Silent treatment

Where are all the young working-class women?

18th December 2017

My family’s annual copy of the Radio Times Christmas edition is always a crime scene of thick, crimson red-ink circles. Collectively, we use this scan-and-circle method to create a week-long itinerary of films, chat-shows and The Snowman. Any clashes are usually resolved with chocolate or boozy bribes.

This year, I won’t be making many marks on the pages because there’s something notably absent from our screens at the moment.

I’m an ambitious, twenty-something woman from a working-class background, and I want to identify with a character who has a similar story to me when I tune in to an overhyped new series or Christmas special. But recently, I’ve had trouble finding a character that even remotely represents me, and it’s becoming frustrating.

mrs brown
Mrs Brown is hardly representation. Image: BBC/Alan Peebles

It looks like the only notable modern young woman positively representing the working-class on British TV over the festive season is Bill Potts in Dr Who. Potts is the Doctor’s likeable, inquisitive companion who we first met working in a canteen, after being brought up in foster care. But this is Potts’ final turn in the Tardis, leaving a conspicuous vacancy. Perhaps this will be filled by Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor – but let’s not conflate a northern actor and a working-class character.

The two other modern-day female characters from low-income backgrounds that I’ve spotted in the Christmas guide are both older – Sheridan Smith’s Miss Hannigan-type evil stepmother character in David Walliams’ Ratburger, and Mrs Brown, who is played by a 62-year-old man in the nauseating Mrs Brown’s Boys. Slim pickings, right? But this lack of diversity really isn’t something new.

When HBO series Girls came along a few years ago – a show that one writer claimed was “the only relatable TV show for twenty-somethings trying to figure out their lives” – I was excited to see which Girl I’d most relate to. They’re young, modern women living in the big city, trying to figure out their lives, just like me. Sure, I might not have Jessa’s mermaid hair or Hannah’s intimidating talent, but I’m in the same big lifeboat as them, right?

I loved the show – it was smart, witty and explored important issues. But when it ended after six seasons, I can’t say I identified with a single one of them. I’m a millennial woman looking for success and happiness, so what was the problem? I assumed it was me.

I then looked to another TV show that also focused on a strong, female millennial lead, and promised to be “the TV show that’s actually the voice of our generation”. Fleabag was deliciously dark, very funny, wincingly raw and horribly painful to watch at times. Our protagonist has problematic relationships with her family, her boyfriend, her lovers and her past. Hurrah! Another lost soul to get on board with. But no, again I felt a huge disconnect.

Catastrophe, Fresh Meat, My Crazy-Ex Girlfriend – all feature charismatic, flawed and hilarious leads who are meant to represent our generation, but I just wasn’t getting it.

It’s no wonder older generations think we’re wasting too much money on avo on toast and espresso martinis to save up for a house

I soon realised that the female characters in these shows were mostly middle-class: financially stable; two-parent upbringings; the familiar large family home; good educations. Don’t get me wrong, the women in these series are plagued by demons that no privileged upbringing can deter. But they are misrepresenting a huge proportion of our generation. It’s no wonder older generations think we’re wasting too much money on avo on toast and espresso martinis to save up for a house.

I’m a working-class woman who grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town in Yorkshire. I was raised in a one-parent family and money was tight. But like hundreds of thousands of others from similar – if not, a lot more difficult – backgrounds, I’m doing alright.

I have the same goals as the ambitious women in these popular TV shows, but who’s telling the story from my angle? Where are the characters who have jumped over different – and often higher – hurdles because of their poorer background? How can I relate to a twenty-something character who cries when her parents cut off her allowance when the last pocket money I received was two quid to go and buy a shiny Pokemon card?

Fleabag is supposedly the voice of our generation, yet I don’t know anyone who owns a coffee machine, never mind a guinea pig café. And you know how we all look back at Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, choking with laughter at the idea of funding her designer lifestyle with a just a weekly dating column? I’m sure there’ll be a similar reaction in ten years’ time when we remember Hannah Horvath quitting a sponsored content writing job at GQ due to personal moral conflict. Well, some of us have been rolling our eyes for years already.

These shows are validating the media’s infuriatingly inaccurate headlines about millennials. You know the ones, like those that accuse us of relying on the Bank of Mum and Dad when things get tight. And the assumption that parents are on hand to help us when trying to buy a first house.

The lack of diversity behind the scenes clearly has reverberations

So how can we challenge this perception through popular TV shows based on and targeted at millennials? More actors and writers from working-class backgrounds is probably a good start. Recent research from London School of Economics and Goldsmiths University of London shows that 73% of performers in British theatre and film are middle-class. This includes the 42% of British Bafta winners who went to a fee-paying school. The lack of diversity behind the scenes clearly has reverberations.

But you only need to look back to shows such as Shameless to prove how popular and positive working-class characters can be, in the form of Debbie Gallagher and her older sister Fiona. Both were sharp-minded, fearless and funny, despite a challenging upbringing in poverty, violence, alcohol and drugs. They were also incredibly entertaining to watch, and many viewers’ favourite people in the show.

If working-class women are given the chance to lead on the screen, they could offer a fresher, more accurate way of regarding our generation and provide role models for millions of young, working-class women. Or, they could prove to be just as selfish, defective and entitled as their middle-class onscreen counterparts. Either way, at least they’d get a say in what it means to be a millennial. And they might just secure a covetable red ring on my family’s Christmas TV schedule.

18th December 2017