Women

This three-part BBC documentary has many interesting moments, say Charlotte Cooper and Jess McCabe. However, the series fails to adequately represent women of colour's involvement in feminism and conceives of the family through a heteronormative lens

, 8 March 2010

Vanessa Engle’s three-part documentary Women, taking a look at the second wave movement, motherhood and current feminists in the form of the London Feminist Network, today launches the BBC’s month-long celebration of International Women’s Day.

In a phone interview with Engle she told us that the series spawned from her interest in motherhood today – being a mother of two young children herself, she wanted to examine how and if second wave feminism has changed the family – and explore the new generation of feminists. The three hour-long programmes are at times exciting, enlightening and engaging, and no doubt will act as conversation starters for heterosexual couples on their division of labour and young women finding feminism for the first time, but we couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied.

After watching all three documentaries we were astonished by the lack of black and minority ethnic women interviewed, in archive footage, in the representation of feminism – from the 1970s up to the current day, in the US and the UK – 40 years of women’s liberation, 40 years of erasure.

Libbers (8 March, 9pm, BBC Four)

Engle’s first installment, ‘Libbers’, is about the second wave and profiles eight feminists from the women’s liberation movement, including Robin Morgan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shelia Rowbotham and Susan Brownmiller. We get to see archive footage of these writers and activists, as well as some fantastic footage of protests, singing and more. Engle interviews these women at length. There’s lots here to inform and enjoy, including the last interview with Marilyn French before she died.

Ultimately what we see is eight white women put forward to represent and explain the women’s liberation movement

We asked Engle about the process she went through to select the women profiled here, and what efforts she went through to show the true diversity of the women’s liberation movement at that time, but she told us she “wasn’t constantly trying to include different types of women. I was trying to make sure I had all the ideas covered.” It would be fair to say that this has been a problem of white middle class women believing they can adequately understand the nuances of all women’s issues, women with disabilities, women of colour, women of a variety of classes and cultures – it is no news flash that is not true. In a documentary about the second wave, based on the experiences of the women in the US and the UK, the civil rights movement is mentioned once and none of the talking heads are seen talking about intersectionality, racism or the ‘lavender menace’ issue. Yet Engle told us she knew that taking on such a documentary was a “huge responsibility to history”.

Although Engle stressed that her team began with a “very long list” of potential interviewees from the second wave, ultimately what we see is eight apparently white women put forward to represent and explain the women’s liberation movement. Vanessa mentioned that some of the women she reached out to had died, or were too ill to appear in the documentary, stressing that the time to talk to some of these activists is running out. But surely this makes it all the more important not to ‘whitewash’ the history of feminism, or perpetuate the impression that women of colour were absent. The Women’s Library this month is holding an exhibition about the Grunwick strike by South Asian women here in the UK and a study day about the rise of Black British feminism in this country, should you be interested in filling in some of this missing history. And we are not history buffs, but it’s surely clear to all that to talk about second wave feminism in the US, without talking about the civil rights movement, is a major omission. Not to mention the fact that feminism does not begin and end in the Anglophone world.

Mothers (15 March, 9pm, BBC Four)

The second part of the documentary, focusing on motherhood, sticks to a similarly narrow viewpoint, as Engle carried out in-depth interviews about who does the household chores and childcare in a selection of apparently middle class, mostly white, heterosexual families. It had some wonderful ‘eureka’ moments – many of the male partners professed to be ‘feminist’, but most are visibly uncomfortable when it becomes clear they have left their wives to perform childcare and housework on their own. However the documentary was let down by the implicit notion that these were the only types of families.

Though Engle’s interest was framed by her interest in women like her, women in their 40s with two children, she failed to show that most women do not have a ‘choice’ between paid work or full-time childcare and housework. She does a good job demonstrating that, while middle class women’s lives have changed, their male partners have not changed in many cases. But this is not the be all and end all, and she fails to show how or if second wave feminism has had an effect on working class women who have always had to go out to work, single-parent households, which offer their own complex work/life balance, or in same-sex households.

One couple had decided to separate during the completion of the documentary; others you hope have just resolved to change

Engle did rightly point out that today, in a roll-back from the consciousness raising of the second wave, “women have to fight these battles in the privacy of their own homes. The politics has gone out of it for them.” For all the advances women made in the workplace, they have still struggled to shed full responsibility for children and the home, the documentary showed male partners pay lip service to their honourable work around the home only to find upon light questioning that they actually did little or nothing to help. Only one couple split their responsibilities on an equal basis. One couple had decided to separate during the completion of the documentary; others you hope have just resolved to change.

One of the highlights of this documentary was the couple who have reversed traditional roles with the wife being the breadwinner and the husband taking full care of the children and the house. Though it seemed throughout all the interviews that the men were aware of how they could be portrayed as oafish, uncaring partners working all day in the office and then expecting the world of their partner, this woman was without the veneer of inbuilt shame and went on to undermine her husband repeatedly – it unfolded like a historic play of the problems with unequal partnerships. We’re confident, as was Engle, that “there may well be some rows after these programmes go out.”

Activists (22 March, 9pm, BBC Four)

The final part of this documentary series, ‘Activists’, is an in-depth and personal portrait of one feminist activist group. Engle followed around a core group of women from the London Feminist Network, filming the 2008 Reclaim the Night and the first Feminism in London conference. (Full disclosure: both of us know many of the women who Engle focused on in this documentary.) Engle filmed the preparations for the two events, and talked to both the activists and even some of their parents, about their motivations.

Engle aimed to carry out an ‘intimate observation’ of one group

Engle’s second installment demonstrated aptly that there is more to do in redistributing who does household and childrearing labour in the family, but this issue is clearly not a major concern for the women of LFN, who campaign primarily on violence against women and objectification of women in prostitution, pornography and lap-dancing. Most affecting was hearing the stories of why the women got involved in radical feminist activism, and also a bit more context for some well-known figures in the London feminist scene.

While there are black and minority ethnic women seen in the background of the footage in this segment, except for one very brief snippet only white women are shown talking. It is particularly galling in a number of cases, where white women are shown talking on a panel, and there are clearly women of colour next to them which the documentary makers could have – but decided not to – show talking. Engle told us she never intended to comprehensively cover the contemporary feminist movement, but instead she wanted to carry out an “intimate observation” of one group – this does make sense from a documentary-maker’s perspective, from a feminist perspective the consequences are unfortunate to say the absolute least.

Filming the stewards’ training for Reclaim the Night 2008, Engle caught on camera a particularly awkward – and frankly embarrassing moment – as the group grapples with the issue of trans women’s inclusion on the march. Those who have been left unsure of whether trans women will be welcome on this important annual march against male violence will not be reassured – the stewards’ trainer does say the march is “for self-defined women”, to be fair, but the lack of comfort with this in the room is palpable.

All in all it is a great occasion to see so much about feminism and women’s lives shown on the screen, particularly the intimate way in which Engle has documented her subjects, and some time should be taken to celebrate this. Like the marches that take place annually in this country, it creates an opportunity to reflect, to band together and to act on making crucial changes in the lives of ourselves and others, but these experiences are still tarred with lack of diverse representation of women in society. These documentaries are sandwiched into one month of highlighted feminist viewing including Judith: Going Back To Congo (BBC Three, 30 March) and Nel: From Camden To Kabul (BBC Three, 23 March) which seems to promise that the diversity these films so desperately lack is being addressed in balance across the BBC, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Celebration aside, for every woman who has turned away from feminism because they feel they are not welcome, these films will simply act as another erasure of their lives, their existence and their autonomy.

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