Going feral at the ends of the earth

Going feral at the ends of the earth

Top of the Lake is a seven part television series about misogyny and violence, set at the southern tip of New Zealand. It was directed by Jane Campion, director of the Piano, another movie about misogyny and violence in New Zealand that was very well received when it was released. In her return to New Zealand for this show, Campion has moved her setting from the lush fern forests of the North Island to the desolate peaks and wilderness of the far South Island, and has skipped in time from the colonial era to the modern – though looking at the behavior of the protagonists in this movie, it’s hard to find much of a civilizing influence of modernity.

The basic story of Top of the Lake is an apparently straightforward investigation of child abuse. A 12 year old girl called Tui (pictured) is pregnant and a cop from Sydney called Robin is brought in to investigate the case. The story is set in the fictitious town of Laketop, near Queenstown. Robin grew up in this town but moved to Australia to work, and has returned to Laketop temporarily because her mother has cancer, so she’s ideally placed to investigate the crime. Unfortunately, things don’t proceed simply: Tui is the daughter of a singularly malicious and nasty man, Matt Mitcham, who is a Scottish migrant and the dodgiest thug you’ve ever seen (well, at least until you meet some of his associates in episode 5). He is singularly unhelpful in the case, and Tui is also being very unhelpful – it’s not clear if she even understands what has happened to her, and soon after the show starts she disappears. Furthermore, Robin has her own dark history in Laketop, and pretty much every other person you meet is entangled in something dark and horrible: wherever you turn you see a suspect or their conspirator, and it’s really hard to believe that this town is not deeply enmired in misogyny, sexual violence and repression. Through all of this, Robin is trying to find and help Tui, and the rest of the town are taking a singularly colonial-era and feral approach to Tui’s problems, with almost no one seeming to be aware that it’s dangerous for a 12 year old girl to be pregnant, and dangerous for her rapist to be at large.

Campion’s exploration of the setting really helps to give this impression of a town that hasn’t worked out what modernity is, or updated its attitudes towards women accordingly. Queenstown is a famous tourist town and playground of the rich and famous, but we never see that side of the area: as far as we can tell, Laketop is a rundown and wild place in the middle of nowhere, a little cluster of huts hanging off of freezing, windy mountains and staring out at nothing. The children are wild, playing in canoes and on horses, keeping bones in their homes and wandering wild over the hills and forests, and Tui herself is feral to the point of being fey. The adults are also wild, but in a much nastier and ferocious way. Matt Mitcham, his family and associates cast a long shadow over the town, and he is a violent, sinister presence, completely unreformed and often more like a force of nature than a human. His direct children are ill-mannered, stupid thugs; another of his sons lives in a tent by the lake and spent eight years in a Thai prison; Tui is his daughter by a different woman, and there are children in his house who he doesn’t even really seem to know. The people of the town ride horses and hunt, and Mitcham’s associates use severed deer’s heads on poles as an emblem. The police in the town have a very vague understanding of what crime is or what their purpose is as police. The chief of the police, Al – played with incredible subtlety by David Wenham – alternates between being an urbane and intelligent modern policeman and a quietly dangerous, selfish and very sinister figure. The only apparently “normal” people in this show are a group of women from America and Australia who have formed a commune by the side of the lake, but these women are just as touched as the rest of the place: they live in shipping containers on the edge of the lake, they’re all deeply damaged in some way, and their guru GJ is a remote, harsh and judgmental woman who doesn’t appear to have any kind feelings for her charges at all – and these women also don’t seem to have any conception of the importance of protecting Tui or finding out who raped her. All these people are presented against the backdrop of a wild, silent and unforgiving landscape, cold and windy and desolate but stunningly beautiful, that acts as a perfect counterpoise for the wild, strange character of the people we meet.

Just as in The Piano, Campion uses the landscape to stunning effect as a backdrop to the story. It is beautifully filmed and presented, and in our various excursions to the top of the lake and the mountains beyond it we lose all sense that we are in the modern era. Watching the show makes you feel a kind of sympathetic chill as if you were experiencing the wind and rain and cold of the South Island yourself, but it’s impossible not to be amazed by the harsh beauty of the place. In The Piano, the wilderness offered a lush and sensual backdrop to the corrupted sexuality of the main protagonists; in Top of the Lake the chill, serene lake and cold, distant mountains reflect perfectly the sinister secrets of the town and the impenetrable wildness of the town’s main victim, Tui.

The acting in this television series is also exemplary. Robin is played with fine skill by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, who does a brilliant job of portraying her human vulnerability and professional strength, as well as her bravery in the face of a town that seems determined to destroy her. Her slow unraveling over the course of the story is brilliantly done. David Wenham gives a master class in his potrayal of the chief policeman, Al, whose motives and allegiances are extremely suspicious, and the other major characters – Johnno and Matt Mitcham and his daughter Tui – are all perfectly cast.

The story is fairly simple and well told, without a real twist but with just enough red herrings and dead ends in its development that you aren’t sure you are right about the key points until the very end, and even then a few things are not fully resolved. It’s essentially a story about corruption and the extent to which a few evil men’s influence can completely corrupt a small community, and although it comes to the resolution one would hope for once one knew the facts, it remains deeply disturbing. It’s even more disturbing if anywhere in New Zealand is actually like the place depicted. My main complaint about the plot is that the commune by the lake plays a big role in the show, but is largely irrelevant to the plot and seems like a kind of boutique side story that Campion put in just to please herself. I think this commune should have been given a different, more satisfying role in the plot or should have been dropped, and I can’t work out exactly why it was important. But aside from that, the story is well told and has that feeling of completeness where nothing stood out as wrong or confusing, and the only unresolved parts were unresolved because the characters couldn’t know the answers, not because there were no answers or because of some plot incoherency. Quite a lot happens for just seven episodes, and it’s an impressively tightly coiled story.

I was surprisingly deeply affected by this show. It’s beautiful, the acting is powerful, the story is disturbing and the characters are amazingly engaging. It also tells a story about a side of New Zealand that maybe doesn’t really get shown much internationally in amongst all the Hobbitons and Rivendells that have emanated from there recently. It’s not always easy going, though it’s not openly brutal, and at times it is breathlessly tense, but in an enjoyable rather than an overly terrifying way. This is a good show to watch for anyone who is interested in crime stories, thrillers and mysteries – especially if you’re interested in seeing those stories unfold in a very unique and almost magical setting.

Looking for the one who got away

Looking for the one who got away

I cannot recommend Ripper Street highly enough. The actors are excellent, the dialogue fine, and the English a joy to listen to. The setting is grim and nasty, the lead characters compromised and gritty, but it has none of the bitterness and cynicism that so often accompanies those traits in a TV show. It’s also, I think, the first TV show I have ever seen that might be described as sex-worker positive. It’s what Deadwood could have been, if it weren’t so deeply and overwhelmingly misogynist.

