Just a material girl

The writers of this sex discrimination drama can't avoid their own prejudices

<strong>Sex, the Cit

For this week's column, I am indebted to my friend Fred (not his real name), a high-rolling banker. It was to Fred that I turned after watching Sex, the City and Me (17 June, 9pm), a drama about a City trader called Jessica (Sarah Parish) who returned from maternity leave to find that her clients had been donated to her colleagues and her bonus humiliatingly reduced. When she decided to sue for unfair dismissal, the bank played dirty. Among other things, it gave photographs of her at a lap-dancing club to a tabloid in an attempt to suggest that she had dubious morals.

The first scenario seemed par for the course to me. Disappearing jobs are a horrifyingly common post-baby phenomenon. But the second worried me, as did the men's bad behaviour in general, which was explicit to the point of being cartoonish. In my experience, most discriminatory behaviour is cunningly unspoken; that's why it's so hard to fight. Had the film's writers, Simon Bent and Philippa Lowthorpe, exaggerated for dramatic effect?

So I asked Fred. Are women really still expected to join their male colleagues in taking clients to lap-dancing clubs? "Oh, sure," he said, raising his eyebrows sardonically. I then listed every heinous crime that the bank and its boys had committed, from going to the tabloids to making it dangerous for any big-name lawyer to take on Jessica's case (the only solicitor who wasn't too scared was Ruth, a cupboard-dwelling, chain-smoking über-feminist, played by Sarah Lancashire). In each case, he told me not just that the scenario was possible, but that he knew of specific instances in which such a thing had actually happened.

If I tell you that Fred is a Bush-supporting preppy - the very last kind of guy you would expect to see at a knit-your-own-orgasm workshop - you will understand why I have no reason to doubt his information. This was scary. Usually, it's me telling everyone who'll listen that men basically hate women. Now I was cast as the naive bubblehead.

But while I might not know much about the City, I do know that, having done their research on working practices, Bent and Lowthorpe were unable to resist sexual stereotyping away from the trading floor. Jessica was a high-flying ball-breaker whose oleaginous boss, Michael (played with lizard-like charm by Ben Miles), thought she could go all the way.

She was clever, ruthless and organised. Yet here she was, getting pregnant by accident. Yeah, right. Why is it that women are never, not even in crusading dramas such as this one, allowed to be complex? Why must they always be one thing, or another? A successful banker, it seems, is not allowed to want a child and a £1m bonus.

Nor, when this unplanned child arrived, was she allowed to be good at being a mother. Jessica was driven, and therefore unmaternal. Her sister, on the other hand, lived in the quinoa-eating capital of Britain, Stoke Newington, and was all lovely and milky. When Jessica was fired from the bank, she didn't sympathise; instead, she thought it a blessing.

But it got worse. As the date for Jessica's employment tribunal loomed, her husband - a wet music journalist - left her, unable to deal with the muck the bank had thrown at them. Boy, I resented this. It seemed to me that an element of Daily Mail-style punishment was now being introduced. Career women, be warned: you're basically unlovable. Jessica even told her mother that his departure was her own fault; she'd pushed him away. When, after she had won her case (and £3m in compensation), he returned to the family home, the implication was that her battle had made her a nicer, more humble person - the kind of woman that a man could be reasonably expected to put up with.

This is really not on. Apart from anything, it was just so bloody inconsistent. The Jessica we'd seen bawling stock prices at the start of the film would have told her drippy ex that she was sick of paying the bills and of his incessant moaning. She would have told him, quite rightly, to get stuffed.

Pick of the week

The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair
23 June, 7pm, Channel 4
The PM's friends and foes make allegedly candid contributions.

The Time of Your Life
25 June, 9pm, ITV1
Part two of moderately clever drama: girl emerging from 18-year coma.

Crisis at the Castle
Starts 27 June, BBC4
The Dent-Brocklehursts attempt to save their very big house.

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 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture