Men are having a rough time. In the real world, sperm counts have halved in the past 40 years, according to a new report, and television dramas think males of all ages are blundering fools, creeps, weirdos, sleazy perverts, halfwits, bullnecked misogynists, sex attackers, abusers, murderers… I could go on.
There’s an almighty parade of male grotesques in the astoundingly odd Top of the Lake: China Girl (Thursday BBC2, and the full series is on iPlayer if you are a binge-watching masochist). Every man in Jane Campion’s bleak feminist odyssey is loathsome and manipulative. Most leak a dark hatred of women that almost weeps from the screen, it’s so viscerally viscous.
Women are treated with the most casual contempt, like sex dolls. Take the group of geeky lads who sit chattering over their laptops in a café, scrolling through prostitute comparison websites. (I really hope such things are a Campion invention, but I fear that they aren’t.)
Then there are detective Robin Griffin’s police colleagues who are, to a man, revolting lechers. As Robin (Elisabeth Moss) has just arrived in Sydney from her native New Zealand where she investigated a sensational case (see the first series of Top of the Lake), she’s the object of much fascination. Most see her as some kind of sexual prospect, and one even approaches her with an offer: “I’m kinda between relationships and I’m finding it pretty tough, to be honest,” before he suggests a repugnant dating/sex “deal”. (It’s worth remembering, too, that Robin was gang-raped as a teenager in her native New Zealand and gave up the resulting baby for adoption.)
Throughout Top of the Lake: China Girl women are humiliated by men. In this week’s episode a clearly distressed woman wanders in her nightie through Sydney traffic, screaming about her lost baby. She’s mentally ill but is still an object of nudging remarks by the arresting officers. And the episode ends in a very long and really nasty sequence involving male violence against a woman, which left me stunned.
Top of the Lake: China Girl is exhaustingly horrible. I find it depressing in the extreme, not just because of the graphic ill-use of women but also because of this stream of hopelessly ghastly men. Honestly, gentlemen, if I were you I’d rebel. Why do TV dramas think you are so irredeemably awful?
Broadchurch… The Loch… Fearless… Paula… In the Dark… The Handmaid’s Tale… soaps of every hue. Every single one of these is full of shifty blokes out to do bad things and it’s up to women to stop them.
Of course, in dramatic terms it’s good to see female characters who aren’t victims and who refuse to accept what was once the natural order of things. Though having said that, the Spanish drama I Know Who You Are (Saturday BBC4) has it both ways – awful, creepy men forever slamming willing women up against walls for quickies, and sexpot, bosom-thrusting “strong women”. Sample quote: “Shy girls don’t have a cleavage like this,” says a woman lawyer, giving us a good view of, yes, her cleavage.
I’m sure there’s a chorus of female voices out there (of which I’m not one) who will insist men have had it their own way in TV drama terms for far too long, so why shouldn’t they get what’s coming to them. But this has gone too far. Let’s have a bit of light and shade, otherwise male viewers will begin to feel as disenfranchised as women viewers used to feel when all female characters were good for was being discovered in shallow graves, cocooned in bin bags.
Top of the Lake: China Girl is on 9pm Thursday, BBC2 or you can watch the entire series now on BBC iPlayer