sally wainwright

One of my friends here in California is an immigrant from Taiwan. She had her parents stay with her for a couple of months, and invited some people over for a party so that everyone could meet. The next day her parents had told her they had felt like they were in a movie. Surrounded by all white friendly Americans a movie was their point of reference.

Even though I’ve lived in California for more than 20 years I feel the same way half the time. Yesterday I was walking on the trail close to my house. It’s a beautiful loop on the side of a mountain with a creek and some classic California yellow hills. I go on this trail and I am surrounded by perfection. Perfectly toned bodies, perfect brand name exercise outfits, perfect bikes, perfect dogs. Perfect take-out coffee cups. Perfect sunglasses, perfect hair.

There is a strive for perfection in American culture that gets to you after a while. It makes your eyes gloss over, and it makes your brain gloss over. It’s impersonal, and boring. The perfection of film and TV has carried over into real life, and with image driven social media there is no end in sight. There isn’t a crack in anything.

I balance the mind-numbing perfection by watching none-American TV. I grew up with British TV in Sweden, and the cultures and cultural values are similar. Recently I’ve discovered Sally Wainwright, a British writer for television. She’s created Scott & Bailey (a Manchester version of Cagney and Lacey), Happy Valley, and Last Tango in Halifax among others. She’s also been a writer for a truckload of other shows. A lot of the actors recur, and Nicola Walker is one of them. She’s not perfect, but she’s a star. And she looks like someone you work with.

Sally Wainwright creates female characters who are complex, interesting, and believable. They drink too much and throw up. They have sex with the wrong person. They worry about their kids. They act with natural authority at work. And they have wrinkles, and sometimes they wear clothes that don’t fit right.

Watch a few episodes of the police drama Scott & Bailey, and all of a sudden you’ll realize that there isn’t a single male chief, sergeant, or medical examiner anywhere. It’s not announced upfront, and it will only dawn on you after a while. But every single scene consists of women, named characters, who talk about something else than men and drive the plot forward.

In Happy Valley Sarah Lancashire, as sergeant Catherine Cawood, obviously kicks ass. But she also literally kicks the shit out of someone when she’s left alone with the man who raped her daughter. She’s no Wonder Woman, but she’s strong, lovable, scary, and vulnerable, all at once.

Sally Wainwright also lets women be funny. In one scene sergeant Cawood leaves the home of an elderly immigrant who has agreed to give shelter to a young woman who has blown the whistle on a human trafficking ring. As she leaves, Cawood reminds the old woman to “lock this door”. “Oh, I was thinking to leave it open”, the old woman says. “And maybe put sign, you know, ‘human traffickers come here’.”

She reminds me of the Japanese woman who sold me make-up in Japantown in San Jose when I first moved to the US. To help me pick a shade, she said, in equally broken English, “Your age, ENHANCE. My age, COVER UP.” She quickly circled her face with her hand, and then she turned around and gestured towards the balding spot on the back of her head. “Cover up, cover up.”

As I write this I realize what I miss in American film and TV. I miss the warts-and-all attitude of the culture that raised me, but I also miss a presence of female humor, and female language, independent of men and male taste. TV series written by women, for women, but still considered part of the mainstream. A wider mainstream, if you will.

some words of advice for my dear daughter, if I had one

I read a story in the Huffington Post the other day, advice for women, listing things they should make sure to do in their 20s. I tried to find the article right now, but it wasn’t easy. If you want a taste, any of the many stories that came up in this search will be roughly the same.

I am admittedly tired and cranky right now. I’m teaching summer school and I haven’t had a break since Christmas. Many things irritate me.

But. These articles telling women what to do (because, let’s be honest, women are told what to do way more often than men) are annoying, irritating, and false. The gist of the advice for women in their 20s that I read was to make sure to travel, and to be spontaneous. It sounds, to me, like thinly disguised advice for women before they become moms and wives. Because, like everyone knows, no more travel, no more spontaneity, no more anything for women after they marry. Right?

In 1794 Anna Maria Lenngren (1754-1817), a Swedish contemporary to the Bronte sisters and to Jane Austen, wrote a poem titled Some Words of Advice For My Dear Daughter, If I Had One. (In Swedish, here: Några ord till min kära dotter, ifall jag hade någon.) The poem is satirical, and reflects the tension between a professional life and the life of a wife and mother that Lenngren herself must have experienced. An acclaimed writer, Lenngren was married to a newspaper publisher. After her marriage her work was only ever published anonymously in her husband’s paper.

220 years later, the big secret is this: Educated middle class women, the target audience for both Lenngren’s poem and the HuffPo piece that I read, can have whatever life that they want. They can travel if they want, they can have children if they want, they can marry if they want. They can publish under their own names, and they can run their own newspapers and websites. (Well hello, Arianna Huffington.)

Here are my words of advice for my dear daughter, if I had one: You don’t have to get your traveling, or your spontaneity, done by your 30th birthday. You don’t have to read advice columns. You don’t have to get a business degree, or play soccer, or minor in communication. You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to answer to anybody, but yourself. But, you need to know what you want. Meaning that you need to spend some time figuring out what it is that you really want. Even if no one except me will ever tell you that’s what you should be doing. And, if it’s difficult to hear your own voice for all the chatter, you will have to try harder.

That’s it. You can do it.

the bechdel test

I don’t think the second season of Orange is the New Black is as good as the first one. I’ve only seen an episode and a half, though, so maybe things will improve.

One series that is really good is Call the Midwife, from the BBC. It has popped up as a suggestion on my Netflix for a long time, but when I finally gave in to the algorithm I had to admit they were right. (Key words, I’m sure: British, strong female lead, costumes.)

Set in London’s East End in 1957-58 it shows up close how poverty and the absence of birth control made life hard for women. The series makes a strong argument for national health care. It also gives great insight into nursing, and the importance of compassion.

It’s absolutely refreshing to see fiction where almost every scene passes the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test a movie has to have at least one scene where two (named) women have a conversation about something else than a man. The list of movies that fail the test is, of course, endless. Among a list of movies that surprisingly fail the Bechdel test are Run Lola Run, and Avatar.

I think Netflix should incorporate the Bechdel test into their algorithm. Or maybe they already did.

a feminist

I was sitting in the waiting room at the oncologist’s, when a young kid, a teenager, came in with what I assumed to be his girlfriend. The kid talked about x-rays of his lungs with the admins, so it seemed he was the patient. They went to sit across the room from me and I couldn’t hear their every word, but it was clear the young woman had had a discussion about feminism in class today.

“Feminists don’t hate men,” she said. “Man-haters are called misandrists.”

She said they had looked up the definition of a feminist, and learned that a feminist is a person who supports equal rights, and equality in pay and opportunities. Her boyfriend said that he thought those things were no-brainers. “Then you’re a feminist!”, she said.

This is where I couldn’t quite hear his response. But clearly he didn’t like the word feminist, or the idea that he was one.

Too bad, kid. You were doing so good. I have a feeling that 18 year old girlfriend won’t be giving up anytime soon, tho.