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5 June 2024

Queenie is a crude parody of real women

The charmless TV adaptation of Candice Carty-Williams’s novel is full of cliché, cod psychology and faux empowerment.

By Rachel Cooke

I very nearly began this review by writing that Queenie, an eight-part series adapted by Candice Carty-Williams from her bestselling novel of the same name, isn’t meant for me. But no, that would have been a cop-out. Good art – even half-decent art – has a universality: a fine writer can make anyone interested in anything.

The truth is that this isn’t for me not because of its Gen Z milieu, but because it’s bad. It isn’t funny or witty or moving; the plot, like the dialogue, is crude and frequently ugly; the characterisation is perilously close to caricature.

As for all the clever, threshold-breaking notions it believes it has – mostly, they’re to do with women, men and friendship – others have long since been here before, and with far greater skill and empathy (Bridget Jones, Sex and the City, Fleabag, I May Destroy You). In the end, the only thing Queenie has going for it is Dionne Brown, who plays its eponymous heroine – and even she struggles to breathe life into lines at once so inert and desperately laboured. 

If you’ve read the novel, you’ll remember that Queenie works at a rag called “the Daily Read”. Naturally, it doesn’t resemble any newspaper that has ever existed – I should know, kids! – but no matter. Like everything in this series, it’s in the service only of showing us just how hard poor Queenie has it – except that she doesn’t, not really. Her editor, Gina (Sally Phillips), is peculiarly tolerant of the fact that she’s always late, and frequently hungover. Granted, Gina turns down Queenie’s feature “pitches”, begging her to focus instead on her role as “a social media assistant”. But honestly, who can blame her? Queenie’s ideas are rubbish: not journalism so much as Year 10 school projects. 

Perhaps, though, Gina senses that Queenie doesn’t actually give a flying you-know-what about her career. In fact, it’s her ex-boyfriend, Tom (Jon Pointing), with whom she’s mostly preoccupied. Although she regards his family, who are white, as a bunch of racists, when he calls time on their relationship she pines for him nonetheless, an ache she soothes by taking the advice of one of her girl gang, Kyazike (Bellah), and “stepping up her pussy”. This means having a lot of casual and unprotected sex, first in the back of a car with a guy who calls his penis the Destroyer, and then round at her place with a Welsh bloke called Dylan (Declan Doyle) who’s into BDSM. Is she into BDSM? Kind of. On the one hand, she calls him for extra helpings late at night, like Deliveroo. On the other, it’s a bit embarrassing when the doctor who’s replacing her coil takes one look and asks her if she’s in an abusive relationship. 

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What’s all this supposed to mean? What effect are the producers after? Queenie’s vaguely droll internal monologue suggests we’re meant to lean towards finding her behaviour charming and a bit cute, as well as powerfully “real”. But the problem is that, like most women, I find it hard to be blithe about vaginal tearing, whether consensual or not – and it would take an immeasurably better writer than Carty-Williams to make me feel otherwise. When it comes to smoothing dissonant tonal shifts her only technique is to bolt on some baby cod-psychology, and put everything down to Queenie’s tricky childhood. 

Via flashbacks and conversations with her Jamaican grandparents we learn Queenie was abandoned by her mother as a child, a desertion that means she won’t make herself emotionally vulnerable. Other kinds of vulnerability, however, are absolutely fine, so if a man insists on sex that’s so rough peeing afterwards is agony, well, hey, go for it. Everything is good – or goodish. Queenie is still the star of her own show. Utterly free. Body-positive. A feminist. The kind of person who goes to a work party dressed as a bunny girl, and is a lot less embarrassed about it than Bridget Jones. Sure, she might be lonely, but then girls just are, aren’t they? Forget the sisterhood. Women, by this telling, are almost as awful as men, solidarity between them comprising little more than a garbled WhatsApp, flicked out drunkenly at dawn.  

Channel 4, available on catch-up

[See also: Netflix’s Eric is a dark and daring triumph]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024