As Abby advised, I don’t plan to forget the ladies. On this Independence Day, let’s celebrate some Independent Ladies!
Subtitle: How a TV Show about the Mid-20thCentury is A Good Reminder for 21stCentury Audiences
I’m going to preface this blog post with something my youth minister used to say to us: my job is not to get you to believe what I believe. My job is to make you think. With that said…
As the most recent season of the ever-so feminist and beautiful Call the Midwife (CTM)wraps up, I find myself thinking more and more about its relevance to modern audiences. Yes, it’s very tearful, heartwarming, and lovely. But it’s also a damn good way of speaking truth to people who tend to forget history.
I could talk about the benefits of socialized medicine and the changes it brought to the UK back in the day and how a more modernized version would be amazing for the U.S. I could talk about the evolving life and the cycle of poverty depicted for both the white and POC residents of Poplar. But I think there’s a more fundamental truth laced throughout all 69 episodes of this highly under-rated show that I keep coming back to. Women’s healthcare and how vital it is. The nurses and midwives serve as the viewers’ entryway into a world that is either the polar opposite of their current existence or far too close to be believed.
When the show (and the memoir, which is really good) starts, it’s 1957. Oral contraceptives are four years away from being approved by the NHS. The number of births being handled by the midwives of the East End is insane. I can’t remember the exact numbers cited in the book, but it was several dozen. Per week. Women in abject poverty are hit the hardest by the lack of reliable health care in general, but especially when it comes to women-specific health care.
In a post-Roe v. Wade America, I feel like the realities of life before that landmark case, especially the realities for women, have become faded legends, whispered among women, but rarely laid out so starkly as they are in CTM. Prior to the advent of CTM, I only learned of the lengths to which women would go to terminate pregnancies from romance novels or female-centric historical fiction. (See this Jezebel article if you want to learn a more in-depth history of herbal abortifacients). If pennyroyal or tansy is mentioned, I know a female character is likely going to try to abort an unwanted pregnancy or “stimulate” her menstrual cycle to be on the safe side. In CTM, though, viewers are shown the lengths some women will go to in order to get rid of pregnancies—methods far more dangerous than herbs—and to hell with the law.
Medicine—and by extension the legalization/funding of it—has always been inherently biased against women. No. Don’t argue. Go read the Jezebel article I cited about. I’ll wait. You done? Okay. We’ve come a long way toward safer maternal medicine since the mid-20thcentury, but especially in the US, our stats for a post-industrial nation are abysmal. Hell, the women in the East End in the 1950s and 60s arguably had better access than some rural/inner-city-dwelling Americans in 2019. Nurses that came and checked on them regularly both pre- and post-natal—in their homes! Nurses who helped them decide on the best place to have labor for them (home, maternity home, hospital), etc.
But I digress. Probably the most sexist part of female health care is related to the menstrual cycle and pregnancy. In a way, it makes sense. For centuries, our primary job was to keep the species going while men did the politicking, farming, exploring, learning, yada yada yada. Women’s agency, what little they might have had, disappeared in the face of producing children. Hence, the birth rates in the East End pre-Pill.
See? I got back to the point. In CTM, the nuns were initially very opposed to the Pill, but they still agreed to trust the medical knowledge of the doctor rather than trying to insist on their own beliefs being applied to everyone in the community.
Even though the Pill was originally restricted to married women in the UK, it was still a revolution. Women gained agency. They gained the CHOICE to have children, rather than it being an inescapable side-effect of getting married. They could continue their newly budding careers or go out and get new ones when their kids went to school. Sounds familiar, right? Cycles of poverty begin to be broken, people begin to prosper, and society becomes stronger. Hmm…why wouldn’t you want women to have agency over their own bodies?
Here’s where the difference comes in though. Women who weren’t allowed to be prescribed the Pill still had to rely on the old methods. Either marry the father (if it was an accident with a boyfriend), slink away to have it in secret (if the father wasn’t in the picture), have it alone, or…abortion. Yes. I said the dreaded “a” word. And back then, it was…awful. If you don’t believe me, I recommend going to watch Season 2 Episode 5 of CTM. Or most of Season 8. In fact, I would love to have any politician watch these episodes, really watch them, and have them still keep their position on a woman’s right to choose.
