Call the Midwife is perfect Sunday evening telly fare - with its nostalgic look at poverty-stricken East London, the hardships and deprivations of the 1950s soothed by the tender administrations of the clear-skinned midwives and their elders, stroking the cheeks of young to old, smiling with good-humoured compassion and easing the passage of world entry while they're about it.
But, this dewey tableau has been pilloried this season around for giving men a hard time... when they're not serially bashing their wives, they're neglecting them in fire hazards of homes, marrying two sisters at a time (that was all a bit weird) or queueing up on the ship to take their turn with the captain's daughter.
A useful test to see if any TV show passes muster for female equality is to ask three simple questions... is there more than one female lead character? Do they appear in scenes on their own without men as well? Do they talk about more than just boys and makeup, so we see them as identities away from the prism of the male-dominant social paradigm? (This is the Bechdel Test - read more on it here... ) You'd be amazed how many shows we praise for their apparently equality answer 'No' to these questions. But what if we turn them around, too, to see how the men are being treated? Here goes... for the women first:
Is there more than one lead female character?
They're everywhere, from senior nuns, to young midwives, not forgetting missionary-in-waiting Chummy. In addition, we have the weekly guests, the pregnant ladies needing our heroines' help and, most recently, Matron at Jenny's new hospital.
Do women appear in scenes by themselves without men?
Yes, often. They don't always get on... witness last night's encounter between Jenny and her new Matron. There are actually very few scenes with men at all.
Do the women talk about subjects other than men, or their relationships with men?
A spot check on this week's episode reveals discussions about staffing, employment expectations, serving suggestions for avocado pears, the soothing benefits of marshmallows in pregnancy, the fear of forceps, and what the Tarot cards prophecise for an easy birth. The first time last night's episode turned to 'men-talk' was Cynthia and Jenny's discussion about Jimmy - 29 minutes into an hour-long programme.
Ok, for female equality on TV, I think we can safely call this an official PASS. But how do the men fare? Here goes... for a spot-check of this week's episode with the same questions.
Is there more than one lead male character?
Doctor Turner is always around somewhere - he fills around 15 minutes of airtime per episode, there was a bunch of male hospital patients in this week's episode, and the object of Jenny's affections, Jimmy, also enjoys a fair amount of screen time. Probably about 20 minutes in all.
Do men appear in scenes by themselves without women?
A resounding no. The reliable handyman helps the new nurse with her bag. When Jimmy is attended by a male consultant in hospital, a female nurse stands by his bed throughout. Jimmy is on the phone in another scene, but Jenny is on the other end. In one of this week's most emotional scenes, the twin sisters' (shared) husband remarks of the girls' affection, "They always said they was born with a gap, they filled it for each other." Its him who gets to say the significant remark, and he's speaking to the male doctor. But it's about the girls, and the nursing sister is sitting there all the while.
Do the men talk about subjects other than women, or other than their relationships to women?
A male doctor does diagnose Jimmy in hospital, but it's a faulty diagnosis, corrected by a female nurse. Jimmy talks to Jenny about marrying Francie, and Jenny later tells Jimmy she can't see him any more. The good Doctor Turner is the lone male character who treats the nurses around him as professionals. With his exception, it's the men who are confined to sexual stereotypes here - either overbearing, or objects of desire - and the good doctor does not escape completely, as he is the object of Sister Miller's secret warmth.
So, Call the Midwife is a resounding fail for the sexism test as far as the men are concerned, then. Sure... it's about a period of time when male and female professional roles were very separately defined, and a particular profession where men scarcely featured.
However, some of the giveaways are in how Jimmy is depicted, an object of desire about whom we know very little other than his relations with specific women, as well as the recalcitrant consultant, complacent in his seniority, and faulty in his diagnosis.
I'm not really having a go at Call the Midwife in particular - it's a warm show inviting EVERYONE to be softer, more expressive, more protective, more... contemporary, in fact. And Doctor Turner alone balances a lot of the accusations with his warmth, universal compassion and respect for his fellow medicine people.
But its failing the simple test above does show how easily a lack of sexual equality on screen can occur if a scriptwriter is focusing on keeping his/HER plot moving along merrily, romantically and dramatically. Call the Midwife has seen the pendulum swing violently in the other direction from many of the big screen blockbusters where women roll up on oil rigs inexplicably bikini-clad. Surely, it's now time for it to rest calmly somewhere in the middle.
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