Ripper Street is a crime/mystery TV series set in the East End of London in the era of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper himself has been and gone, but the show focuses on the detective who failed to catch him, Detective Inspector Reid, his sergeant Bennett Drake (played by Bron from A Game of Thrones) and an American, Homer Jackson, who is their forensic doctor. Reid has lost a daughter, possibly to Jack the Ripper, and his personal life is on the rocks because of it; Jackson is an ex-Pinkerton on the run with his ex-girlfriend Susan, who runs a brothel (where Jackson lives); and Drake is tormented by his memories of soldiering in Egypt, where he may also have joined some satanic sect. The fifth person in the picture above (far right) is Miss Rose, one of Susan’s employees, who is in a relationship with Jackson but being wooed by Drake.

Reid is played by Matthew McFadyen, most famous for his stirring portrayal of D’Arcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and as one might expect from such impeccable credentials, he does an excellent job of portraying a detective trying to use modern, scientific methods to solve crime in a world still steeped in cruelty, superstition and bigotry. Bennett Drake is like a soft version of Bron, capable of being just as vicious but also much more vulnerable. He is Reid’s hard man: in 19th century London no one has to adhere to the human rights act, and when confessions need to be extracted it is Drake who extracts them. Jackson is probably more dangerous than either of them, and has a very dubious past, but provides the medical skills (and to a large extent the real brains of the operation). He is also a selfish, lazy and arrogant man.

So basically this TV series is like a grittier and slightly less fanciful version of From Hell if it somehow crashed into Pride and Prejudice, with Reid as a more down-to-earth version of Abberline, and a team of three putting together a modern approach to policing. In many ways the show seems to have really made a big effort to capture the reality of the times, portraying the East End of London as a far more diverse, contested, and hopeful place than perhaps we are used to seeing in Ripper-era television. I also think it deals particularly well with two classes of person: Americans and sex workers.

The Americans in Ripper Street dress differently, they talk differently, they really do seem to come from a different world. They’re usually either on the run or looking for something, and they aren’t native in London – they don’t know the town, they often hate it, and they’re usually there with a purpose, not usually a good one. They’re gaudier, more dangerous or more sinister, and they’re also more modern – they have ideas and skills and ways of looking at things that the Londoners aren’t used to. This is how I imagine they would have seemed at the time the show is set, and it might be part of the explanation for why British society has such a strange love/hate relationship with American culture. I really like this depiction of the gulf between two apparently closely-related societies, a gulf that I think a lot of people feel in their day-to-day dealings in the real world, and it’s nice to see Americans in Britain being depicted as more than just a different accent.

But where Ripper Street really excels for me is in its treatment of sex work. It’s the first TV show I think I’ve seen other than Deadwood where sex workers are major characters, but unlike Deadwood it doesn’t reduce them to weak and pathetic characters dependent upon men for approval and safety. Though they are constrained by the stupid mores of their time, the sex workers in Ripper Street aren’t weak, and they don’t wait for men to protect them or help them, nor do they seek men’s approval. They are proud, strong women trying to make their own way in a world where women have no formal power. They aren’t sluts or idiots, but ordinary women doing what needs to be done. The show also takes a narrative stance on sex work, not particularly openly, so that we can see the morality of the world in which the women work and trace its hypocrisies and cruelties; this isn’t done in a hamfisted way, generally, and it’s portrayed primarily through the efforts of Reid’s religious wife, Emily, who wishes to establish a shelter to protect homeless women without dictating morals or lifestyle. It’s really refreshing to see a TV show set in an oppressive era that doesn’t fetishize sexual violence and reduce its female characters to victims and objects. If only Deadwood had done the same …

Ripper Street only has eight episodes so far, and a new season won’t be along any time soon, but I strongly recommend viewing what there is. It’s an excellent and enjoyable show, and a welcome addition to that small genre of TV shows about the genesis of modern policing. Don’t hesitate to try it out if you get the chance.

I want this to go smooth and by the numbers …

The chart above shows hits on my old blog post A Game of Thrones and the Misogyny of Imagined Worlds between 23rd February and 19th May 2012. The second season started on 1st April, and there’s a clear series of weekly peaks in views on my post, that occur between Tuesday and Thursday each week – corresponding to blog searches in the USA on Monday – Wednesday. The peak varies by week, but they’re a week apart and anyone who has any experience with time series can see in that data a shift in level, probably change in variance, and strong seasonal signal. Additionally, the height of the peak varies from week to week and I soon noticed it corresponds with just how nasty the treatment of women was in the episode of that week. So, in this post I’m going to show the effect, and give a numerical estimate of the extent of misogyny in each episode of A Game of Thrones, using crowd-sourcing based on google hits on my blog. Note that almost all the hits shown in this data series – 245 in April – are from google searches (though I think one week there might have been a link put up on facebook). This post is nearly a year old, and usually my year old posts (bar one or two techy ones that attract continual regular hits) get very few hits, and certainly never attract a pattern.


(Skip this if statistical methodology makes your eyes bleed).

I built a simple log-linear regression model using time, cyclical pulse functions for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (the date for the first, second and third day after the show is released in the USA) and episode. Episode was set to zero for all days before the 1st April. This enabled the peaks to be (partially) fitted, and also allowed a specific magnitude effect for each episode. The model was not adjusted for serial correlation because serial correlation is notoriously hard to fit in series with low numbers of observations. I also suspect that the tight nature of the seasonality (7 days) compared to the unit of observation (1 day) in a short series and the sharp peaks will prevent models from converging, and this is what happened – I tried fitting a generalized estimating equation model with exchangeable correlation and got divergent estimates of correlation. Standard backwards stepwise model-building methods were used to eliminate unnecessary variables, with the usual strict inclusion criteria (a variable was out if it didn’t get a p-value less than 0.05 on a Wald test). Given the small number of observations, small counts in early parts of the series, and the fact I was driving this model like a Westerosian Ox-cart as it was, I figured it was best to avoid interaction terms of any kind.

The exponentiated coefficient for episode 1 incorporates a general effect of increased interest in the show with the onset of new seasons, but by calculating ratios of other exponentiated coefficients, one can estimate the degree of misogyny for all episodes relative to episode 1. Predicted values were also produced and plotted against observed values.


Results of the model are shown in Table 1. Hits increased by a factor of 2.4 for episode 1 compared to pre-release hits, and each week the peak was on Wednesday, when hits were twice the values for Monday or Thursday. Hits declined by 1% per day over the period of data collection.

Table 1: Model Results
Variable Odds Ratio 95 % CI P value
Intercept 4.69 3.44 – 6.38 0.001
Time 0.99 0.98 – 1.00 0.2
Tuesday Peak 1.44 1.09 – 1.91 0.01
Wednesday Peak 2.06 1.61 – 2.63 <0.001
Episode 1 2.38 1.50 – 3.78 <0.001
Episode 2 2.58 1.51 – 4.43 0.001
Episode 3 1.95 1.03 – 3.72 0.04
Episode 4 3.63 1.79 – 7.36 <0.001
Episode 5 1.31 0.56 – 3.08 0.5
Episode 6 2.07 0.82 – 5.20 0.1
Episode 7 3.04 1.12 – 8.27 0.03

Note that episodes 5 and 6 are indistinguishable from background (pre-release) noise in their intensity of misogyny. Figure 1 shows the predicted values derived from this model, plotted with the observed values, and shows relatively good fit, although the model fails to reach the dizzying heights of misogyny displayed in some of the observed hits; but this could be the fault of that facebook link creating outliers, so we won’t get too angsty about that.