Ultimately, crocodile dung, sponges soaked in vinegar (yes, both of the previous 2 were used as contraceptives), the Pill, IUDs, the diaphragm, condoms— none of it is 100% effective. Whether it’s legal or not, women have been having and will keep having abortions if they feel it’s best for them or their only viable option. History has proven it, and the episodes I mentioned are perfect examples of what happens when they don’t have access to legal, safe abortions.
There’s a lot I could say about being pro-choice vs. anti-abortion (no, it’s not a pro-life stance in its current iteration, but that’s a separate rant). But the message CTM focuses on is the reality of women’s stories. The stories they told are stories that could be set here and now or 500 years ago. Women’s stories can be long and fruitful and fulfilling. Or they can be cut short because someone has decided that they know better than the woman affected what health care they should have access to.
If you, like I, binge-watch shows, I highly recommend doing so with CTM. Look at the contrasts between the first season and the eighth. Look how much more active the women of Poplar are in their own lives. How much more agency they have. How much stronger will they get once they have access to safe, legal abortions—the last dirty secret of womanhood?
Do I judge women who choose to have as many kids as their health allows? No. Neither does CTM. It shows the beauty of that CHOICE.
Do I judge women who choose not to have sex at all and live a life of service? No. Neither does CTM. It shows the beauty of that CHOICE.
Do I judge women who choose to have abortions? No. And within the context of the time, CTM gives us a picture of what life was like before women were given the safe, health-forward option to have one. You feel compassion for the women. You understand their choice to do it. And you cry because they don’t have the CHOICE to have safe, legal options to turn to.
What CTM speaks about, more than anything, is the beauty of being female and the complexities and opportunities it provides. The women in the show with the agency to control their own reproductive health are able to see a world beyond poverty.
What would modern society be like if we accepted that?
What would modern society be like if we said “you know, abortion isn’t something I would choose, but my choice is not yours”? What would modern society be like if we were like the nuns who may disapprove of things like the Pill and abortion, but they still show up to support the women they serve, no matter what?
I wish the politicians of the world (and some of the more hardline people) would be more like the nuns of CTM. The world would be a lot less stressful and more productive if they were.
This blog has been swirling around in my little head for a while now. Really, since New Year’s Eve when I had my girl-power movie theater day. What’s this you say? Oh, it’s when I went and did a double feature of Mary Queen of Scots, and On the Basis of Sex. Because that’s how I roll.
As I was taking notes through the movies (okay, really just through Mary, because the RBG movie I knew a lot more about the events), I noticed a really interesting phenomena. It’d hard to describe, so this blog is more about me working through it than anything else, but here we go.
For those of you who don’t know, let me break down the relationship statuses of the female leads of these movies.
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, Dowager Queen of France
Relationship status: widowed (at the start), married to a fuckboi of dubious sexual persuasion (in the middle), then widowed again, then there was some dubious consent and married to a dudebro who ultimately lost her her kingdom.
Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England
Relationship status: it’s complicated…aka depending on your version of history, she loved her BFF or she had all kinds of affairs with him because they couldn’t get married because of REASONS.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, professor, lawyer, Associate Justice on SCOTUS
Relationship status: adorably, wonderfully, happily married to Marty Ginsburg.
So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way—the thing that struck me about these three women boils down to one word: sex. Yes, that favorite word of romance writers everywhere. More to the point, sexuality, though, is what comes heavily into play in all of these movies.
I’ve listened to all sorts of biographies of these ladies (I’m weird and can only get through histories/bios/non-romance novels in audiobook form) and there’s all sorts of analysis I could do over the lens of history and who is writing about the past. BUT THIS IS NOT ABOUT LETTING MY INNER ENGLISH LIT NERD SIDE OUT.
Okay, maybe it is a little bit. For reference, MQOS was written by a guy, based on a book by a guy, but directed by a woman. OTBOS was written by a man and directed by a woman. We get both the male and female gaze on these stories. Which is good. More of this, I say.
But what struck me most was that these were some of the first movies where I saw, essentially, three distinct sides of female sexuality in the context of literal power. And the contrast was fascinating.
