We need more real women on TV

Alison Graham praises the ambition of ITV cop show Scott & Bailey but asks: where are the women like you and me?


In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that my first TV heroine was Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. I adored her and not just because of her proximity to the great love of my life, lush-browed Scott Tracy, pilot of Thunderbird One.


No, Lady Penelope had a proper, important job as a secret agent, she was cool under pressure and had a joshing relationship with her gorblimey Cockernee factotum, Parker. Lady Penelope helped to save the world from black-clad villains; the fact that she did so while wearing good clothes and being driven in a stupendously luxurious car were just bonuses.

This probably all sounds terribly trite but remember, this was the 1960s. TV heroines were thin on the ground for little girls like me who even at the age of six knew, even if we couldn’t describe how or why, we would not slide into the mould that society had carved out for us – mum/ nurse/teacher/that’s your lot/don’t even think of doing anything else.

So where are the role models for today’s clever girls? Please, don’t tell me that all they have to look up to are the gaudily pneumatic personnel from The Only Way Is Essex. (Sample dialogue: “Do you want to look at my boobs?”)

And what of bright, mature, ambitious women with satisfying lives who turn to television, wondering if there’s a chance that they might see themselves reflected in a heroine who’s funny, capable and empathetic?

Dream on, sisters. Even fabulous Carrie in Homeland (C4) is a mess; a brilliant CIA agent driven by guilt with a taste for picking up unsuitable men in bars for sex.

For some reason – and I genuinely don’t know what it is – television just doesn’t get us, the likes of you and me. Women are either pink fluffy cartoonish creatures in soul-sapping we’re-gobby-good-hearted-dim-girls-at-the-mercy-of-daft-fellas (Candy Cabs, Sugartown, Hope Springs) or humourless, work-obsessed bores (Eve Lockhart in The Body Farm). Or all chardonnay-and-chiffon (Mistresses).

Not for one minute am I saying that there have never, ever been great TV heroines. Lady Penelope aside, there was the mighty Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Cagney and Lacey. But they are different – damaged, unhappy. Where are the women like you and me on television?

I’m not saying either that I have everything in common with detectives Scott and Bailey. But they feel real and they have ambition and they are NOT ASHAMED OF IT. So often in TV dramas a female character cannot be ambitious.

Or rather she can. But she has to hide it and appear to worry more about whether she can get a satisfactory crust on her shepherd’s pie than win that promotion she so desperately wants and deserves.

When love for the Danish crime drama The Killing was at its height, I received a tweet from a male Twitter follower, praising heroine detective Sarah Lund’s “lack of ambition” which, according to my correspondent in all seriousness, made her “the perfect female role model”.

I love Scott and Bailey’s work ethic; I love that they have a female boss who is simply a female boss. She’s not blazing any trails, she just is. She addresses groups of men and she gives orders. Yay!

Inevitably, the women have knotty personal lives but these don’t bleed into their work. They don’t sob and simper over crime scenes; they make black jokes, they don’t cuddle kittens when they get home, racked by The Pain of It All. They are, in short, a good thing.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 6 March 2012.


The second series of Scott & Bailey begins tonight at 9pm on ITV1/ITV1 HD (Border only in Scotland)