Female Director Spotlight: Sally Wainwright on the Importance of Solidarity Amongst Women

I first encountered Sally Wainwright through watching a series that she wrote, created and produced entitled Scott and Bailey, which revolves around the powerful friendship forged between three women detectives in a police unit despite their stark differences in hierarchy, age, and personalities. I haven’t looked back since, continuing to watch as much of her filmography as I can. What I received out of it was a profound understanding on the myriad of ways women lift each other up, and how important it is for us to recognise that the bonds between women have to be strong, necessarily so. They have to be filled with kindness, empathy, and love for us to quite literally, survive in a world that isn’t in any hurry to stop men from hurting us. In short, what summarises my tender fondness for her work is this quote put forth succinctly by Wainwright herself:

“Women do have very strong relationships with each other and you don’t often see that dramatised on telly. In fact, friendship itself isn’t dramatised terribly well on television. I’d suppose I do like reflecting on friendships. A lot of warmth and humour can come from the relationships women have with each other.”

For this spotlight, I have decided to focus on Sally Wainwright because I am, frankly, exhausted of seeing women pitted against each other on television. Most shows can spend up to seven seasons churning out feuds between women, reducing our identities to pure cattiness and jealousy, with harmful implications. Such representations perpetuate the false sentiment that there is no room for women to succeed because other women exist, which distracts us from the truth — there is no room for women to succeed because we live in a patriarchal world that simply doesn’t want us to. As a result, it’s all the more imperative that the portrayal of women on television affirms the strength that can be drawn from our love for one another, and this is exactly what Wainwright’s writing offers. I know that my relationships with other women have saved my life, and continue to do so. 

Therefore, in this month’s Female Director Spotlight, we will look at the various television shows Wainwright has created, written, produced, or directed. I have consolidated a list of three shows which covers a range of the different bonds shared between women, including colleagues, lovers and sisters. I have also chosen the shows which I feel illustrate how women of different backgrounds end up working together as well, for it’s inevitable that we will end up relying on each other, especially in a world where violence against women is all too unfairly commonplace.

Scott & Bailey (2011 – 2016)

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Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp in ‘Scott and Bailey’

Scott & Bailey is a police procedural, focusing on the friendship between three women detectives who work together – Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones), Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) and Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). One of the highlights of this series is the way women of a huge age difference are portrayed to recognise and admire each other’s merits, instead of tearing each other down to climb the corporate ladder. On television, younger and older women are conventionally portrayed to be on opposing ends, their generational gap exploited as a source of relentless conflict. It’s something I have never understood, for one can learn so much from the other given the richness of our varying experiences.

What stood out for me in this series was the pure absence of rivalry – I expected rivalry, having been conditioned to. Rivalry has always been a cornerstone of most plots, and for women, one could consider it a staple, given such shows are almost always written by men. However, while Scott & Bailey may offer us an intricate, fleshed out portrayal of ups and downs in a friendship for over five seasons, rivalry has never been an issue. In fact, the show’s pilot foregrounds the series as one set in an environment where it’s mostly a de facto state of affairs for a woman to be surrounded by other highly-skilled women. As a result, one’s ability to do her job is never questioned. It’s inherently accepted as a way of life, like the way Rachel and Janet accept each other’s unique strengths without question. Therefore, both women are depicted to genuinely care for and love one another, even during the later part of the series when Rachel, the younger detective, outranks Janet, her older counterpart. 

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Ameila Bullmore, Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp in ‘Scott and Bailey’

Such an environment highlights that when women are accepted for all their merits, rivalry would cease, or at least dwindle, for much of the rivalry we have with each other partly stems from the internalised misogynistic belief that only few women can succeed. While current society has not carved out enough spaces for us to thrive, partaking in such rivalry only paradoxically renders it true. Therefore in this climate, Wainwright’s Scott & Bailey is important – it tells us that women can in fact,hold their own in all their merits; we do not need to tear each other down to succeed.

Scott and Bailey was created, produced and written by Sally Wainwright, with various directors (mostly women) directing different episodes. Wainwright wrote nineteen episodes of the series, with Amelia Bullmore, Emily Ballou and Lee Warburton taking the rest. Diane Taylor also co-created the series with Wainwright.

Last Tango in Halifax (2012-2016)

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Sarah Lancashire and Nina Sosanya in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’

While Scott and Bailey focuses on the friendships forged within a workplace, Last Tango in Halifax explores the friendships between women of different classes, as well as a tender portrayal of the romantic love between two older women. What is special about Last Tango in Halifax is how it’s wholly focused on the lives of older women and the friendships between them. It’s a slice of life rarely touched upon intimately on television, for this industry prefers to ignore the fact that women actually age, much less have actual lives while ageing.