On the one hand, you have Elizabeth. The “Virgin” Queen. She very much chose her own narrative and the façade she wanted people to see. My honest opinion of the real Liz is that she had no interest in having to share her power with a man—but that’s a separate blog I plan to tackle later. Within the movie, there are deliberate choices made. While we see her and Robin Dudley messing around and being intimate in the literal rather than metaphorical sense, we don’t see them actually go all the way.
At several points throughout the movie, she defeminizes herself in order for the men who are supposed to be her subjects to take her seriously as a ruler. She can’t marry who she wants, because she’s a queen and the guy she arguably loves may have killed his first wife (probably not though), so she tries to shift the perception of her. The Virgin Queen moniker is useful, but the film plays more with her speech at Tilbury:
“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”
She slowly alienates herself from her own gender in order to retain power. She’s not a woman, but not a man. She’s the ultimate “other” in public, at least. By the time the movie ends, she’s approaching the time when it’s unlikely she’ll ever have children, so in the mindset of the time, she was useless at the primary task of her gender—producing children. Instead of giving into those expectations, she assumes her “other”-ness and re-shapes how a Queen Regnant can—and maybe should—operate.
Mary, on the other hand, leans into her own gender and sexuality and embraces them wholeheartedly. She arrives back in Scotland after spending 12+ years in France (I can’t math right now), and she’s been a widow for several months, so she’s obviously in need of a husband. Unlike her cousin (first cousin, once removed technically), Mary let everyone get all up in her business about who to marry next—and do it successfully. Eventually, she both plays the game and “falls in love” with the fuckboi, Lord Darnley.
The movie portrays them as having a strong physical attraction—which could be true. It all quickly turns on Mary though, and she has to engage in a struggle to be either queen or wife. It’s glossed over in the movie, but the book it’s based on spends a lot of time focusing on Darnley’s obsession with being king. This is an incontrovertible part of old skool society. Women were expected to obey husbands. Is it any wonder Elizabeth didn’t want to give up her birthright to let a husband mess shit up?
Anywho, between John Knox painting her as a harlot because she’s got boobs and is Catholic and he’s a misogynist, and the men of her court—from her husband to her brother to her secretary—causing all sorts of mayhem, Mary’s power is lost because of the focus on her sexuality. She’s the one with the right to the crown, yet they dismiss her and use her for their own goals. Eventually, a man she trusted more than others forces her hand and she has to marry him. His ambition is her downfall, just as her desire to be loved was.
In the end, her agency as a person is taken away in spite of her power because she remains firmly in the female sphere, yet Elizabeth maintains her agency because of her power. In the end though, Elizabeth is on the side of the men she likens herself to and takes away not only Mary’s agency, but also her life.
Fast forward several centuries, and we come to OTBOS and RBG. Let’s be clear—RBG dealt with a whole lot of bullshit in her life. Some of it just as bad as Elizabeth and Mary. But there was a significant difference in her life. Yes, the times were one her side—yay Second Wave Feminism—but more than that, she got to choose who to marry. And boy did she pick a good one.
I know it’s based on real life, but I still get all swoony over the true partnership that Ruth and Marty had. They worked together to be better, to excel. He didn’t fear her intelligence or her command of the law. He encouraged it. At least in the movie, they were compatible both sexually and emotionally. Love didn’t detract from RBG’s power. It enhanced it, because it didn’t try to supplant her power. Marty and Ruth were in it together and damn someone coming out on top.
We need to see more healthy, equal relationships like Ruth and Marty’s depicted in pop culture in general—but more than that, we need more of them for women who hold power. The positive portrayal of healthy, normal relationships for all those in power might do everyone some good. Just sayin’.
P.S. Over the next few posts, I plan to explore both real life and pop culture depictions of strong women and muse on what we can learn from them. I also want to use these posts as a way to highlight some common themes and women who time has forgotten.
Note: I had to write this down. Like, could not sleep until these thoughts were put on paper. Excuse any typos or missing words. It’s 95% spoiler free and any spoilers are super generic.
Higher. Further. Faster.
Think about those words.
Those words have been an integral part of aviation since the Wright Brothers got the Spirit of Kitty Hawk up in the air. They’re what pushed Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic, what put Chuck Yeager in Glamorous Glennis to break the sound barrier, what put men like Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin into spacecraft on top of rockets.
