By John Lloyd
March 13 2010
It's a rite of British public life to be on the butt end of Jeremy
Paxman's theatrical contempt (Newsnight, Monday-Friday BBC2). It's
more cathartic than illuminating, a national ceremony in which the
mighty humble themselves. Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general,
submitted himself to it on March 2, part of his taking it on the chin
over cutting some BBC output. Interviewing him, Paxman ridiculed the
previous evening's BBC4 menu repeats, and an animal documentary
called Paws, Claws and Videotape. A shrewd jibe: BBC4's audience
remains small and no one likes intellectuals, for whom the channel was created.
But it was an empty jibe. Even on that uninspiring BBC4 evening, one
of the repeats was a lovely Storyville film, Rise Up Reggae Star .
The Storyville strand of documentaries is worth the licence fee
alone. At its best, BBC4 does two big things: it showcases material
such as the French detective show Spiral and the transcendent US
series Mad Men which gains a wider following, and it puts on stuff
that prods you to think. One example of the latter is Women (BBC4 Mondays).
The three-part series is what the filmmaker Vanessa Engle does best.
She points the camera at people and lets it linger. From behind the
camera, she goes through a repertoire of probing questions.
Last week's opening episode featured the veteran founders of the
feminist movement Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn French, who has died
since the documentary was made, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Ann
Oakley, and Sheila Rowbotham. All as Engle's camera and insistent
interviews revealed could be falsely self-deprecating, sincerely
arrogant, touchy and sometimes oddly (for liberationists) embarrassed
when talking about sexuality. But you became aware, too, of these
women's achievements, both in their once-untiring activism marches,
occupations, confrontations and in their writing. All but
Brownmiller, who worked in television, were or are academics, and
their books were weapons of mass destruction of a time when men still
commanded and women obeyed.
To be sure, they did not acknowledge that the changes with which the
programme credited them were already in train and that they largely
graduates of elite universities had greatly benefited from them.
They exaggerated the submission of women in the 1950s and 1960s: the
social reforms of the postwar era had increased their rights and
status, and were continuing to do so. But their courage and energy
probably spurred these reforms. More, it shamed men of reasonable
good will who had accepted unthinking superiority at home and at
work; most of all, it gave women of their and later generations a
sense that they should not take it "it" being a place and a role
defined in advance.
Feminism and gay liberation have been the two shock-and-shame
transformations delivered to the postwar generation of heterosexual
men in wealthy societies. For many of their, and even the next,
generation, feminists were infuriating ball-breakers; facing the
ridicule they evoked demanded the courage they showed. Bit by bit, a
response of defensiveness or hostility passed on to recognition and
came to full-throated acceptance.
In the second of the episodes, to be shown next week, you will see
the contemporary descendants of what some 1960s feminists hated: the
wives and mothers, still caring, cooking and cleaning. But carping?
Hardly ever. In one case, a successful illustrator and businesswoman
and her house husband have reversed roles; she doesn't know, nor
cares to know, her daughters' shoe sizes.
In several instances, both partners work and share tasks. In more
examples, the woman has chosen to rear two or three young children
and has come to an explicit agreement with her partner that this is
her domain, while earning a living is his. In only one case that of
two surgeons does the woman point out, forcefully (with her husband
present) that she does all the organising (they have a 12-hour-a-day
nanny); in another, a wife is gracious while her lawyer husband, who
seems an arrogant sort of a chap, says that he has never cleaned the
tub after bathing, expecting "it to be done".
The final week's episode is as fascinating though with longueurs
focusing on the small feminist movement that still exists. The
members are mainly young (in their twenties and early thirties); a
conference in autumn 2008 attracted 150 attendees.
Their activism is engaged mainly against sex shops, pornography and
strip clubs; they express loud disgust over tabloids such as the
Daily Star; they picket a lap dance awards ceremony. They don't have
the intellectual heft of those women who could be their grandmothers;
their own mothers, interviewed by Engle, usually don't see what the
fuss is about. The shallowness of much of it repelled: I wished these
younger women could discriminate more between lads' mags and rape,
between the Daily Star and forced prostitution. As Engle's unsparing
camera and questions gravely note, they can wear short skirts and
paint their nails red, and deny these are sexual signs. But, if all
over the place, they are, at the least, generous-minded.
And they made you think: illuminating more than cathartic.