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.


When I was still living in Sweden (in the 1990s, not that it matters), in the department where I worked there was an American grad student taking classes on some kind of visitor’s visa. She had a Swedish last name and Swedish ancestors. She felt at home in Sweden, and I think she’s still living there 20 years later.

As an American in Sweden she experienced cultural shock, of course.  There were things that irritated her, like the non-itemized phone bill. She couldn’t understand how you were supposed to pay a phone bill if you couldn’t check that the calls were actually made by you. (Never having seen an itemized phone bill I didn’t understand what made her so upset.) She struggled learning, and speaking, Swedish, and did pretty well. But as all immigrants know it was tiring for her to speak and hear a foreign language all day.

Out of desperation she had created a fantasy that has stayed with me. She said that she had moments when she felt it was all a game, and that if people only wanted they could just snap out of it, start speaking English, and be normal. She felt that the Swedish culture was like a veil covering the real world. A veil that could be lifted.

As a Swedish immigrant in the US I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that. Partly because in a way her fantasy was true, Swedish people do speak English for the most part. And American culture, not to mention pop culture, is an important part of Swedish culture. To some extent Swedes like to think of themselves as American. As an immigrant in the United States, on the other hand, I know I’m the one who has to learn, and adapt. Americans don’t speak Swedish and often don’t know the first thing about present day Scandinavian culture.

The north American reviews of Welcome To Sweden, currently on NBC in the United States, and broadcast earlier this year by TV4 in Sweden, have been mostly positive. I enjoyed the first couple of episodes of the series when I saw them this spring, mainly because Swedish Americans got to see what Americans look like to the Swedes, and what Swedes look like to Americans, at the same time. There were some funny bits, I thought.

Reviewers seem to agree that the premise of the show (a man leaves his life in New York to move to Stockholm to be with his girlfriend) is OK, the stars are OK, and the are jokes at least mildly funny.  Alessandra Stanley, in the New York Times, has this to say:

Scandinavians don’t complain. Not even about ethnic stereotyping. Apparently it’s not a slur to paint an entire people as tall, blond and briskly self-sufficient.

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.

the magical negro

Here is a good piece for anyone interested in hegemonic media representation: a blog post about ‘Girlfriend Intervention’, a new Magical Negro show. The show will feature sassy black women helping white women with style choices, much like the help that gay men provide for straight men in ‘Queer Eye For the Straight Guy‘.

The expression ‘Magical Negro’ was coined by Spike Lee, and refers to a black character who guides a white character in TV or movies. The black character holds wisdom and power that sometimes, at least in my mind, sits awfully close to plain common sense. Here is a list of ‘Magical Negro’ characters in recent movie and TV.

One addition to the list could be the nurse Chantelle in Passion Fish, John Sayles’s film from 1992. Chantelle takes care of a self-destructive white woman after an accident. One scene from Passion Fish spurred a comment from a black student ten years ago that I still quote to all my classes: “I’m tired of seeing my people as magical healers.”

welcome to sweden

I’ve watched the first few episodes of this series, Welcome to Sweden. It’s a romantic comedy about a guy who moves from New York to Stockholm to be with his Swedish girlfriend. There are cultural clashes of course, and language problems. And it’s pretty funny, to me, to see what Swedish culture looks like through American eyes, and exaggerated for effect. There are lots of details, like the omnipresent Dala Horses. Swedes may think that’s a stereotype, but let’s be honest. We spread those things like wildfire. I have two in my house in California, plus a rarity: a Dala Rooster given to me on my first Easter. At work I have a Dala horse ornament. I don’t remember how it ended up there, but there it is.

All women in the series, except for Lena Olin, are blonde. As a non-blonde Swede all my life I’m slightly miffed, but I also know that the impression anyone traveling to Scandinavia gets is that everyone is blonde. That includes myself, after 20 years in the US, by the way.

Welcome to Sweden will air on NBC this summer. It’s on TV4 in Sweden right now.

not about don draper

So, the current season of Mad Men, season 7, takes place in 1969. When a character in the second episode turns out to be racist, people (present day viewers, I mean) are surprised, plastering exclamation points all over twitter. Really? I wonder if today’s smartypants have forgotten that racism may include actual face-to-face discrimination in the workplace. I also wonder if they think the Civil Rights Movement was some abstract thing, that naturally just made sense to everybody. Of course it didn’t. Both Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were shot in 1968, just a year before the events of season 7.