The stereotype-busting lead character of BBC One's Keeping Faith is what makes the drama so compelling, writes Sofie Mason
If a female role could be written that managed to escape all current stereotypes, what would it look like? Are we too mired in the muck of ages to be able to even imagine her? Or would she look like Faith Howells, a small-town solicitor and mother-of-three, played by Eve Myles in returning Welsh drama Keeping Faith whose first series became the most watched series ever on Welsh TV?
We all know about the ‘Bechdel test’ where a film needs to have at least two women characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. Personally, I prefer comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick’s alternative ‘sexy lamp test’ where "if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft” because women “have to be protagonists, not devices." Either way, Keeping Faith passes both tests with flying colours.
In the first series last year, Faith struggles to resolve the mystery of her husband’s sudden disappearance – heart-broken by the possibility of suicide and then stumbling into a world of drugs, money laundering and murder during which she kicks the hell out of the ‘damsel-in-distress’ stereotype while trying to put right the almighty mess her husband has got himself into by attempting to bail his business out of debt, going on the run and wearing a very bad wig. In the second series, she kicks the hell out of the ‘forgiving wife’ stereotype particularly on the first day of her husband’s return when, in a moment of pure brilliance, she moves towards him with genuine tenderness and relief and then, in frustration, she changes her mind and head-butts him. She’s certainly not conforming to anything or anyone but neither is she consciously articulating any kind of feminist charter - she is just trying, quite simply, to be true to herself.
The second series (currently on BBC One) has been criticised for not having a central mystery to solve but that is because it is now dealing with the far more complicated story of Faith’s mixed emotions at the return of her husband and her struggle to trust him again. You will know those typical happy-ever-after concluding shots neatly tying up the threads with long-awaited reunions, cathartic resolutions and that wonderful satisfying symmetry that fiction can give to the ragged old muddle that is real life. Well, Keeping Faith ploughs bravely on showing nothing is really resolved at all, how could it be? Faith has been keeping various felons at bay who think they are still owed, outwitting the police who are trying to fit her up, holding the family law firm together with his indecisive dad and, of course, keeping the children safe who are still somewhat traumatised after being rushed around in cars, snatched by social services and left watching lakes being dragged for the possible whereabouts of their father. No wonder the eldest daughter has become a Goth...
I won’t bother you with the storyline which packs a hell of a lot into every episode but may not interest you anyway or with the stunning cinematography or with the misty magnificence of Wales because the point for me was Faith. She walks into rooms, takes her shoes off, drops her bag anywhere, doesn’t care what she looks like and sits on the floor. She is smart, tough, maverick and charismatic. She wears gorgeous stilettos and fabulous bright coats, yes, but no nail polish, no water-proof mascara, no botox and is as lined with laughter and worry as any man. So is she Luther in a dress?
I don’t think so because she is deliberately and irreducibly a woman. Not a typically weak woman – usually portrayed as overly emotional, overly complicated, overly demanding, drunk, mad or hallucinating on a train. Nor a typically strong woman – usually portrayed as overly ‘manly’, overly calculating, gaslighting her lovers or stabbing enemies in the eye with a hatpin while stealing a gorgeous throw. Faith is every woman – emotional, compassionate, instinctive and resourceful. She multi-tasks in a way Luther never could – delivering her case in court, juggling a warring set of dysfunctional relatives, finding time to eat reassuringly large sandwiches, collaborating with an invaluable circle of friends, fighting like a lioness for her kids and never too preoccupied to stop and hug whoever needs hugging at the time. You wouldn’t catch Wallander doing that. Or Vera, for that matter. Writer Matthew Hall is clearly intent on giving as much importance to mundane everyday life as to the bigger issues of crime, justice and integrity.
Faith is not trying to change the world (sadly) but she cares passionately about justice and is disappointed by the lack of it. Thankfully, she doesn’t go around punching walls in stereotypical macho frustration (always a ludicrous knuckle-breaking thing to do in my mind, up there with the TV standard idiocy of throwing plates at your own walls and then having to clear them up). She drinks a lot, yes, but she also goes boxing to keep fit and keep sane. She takes shortcuts with the law, she is flawed but she knows when to admit her mistakes. She’s impulsive but you trust her. She turns to her client, a woman who has killed her husband, and says “He betrayed you and you loved him so much. Most of us put up with that. Drown by inches. Not you. I envy you.” But you know she won’t be purely impulsive - she will consult, consider, empower and find the best way out.
Funnily enough, it’s not the male characters but the villain woman who tells her to stay home with her kids and it’s the mother in law who tells her to support her husband come what may. Meanwhile, the men are largely emotionally constipated. The father is described as lacking courage, the husband as weak, the male villains are played off against each other and the main detective sighs throughout wishing he could go back to London. So will Faith let her husband stay? There is no reason why women should need to pair off with men and there is no reason why women care for children rather than men. But in a society where choices are limited, there are lots of reasons why women rather than men are left holding the baby. If she does in this case, it will not be because Faith is a woman but because their father is an idiot.
And if she shows him the door, will she now turn to the reassuringly reliable, though undeniably criminal, Steve Baldini (Mark Lewis Jones) who has been trying to save her all series? Will he be the Gabriel Oak to her Bathsheba? Maybe. But her emotional intelligence is such that she might well weigh it up and see no obvious need to go from one man straight to the next and leave Baldini on a rainy beach somewhere while she gets on with more important business. Both series are on BBC iPlayer - if you have time, please let me know if I am hallucinating or whether you agree that we really are watching a female character defying stereotypes.
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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