If… Women Ruled the World (review 1)

The BBC 'disaster' series If... included a programme called If... Women Ruled the World which attempted to predict gender relations in 2020. Did it make a valid point, or was it just an extended version of the old Harry Enfield 'Women: know your limits!' sketch? Reviewed by Meera Palia

, 20 April 2004

In 2020, society expects modern man to adapt to its feminine values of sensitivity and compliance – the fighting, hunting male has gone underground. Masculinity is becoming a condition that dare not speak its name.

…says a serious-sounding male narrator as he sets the scene for BBC2’s documentary-drama, imagining a future we may see “If…Women ruled the world.” The idea is that the scenario we see is fiction but the interviews and the issues raised are real.

The drama element of the docu-drama introduces us to Charlie, a 17 year old girl making a video about her family with her mum as a high-flying manager-type (a ‘feminist dream come true/control freak’), elder sister as a high-achieving MP (‘clever and miserable’) and brother Matt (office clerk, unlucky to be born male in 2020 and struggling against discrimination in the workplace).

We see a world where the structure of industrial capitalism, with a decline in manufacturing industries coupled with technological advances have resulted in 80% of jobs in 2020 being in the information and service sector, an area in which we are told women flourish, putting their wealth of emotional skills to profitable use. It is discussed how traditional bureaucracies and hierarchies of capitalism are no longer appropriate and how women’s adaptability and communication skills are now needed and valued in this changing global economy. What all this seems to translate into is that in this 2020 drama, 1 in 2 women are managers and a 1/3 of new businesses are started by women. Offices have been ‘revolutionized’ by women’s flexible, less formal ways of working and women can now boss some men around whilst taking time out to shop for clothes without needing to leave their desk. They can also use genius devices such as the sharing space or ‘bitchbox’, to let off steam and reduce their stress levels by talking to a computer screen. What a revolution, amazing.

If… more of certain groups of women worked in specific areas of work

We also learn, however, that in 2020 men continue to dominate in “traditional areas of power such as politics, local authorities and the law” and so begin to realise that in an imagined world ruled by women, women do not in fact rule the world and that such a vision has been swiftly, specifically and unimaginatively narrowed down to “If… more of certain groups of women worked in specific areas of work“. Such broad horizons are obviously exciting and overwhelming for us all, right?

Like the preceding shows in the series, the vision of the future is, I’m sure, supposed to be simplistic and contentious to spark debate, but nevertheless the narrowness of the vision and questions posed by this programme is not only disappointing, but I would argue harmful in its presentation. Judging by the other topics dealt with in the series (If the generations fall out/If we don’t stop eating) we are being invited to explore what is essentially deemed to be a troublesome and negative future. The programme does well at feeding fear (if anyone’s really scared) by constantly reminding us of the potential consequences of more women choosing careers – for example increased violence against women and the surreal world of men forming resistant fight clubs. Such moral panic over/undertones do nothing for serious feminist debate. The very idea of debating a world ruled by women is antithetical to a commitment to equality and justice and only succeeds in fuelling the backlash against feminism.

The very idea of debating a world ruled by women is antithetical to a commitment to equality.

Some important points are raised, however, such as how demands for care, especially childcare can be met with more women working full-time. We see how Charlie’s miserable and clever MP sister has a tough job trying to convince the men in suits that it is necessary for the state to invest in affordable childcare for all and parental leave and flexible working rights for both parents – as they are more pre-occupied with the crisis in boys’ education. The effect of new developments in reproductive biology resulting in women no longer being slaves to their biological clocks is also addressed, and we see Charlie’s mum choosing between previously frozen embryos and consulting a male doctor about exactly what child she can construct out of her supplies, information coming at a price of course. It is also obviously comforting to see that men haven’t lost their foothold in the medical sciences either and that collective responses to the motherhood dilemma will carry on being overlooked in favour of individual solutions.

There is also a sense of socio-biological essentialism neatly woven into the docu-drama, with frequent unchallenged references to “feminine” qualities/skills and also some desperate attempts to remind us that the world does need men as well as women. My favourite moment concerning the latter is a comment by Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics who alerts us to the historical decay of the y chromosome:

“There are lots of creatures out there which have tried and succeeded in getting rid of males…there’s even lizards that are entirely female, fish that are entirely female, potatoes… completely female. Not any mammals, but still we could try… The interesting thing is that if you’re talking about the big picture, every single one of these entirely female lineages has gone nowhere so in the end, annoying and short-lived and bad-tempered as we are, it may turn out that you need us anyway…”

I’m not sure at what point all women decided we wanted to get rid of men and I believe such insights breed more unhelpful insights that involve little more than ridiculous banter on the superiority of one sex over another.

So I have to say, a world which looks very much the same but with more women drinking and smoking and with more middle-class women having a greater stake in upholding systems of global inequality (cf If..things don’t get any better which dealt with rich/poor divide increasing), is not one that I look forward to.

As writer Madeleine Bunting suggests, perhaps we need to reassess what it is to be human. Is it simply to be more ambitious and successful? Is that the only kind of value that we want to put on a human life? Madeleine has to struggle to keep a wry smile from fully developing during this comment as she probably knows too well that this question is too important for this programme and unlikely to be of interest. Let’s cut to some more high heels and sharp professionals.

We should be looking to change the floors we walk on, not just wearing sharper and noisier heels.

Meera Palia lives in London, enjoys having a vague job title of “project worker” and was pleased to recently discover that potatoes are feminists.

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