British TV features plenty of women who wield power. This is unsurprising. But what we see little of is scrutiny of how these women are presented and the associated narratives. Stories and characters are compelling and therefore influential; narratives drive the evolution of culture and collective attitudes, so balance and variety in the stories we see in the media, TV and film is key. However, an analysis of several British TV series reveals a tendency to view powerful women through a sceptical lens. In general, women who obtain power and influence in atypical ways are portrayed not as potent changemakers, but as threats. So the question we need to ask is whether we need more narratives that encourage optimism about the potential of renegades and unconventional individuals — particularly women — to succeed in politics.

Demonising Power-Driven Women 

It is fruitful to look beyond the overarching narrative presented in a TV programme or film. A character on a screen provides a nuanced reflection of sociocultural values because the screenwriter’s intentions, the director’s agenda and the actor’s interpretation of the role all coalesce.

Viv Rook in Years and Years is a revealing case study. In the show, she is a charismatic businesswoman, entrepreneur and politician who becomes prime minister. She is overtly controversial and speaks her mind, which is refreshing to those who are disillusioned with the pretence and secrecy of politics. But she also has a tendency to alienate others who find her offensive and cocksure. Her rise to the top polarises society even more and the show ends with implementing a fascist, authoritarian agenda, creating a narrative that warns about the dangers of authoritarianism and demonstrates this through a female politician.

Meanwhile, the female PM in Bodyguard, for example, is unmemorable, privileged and conservative with a dull, uninspiring rise to the top. In the real world, Britain’s two recent female prime ministers — both from privileged backgrounds — had unremarkable premierships classed as failures. A woman who lacks the background, upbringing, and resources to navigate her way into politics is unlikely to want to become a politician. Those that do (Thatcher being the only historical example), tend to be more atypical and even outrageous in their approach, representing both risk and potential.

Viv was no angel, but her positive qualities — drive, courage, playfulness, ambition and (to some degree) authenticity — represent a potent combination. Villanelle, the young female assassin in Killing Eve, possesses a similar set of traits but she is ultimately portrayed as a psychopath. Reviews of Years and Years tend to focus on how its dystopian theme was scarily close to reality, taking for granted the danger of a renegade rising to the top. But renegades don’t always have destructive intentions.

Burn the Witch!

It is interesting that Britain’s first female prime minister was branded a witch. How do we expect to undermine patriarchy if we fall back on historical stereotypes which served to sustain it? Purported ‘witches’ in early modern Britain were penalised for being oddballs, for being unmarried, for being independent, and for being antisocial. These are, in fact, indicators of a woman rejecting ‘patriarchy.’

I place the word ‘patriarchy’ in quotation marks because its meaning is ambiguous and in fact, it is possibly more helpful to refer simply to ‘society.’ Patriarchy is often essentialised to mean a society in which men are ‘dominant.’ This is only partly true since its meaning also refers to the values upon which society is founded. It was largely male philosophers, economists and cultural icons who designed and created the vertical, capitalist society we live in today. Patriarchy, therefore, can easily be equated with society.

Thatcher’s agenda was not particularly altruistic and she had her flaws, but narratives that vilify her are unhelpful because her ability to succeed in implementing her own ideological vision in the male-dominated world of politics — especially given her relatively unprivileged background — was extraordinary and indicative of the potential of women to be artisans of society.

Moving Away from Cynical Narratives

If we really want to transform or transcend capitalism and patriarchy in order to forge a more equal and less polarised society, top-down change is needed. If we create more narratives from the bottom up which celebrate rather than denigrate individuals who challenge societal norms and values, those who possess both a desire for power and altruism could be more likely to pursue political careers. A confident, ambitious rebel with an altruistic, creative vision, has the potential to change the world.

If we objectively examine both reality and fiction, the narrative is cynical. Nowhere do we see a celebration of the potential of atypical or rebellious individuals in politics to change the world in a positive, creative way. A quick examination of the twentieth century might indicate why. But, firstly, history doesn’t have to repeat itself. And secondly, the historical record features few, if any, female leaders who were destructive, oppressive and dictatorial. This is mainly because, in the past, women’s legal status coupled with sociocultural assumptions of inferiority made it very difficult to access power in the first place. The bottom line is that we simply don’t know if those destructive, inhumane tendencies recorded by history are naturally active in women as well.

Being tough, controversial, or deliberately outrageous might make it easier to rise to the top. If so, can we blame women for adapting to the system and its fixed rules? If Viv Rook’s image reflects brutal, unjust intentions then yes, we should. But if her intentions are genuine and tie into a legitimate vision for reform, perhaps then it is not a simple case of praise or blame. History must have the last word on that matter.

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