More than ‘Strong Females’: why the best TV gets inside women’s heads
If I Hate Suzie is an experiment in stress contagion, it is an unmitigated success. Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble’s new Sky Atlantic drama opens with the titular popstar-turned-actor learning she has won a career-changing Disney role, swiftly followed by the news that photos of her performing oral sex are circulating online. Moments later, a swarm of frantic strangers descend on her country pile to set up an increasingly bad-taste photoshoot. Her reaction? To lock herself in the toilet and defecate loudly.
I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s superlative BBC series, is full of unforgettable moments – not least the scene in which the protagonist, Arabella, has her tampon removed by a new squeeze, who proceeds to examine a blood clot between his fingertips. Yet a couple of scenes earlier there is a sight even more surprising for its off-handedness: Arabella casually sticking a sanitary towel into her knickers.
For most women, periods and pooing are the cornerstones of bodily mundanity. The fact that their depiction feels startling and radical says a great deal about the way female characters still are not permitted to be fully human on screen. But I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie, two of the most celebrated shows of 2020, are not simply concerned with chronicling what goes on inside women’s bathrooms. They are also engaged in the ambitious and gratifyingly progressive task of capturing what goes on inside their female protagonist’s heads.
In I May Destroy You, we learn about Arabella’s rape as she does, via fragments of memory flickering through her consciousness and on to the screen. Throughout, visual cues evoke her state of mind (at one point, a huge, terrifying spectre looms over her bed as she insists to her housemate that she is OK). In the show’s finale, we become completely immersed in her psyche as she imagines confronting her rapist, testing out the emotional succour of bloody retribution, gender-dynamic inversion and empathetic understanding.
I Hate Suzie also propels the viewer into the mind’s eye of its hero. We are treated to an extended masturbation fantasy, featuring an ongoing inner critique of her mental sex-Rolodex. There are cocaine-induced hallucinations and imagined musical interludes. Flashbacks to childhood and to the set of her Nazi-zombie series warp the narrative into a storied psychological portrait.
These are not the only shows set in the mercurial, murky surrounds of their character’s minds. Coel has cited as an influence Netflix’s Russian Doll, a trippy take on Groundhog Day that sees its lead forced to crack her own psychological code. The recently concluded US sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend illustrates a fragile mental state with fantasy musical sequences. Fleabag peppered its sad-com structure with fragments of fourth-wall-breaking internal monologue. More recently, Brain in Gear, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Bafta-winning comedy short (soon to become a full series), gives a new literality to the multi-faceted female character, with its creator personifying the disparate voices battling inside one woman’s muddled mind.
Splattering psyches all over the small screen is nothing new for men, as seen in everything from Peep Show to Mr Robot to Scrubs to The Sopranos. And both I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie strongly recall the work of Dennis Potter (Prebble is a fan), whose late-20th-century dramas were built from a patchwork of hallucinations, flashbacks, day-dreams and nightmares. The difference is in the purpose and the effect. Men have long had the monopoly on the human condition: a programme like Peep Show was not designed to add weight to the argument that two white men from Croydon could, against all the odds, be fully fledged human beings after all.
This new wave of shows, on the other hand, are dead set on humanising their female protagonists by inviting you into their brains. Picking up where Carrie Bradshaw’s wondering and Ally McBeal’s hallucinatory babies left off, they are serious about undermining reductive stereotypes and unreal cliche. That they have materialised at a time when female TV-makers are being given unprecedented levels of authorial control is surely no coincidence.
According to Prebble, Suzie was a reaction against the “slightly crude, simplistic” TV trope of the ‘Strong Female Character’. “I wanted to try and write someone who is essentially cowardly, and a bit passive, and a bit overwhelmed and fragile, even while she is famous and manipulative and angry, all of which I often feel.”
If the aim is to write women as truthfully as possible, a window into their brains feels like a requirement. “Our internal experience is often more strange and vibrant and busy than we are able to convey with normal naturalistic storytelling,” says Prebble. “I believe that there is no real distinction between what we perceive as the outside world and what is going on inside our minds. Everything except the very centre of your vision is literally a hazy memory.”
In one sense, delving into characters’ thoughts comes from the same place as depicting them on the toilet: humanising women on screen involves filling in the gaps. Prebble has described her modus operandi for I Hate Suzie as: “What’s missing from normal depictions of people, and of women particularly, that we want to show?” While Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland told Variety: “We just were thinking, ‘But what hasn’t been done?’ … It was really important to explore a show about a female protagonist that asked spiritual and existential questions.”
Those gaps become chasms when it comes to the representation of women of colour on television. “I think that since the media has really even existed, it has dehumanised black people. In many ways, it’s dehumanised and disempowered women,” Michaela Coel told GQ recently. “To be within the media, to challenge that, and to present us as fluid, multi-dimensional human people, just like everybody else, feels like a really amazing privilege.”
I Hate Suzie exists in another realm where dehumanisation is a particular problem – the extreme objectification occasioned by celebrity. By occupying Suzie’s mind, the show is able to provide context to the spectacle of women reeling from the violence of exposure. “You get an image of a ‘crazy’ Britney Spears smashing a car with a golf club,” Prebble tells me. “But if you had followed very closely and empathetically everything that had happened to this person in their life right up until then, strongly from her point of view, then smashing a car with a golf club would seem like the most logical and inevitable thing in the world.”
I May Destroy You also revolves around a situation where women are invariably othered. On television, women are sexually assaulted and murdered all the time, a barrage of abuse so horrendous and ubiquitous it serves to alienate the audience from the victims of these crimes. Coel refuses to allow the viewer to react in the usual ways: focus on her minor (and completely unrelated) lapses in judgment; retire her to a box labelled “tragic victims”. Instead, we squat inside Arabella’s imagination as she deals with psychological trauma over the long-term, making empathy a non-negotiable part of the show’s makeup.
“I think women are leading the way at the moment, pioneering using magical realism as a way to deal with trauma,” says Prebble of I May Destroy You, which sees Arabella use her imagination to heal. Headland also frequently refers to Russian Doll as magical realism – the show is engaged with processing the guilt and grief at its core in a similar vein to Fleabag. Trauma is another common denominator for these shows: even the cartoonish Brain in Gear revolves around loss, sublimating pain into laughter.
The penultimate episode of I Hate Suzie is as fraught as the first, concluding with a sequence that staggers between frantic shoe-buying, Britney-esque public breakdown and disturbing private transgressions. It feels impossible to treat Suzie as we normally would a dysfunctional woman: ridicule her, condemn her, dismiss her. Prebble says it was her ambition to “break down the false line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” It worked. By the end of the series, we don’t hate Suzie. We are her.