Figure 1: Observed and predicted numbers of views

From these results we can estimate the relative degree of misogyny of each episode, shown in Table 2. All estimated misogyny ratings are relative to episode 1.

Table 2: Misogyny Ratings for Season 2, Episodes 1 – 7
Episode Rating relative to episode 1
Episode 1 1
Episode 2 1.08
Episode 3 0.82
Episode 4 1.53
Episode 5 0.55*
Episode 6 0.87*
Episode 7 1.28

*Not significantly different from background noise.

Thus, the most misogynist episode was episode 4, while episodes 5 and 6 were indistinguishable from background noise. Although episode 3 was of lower misogyny rating than episode 1, it did attract significantly more views than during an equivalent period before the release of the show.


Viewers around the world increased their rate of searches about misogyny in A Game of Thrones, and rates of searching increased most in the days immediately following the release of each episode. The most misogynist episodes were:

  • Episode 4: Sansa is stripped and beaten in public in the throne room; Joffrey forces one prostitute to beat (or sodomize?) another after they are sent to him to “sap the poison” though he will remain “a cunt”; Malesandre gives birth to a wicked shadowy abomination after an improbable pregnancy
  • Episode 7: The strange and overly sexualized encounter between Jon Snow and his prisoner in the North; Sansa relives her near-rape in the previous episode; Jaime successfully taunts Catelyn with the memory of her husband’s infidelity; Daenerys loses her dragons and is reduced from her previous pride to dependency on Ser whatshisface
  • Episode 2: Theon Greyjoy uses a woman like an object in his ship, abandons her and then fails to recognize and subsequently tries to fuck his own sister

In contrast, the least misogynist two episodes were:

  • Episode 5: Theon is shown no the respect by his men, who obviously fear and obey his sister; Brienne proves herself to be tough and honourable; Daenerys rejects a marriage proposal; Arya is generally excellent
  • Episode 6: Talisa the field nurse shows herself a spirited pacifist; Arya is once again generally excellent; Osha the wildling girl saves the Winterfell boys; this episode has some rape scenes and the delicious hypocrisy of Cersei’s attitude towards Sansa compared to her own betrothed daughter, which would be why its misogyny rating is higher than episode 5 – presumably Arya and Talisa save it from being higher

I think the relative ratings are generally quite representative, though perhaps an adjustment for the downward time trend needs to be incorporated to make them more accurate. This model fairly accurately fits to the data on search hits for this topic, and in my opinion sorts nicely between the most and least misogynist offerings. There is strong evidence that web search numbers correspond with the density of common signifiers of misogyny in any one episode (rape, mistreatment of prostitutes, degradation of childbirth through black magic, vicious anti-woman language, use of women as sex toys without regard for their feelings or identity, and women’s sexuality being either used as a tool for personal gain or expressing itself in incongruous neckbeard-fantasy ways). Hits are much lower on weeks where strong female characters take control of their own lives and act sensibly, even where their situation is difficult and/or oppressed.

Obviously, no one believes that google searches are reflective of some underlying truth about what is or isn’t misogynist or sexist. But I think they do at least show that a lot of people are disturbed by the images and themes in the show – disturbed enough to get on the internet and look to see what others think of the issue. This show has a deep streak of misogyny, and it isn’t going unnoticed.

I’ve started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian TV show based loosely on the series of Phryne Fisher murder mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. The basic idea behind these novels and the TV show is simple, effective and fun: Phryne Fisher is a young (28 year old) Australian woman who has returned to Melbourne after serving as a nurse in the Great War (1914-1918), having received an inheritance and a title from a distant aunt in the UK. Suddenly wealthy and flung into the licentious era of the twenties, she starts an investigative agency, and begins meddling in police affairs, as well as having many affairs. She’s “not the marrying kind,” and of course in the twenties this kind of attitude is scandalous but also increasingly accepted. The implication in the TV show (I’m not sure about the books) is that she comes from a poor background and has a sad past (in the books this is her wartime experience as a nurse; in the TV show it’s her younger sister, who was murdered). Since 1918, she tells us, she “hasn’t taken anything seriously,” and this is the atmosphere in which she conducts her investigations. She also collects poor people around her: she has adopted two orphans, and is close friends with a pair of communist activists, one a wharfie and one a cabby.

The TV show definitely has its flaws – sometimes the acting is a bit wooden and it feels like the directors weren’t sure if they were writing a comedy or a drama – but this is the normal experience of watching Australian TV. Typically, the only TV shows that Australian directors can make with any confidence are shit-boring dramas about enormously boring middle-class suburban lives, quirky comedies about rural idylls, or gritty stories of political corruption. Anything else is approached with a kind of self-conscious dread of being caught being pretentious, and this trepidation inevitably spoils the product as the director tries to inject a bit of self-deprecating humour, or gets caught looking over their own shoulder checking that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. It’s an Australian thing. This self-consciousness is why Australia can make excellent quirky rural comedies (e.g. Seachange) but will never, ever produce a decent science fiction show. Something like Firefly is physically inconceivable to the average Australian movie critic – merely glancing sideways at the script for an Aussie Firefly would cause 99% of Australian movie critics’ heads to explode[1].

So, having attempted to break out of the standard mold of Aussie drama, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is already painfully self-conscious. But if you can deal with that (and I’m sure it will relax as future episodes are unveiled) you get an actually pretty excellent TV show. Phryne is a fun character: she’s got guts, she’s going against convention, she’s clever, she’s compassionate and she’s lusty. Her two working class friends, the wharfie and the cabby, are intensely Australian men, laconic and kindly and macho all in one, simultaneously shy and big-hearted. Her maid, Dot, is an amusing combination of sassy girl-next-door and Catholic repression. The setting is unashamedly Australian – the Ballarat express[2], the Melbourne University boat club, flying a Tiger Moth out to the countryside to meet “Vic” – who leans in the doorway and talks out the side of his mouth in just the way you expect of an Aussie shearer – the dodgy Turkish baths and the backyard abortionist behind the pie shop, they’re all classic Australian settings. The characters also convey that strange Australian combination of conservatism and vital, progressive energy that makes our politics and culture simultaneously so small-minded and so visionary. For non-Australian viewers this show manages to present Australia in a suitably exotic light even though it’s set in Australia’s second largest city. It’s a nice introduction to some of Australia’s wilder history, as well as to the very special physical environment of South East Australia, which in its own way is easily as exotic as the Top End. At any moment you expect Phryne to just waltz out of the city and go solve the mystery of hanging rock.

Another thing that this show does very nicely is its depiction of gender issues. The twenties were an era of newfound sexual liberation against a backdrop of essentially very conservative sexual values, and this show does a good job of depicting the sexism of the time without making it menacing or overbearing: it depicts this sexism as contested and malleable, as also is the homophobia and racism, so that we don’t have to endure a stultifying atmosphere of overpowering misogyny such as mars shows like A Game of Thrones. Phryne is clearly liberated not just because she is a woman in the twenties, but because she is rich; the women around her are not so lucky, and we see this, but we also see how they make their own place in the world despite adversity, and how the men of the time adapt and respond to these challenges to traditional gender roles. Even though as a crime show it has license to be grounded in “gritty realism,” we get a much better example of how to depict institutional sexism without creating an atmosphere of woman-hating, which I think directors with much bigger budgets might benefit from watching.

