Gender War Fails to Make Good TV

The other night I watched the second part of a three part BBC documentary by someone called Vanessa Engle about the legacy of feminism on sexual politics in the UK. The one I missed, “Libbers” was about the pioneers of the women’s movement. The one I watched was about mothers today and the purported goal was to assess the effects of the feminist revolution on their daily lives – “to discover whether feminism has had an impact on gender roles in the family and the division of labour in the home.”

I urge you to watch it. For me the experience was excruciating. Engle’s approach was to interview married couples in their home and, as I saw it, attempt to mortify the man on the subject of housework. The couples varied as to the division of labour. Some of the mothers worked, others had chosen to stay at home with their children. Some of the fathers did no housework, others did some of it and one did it all. It was clear that none of the women interviewed felt oppressed and yet Engle seemed to be urging them towards rebellion, preferably in front of the camera. Unfortunately for her perhaps, the women were all clearly balanced and mature. Their lives were driven by choice, temperament, inclination. As far as I was concerned the film proved nothing other than the filmmaker’s belligerence towards the opposite sex and her somewhat regressive fixation with gender roles.

A typical line of questioning:

Engle: Would you say, Charles, that the two of you have an equal relationship?

Charles: Yes (Charles is the breadwinner)

Engle: Who does the laundry, Charles? (Cutaway shot of Diane looking embarrassed for him)

Charles: Diane.

Engle: And who does the cleaning?

Charles: Diane.

Engle: So Charles, if you have a bath do you clean it when you get out?

Charles: No.

What ensues is a seemingly interminable interrogation about bath cleaning in which Charles tries to respond calmly and honestly to Engle’s attempt to demonstrate that he is a) lazy, b) presumptuous and c) dirty, while Diane – an Oxford graduate who explains her decision not to pursue her career with the simple point that motherhood happens to fulfill her – tries to defend her husband against what begins to resemble a scene from Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

What is heartening about the film is the extent to which these couples seem to love and respect each other despite the barrage of ideology that is hurled at them. What is revealing about it is not the subject matter itself but the pernicious and intruding gaze of British TV.