In All Woman, Kathy Burke has tackled ‘beauty’ and ‘motherhood’ and next up is that big messy hot potato of ‘relationships’, writes Sofie Mason
Tuesday 27th August is Kathy Burke’s final episode in a three-part series on women (Channel 4, 9pm) which is proving stimulating material for chats around the water cooler (where most colleagues would have congregated like drought-struck animals in search of wetlands).
As part of my background research for this review, I have, of course, been bingeing on Burke’s classic TV series Gimme Gimme Gimme (1999/2001) which succeeded in making us laugh with, and not against, gay resting-actor Tom (James Dreyfus) and straight repeatedly-dismissed receptionist Linda (Kathy Burke). They are both in pursuit of a ‘man after midnight’ despite both being (at least conventionally) unattractive, unsuccessful and spectacularly selfish. We laugh/cackle with them at all the pretentious, self-important, deluded and desperate visitors who pass through their Kentish Town flat - especially at the deeply dim middle class couple in the basement. The script would undoubtedly offend everyone now - Linda takes the piss out of the size of Tom’s willy, he pokes fun at her for being fat, Linda asserts “there’s no such thing as gay, it’s just laziness”, Tom accuses her of being unwomanly and talking like “a navvy in drag”, terrible stereotypes abound, every other line is sexual innuendo BUT in their own way they are crusaders for a different world. Tom screams at a departing married lover “I like my men to stand up for what they believe in and not be so far back in the closet they’re in fucking Narnia!” and Linda is finally diagnosed as having reversed body dysmorphic disorder that means she believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that she is stunningly beautiful. Watching Kathy’s present series, you wish more women could ‘suffer’ from this disorder.
Judging by the first two episodes, Kathy’s opinions on women would not surprise you but she is all about down to earth good sense that certainly needs to be spelt out. With a bit less swearing, it could almost be a public health service broadcast. If anyone can influence selfie-pouting, self-doubting, self-harming young women for the better today, it has to be Kathy. Not just because of her mass appeal but because she is tough, funny, wise and, most of all, beautiful in a way that has no obvious relationship with the prevailing ideas on what constitutes beauty.
She describes herself as an “acquired taste” and a “life-long member of the non-pretty working classes” which allows her to comment with a refreshing honesty on what a load of bollocks all this objectification of women is and always has been. “I am more upset if people call me stupid than if they call me ugly” she says but tragically, despite the advances in women’s rights over the decades, beauty remains an all-important currency and if anything, because of today’s frenzied obsession with social media, the pressure is perhaps greater than ever to be beautiful.
Kathy bemoans the superficiality of it all but, look at it this way, according to evolutionary biology we are attracted to beauty because it is a promise of health. Our first impression, through that intuitive faculty that nature has granted us to make snap decisions in complex time-sensitive situations, is that someone with balanced and proportionate features (the ‘golden ratio’ as one plastic surgeon pontificates to Kathy) theoretically has a strong immune system that would give us a good chance of producing healthy children with them. Facial imbalances are markers of disease contracted in the womb or in the early years of life so our looks are indicators of our genetic destiny and not purely superficial.
Take another step further with 19th-century French writer Stendhal who argued that our idea of beauty goes beyond mere good health and is perceived as “the promise of happiness”. We “bestow beauty on individuals because we detect in their faces a range of inner traits that we intuit would be of some benefit in the establishment of a successful relationship” – for example, determination, intelligence, trust, humility, humour etc. (How To Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton). Which is why, I presume, Gerard Depardieu, even at his most disproportionate and obese, continued to bag romantic leading roles. And why everyone of every gender everywhere fancied Dawn French even before she lost weight. We see, or think we see, an inner deeper persona manifested through the face. So it was not all about surfaces but, funnily enough, cosmetic surgery has made Kathy right today. A face straightened by the surgeon’s knife and frozen by botox can no longer speak to our primaeval intuitions and can no longer attract through our inner persona. We could not have enhanced ourselves more disastrously. Cosmetic surgery is fake news. Kathy doesn’t go into this but these are the kind of spin-off thoughts that the series succeeds in provoking.
Back to the second episode on childbirth - Kathy talks through how mothers and fathers are treated differently at work, chats to a young woman who isn’t being allowed to be sterilised despite wishing to be so and interviews one career woman who is freezing her eggs (or, as she describes it, putting a ‘snooze button’ on her biological clock) so she can be as relaxed as a man when dating in her thirties and not feel the pressure to procreate. Kathy also talks to actor Samantha Morton about stay-at-home dads and they marvel at how men can now park their careers for their families in a way women have had no choice about for centuries. But it is right to marvel because changing male roles are a very recent development. As Kathy reminds us, male nurses have only been generally accepted in her lifetime and, as comedian Kathryn Ryan reminds us, our grandmothers couldn’t buy a property, open a bank account or have a passport without the signature of a man.
“A woman’s role is what’s wrong with everything...” says Kathy. When she’s asked if she’s a feminist, she hesitates. She doesn’t like labels but neither does she want to simply blame men. Historically, there have been two different approaches to women’s liberation. The first is a feminism that starts from the premise that there is something in men’s biology or psychological make-up which makes them treat women as inferior which leads to the view that liberation is possible only by the separation of women from men or by getting the right women in the right places as MPs, trade union officials, local councillors or prime ministers to impose equality.
The second is a socialist approach that locates women’s oppression as part of class society’s divide and rule.
Personally, I prefer Grayson Perry’s analysis of male stereotypes being historical rather than innate -
“Society has moved on, machines do the lifting, most of the fighting is outsourced to specialists and the need for dominance is out of kilter with the whole modernist project. The male role in developed countries is nearly all performance, a pantomime of masculinity......For many young men today, being a man is to be like one of those Japanese soldiers emerging from the jungle, still fighting after the war was long over. They are conditioned to be something that is no longer needed. Perhaps we should treat those young men in the same way that Japan treated these soldiers - like heroes. Tell them the war is over and help them adapt to modern life.” (The Descent of Man)
Revolutionary socialists certainly want to empower and liberate both men and women but it’s not just a matter of a good chat - we need to fundamentally change the material circumstances that still lead to women’s oppression. We argue that women’s oppression did not arise from the ideas in men’s heads but from the development of private property and, with it, the emergence of a society based on classes. What keeps women oppressed today is the way capitalism is organised – in particular the way capitalism uses a particular form of the family in order to make sure that its workers bring their children up, unpaid, to be the next generation creating the profits for the few. Unlike feminism, we do not approach women as victims but seek to mobilise their strength where they collectively have the power at work and in the community to challenge this dangerously outdated system and change it for good. For us, the fight for women’s liberation is inseparable from the fight to end all class society and shape a new socialist society free from gender stereotyping and free from domestic labour – full of communal childcare and housework, communal restaurants and laundries, a shorter working week and so much more.
Kathy has no regrets about not having children but, had she known that she could find a house-husband to bring up their children, she says she might have had them. If I had lived in a socialist society, so might I. “The world needs to change” grime artist Nadia Rose tells her but neither of them discuss how. Kathy says she wants women to have choices and that’s a good start. While women body-shame each other, while fingers wag about who is a real woman and who isn’t, while people get hung up on the definition of gender when all we need is to be human bodies with a spectrum of desires, and the populist right mobilises to reverse even the most basic gains of sexual freedom, abortion rights and sex education - the question is not who is or isn’t beautiful/female/feminist/politically correct – the question is who is doing anything about it. Find them, follow them, agitate with them.
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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