I guess for people living outside Australia this TV show is going to be hard to see – it’s been produced by our public broadcaster but it’s not available over the internet if you live outside of the country. I’m sure there are ways, though … and if you’re interested in seeing a nice depiction of how Australians view our own history, through the vehicle of a fairly well-designed (but occasionally overly self-conscious) murder-mystery show, then I recommend this. Obviously, as well, the twenties are a fun era full of progressive girls wearing splendid clothes and men who spout over-the-top English. However, if you can’t abide shows with slightly stilted acting that don’t quite know what they want to be, or you can’t handle anything that isn’t standard American crime fare, then you should probably steer clear. I like it though, and will be watching more where I get the chance.

fn1: oh, I wish someone would write one!

fn2: which seems to take all night, even though Ballarat is – what – 3 hours from Melbourne?

I’m not a fan of American comedy in general, but Big Bang Theory has really impressed me. I presume no one in my readership is ignorant of the basic idea behind this show, but just in case: it’s about a group of nerds – three physicists and an engineer – who are completely out of touch with ordinary life, and one completely ordinary, normal, un-nerdy girl called Penny. In later seasons two additional extremely nerdy (and very, very funny) women join the group as partners of some of the boys. Two of the characters, Leonard and Sheldon, live together. The rest is classic American situation comedy, except that it’s all filmed from the perspective of the four nerds. There are no dufus macho American men like in Friends or your standard run of crappy sit-coms, clapping each other on the back and putting their feet on the seats: this is the kind of show where the main characters play D&D, or Settlers of Katan, and look on conscious displays of machismo as a kind of vice.

The humour is simultaneously smutty and sophisticated, which is unusual for American TV, and the characters are excellent. Even Sheldon, who is clearly an arsehole by anyone’s lights, is really funny and endearing, and Howard – who if he were a normal guy would be a horrible person – is quite sweet in his own crazy way. The central character, Leonard, is also the most normal of the group, in that all though he is a nerd’s nerd – nerdier than you or I can ever hope to be, young Jedi – he understands ordinary human interactions sufficiently to be able to pass as a normal human, and his gentle manner means that he regularly manages to pull quite hot women (without ever intending to). The rest of them, however, are lost in la-la land. And this is the central conceit of the show: everything that is normal and coherent is reversed, so that the social relations, interests and even dreams of ordinary people are seen as weird and outre, while the warped social dynamic of nerd-dom is recast as the norm. This show reverses the role of insider and outsider, so that designing an app to solve ODEs is a normal Friday night activity, while going out drinking with your buddies is weird and unenjoyable. Instead of having the nerd or the freak point out the social contradictions and oddities – as happens in, for example, The Breakfast Club – in this show it’s the ordinary Nebraskan woman, Penny, who is constantly confused and challenging the social norms. This reversal in itself offers a lot of entertainment, as we see what would happen if the things we know are weird and unusual were normal, and the things we know everyone expects to be normal were considered a waste of time. It also occasionally offers some quite interesting insights into what is wrong with the standard social order.

At the same time, however, the main characters are acutely aware of their status in broader society, and we are regularly reminded of their experience of bullying and social exclusion when they were younger. Now, of course, within the world of the university where they work, there is no such problem, and it is Penny – representative of ordinary society – who is cast as the outsider. But when they venture outside of their small group we are reminded of the fragility of their social setting and its fundamental defensiveness. Howard, out on the pull at a club, tells us in one memorable scene that if he waits until 3am all the cool kids will have scored, and he will be guaranteed success with the ugly and desperate social loners who remain – this is his conscious tactic. They occasionally have run-ins with people from their past, and are reminded of how weak they are in other social settings. Sometimes they try to do the right thing in broader society, to defend their rights as nerds or just to be moral, and it always comes back to bite them because they are weak and hated. So they return to their cocoon, aware that they are looked down upon by the rest of society but happy in their safe world. This isn’t really much like adult life as a nerd at all – nerds tend to be much more respected in adult life than they were in childhood, and this part of the show is very much about reliving childhood trauma in an adult setting – but it’s fun and in some ways (especially the parts about women and sex) still true.

The show does have a few weaknesses. The treatment of Raj, an Indian, I would consider to be racist at times, though also the way that he takes the piss out of the image of India as a poor and backward country is quite funny. The characters never seem to successfully get back at the people who bullied them in their school days, which is frustrating, and the gender relations are typically conservative in that weird American way that mystifies the rest of the world whenever we see it (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post). Also, at times Sheldon is so annoying as to be offensive, and you kind of wish that he would relent a little. But these are minor flaws, considering that this is a show where people quote Star Wars, play Klingon word games, regularly visit the comic shop, and quite frequently have carefully rendered debates about quantum mechanics. The scene where they play D&D is brilliant, and every episode is a gem of good humour. Also, Penny’s dealings with the boys – the way she is affectionate towards them but understands how completely weird they are – is a thing of beauty, sufficient to give all nerds everywhere the hope that they, too, will one day be able to lose their virginity.

I recommend this show for all nerds everywhere, or for partners of nerds who need to get an insight into their partners worlds without having to face the horror of actually participating in that weird shit. I also promise that if you, a nerd, watch it, you will be reassured of your normality in comparison to the freaks who populate the show. It’s a balm for the soul, if you’re into playing D&D in Elvish but don’t want to think you’re unusual. So if you haven’t already, give it a go…

I’m currently watching the latest season of Dexter, and as we were watching my partner suggested that it would be excellent to see an episode of either show in which Dexter visits New York (or vice versa). Perhaps he is chasing a serial killer operating in NY, or perhaps the Miami police have to go to New York on some task. Or vice versa. Some fun aspects of such an episode:

  • Deborah Morgan would be competing with Kate Beckett to solve the case; both of them would, of course, be competing with Dexter. How would Beckett handle Morgan? How would Morgan view Beckett?
  • Castle is very fond of making wild conspiracy theories: the whole episode/sequence could run with him consistently treating the truth about Dexter as a conspiracy theory to explain the weird events of the case; but of course everyone is laughing it off
  • Esposito could figure out how dangerous Dexter really is, but no one (except Castle!) believes him
  • Castle finds out the truth, and confronts Dexter
  • The story could be played in both TV series, so we see it from Castle/Beckett’s point of view and from Dexter/Deborah’s point of view.
  • There could be a spin-off where, having identified Dexter, Castle conceives of a new series of popular novels about a serial killer with a conscience, and moves to Florida for a year to become Dexter’s shadow instead of Beckett’s
  • Or better still, Beckett’s lieutenant palms Castle off onto Miami, and he spends a whole season tracking the Miami metro homicide squad, getting closer and closer to uncovering the truth about Dexter …
  • And, the novel Castle writes is called Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Of course such an idea is just silly. But I think it would be pretty funny.

