Weak Women in Powerful Professions: a review of Spirited and Offspring

I love a good Australian drama.  A few years ago I adored Love My Way.  The two main female leads of Love My Way were played by Claudia Karvan and Asher Keddie.  Now they are each appearing in television shows that have recently debuted on Australian screens.  Karvan stars in Spirited (W on Foxtel, Wednesdays at 7.30pm) and Keddie in Offspring (Channel 10, Sundays at 8.30pm) . 

In Spirited Karvan plays Suzy Darling, a dentist who secretly plots and executes leaving her husband by purchasing the penthouse apartment near her dental practice.  The character is portrayed as a strong woman merely on the basis of her profession and decision to leave her husband.  Otherwise she appears socially awkward, vague and a tad insane.  She seems completely oblivious to her patients’ feelings and when everyone goes home she talks to a picture of her deceased father sitting in the dental chair.  This is exacerbated by her developing relationship with a ghost, whom only she can see.  This ghost becomes the focus of her life who she converses with constantly and the professional dentist becomes increasingly distracted and unprofessional. 

The support cast of Spirited are just that, support.  The husband is an egotistical shallow bastard (hammed up by Rodger Corser of Rush fame), the sister is a bimbo counsellor wanting to be his new love (Belinda Bromilow) and the dental assistant’s sole role is to stop Suzy from making a complete fool of herself every minute of the day. Suzy’s lack of sensitivity for her patients and the mistakes she makes upon the ghost entering her life makes one wonder how she ever had enough patients to afford the new apartment.  The twist to this soap drama, and perhaps its saviour, is the quest for finding the ghost’s past and thus the reason for his ghostly existence.  Upon meeting Suzy the ghost has no memory and does not even realise he is dead.  It turns out he is Henry Mallet (Matt King), a punk rock star from the band The Nerve who mysteriously disappeared in 1982 at the age of 35.  Matt King balances the comic with the serious and the arrogance with the tenderness quite nicely.

Offspring similarly has a professional woman, Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie), at the centre of its drama.  Nina is an obstetrician, recently divorced from a guy with a penchant for blowing things up, which was mildly amusing for a while, but now she is completely obsessed with the new paediatrician at work, Chris Havel (Don Hany).  Like Suzy, she is easily rattled and often socially inept.  The support cast have a little more to work with in Offspring than they do in Spirited and are performed by more experienced actors.  Again, it is very much a soap opera with all its dramas.  Nina’s friend, Cherie (Deborah Mailman) had a fling on a boat cruise not knowing her lover was Nina’s father, Darcy (John Waters), and conceived a child from the encounter.  Cherie and Darcy now live together as co-parents of their child, but not as romantic partners.  Darcy still pines after his ex-wife, Geraldine (Linda Cropper).  Nina has a love-hate relationship with her sister, Billie (Kat Stewart), who is the antithesis of the supposed smart and intelligent Nina.  Billie is a hopeless real estate agent (for her Dad’s agency) because she lets her on-again-off-again relationship stand in the way of success. 

One seductive part of Offspring is its modern approach to editing.  As Nina imagines and analyses possible outcomes of various scenarios, or mentally replays her particular perspective of a past event, the viewer also sees them played out in all their cringe worthy imagery.  For instance, in this week’s episode Nina is still recovering from seeing the paediatrician heart-throb, Chris, in a minor state of undress with the midwife in a storeroom.  When Nina spies each of them for the first time after this incident her mind plays a very sexual version of the paediatrician and midwife together, a gross exaggeration of reality.

Both of these shows are pretending to break stereotypes by having their leading women in professions traditionally dominated by men yet making all other aspects of their lives unsuccessful and pathetic.  For instance, in Spirited Suzy forgets to collect her daughter from school and loses a tooth performing cartwheels in her new apartment.  Her husband then ridicules her in front of their friends for being a dentist with a missing tooth. 

Nina’s voiceover in Offspring keeps lamenting about her personal inadequacies and doubts regarding her ability to establish and maintain a love life, often imagining her dire thoughts played out.  She is treated as a doormat by her family who call upon her to fix their problems and run after them.  Occasionally I may share Nina’s  perspective on life but I don’t find it funny and I don’t like women being portrayed as constantly feeling inadequate.  I’d rather watch a character who I’d aspire to be like, not one I’d rather not be.  It’s like watching Bridget Jones’s Diary repeatedly.  It’s time to move on from such caricatures as Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal.

