BBC Three’s Clique hides a brutal takedown of fake feminism inside a sly thriller

The online drama, about a competitive intership for women, suggests there is dark side to “leaning in” - and shrugging off workplace sexism. Spoilers ahead!

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In the last year, Clique is not the only BBC Three show which contains a feminist lecture in its opening episode. But unlike in Fleabag, it’s not a laughing matter.

Clique is set at Edinburgh University, where a professor called Jude McDermid (Louise Brealey) runs the Introduction to Macro-Economics course. (“It is as good as they say.”) Her students, including best friends Holly (Synnove Karlsen) and Georgia (Aisling Franciosi), are nervous and excited to hear her first lecture. She begins it unconventionally: with a rant on the problems of modern feminism.

“Women are 51% of the population in this country,” she says. “Bitches got the majority. Say hello to that majority – and then wave it goodbye, because it’s the only one you’ve got. Women are 29% of MPs. You are 22% of university professors. You are 10% of FTSE 100 Directors. We’re not there. So, what’s the problem? Our mums and grannies fixed all this, didn’t they?”

Sexism? Is that the problem?

“No,” McDermid insists. “Sexism is a problem in the developing world. The problem here, ladies, is you. You are the ones moaning on Tumblr. You are the ones who’ve made yourselves a victim in every office. You are the ones banging on about the pay gap, when you should be getting on with your career. You are the problem.”

“Feminism in this country has been infected with misinformation and an obsession with being offended. I am here to help you reclaim it. I am not here to help you joyride because you happen to possess a vagina.”

“If you’re not the best, then don’t waste my time. I don’t like you.”

We learn that Professor McDermid founded The Solasta Women’s Initiative with her brother Alistair McDermid (Emun Elliott), the CEO of a vague company called Solasta Finance. The initiative offers extremely competitive internships at Solasta. The internships are clouded in mystery – the gorgeous, sophisticated students who have bagged them work in departments like “Client Account Management”, and attend constant, glamorous parties, but insist they only do “coffees and photocopying”.

Holly and Georgia are seduced. Even after one intern, Fay, kills herself - seemingly as a direct response to the extreme pressure of the job - they want in.

The more gregarious Georgia is the one to make it in to the "clique" first – serious and academic Holly becomes increasingly worried, and follows her and the other interns to various drug-fuelled parties. Their friendship splinters, taking on on a competitive, claustrophobic edge. “It’s natural that you’d feel a little thrown, a little jealous,” says McDermid, maternally, to Holly.

When Holly implies that this was never a problem before, McDermid asks, “What changed?”

“We met you.”

An almost imperceptible smile passes McDermid’s lips.

The professor seems genuinely pleased to see ambition pass from woman to woman, even if it complicates friendships. She is less interested in fostering support networks between women than she is in empowering them to be selfish – to do things because they want to. She rejects the idea that Holly is simply concerned for Georgia. “It’s because you’re ambitious,” she says. “This isn’t about your friend any more, do you get that?”

Holly concedes. “I want in.”

“So you’re in.”

Holly begins to acknowledge that it is, indeed, her personal ambition that drives her to join the clique. “I want to do something for myself. I need to,” she mutters to herself, echoing Professor McDermid’s encouragement, “Try and engage with what you’re feeling, with what you want.”

Professor McDermid represents a corporate, individualistic feminism, concerned by the lack of female board members and millionaires, which has a similarity to the popular interpretation of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – albeit in more blunt language. Sandberg’s book includes sections called “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”, “Sit at the Table” and “Seek and Speak Your Truth”, and contains advice including “You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around” and “Fortune does favor the bold.” These are essentially the messages McDermid tries to communicate to her students in Clique – push yourself forward, become exceptional. Don’t complain about a lack of opportunities, make them.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with these ideas. In an environment where women are encouraged to take a step back from their careers, to constantly sacrifice their desires for others, it can be extremely beneficial to reframe ambition as positive. But there are problems. Take this Norwegian example, which revealed that eight years after Norway introduced the law on gender equality in boardrooms, there are zero female CEOs in the country’s 60 largest companies.

It can run the risk of creating a culture where the exceptions are used to disprove the rule. One or two successful businesswomen can be pointed at to suggest that there is no gender problem, to downplay the effects of toxic work environments, pay gaps or lack of female staff, and to reduce concerns about those problems to “an obsession with being offended”. This is exactly the kind of environment that McDermid intentionally encourages.