Charlie Brooker, the British screenwriter, zombie reality TV expert and culture commentator for the Guardian, is doing a series of articles on Japan. I wouldn’t usually care but I quite like Charlie Brooker’s style of criticism, usually directed at television culture, which is ascerbic and filthy but also well educated and very fond of the medium (TV) that he mostly writes on. His cultural commentary can be a lot of fun and occasionally insightful, and certainly his first article on first impressions of Japan contains a few, such as his description of a lot of Japanese TV:

Imagine watching an endless episode of The One Show with the colour and brightness turned up to 11, where all the guests have been given amphetamines, the screen is peppered with random subtitles, and every 10 seconds it cuts to a close-up shot of a bowl of noodles for no apparent reason. That’s 90% of Japanese TV right there.

However, I’m concerned that he’s going to fall back on the same tired tropes that always get trotted out to describe Japan by westerners, especially those just visiting or who don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the language, and especially especially British and American commentators, whose level of introspection about their own cultures is, in general, profoundly lacking. The common tropes tend to be a combination of weirdness, exoticism, and a sense that you’ve stepped back in time to an earlier cultural period in the west, which almost certainly never actually existed. He certainly doesn’t start or end well, with both the opening and closing sentences describing Japan as “another planet.” He goes on in the first paragraph to say

while the world around you is largely recognisable, it somehow makes little sense

This is the classic expression of the cosseted western view. When did western cultural commentators decide that their own country is the arbiter of what “makes sense”? Once you’ve lived in Japan for a little while you start to see a lot of things about western life that definitely make no sense: when I watched TV in the UK and saw adverts for furniture, for example, inevitably some idiot actor would flop onto a couch and put their fully-shod feet up on it. Since I’ve lived in Japan I’ve come to realize that this is a truly disgusting habit, and it makes no sense that we in the west ever conceived of wearing our shoes into the house as a good idea. Perhaps, then, instead of phrasing things in terms of a culture that is full of “sense” (the one Brooker came from) and one that isn’t, Brooker could talk merely in terms of difference? And while he’s at it, learn to take his shoes off inside.

So already Brooker has established Britain’s cultural mores as the background from which all else deviates, and has portrayed the Japanese as alien and strange (incomprehensible, even). His green kit-kat comment follows the same pattern: kit-kats as representative of British cultural norms, are rendered green in Japan for no apparent reason. It’s left to the people in comments to mention that the chocolate is green because it is tea flavoured, a common practice in Japan, but from the body of the text we’re left to assume that the Japanese just like to make western chocolate green for no reason. Here we see the essence of the depiction of the other as strange: present something they do as an idiosyncratic or incomprehensible phenomenon and avoid a description of the extremely simple reason for the action.His description of TV also contains an element of this: those subtitles aren’t random, Charlie, because by definition sub-titles are not random. They are the words that the person speaking is saying. As the Suicidals once famously said: “Just beause you don’t understand it don’t mean it don’t make no sense.” In this case, the thing you don’t understand is this thing called “language” and you should ask yourself how you would feel if an Asian were commenting on the “randomness” of elements of your own culture’s TV without knowing a single word of English.

This perhaps also is what underlies his segue to a full two paragraphs of quite gross description of Japanese toilets. Why are the British focused on toilets? And whatever gave Brooker the impression that, as a member of a nation whose public toilets (not to mention its chocolate!) are universally poor-to-terrible, he is the best person to judge Japan’s extremely high standards of hygiene? Of course, toilet habits are a fundamental example of the way in which cultures differ, and a culturally introspective look at Japanese toilet habits could be an ideal opportunity for a Londoner like Brooker to discover that actually, his own culture has a lot to learn on this front. But instead it’s again a way of depicting the Japanese as weird and different, and these two paragraphs manage to incorporate a nod to the classical/modern binary of Japanese life, a good bit of British toilet humour, and bemusement at Japanese weirdness, all in one. To his credit Brooker finishes it with a sentence about machines overthrowing humans that serves to reunite Japanese and British as having cultural commonality; this is nice. But there is no chance to compare this with a British pub toilet – I bet Brooker doesn’t dare take a crap in your average British pub toilet, as just the stink alone would hurt his brain.

The remainder of the article, however, is good stuff, giving impressions of TV from the perspective of someone who apparently doesn’t speak any Japanese. Once he’s on his favourite ground (TV commentary) Brooker ditches the cultural-analysis stereotypes and manages to give a fairly nice description of how Japanese TV looks if you don’t understand Japanese. He also is much more introspective here, making jokes about crazy Japanese game shows without missing the point that reality TV is just as degrading and terrible a phenomenon. The use of the word “yelping” is a bit unfortunate in the context of a man in a country where he doesn’t understand the language, but overall it’s good. I think he’s wrong about the content of Japanese TV ads though: they aren’t mostly about food, they’re mostly about hair products.

Anyway, I’ll be watching this series of articles by Brooker with interest to see if he can rise above his colonialist heritage to give a genuinely interesting analysis of Japanese cultural life. I think he can do it, though I’m doubtful about whether he’ll be at all aware of how much he privileges his own cultural viewpoint. Japan is an almost completely blank slate to the British – the “far East” is something they know almost nothing about, in my experience. If he can give them a slightly deeper insight into Japan than “they’re weird and nothing makes sense” then he’ll have achieved something. Here’s hoping …


I have just finished the immensely enjoyable Game of Thrones TV series, which is a thoroughly excellent and engrossing viewing experience and a fine addition to the genre. I don’t really have any substantive criticisms to level against it, except that it was too short. Oh, and that it was awesomely misogynist, and this misogyny was clearly intended as part of the fabric of the setting. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it’s my terrible bleeding-heart leftism, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to ignore this kind of thing in TV and movies. Not in the “I refuse to give those bastards my money” kind of way, but just in the “I can’t help noticing it, and I’m a bit sick of it,” kind of way. I’ve noticed this in a few TV shows recently and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say two things: a) it didn’t used to happen and b) it’s a particular problem in modern interpretations of imagined (i.e. fantasy or historical) settings. There might also be a bit of c) modern writers think this is essential to establishing “authenticity” in non-contemporary settings, but whether or not I touch on this we’ll decide as the rant continues.

Before I discuss this in more detail, though, a few points about A Game of Thrones. I don’t know how true the TV show is to the books, how much swearing and foul language there was in the books and how much Martin’s work was intended to be “gritty,” “dark” or “realistic.” I get the impression it was meant to be all these things, but I don’t know because I haven’t read the books. I’m guessing there must be something in the books to spur this kind of interpretation in the TV show, but then again – when the Sci-Fi channel made A Wizard of Earthsea they swapped the skin tones of the main characters, and Studio Ghibli completely fucked up the underlying philosophy of the same book, so … anything can happen in TV. So in discussing the TV show I’m going to talk about it largely on its own merits.

So, let’s have a look at the misogyny in A Game of Thrones and the way it establishes the setting, and its essential unreality; we’ll look at some other modern creations (Deadwood, The Walking Dead and True Blood) for comparison, and then we’ll take some old ideas from Susan Faludi to examine whether what we’re looking at is a generational phenomenon in the TV/movie industry. Or is it just HBO? And maybe we’ll call on Rosanne Barr for support.