Last Tango in Halifax shows us that love can be found at a later age, especially for older lesbians. It is common for lesbians not to realise their sexuality until later in life –  most of us go through compulsory heterosexuality, forced marriages, and homophobia. Many of us have dated men, many go on to marry them before coming out, and that’s okay. Many of us don’t get the chance to experiment in our teens, which is why I think it’s absolutely crucial for the portrayal of older lesbians on television to thrive. It tells us that there is always still time to do all the things everyone else has already done. There is still time to experience first kisses, first loves, and first dates. More importantly,  the series tells us that there is still time for us to live. For gay women, the possibility of a life is not a luxury; it is a neccessity. In Last Tango in Halifax, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), comes out as a lesbian after the breakdown of a deeply unhappy heterosexual marriage. She dates a fellow colleague, Kate (Nina Sosanya), even going on to build a family together. While this might not seem like much, it meant the entire world for older gay women who have went on to write letters to Sarah Lancashire to thank her for bringing their lives realistically to the screen.

Last Tango in Halifax was written, and created by Sally Wainwright.

Important to note that the series has received backlash (which Wainwright has publicly apologised for) for including a Bury Your Gays trope in series three, so please do watch out for that if you intend to start on it. 

Unforgiven (2012) 

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Suranne Jones in ‘Unforgiven’

A highly underrated gem from Sally Wainwright, Unforgiven is a three-part drama which focuses on the enduring strength of sisterhood. The series revolves around Ruth Slater (Suranne Jones), who was just released from prison after serving fifteen years for two murders she did not commit. The series had us believe that Ruth had committed the crime up until the very end, when it’s finally revealed that she took the blame for her younger sister, who is now adopted by another loving family and remembers nothing of the event, not even Ruth herself.

Unforgiven interrogates how far the promise of sisterhood goes – how can it last when one does not even remember the other? Ruth doesn’t mind being octracised by society despite being innocent, as long as she gets the chance to build a proper relationship with her sister again. A premise like this seems incredulous, mostly because it’s overwhelmingly difficult to ever think that we could go this far to protect the ones we love, especially when it’s at the expense of our own suffering. However, if I were to pick a reason why Wainwright pulled off such a premise, it would be Suranne Jones’ stunning performance. At every turn, Jones portrays a tender vulnerability that is unlike a hardened criminal, which enables such a challenging plot to work. A premise like this only works if we sympathise with Ruth even before we know she’s innocent, and that’s what Jones had achieved in this series.

Unforgiven was written, created, and produced by Sally Wainwright. 

Happy Valley, To Walk Invisible, and Gentleman Jack

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Siobhan Finneran and Sarah Lancashire in ‘Happy Valley’

While I may be nearing the end of my review on the topic of relationships between women, Sally Wainwright’s exceptional representation of women goes beyond this tiny piece. Her most critically-acclaimed series that she wrote, created, produced, and directed, Happy Valley, deals with the ways women handle the aftermath of sexual violence. It is a brilliant piece of work which highlights the importance of female solidarity in the wake of sexual assault, particularly the necessity for belief in any survivor. However, while I commend its refusal to aestheticise sexual assault, it was a brutal watch that I never managed to finish, simply because of the violence in it. I recommend treading lightly on this series, a reminder just in case you Google Wainwright and it pops up as the first answer because of how critically acclaimed it is.

In the film genre, Wainwright has also written and directed To Walk Invisible (2016), a period drama centered on the lives of the Brontë sisters. Just like Virginia Woolf’s ruminations on Shakespeare’s long lost sister, To Walk Invisible focuses on an all too common issue – the silencing of women’s voices by a patriarchal system, and how we have to work together if we are to create more spaces for narratives like ours. Like the women in Scott & Bailey, while the patriarchal system continues to be indifferent to our lives, what we do have is each other and our prerogative to celebrate our strengths whenever possible.

Lastly, an upcoming work directed, and once again written by Wainwright is Gentleman Jack (2019), a period drama based on the coded diaries of Anne Lister (also played by Suranne Jones), who was a successful industrialist in the 19th century and known for being an openly lesbian woman. Given how Wainwright has left us with a history of brilliant shows that does everything right by women, I’m excited for this series – god knows we need more period pieces revolving around lesbian relationships.

 

 

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