not sources of humour, and should not be heralded as such. Rather, they are the actions of a man abusing his position of power.

Jez too, while not as damaging in his treatment of women (he does, at least, appear to respect women and enjoy their company) regularly involves himself with women through manipulation and lies. His relationship with Zara, for example, is entirely based on fabrication, and despite his working for her partner, he frequently attempts to contrive a moment in which the pair can begin a relationship.

Notably, much of Jez’ actions towards women are borne out of apparent love, and he does seem damaged or hurt by the breakdown of his relationship with Big Suze. His issue though, despite the affection and high esteem that he holds women in (he genuinely appears to care for Elena and Nancy) is that he, like Mark, projects his own vision of a relationship onto these women. He never truly attempts to get to know them, but rather, would rather admire them for their physical attributes. His connection with these women are superficial, and after the relationship breaks down, quickly becomes manic. He too, like Mark, is prone to outbursts in which he declares his current love interest as ‘the one’, and it is this concept that is perhaps the most damaging. Mark and Jez’ version of ‘the one’ is whoever is around at that moment. Their personality and characterisation does not matter, but rather what they represent at that moment.

Thus Mark’s interest in the university student is borne out of his regret of his choice of degree. Her studying of History, a degree which Mark always regrets not doing, allows Mark to create an alternative fantasy life for himself. One in which he is recognised for his supposed academic attributes. It is not the university student herself that he is interested, but rather what she represents: an opportunity to mould himself into the image that he desires for himself. Similarly, his interest in Sophie is reignited when he perceives the opportunity that the ownership of ‘nanna’s cottage’ would represent. He immediately begins to envision a life for himself, forgetting or neglecting to recognise, that this life with ‘nanna’s cottage’ would entail a marriage and life with Sophie.

While Peep Show was, and remains, progressive in its form, its depiction of women is entirely questionable. This representation is, interestingly, often made problematic through the very use of the first person perspective that is only ever male. We only ever see Mark and Jez’ perception of events and characters, and thus, the audience is encouraged to align their own viewpoint with the very characters whose discernment is so challenging.