I recently stumbled upon the ITV mini-series The Bletchley Circle. In this new spin on a crime drama, four women who used to work at the top-secret Bletchley Park working on breaking German war codes, find themselves working on the codes and patterns inherent in a serial killer’s latest crime spree. (I actually watched Series 1 on Netflix. Series 2 was recently on ITV but I haven’t seen that yet, so no spoilers please!)
What really struck me about this show wasn’t the crime-solving or the relationship between the four women, although IMHO both are excellent. It was something that follows on rather nicely from last week’s discussion of clichés.
Susan Grey, the ring-leader of the group is married with two children. Her husband is nice, they have a trusting and loving relationship; the children are equally nice. But Susan used to be important and valuable, she used to contribute directly to the war effort, using her considerable mental brilliance to crack codes and literally save lives. Now, it’s the 1950s and Susan is trapped in the role of Housewife and Homemaker. She isn’t unhappy, as such, but she is Bored.
Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife. As such, she’s a clichéd character. And yet, I relate to her more than I think I’ve ever related to any other fictional character. She is well-drawn and believable. And I know exactly what it’s like to have given up an intellectual and valued job to do something which (while arguably far more important) is definitely neither valued nor intellectual. It’s not the 1950s any more; to some extent I have more options than her, but the similarity is stronger than the differences.
So what makes this use of a cliché OK? Here are two factors, both of which I think are required to make it work.
1) Some stereotypes exist because they are true. Some don’t, and those are the ones we should stamp on, but some definitely do. I’m far from the only woman who finds herself in a position similar to Susan Grey’s. Indeed, as women’s rights and opportunities in the workplace have flourished over the last century, this situation has become more and more common. Sure, we can go back to work – unlike her – but right now as we watch, we find ourselves very much Bored Housewives.
2) Characters still have to be Characters. The stereotype will take us only so far, and what really makes the character is how we develop it. Susan Grey is a Bored Housewife, yes, but she isn’t in a terrible relationship with an uncaring husband and bratty children and she isn’t trying to escape her boredom by bedding the gardener (THAT hasn’t been new or interesting since Lady Chatterley, in spite of what Desperate Housewives would like you to believe). Susan Grey is likeable and relatable, and she isn’t just a stereotype, a stereotype is just where she begins.
If you’ve watched the show, I’d love to hear what you think of it. If you’re a Bored Housewife, feel free to vent about it. Even if neither of those applies, who are your favourite examples of a subverted stereotype making a fantastic character?