Joss Whedon recently visited Australia and spoke at Melbourne Town Hall for the Melbourne Writers Festival and at the Sydney Opera House a couple of days later.  He is a scriptwriter and director most famous for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse.  When Whedon was honoured by Equality Now, a women’s rights advocacy group, he provided possible answers for interviewers who are constantly asking why he writes strong women roles.  One response included “Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters?” and he concluded his short talk with “Because you’re still asking me that question”. 

Suzy and Nina are not strong role models for women.  It is appropriate for characters to be multi-dimensional with flaws and all, but Suzy and Nina are given a ridiculous range of insipid characteristics. Women may be prone to the self doubt that these characters portray but there is no need to take it to this extreme for the sake of a few mediocre laughs.  It is rather disappointing to see such talented female Australian actors performing in these shows.  I live in hope of some massive character development that will redeem their current shallow lives and focus on achievements instead of inadequacies.

Information about Spirited

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Spirited” retrieved 5 September 2010

Foxtel Management Pty Limited (2010) Spirited retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.wchannel.com.au/spirited/>

Information about Offspring

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Offspring” retrieved 5 September 2010

Network 10 (2010) Offspring retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://ten.com.au/offspring.htm>

Joss Whedon’s speech

Equality Now (2006, May 15) On the Road to Equality: Honoring Men on the Frontlines[video] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYaczoJMRhs>

American Rhetoric (2006, May 15) Joss Whedon: Equality Now Tribute Address [video and transcript] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/josswhedonequalitynow.htm>


Shani said…
So I woke up this morning with a sore throat and headache but good news! Someone wrote a lengthy comment about this post, many years late, but still...
And then I accidentally hit the ‘Delete’ link instead of the ‘Publish’ link in the email notification. Blogger keeps telling me the comment no longer exists.
But it does! It’s still in the email so here it is, a comment from Rob:

I think the issue with Offspring in particular is that there is no reason in the story for her to lack confidence at least not in the few episodes I watched . If they wanted to play such a thing for laughs with it should've done is made all of her family overqualified . Because she is the highly qualified one in a family of realtors and never do well brother it doesn't make any sense that someone who would arguably have to be a high achiever who is extremely motivated and driven to become an OB/GYN to be lacking in confidence . Everyone pushes around even the nurses . But there is no reason for this given in the story . Even why she would put up with a psychotic ex it's not properly explained . It comes across as lazy and simply playing to stereotypes . What would've been funnier would be if everyone in her family was overly qualified father a brain surgeon mother leading psychiatrist sister a microbiologist brother some kind of field biologist your heart surgeon or something like that . Then all the scenes of her helping people give birth and sharing in life-giving moments would contrast with that and perhaps you might wonder well what do I really do other than encouraging and helping with a natural process were as everyone else my family is. Then all the scenes of her helping people give birth and sharing in life giving moments would contrast with that and perhaps you might wonder well what do I really do other than encouraging and helping with a natural process were as everyone else my family is discovering amazing things researching amazing things The rivalry between her and Billy would be a lot funnier if Billy was a microbiologist to simply liked a bit of rough and I have this labour musician. The rivalry between her and Billy would be a lot funnier if Billy was a microbiologist to simply liked a bit of rough and I have this labour musician as a boyfriend

I think a perfect example of how silly it is that she feel so self-conscious is when she is at a store and two girls in skimpy outfits or making fun of her because she's dressed as a real doctor and seem so serious it would've been funny if she had said I actually am a doctor . Why would someone so accomplished and successful feel so awkward dealing with two drunken idiots?

Another possibility might have been well she is an amazing doctor and highly respected this is contrasted with her private life where her sister is more beautiful and glamorous and even though she is not a very good real estate agent she never the last gets lots of mail attention and seems to get along well with other women .

And that ultimately is the weakness of the show . It is a typical soap opera in that it forces situations rather than creating a generally interesting situation that naturally has plot development. The idea that she has a great job but finds ordinary life challenging is a good idea, but making her like a typical flustered female rom com character doesn't fit.

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