BBC One's drama The Cry paints a picture of shame and guilt associated with the family and specifically parenting under capitalism argues Sofie Mason
Last Sunday, BBC 1 thriller The Cry came to a shocking conclusion after jumping back and forth in time for 4 episodes - keeping us guessing as to who stole the baby, who poisoned the baby, where is the baby buried, what were the father’s real motives, and was the mother quite the victim she seemed to be? This was story-telling at its very best but this column is not about storytelling. It’s about finding the set of assumptions and values behind the stories. We have always told stories to make sense of the world so what sense is telly making of the world for us?
Most critics agree that this is the drama of one manipulative man who destroys his family with lies and gets his just deserts. The bad are punished and the good are freed. But underpinning The Cry is a far more interesting, and perhaps unintentional, study of shame and guilt associated with the family and specifically parenting. As a Marxist, I understand the family (like any other institution) to have historical origins that roughly coincide with the emergence of private property and the division of society into classes. Over time, the family has assumed widely differing forms and has now adapted to fit the needs of capitalism by providing a mechanism for the ruling class to hand down their wealth and control as well as to reproduce a working class at very little cost to the employers or the state.
Given half a chance (and a revolution in between) we would all much rather live in a society where the duties of parenthood are equally shared, where the burden of housework and childcare is socialised through good communal restaurants, laundries, nurseries etc. But, for now, for all the love and care that can sometimes be found within it, the family fulfils a deeply reactionary function in undercutting class identification and encouraging the working classes to view the world overwhelmingly from the perspective of their individual family. “Protecting my family” was ever the excuse of the scab.
So the ruling class has nurtured a useful mythology around the institution of the family that asserts that it reflects fixed biological and psychological drives (which means anyone challenging this structure is abnormal) and is a haven of harmony, love and security (which means anyone who does not fulfil the ideal must have failed). And that’s what is behind The Cry, the shame of failure. Writer Jacqueline Perske is brilliant at the start in showing how young mum Joanna (Jenna Coleman) is isolated, insecure and constantly judged, with all these feelings exacerbated by the habitual absence of her husband Al (Ewen Leslie). Describing the horrors of motherhood even to her best friend, who doesn’t have a child, is virtually impossible for her given the presumption that motherhood must be bliss. Fear of failure then ratchets up to an unbearable degree when the parents fear they will be accused of negligence by a public desperate to judge.
Yes, Al lies for a living as a spin doctor for a political party so no surprise that his grasp of the truth is constantly shifting and he ends up lying to himself, to his wife, to his girlfriend and to the police. But actually, the situation he finds himself in where his baby son mysteriously stops breathing is one that does require some spinning if you are to avoid accusations of manslaughter and hold onto your job and your reputation. This world with this mythology will judge these parents badly, disproportionately badly, if he tells the truth. Power comes from controlling the narrative and Al knows this when he cries “This is not my story! I don’t deserve this!” He is a fixer so why not pretend your child has been kidnapped?
Whatever the circumstances (and I won’t spoil it for you) both parents have lost their child and this is a masterful and heart-rending study of two people going mad with grief, spinning out of control, blaming each other, writhing in pain and revulsion at the reality they don’t want to accept. A reality that they are doomed to share only with each other, locked in a conspiracy of silence until the end of days. But they both cover up, not just Al. They both deny themselves the chance to grieve for fear of being accused of negligence, of bad parenting, of failing to fulfil the idyll of the family. Al cries alone, genuinely. Cries over his loss and cries over his cowardice. Because he was trying to protect his family, as men are taught to do, and failed. Is it really only a male control freak who would have acted as he did?
If your wife is losing her mind wouldn’t you want her to think she’s the one facing jail to keep her on script and save you both? If your wife asks to see where the baby is buried wouldn’t you have to take her to the wrong spot because she hasn’t thought through that the police will follow you? If you thought the bib contained incriminating evidence, wouldn’t you need to destroy it? If you knew the public would only be interested in the mother’s story, wouldn’t you make sure she got good press? Joanna says “I gave him control. I had to make myself strong again.” But that could be as much a lie for the police psychiatrist to justify her actions as any lie Al has told.
In most dramas, of course you expect loose ends to be tied up and blaming Al ties it up but Joanna lies too and walks free. She is not a liberated woman. There has been no justice. She will dream forever of pawing the ground to unearth her baby’s body. In a socialist future, the terrible accident of its death would have been recognised as that, the community would have grieved together and in all likelihood, there would be so little to feel oppressed and ashamed about that thrillers would never find a plot line with wonderfully flawed individuals who career off Scottish mountains. They fuck you up your mum and dad, as the poet Philip Larkin once wrote, but not half as much as capitalism has fucked them up already!
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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