Police line-up: the cast of Danny Boyle's Babylon. Image: Channel 4.
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Channel 4's Babylon: not much cop

So much seemed right about this show, but it failed to deliver a grin.

Babylon
Channel 4

I saw the moderately hyped Babylon (9 February, 9pm) around the time PC Keith Wallis was jailed for a year for lying during the “Plebgate” affair: in other words, at a moment when I should have been predisposed to enjoy a programme that supposedly takes the piss out of the Metropolitan Police, or a force much like it. In the end, not even my savage and no doubt tumour-inducing feelings about the way so many areas of public life now seem to be corrupted could power me through the muddle on-screen.

Ostensibly, so much was so right: the director (Danny Boyle – yes, that Danny Boyle); the writers (Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show and Fresh Meat); the cast (Paterson Joseph, Nicola Walker and, best of all, Bertie Carvel, trying successfully to put his role as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda behind him). And yet, so much was wrong. It was uncomfortable in a bad way and a bit boring; the jokes – aren’t coppers thick? – were awful.

The set-up (this was a pilot; doubtless a series is on the way) goes like this. Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), the chief constable of the Metropolitan Police, has hired a new PR chief, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), whose Ted talk he saw online and droolingly admired. Garvey is a fox but she also talks PR drivel. Her last job was at Instagram and she’s apt to drone on about transparency and “owning” stuff. When she holds her first meeting with her hard-pressed police press officers, she wanders through them like Moses and they part like the Red Sea. Her rival in her new role is Finn (Carvel). He’s old school: the Met equivalent of Malcolm Tucker, by which I mean he’s always hanging out by the urinals, making secret calls to the Mirror.

Garvey’s first day proved to be trying. Not only was Finn trying to stitch her up, but there was a shooter at large in the city, victims falling by the minute. Meanwhile, a television crew was trying to get her to sign off an episode of its documentary about one of her units and the mayor’s office was stealing all of the good news. A side plot (the show was amazingly overburdened) involved one of the TV company’s cameramen joining a patrol unit whose most voluble member, Robbie (Adam Deacon), was a moron even by the half-witted standards of his colleagues: semi-illiterate and with a fuse as short as my fingernails.

Another side plot involved a copper who had shot and killed a member of the public returning to work, even though he was clearly troubled. It’s something of an understatement to say that this copper’s post-traumatic stress disorder sat rather oddly in the mix. Having invited us to laugh at policemen for their immense and unparalleled stupidity, their extraordinary inability ever to tell the truth, their crazed lust for unnecessary overtime and their tendency to regard members of the public as “scrotes”, we were suddenly expected to have sympathy for one.

Even this wasn’t as odd as some of the performances. Marling was great and so was Carvel – but elsewhere, the overacting was like a contagion. It was hard not to feel, sometimes, that this was little more than a glossy, very-pleased-with-itself version of Ben Elton’s 1990s sitcom The Thin Blue Line. A special nod on this score to Nesbitt, who wore an “I’m doing comedy” expression on his face throughout, a rictus that seemed especially weird given how little Babylon made me laugh – or even smile in recognition.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.