But those words apply to more than just the typically male dominated world of aviation. They also apply to women. For a ridiculously large part of history, to get ahead, we have had to push that glass ceiling to get a little bit higher (the damn thing has trouble breaking, to go further to prove ourselves, and do it faster, because if we don’t, we’re pegged to only live in the realm of “feminine” pursuits, that glass ceiling growing walls around us.
To the shock of no one who knows me, this is something that has been swirling around in my head, particularly since I spent my New Year’s Eve watching Mary, Queen of Scots andOn the Basis of Sex. And, because hi, I’m a romance novelist, I’ve been thinking of it through the lens of relationships. The romantic ones, yes, but also the platonic ones.
But what does this have to do with super heroes?
A lot, actually. As a student of literature, I can’t help but notice how women’s stories are almost exclusively told through their relationships to men. Lady Macbeth is first identified as her husband’s wife, not as a woman of ambition who is clever and politically minded. Elizabeth Bennett is defined by her father, her lack of brothers, her lack of a husband. Every Disney princess before Mulan was defined by her hunt for a husband or her relationship with a prince.
And, in my opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. NOTHING. Because, again, romance novelist. I love love and romantic relationships (regardless of gender).
But I have to say that I was damn near in tears watching Captain Marvel. Not because it was a sad movie or because there was a super poignant tear-jerking part. Not because my little av-geek heart was loving the references to Pancho’s (The Right Stuff) and Goose (Top Gun). And not because my child of the 90s heart warmed like crazy at all the details and nods they took care to include. Note to self—check out the soundtrack in the morning.
It’s because I realized that Marvel, the same Marvel who spent two movies unnecessarily trying to pair the Black Widow with her fellow Avengers (because she’s the only woman, so she must be paired with one of the men around her—can you hear my eyes rolling?) kicked off their first female-led movie franchise (let us not forget her Royal Badassness Agent Margaret Carter) with a story about a woman without a single ounce of romance in it.
You heard that right. I adored a movie without any romance in it.
It was a movie without love or relationships. There were so many complex relationships, Carol and Fury, Carol and Michelle and Michelle’s daughter—her found family, Carol and Dr. Lawson, Carol and her Star Force Team. Most importantly, though, it was about Carol learning to love herself.
She’s learning to embrace her flaws and her humanity, as well as her incredible strengths—strengths she had before she ever got her super powers. With those super powers, she is arguably the most powerful superhero in either DC or Marvel universes (I will fight you on this—don’t tempt me). But more than that, she’s an incredible human. She’s a female pilot, she’s a friend, she’s the cool aunt, she’s flawed, and strong, and resilient as hell.
Would I be mad if there’s a romance in subsequent movies? Absolutely not. Hell, I will revel in reading fan fics pairing her with certain Avengers (*coughcaptainamericacough*) and with normal humans/aliens/whatever until the next movie comes out. But I was blown away and delighted by the decision not to include a male love interest in this movie.
Wonder Woman was amazing. It was about love, as well, and selflessness and sacrifice and all of those thing. She’s a fascinating character in her own right, and Patty Jenkins is a brilliant storyteller. I’m so ready to see what happens next in that franchise. But aside from her, DC has a fundamental problem with the female characters in their movies that makes me sad, especially considering how much I love Superman and Lois Lane.
Peggy Carter is far and away one of my favorite characters. Yes, she was introduced as the love interest of the ever so dreamy Captain America, but she always had dimension and character. When she got her own TV show, there was always an undercurrent of potential romance, but it wasn’t the focus of her story. It was a plot device rather than the plot itself. Which, for a comic book franchise property, was a HUGE step.
Then along came Carol Danvers.
As I write this, it’s about to turn over the clock to be International Women’s Day, and I think about all of the little girls who get to see this movie, to see a woman being totally awesome and flawed and powerful, saving the planet with humanity, fierceness and grace. I think about all my little cousins, male and female, and how much hope it gives me that they get to grow up in a world where it will be the norm to see a character like Carol on the screen. Because I believe that to find real, lasting love, you have to be able to love yourself first, outside of your relationship with a partner—male, female, or nonbinary—and accept your flaws along with your strengths.