In one scene in episode three, Holly and the other interns, Phoebe, Louise and Rachel, are having dinner with Professor McDermid. Georgia is out – at “boy’s night”. The rest of the girls were pointedly not invited. “Why not?” asks McDermid.

“They think we’re going to report them to HR for making a misogynist joke,” says Rachel.

“Bingo.”

“What? They’re scared of us?” asks Holly.

“Absolutely. They’re scared they’ll get holed up for sexual harassment, or gender slurs, or mansplaining or whatever great injustice the internet mafia has gone mad about this week.”

“Those are real things, though.”

“Yes, they are. But I think we’re teaching women to expect them at every turn. Class every man as a misogynist and you just end up creating more actual misogynists.”

McDermid’s argument is that women should let slights go in order to be included in male-dominated work environments. “How do you expect to be in the thick of things professionally if you’re not there for the conversations? Talk to them. Don’t treat them like predators.” She even suggests that having sex with the odd male colleague wouldn’t be a bad move: “Two consenting adults who are working and sleeping together can sometimes be a productive combination.” To those who disagree, she simply responds, “Apologies for not being constantly offended enough for today’s feminist argument.”

However, don't assume from these extracts that Clique is a slow, talky, discursive show. It's mostly a sly thriller with little time for in-depth debates about discourse. It smothers its political message in suspense.

Cracks soon begin to appear in the group. After Fay commits suicide, Georgia begins having panic attacks. Holly and Georgia’s relationship gets even worse, and the other interns become increasingly divided. One in particular becomes the glue holding everyone together: the glamorous, efficient Rachel (Rachel Hurd-Wood), personal assistant to CEO Alistair, who always knows exactly what to stay to stop each intern from leaving the clique.

As the series progresses, McDermid is faced with a rude awakening. For all her insistence that these five exceptional women are protected from sexist work environments by their own tenacity, she is suddenly faced with irrefutable evidence that her own brother, Alistair, has been using the interns to execute illegal business deals. A short while later, she realises he’s told them to sleep with clients.

McDermid is horrified to realise her own role in the company’s dark side. “It’s like you said,” Georgia tells her. “Once you get over yourself, it doesn’t need to be a huge deal.”

“What I said?”

“What you taught me. Use what you’ve got. Like the men do.”

McDermid later realises it gets much worse. Her brother has systematically raping interns Fay and Georgia, and allowing clients to do the same. She has to face her own complicity in her brother’s actions. “You’re a fucking rapist. What is wrong with you?” she shouts at him. The extent of his misogyny is revealed when he spits back, “You bred this little tribe of nasty, jumped-up, backstabbing little bitches. I can’t be responsible for every mad impulse an unstable woman has.” She asks him to leave. “It was you too, Jude,” he insists. “You helped me build this.”

To McDermid’s horror, many of the interns rally around Alistair. Rachel continues to spend every second by his side, and Georgia even appears on BBC News to label the accusations ridiculous. “He helps women achieve,” she says, and adds, in a dark echo of McDermid’s comments about a culture of hypervigilance, “I think it’s a shame that that immediately brings distrust and judgement down on you.”

McDermid comes to the house one more time. “We used to talk, you and me. You used to tell me things,” she says to Rachel. “Suddenly you’re just talking to my brother.”

“You mean doing the job you set me up for?” Rachel responds, her face suggesting she had far more to do with Alistair’s violence than McDermid suspects. “Everyone had their game to play. You couldn’t keep up, and now, things are happening without you.”

“I don’t know you at all, do I?” McDermid says with a dull futility.

McDermid is fired from her teaching post at the university, but not before trying her best to defend herself. “I was fighting for those girls to realise their full potential,” she tells her boss.

“You were teaching those girls something some of them were not equipped to understand,” she counters.

“I was teaching them to be pragmatic!”

“And it backfired.”

Clique’s finale has improbable twists and turns that make prevent it from becoming any kind of  morality tale – knife-wielding, blood-thirsty Rachel is revealed to be a friend from Holly’s childhood, desperate to recreate the high she felt when the two of them accidentally sent a young child over a towering cliff to her death. But despite this oversaturated image of a violent power-hungry woman, Clique doesn’t suggest that ambition is evil, or that women in positions of corporate power are inherently anti-feminist: it ends with a house of pyjama-clad girls discussing the exciting opportunities they have lined up for the future.

But it does suggest that putting the onus onto the individual effort of exceptional women, and spotlighting their achievements and potential, can allow systemic sexism to continue unnoticed, or even enable sinister workplace environments. Turns out cliques aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.