Do men only want to watch fellow men on screen?

Single, middle-aged women are now a disappearing alien race on television. Why?

Back in February, Mike White floated his theory on male and female protagonists on television and movie screens to Vulture: “If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie,” he said. “It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. That’s just how it is.” His words brought up a half-forgotten memory; a 2005 study at Queen Mary, University of London into the reading habits of the sexes made a finding similar to White’s: while women seem happy to read the works of both male and female authors, men stick to books written by men. Mike White is more qualified than most to make that kind of statement. After all, he’s a Hollywood veteran – working as a writer, actor, director and producer across television and cinema. His latest show, comedy-drama Enlightened, was only recently cancelled by HBO after just two (critically acclaimed but audience-shy) seasons. Is he right? Do men only want to watch fellow men on screen?

I’ve not seen a full episode of Enlightened, which stars Laura Dern as a formerly high-flying executive who re-assesses her life after a nervous breakdown and rehab, and becomes a "do-gooder". But I have seen several clips and read what feels like a million think pieces on what Dern’s somewhat unlikeable character Amy Jellicoe means for women, both in the context of modern Western femaleness, and in the current television landscape. Whatever she may have been, she seems excellently written and acted – Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance – and the show (which she co-created with White) was nominated in the Best Series category as well. On that point alone, it’s a shame that it’s been cancelled. Because despite what sometimes feels like a crowded space, filled with interesting, dynamic and human female characters, there is still room for more. How do we get audiences watching these women? Pressingly, how do we get men to watch these shows?

The most talked and written about TV show of the last year or so has been Girls. It, too, is a product of the HBO stable. Like Enlightened, it is co-executive produced by its (white, female) star, in this case Lena Dunham, who has also won Golden Globes in the same categories as Enlightened. The two shows have more in common: a flawed, not-so-easy-to-like lead character, who almost gleefully falls down and rolls around in her flaws to the bemusement of others; with time, a change of coast and continued, uninterrupted and concentrated narcissism, Hannah could quite easily turn into Amy, I think. But then the shows begin to differ. The biggest difference is the one of age – there are so few examples of Amy’s demographic i.e. single women over 40, that to casually snuff one out, especially one with the chops and growing clout of Enlightened, seems almost cruel. A short piece by Sasha Stone entitled "Women Not Naked" sums up another glaring difference: the absence of naked breasts and pubis. Stone succinctly calls out the problem in paragraph one: “Sex that shit up or pay the price.” Is that "all" that was needed? Is that what will get the male audience interested in female-led television? A transgressive sex scene or two, something to jolt audiences out of their stupor when faced with a quiet, subtle and brilliant comedy-drama about an awkward 40-something woman in California? How thoroughly depressing.

Middle-aged women make up a strong, growing demographic when it comes to TV-watching. What will they watch? What do they want to watch? Borgen is great, sure, and Birgitte Nyborg, with her un-Botoxed, perfectly normal face, a fine, solid lead character. So’s The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, and Broadchurch’s (admittedly 39-year-old, so hardly middle-aged) Olivia Colman. There will always be room for maiden aunts and dowager countesses thanks to our continued love affair with costume drama. But wherefore art thou, new Jane Tennison? How come we haven’t seen a good contemporary drama starring someone like Meera Syal or Samantha Bond or Cathy Tyson? Just think of the possibilities with a cast featuring Joanna Lumley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Zawe Ashton as three generations of a north London family...

Back in 2009, Jezebel writer Anna North wrote a piece called “On TV, Single, Middle-Aged Women Are Aliens”. In 2013, they have become even more special: despite being all around, on television, they are part of a disappearing alien race.

Olivia Colman is great. But wherefore art thou, new Jane Tennison? Photograph: Getty Images

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Matthew Lewis/Getty
Show Hide image

120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.