This past week, I’ve been taking a brief break from writing as a sort of brain-cleanse, now that the manuscript is off with Connor and my betas. As such, I’ve been letting television occupy my attention, and I wanted to pass some recommendations on to y’all:
First up is one I actually watched a couple of years ago: Bomb Girls. This is a Canadian show about women working in a bomb factory during World War II — the real riveters. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds — typical middle-class, working-class from the Canadian prairie, and one blue-blooded girl through whom we get the “fish out of water” perspective. It’s a tight-knit group — protective but competitive, exploring the challenges and freedoms of having their own incomes and their own lives.
The second I just started this week and have been binging every chance I get: Call the Midwife. It’s set in the insular and impoverished neighborhood of Poplar in the London East End in the late 1950s and follows the stories of the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House. It has a feeling sort of like a post-war ER: few patients appear in more than one episode, and each one has its own little mini-arc rather than the larger, season-wide arcs that are in Bomb Girls. The midwives don’t just deliver babies; they provide almost all the medical care in the neighborhood, including prenatal and geriatric, and they also often serve as de facto social workers and therapists. As I gather, it’s based on a book of true stories in an area where, before birth control pills were available, the neighborhood saw 80 to 100 births a month (and less than a dozen a month afterwards).
Despite the differences in location and era, these shows seem to be in conversation with each other in a lot of ways. Both are primarily concerned with the lives of working women. The desires that matter are theirs. The pride and dignity that matter are theirs. We see family life and working life through their eyes. I don’t think I can overstate how important that is. Women are often so overlooked in history, as are their contributions in both the public and private spheres. In one episode of Call the Midwife, a character outright talks about how much women’s health matters. It doesn’t sound anachronistically feminist — it’s simply the natural result of a show focused on female characters who are, themselves, primarily concerned with women’s lives. There are male characters, of course — but they’re all in support roles. The husbands and boyfriends of the main characters are all portrayed as recognizing the amazing qualities of their wives and girlfriends, and the ones who don’t get it are shucked off unceremoniously.
They also both tackle a lot of tough issues — including many that are still relevant, generations later. Abortion, access to contraception, PTSD, workplace harassment, equal pay, mixed-race relationships, abusive relationships, physical and mental disabilities, and so forth. And they all get handled with compassion and grace (which isn’t to say that all of the characters always do — but the storytelling does). Bomb Girls does better on the racial diversity front on the whole, with a major recurring theme surrounding an interracial relationship. Call the Midwife doesn’t have a diverse main cast, but has a few episodes that deal with racial tension of the late-50s. More of its focus is on deprivation and socio-economic divides. For all that Call the Midwife takes place in an Anglican convent, too, it’s remarkably free of slut-shaming narratives. Women who get pregnant out of wedlock are pitied, not in a condescending way, but because it’s hard enough to raise and provide for children with help — doing it alone in those conditions is nigh-impossible. Neither the nuns nor the nurses chide their charges for how they got “in the family way”, and more than once, they physically put themselves between pregnant women and aggressive or abusive men. They stand up for the girls and women entrusted to their care — and they encourage them to look out for themselves and for each other.
Both shows are also unflinching when it comes to the physical realities of their depicted careers: Bomb Girls involves several injuries and mutilations at the factory, and Call the Midwife doesn’t shy from showing the gore and fluids attendant upon childbirth. Bomb Girls has a darker tone overall than Call the Midwife, which is almost relentlessly optimistic. It takes some getting used to, as someone who’s grown up steeped in the “dark and gritty” era of storytelling — but it’s nice, actually. Bomb Girls makes no promises that all will turn out well for the people it makes you care about, but in Call the Midwife, you’re almost always left with a good sense of hope. People tend to end their stories a little bit better than they started. Even when tragedy strikes, there’s always an uplifting message attending it. Not quite as realistic, perhaps, but I’m actually okay with that. I prefer my fiction optimistic.
So: If you’re interested in television that fights against some of the most common gender-related complaints about the medium, check out these shows. The women in both are all fully-realized characters with their own identities, all strong in their own ways, all vulnerable in their own ways — like, y’know, people. And it’s just delightful.