The Misogyny in A Game of Thrones

This TV Show (henceforth referred to as ‘Thrones) is rich with misogyny, primarily expressed through the language used by the main characters, though supported by the nature of the depictions of sex and the prevalence of certain industries (sex work and slavery) and their depiction in the show. There is a further element to the language used, though, which elevates the misogyny beyond mere deprecating language to create an atmosphere in which the female characters are constantly viewed in terms of their sexual vulnerability, and reduced to little more than sexual organs. This is the essence of misogyny – it’s not just bad language, or sexualized language, but an atmosphere of simultaneous sexualization and victimization of the female characters. In ‘Thrones this is very useful for setting the context of, for example, the Khaleesi‘s behaviour (or that of Stark’s youngest daughter, Arya), so that their resistance to suppression and attempts to rise above their status as women are all the more valiant for the fraught context. It also, however, creates a very unpleasant and exhausting environment for the viewer – something which on the one hand is quite good, as it makes the setting richer and more alien, but on the other hand is quite horrible since it leaves you thinking all the male characters are worthless scum, and makes it harder to sympathize with them.

It is this atmosphere of sexualization that I’m primarily interested in here, though the use of words like cunt, bitch, slut and whore continuously throughout the series is a type of misogyny in itself. A couple of examples of the use of language to create a pervasive and detailed atmosphere of misogyny are:

  • Sex as a conquest metaphor: when approaching the Aerie, a castle on a promontory, someone in the approaching group says “This is the aerie, it’s said to be impregnable.” Of course, impregnable has multiple meanings, but someone else in the group has to make the sense of sex-as-conquest explicit by redefining the particular meaning of impregnable in this case: “Give me 10 men with grappling ropes and I’d get the bitch pregnant.” A perfectly natural choice of phrase at this point would be “I’d capture it” or “I’d take it” (or even her), which leaves the sexualized nature of pregnability implicit, or even chooses not to use it. There’s nothing inconceivable about these alternative choices of phrase. But the chosen phrase changes the meaning of the original statement, and sets an atmosphere of sexual menace over the simple task of visiting a castle (this isn’t helped when we witness the breast-feeding activities going on in the castle, but that’s a separate story…)
  • Degradation of the conception process: “Boy, you were nothing until I squirted you into your mother,” one lord tells one of his sons, in a meeting with Stark’s wife. This choice of words is both brutal and very pithily expresses the relative roles of lord, lady and younger son. It also brings to the fore the role of woman as penetrable or as a vessel – something that commonly happens in the dialogue in this show. They don’t just talk about “having sex” or “conceiving” or “fucking,” but about going inside, being inside, penetrating. They revel in explicit discussion of the nature of the cunt. But it also denigrates that place and its role, using crude or everyday language to reduce the sexual and conception process into mere plumbing, crassly expressed. What is a woman, but a bucket you squirt into?
  • Explaining the cunt: at one point, a guy who has been signed up to the Nightwatch tells another member “I’ll never be inside a woman again.” Again we see the man describing the sexual process explicitly in terms of the nature of the cunt. He isn’t just talking about not getting to have sex; he is talking about the details of the process. And he isn’t talking about women as a desirable thing in and of themselves (“I’ll never touch a woman again,” “I’ll never enjoy a woman in my bed,” etc). He’s talking about the one part of a woman that has any value in this show.

Simultaneously with this language, ‘Thrones also sets out a world where women are extremely vulnerable and sexual predation is the norm. We see this in many ways throughout the story, and some of them fall into classic misogynist tropes:

  • The threat of child rape: the most shocking example of this is Arya, a girl of about 10, being told she will be raped if she doesn’t make herself look like a boy. But it is also implicit in the treatment of her older sister at court, who from the moment of her promise to Joffrey begins increasingly to seem like a girl at risk of being used, rather than treasured
  • The omnipresence of rape: The Khaleesi‘s story starts as rape, though it changes later; criminals on the Wall are often referred to as rapists, perhaps more often than is strictly necessary given the relative proportion of these crimes in society; basically every time the dol’thraci go to war they commit mass rape, and it is accepted and ignored by all involved (and spoken of as if it were merely scratching an itch). This is a vision of a mediaeval society where rape is a standard accoutrement of masculinity
  • The rock-star vision of sex work: sex workers (or “whores” as they are universally referred to) are a continuous presence in ‘Thrones, and they are treated in much the same way as they are imagined in the world of rock stars. In this vision, sex workers are all very beautiful, very sexually excited, very engaging, they love their work and everything they do is done just like a lover, only with more energy. No one ever gets any diseases from them, and they are all young and pretty. They also all love having sex with each other. This is pretty far from the reality of sex work, and there is way too much sex work in this show to start with – it’s as if the writers think that the entire world consists of housewives or sex workers, and there’s so many that every nobleman can find 6 to play with at the drop of a hat – and they’ll all be pretty and willing. It’s a rock-star’s vision of an industry that, I have no doubt, most of the producers have never experienced first hand. This madonna/whore stereotype is a classic sexist trope, which serves to establish “good” women in their place, who men in any case don’t like having sex with and “squirt” themselves into for the sake of heredity; and “bad” women, who men actually enjoy spending time with but sneer at for their fallen status. It’s an unrealistic and misogynist vision of women.
  • Death as sex: In one telling conversation, the King and his mates are swapping remiscences about their “first,” which turns out to be the first man they killed. The conversation is set up so it seems they’re talking about sex until they elaborate a little, and it’s clearly intended to equate death and sex. Have the producers been reading Andrea Dworkin? Or did they just feel like giving her (hugely controversial) theories a massive leg-up?
  • Unmatched sexual depictions: the only time we see a cock in 10 episodes is on a spy being dragged to death on a horse, and on a very old man who is clearly being depicted as a bit silly. Yet we constantly see tits and arse. This is a common representational inequality used when the viewer is assumed to be male, and serves to preserve the power of men as characters separate from their sexuality, while constantly reminding us that women are only sexualized.

So this is the atmosphere of ‘Thrones: a combination of classic sexist and misogynist imagery and story components, combined with intensely misogynist language intended to define women as sexual objects and to render them continually sexualized whenever they are onscreen. This is the world that our producers have imagined for us. But in many ways it is a highly unrealistic representation of the way men talk and think about women. Not only is the sex work as depicted here completely divorced from reality, but the language the men use is not language that ordinary men use in conversation with each other. When was the last time my male reader(s) said to another man “I like being inside a woman,” or talked in anyway about women in terms of inside and outside, or even described any aspect of their cunts? How many of my readers would take the word “impregnable” as an opportunity for a rape reference? Has anyone here ever met the kind of man who would talk about “squirting” into a woman? Now, it might be argued that this is the language of the times, that men were different back then – if so, how come Eddard Stark never once uses language like this, and eschews “whores” due to a single historical mistake? Stark is clearly the character we the viewers are most meant to sympathize with, and he has clearly modern values. The other character we most sympathize with is the Khaleesi. She has values that are out of step with her own culture’s (witness her brother’s behaviour, or that of the men at court) but also of her adopted culture’s (she protects women from rape while the women around her ignore it as a necessity of war). This makes me think that the producers know that their viewers will be uncomfortable with the values they are presenting for their world. So why do they go to such lengths to create this environment?

Misogyny in Other Creations

I originally thought of titling this post “A Game of Thrones and the Misogyny of HBO” but I checked their past programming and they have a wide and diverse range of shows, some of which are very non-misogynist. Some of their other shows are, though, and I think the one that springs to mind quickest is Deadwood. Outside the HBO fold some good examples of very sexist (if not misogynist, for those who wish to make the distinction) shows are Mad Men and The Walking Dead. In the case of Deadwood, the producer has defended his use of words like cocksucker and fuck even though historical evidence suggests that the word cocksucker is a post-WW2 invention, and in the era of Deadwood men did not use sexual terms in non-sexual contexts. i.e. this whole image of fucking and sucking cocks as a derogatory concept is much more modern than these shows would have us believe. In The Walking Dead we see modern folk cast into a very pre-modern world, living as hunter-gatherers in a zombie apocalypse. They largely retain modern values about language and its use, but revert to very traditional gender roles.

I think what we’re seeing here is a belief that “authenticity” requires misogyny and sexism, and a subsequent exaggeration of the nature of this misogyny, or even an imposition of modern understanding of what misogyny is onto a very different world and setting. This is most obvious in Deadwood, where we know that historically most swearing was blasphemy-oriented, but in the show the blasphemy has largely been dropped in favour of sexualized insults. It’s gangster-rap as a template for historical sexism. We’re not seeing a historically authentic brand of sexism, but the producer’s image of how men behave when they’re given complete power over women. I think this says more about the writers and producers than it does about the historical setting they are imagining. As further evidence, consider True Blood, which imagines a perfectly modern setting steeped with magic and violence. Here we occasionally witness misogyny and hear this type of language, but largely we see a world where women prey on men and women, men prey on men and women, and all’s fair in the war of the sexes. Obviously one could say this is because vampirism equalizes gender differences, but the decision to adapt these books to TV was a choice made: and I note that when people choose to make fantasy stories in the modern era (such as Buffy, or the soon-to-be-released American Gods) they choose novels that make it easy for them to tell stories that don’t require misogyny or sexual violence. I have a suspicion that the writers of these shows choose very carefully so that the imagined worlds they create are misogynist, but the fantasy stories of modernity are not.

Why do they do this? I think that they do this because this generation of writers is more misogynist than their viewers. We have a lot of evidence we can call on to examine this possibility, because we can compare modern stories with older stories, and ask ourselves what has changed.

Trends in writing, and the Backlash

Susan Faludi’s Backlash describes the trend in 80s and 90s cultural products (particularly film) towards sexist and/or misogynist stories that are much worse than the material produced in the 70s, and she characterizes this as the result of a backlash against the feminist gains of the 60s and 70s. This backlash occurred across society, but is most easily seen in the movies and TV shows of the era. I think this backlash is still ongoing, but as men of a new generation have become increasingly used to women’s workplace rights, perhaps it becomes increasingly evident in the one area where laws can’t affect our relations with each other – cultural representations of sexuality. As women become more equal in bed, some TV shows increasingly try to react against this through a specifically misogynist, sexualized backlash.

Susan Faludi described the particularly vehement response to the TV comedy Rosanne, which I recall as being a quite funny and very realistic look into the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans. This show was noteworthy for being very popular, but also being an extremely realistic insight into real life. It had fat characters, it treated inter-racial friendship as normal, and the family was a working class family completely disconnected from the fantasy of shows like Beverly Hills 90210. Faludi’s description of the backlash against this show is interesting, because it shows a range of highly gendered language used to attack Rosanne Barr, and also a great deal of discomfort about the idea of TV shows reflecting real life. Rosanne Barr herself describes the writing process of the early 90s as extremely sexist and openly degrading to women, and it’s no surprise that this persists into the modern era.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re supposed to have come far since the 60s, but consider a few simple comparisons. Which is more sexist – Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones? It could be argued that this is a fault of the genre – LoTR is high fantasy, while ‘Thrones is meant to be all dark and gritty and realistic. I don’t think this defence works, because Robin Of Sherwood was envisaged as a gritty and dark take on the Robin Hood stories, and it managed to completely eschew any sense of misogyny while carefully constructing an extremely authentic representation of a sexist mediaeval world. I also think it can be argued quite reasonably that women are better represented in the original Dawn of the Dead than they are in The Walking Dead. I’m willing to bet (though I haven’t seen it) that The Wire is much more misogynist than Cagney and Lacey. Choices are being made about which stories to show and how to show them, and somehow between the 70s and now, the concept of authenticity in post-apocalyptic or fantastic worlds has come to be equated with misogyny. I think this is a generational change, and its origin in the 80s and 90s is well described by Susan Faludi.

The implications

The really frustrating aspect of this is that we don’t have any control over the political messages that are put into the work we watch, and in general, because we’re rational adults, we tend not to boycott shows that are misogynist or politically very unpleasant if they’re also very well made (which most of the shows I’ve referenced are). We enjoy them despite their political flaws, especially if they’re in a genre (like fantasy) that has historically been mostly crappy. I think the writers know this, and they know that they can present whatever political vision they like if they’re doing a good job on the show itself. So we continue to sit through the unnecessarily vile language, the misogyny and the unnecessary rape- and sex-work stories (and, in fact, the unnecessary sex scenes and gore) because we’re watching the show for non-superficial reasons.

The best example I can think of for this is internet porn. Internet porn is free. We watch it because we like porn. But (for Western porn, anyway) the majority of the free downloadable porn is full of vile misogynist language and some stuff that, I think, most men don’t care to see and wouldn’t ask for if they could commission their own movie – dp, face fucking, etc. But we watch it anyway, because we want to look past that stuff to see what we’re fundamentally interested in: pretty girls fucking. The people who make this stuff know this, so they present us with their politicized vision of sex, and we sift out the politics so we can enjoy the sex. Because it’s free, and in any case the market is saturated with these images, we have to tolerate all this stuff we don’t want in order to see a good fuck. The same is true of a good fantasy story or post-apocalyptic world. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s just that we have no way to send the message to the producers except to not watch what is, otherwise, excellent stuff.

I imagine a lot of people will mistake this for a PC rant about sexism in art, and assume I’m calling for some kind of boycott or censorship or something (this is the internet, after all). It’s not, and I’m not. It’s not that I don’t or can’t watch this stuff, it’s just that I’m sick of watching shows where all the female characters are hysterical or weak; I’m sick of being told that women exist only to be fucked, or that any world where women don’t have the same rights as men has to be necessarily imagined as a sexually torrid and rape-centric barbarian’s paradise. I’m sick of people mistaking swearing for toughness (just as I’m sick of rock videos where people mistake tattoos for rebellion). This shit doesn’t represent the real world, or real relations between men and women, and I don’t think it’s particularly representative of the historical reality of how people lived their lives before women could vote or control their bodies. I hate being told by defenders of this kind of stuff (like the producer of Deadwood) that it’s authentic, and therefore must be unsettling or confronting, when even superficial investigation reveals it’s not authentic, and it’s actually an ahistorical impression of the writer’s imagination of how a sexist world works. I don’t need to be reminded that women have cunts. I’ve had sex with lots of women, I like cunts very much thank you, and when I see a pretty girl I am certainly capable of wanting to fuck her; but that doesn’t mean I see women as cunts, or think of them only in terms of their cunts and of being inside them, or that I want to watch stories about a world where women are constantly vulnerable to being fucked. I can imagine a perfectly good sexist world without being reminded about the pervasive (but very low) risk of rape for those women.  Rape is nasty, and I don’t need to be reminded of it every time I want an hour’s escapism in a fantasy world. This doesn’t make me squeamish, and I don’t need some idiot from Hollywood who can’t have sex without paying for it telling me that I don’t have the cajones to think about reality. Because none of this is meant to be reality, and I don’t watch TV stories about dragon-summoning Khaleesi so that I can be reminded of the worst aspects of reality, especially when those worst aspects are probably largely in the imagination of some woman-hating dweeb.

