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?