Monday, April 11, 2016

"Happy Valley" and the female gaze

The busiest year has quasi-ended with a mountain of dealing with everything practical that ought to have been dealt with months ago, but the whole three-jobs-ish thing got in the way. Fleeing this, I spent a good chunk of the decadently near-non-work weekend watching Season 2 of "Happy Valley" in its entirety. Spoilers below...

Now, it's possible part of why I thought the show was so great was that I was turning to it after 17 (interrupted, but not much) seasons of "Midsomer Murders." Which is also great, in its way, but its way is more the thing where you can both enjoy a show and enjoy falling asleep with it on in the background. (Also useful for this: "Waiting for God.")

While I did technically fall asleep during the first episode of the aforementioned Season 2, I got hooked on the rewatch of the second half of that one, and... wow. Sally Wainwright is wonderful, as is Sarah Lancashire. The show's just hilarious, and feminist in this special, very Britcom, not-at-all think-piece-pleaser way. (Not that the think-pieces are displeased.) I think this has something to do with the non-requirement, on British shows, that women onscreen look like underwear models. That leaves room for... situations that aren't rooted in a woman's allure to men. Some of the topics covered - a serial killer who targets prostitutes, and a mafia that traffics and pimps Croatian immigrant women - involve exploitation. But the coy, come-hither thing is just entirely absent. Instead, you get things like... Catherine, the protagonist, accidentally tasering a mafia dude in the crotch. Or the side-yet-central plot of a love affair involving someone who at first seems the desperate Other Woman, but who turns out to be more of a con woman, scamming married men via some very elaborate blackmail.

Oh, and the only nudity - semi- and full-back-all - is male. But more important, or as important: the only real eye candy is male. While we don't see the villain Tommy Lee Royce in the nude, we do watch a middle-aged woman fall in love with him. At first, it seems like the women-going-for-bad-boys cliché, with this lady visiting Tommy in prison. But then, in the last episode, it's commented on that the character looks... well, like the very handsome actor who portrays him. Catherine asks this woman whether she'd still be doing his bidding if he looked like (and there she names a bunch of British men whose names I didn't recognize, well, except for Savile). And the woman tells her something like, 'But he doesn't look like them, does he?' Which, point taken. And then it's revealed that Tommy had been 'engaged' to a whole slew of women, young and not-so-young, who would visit him in the prison.

This sort of subversion - not gender innovation, just gaze-reversal in heteroland - seems to happen on British shows more than US ones. There's Patsy in AbFab, but Waiting for God has plenty as well. There's Diana's reluctance to marry Tom, but also - more interestingly - Jane's lust for the also-dashing (if less-conventionally so?) Harvey Baines.

And so have gone my television musings, as it is now Laundry O'Clock.

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