Also, I like to be able to watch TV with my partner, and sometimes she gets a bit sick of being subjected to show after show in which she is told that, as a woman, she is weak or hysterical or vulnerable or good only for sex. Maybe one day she’ll stop watching fantasy, historical drama, and sci-fi shows if they keep being like this, and then I’ll have to watch them by myself, which is not as much fun.

So, if you’re reading this, TV writers and producers: can you try and do a bit better? I know it’s really hard for you to understand real women, and it’s easier to make a world superficially authentic with a bit of swearing and blatant misogyny, but it’s a mark of your skill as a writer if you can do better than this. So why don’t you give it a go, you might surprise yourself. You might even find that people respect you a little more.

A new style of television that is part horror, part sci-fi, part drama and part comedy, Psychoville represents a huge artistic step forward for the makers of the League of Gentlemen. Of course, when we use the word “artistic” in connection with something by this group we don’t mean “beautiful” or “aesthetically pleasing”; but a step forward it undeniably is. They have taken the basic comic horror format of that original (brilliant) show and developed it to a new level of drama. This new drama combines the creepiness and horror of the original League of Gentlemen with poignant human drama developed between carefully constructed characters, whose motivations unfold in great detail over the course of just six episodes. The characters are developed in great depth over a mere 6 episodes, some (like the fag-hag Hatty) drawing on classic stereotypes to build classic horror characters; while others, like Mr. Jolly (“keeps kids quiet!”) show a depth of creative talent that is hard to believe is possible in such a short format. Simultaneously repulsive, engaging and affecting, Mr. Jolly the failing clown is a leap forward in comic horror. For examples of his brilliance, see the Clown Court (poor quality) or the Clown Funeral. The Sourbutts (mother and son) show the true creativity of this team, though. They are very, very disturbing in their closeness and their hobbies, hilarious in their stupidities, very touching in their human warmth, and ultimately a great example of a sad and close familial relationship. I think this is a new form of television, in which the grotesque and classically horrific is combined with comedy and real human drama. The development of the Sourbutt relationship over two short seasons – a total of only 12 episodes – shows, I think, really tight and carefully developed writing, as well as extreme acting skill.

These achievements are made all the more memorable by the fact that most of the main characters are played by the same three (?) people. Occasionally the make-up breaks and you can see what they’re up to but mostly it’s brilliant. But in this show – unlike League of Gentlemen – they have not used excessive levels of macabre to hide the effects. The differences are carried by the acting, and the careful mixing of the separate stories across the series so the viewer never becomes accustomed to any single person in the play. The plot itself is also very clever, drawing together disparate stories and mixing in new ones where necessary to bring a group of seemingly completely unrelated people together into a very carefully integrated story. In both seasons the climax is very clever and complete, drawing together even the smallest parts of the previous episodes to make a complete whole. Anyone who GMs regularly knows how hard this is to do, and a lot of screenwriters have failed in this task at the last hurdle, but the creators have done a sterling job of drawing the threads of the story together to a satisfying end.

This style of television is definitely not to everyone’s tastes. It’s by turns disgusting, pathetic and disturbing; sometimes the make-up fails and the viewer is left depending on their own willingness to suspend disbelief. But if you can stomach the terrible characters and the occasional excesses, you will witness something new being created for television. The whole thing is on youtube, and I recommend watching it if you have the chance, if only so you can watch masters of plot and acting in the fullness of their craft – or alternatively, just for the clown court…

On the recommendation of a friend I watched this 5 episode arc of Torchwood, and I was stunned by its brilliance. Torchwood is some kind of Dr. Who spin-off, which means that by rights I should hate it (I’m not a big fan of the good Doctor). It is about a UFO investigation unit based in Cardiff – yes, Cardiff – consisting of 2 humans and some kind of god straight out of the UFO universe, Dr. Jack Harkness, who wears a really badly clashing and naff combination of military overcoats and chinos, and can’t be killed by any means. This is a weird combination of people. Also Jack is in some kind of gay relationship with another investigator of undisclosed name (which could be Yantov but is impossible to understand in the show). So I suppose it’s an X-Files/Dr. Who/6′ Under kind of crossover show, made in England.

Hardly an auspicious beginning.

However, the series was brilliant in the best tradition of brilliant British TV – that is, dialogue, acting and tense pace sufficient to kill any costuming or special effects flaws. The premise is contact with an alien race who do some very bad things to kiddies, and a subsequently increasingly nasty series of increasingly immoral decisions that various people have to make, mostly in the best interests of everyone but themselves. It takes the kind of parlour-room, drunken moral debates we all had when we were 12 – would you kill 1 to save a thousand? and other assorted blandness – to a stunning and brilliant conclusion, in which you can’t fault anyone for putting aside their conscience, but everyone comes out looking very very bad. The final scenes involve breaking so many of the kind of taboo images that TV thrives on that one has to be satisfied. And best of all, the whole thing is carried off without even the slightest hint of a skerrick of a whiff of even the smallest implication that the taboos are being broken just in order to shock, or that the moral decisions involved are just university debating school stuff. By the beginning of the 4th episode I really felt like I was caught up in a life-and-death, future-of-the-race kind of moral decision, not a cheap university debate about whether I would rather kill the dog or the baby.

This of course is the essence of good science fiction, and so rarely done on tv or film – to try and use the speculative elements of the genre to create the kind of moral and intellectual positions which are not believable in normal fiction. And Torchwood does it at its best.

The plot is also blessedly free of inconsistencies or mistakes. There were a few things I thought could maybe have been done faintly better (I won’t list them here due to their intense spoileriness), but in discussion with others who have viewed the show I haven’t been able to conclude that they were very crucial or very obvious mistakes, so they’re probably just a matter of personal preference. And it is a rare series of tv episodes where everything just slots together in a complex and multi-layered story. Well done, Torchwood.

Also, finally, I thought the gay lead was done very well. It wasn’t until the show was over that I really even stopped to think about whether or not it had been done well, because it just fitted in. Sure, the gay thing was presented as unusual and surprising by family members who didn’t know, but it was presented to the viewer – treated like a privileged friend and ally of the lead characters, of course – it was presented as completely normal. This also is very rare in television.

I heartily recommend this show – 5 hours of gripping tv from beginning to end.