The women rewriting motherhood - ‘These are female stories where it is OK not to be OK’
Emilie McMeekan examines why these brutally honest award-winning dramas are helping us open up about the struggles of modern domestic life
You've seen Nicole Kidman accepting her Best Actress Emmy Award, a firebrand in red Calvin Klein, wearing all the diamonds and mismatched shoes. You've noted Elisabeth Moss and her custom-made Prabal Gurung. But for once that isn't the whole story. In fact, it doesn't even come close.
Because when three female-driven television series, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid's Tale and Veep, sweep the Emmys, you know that something big has happened. Where once The West Wing, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad dominated with their edgy macho protagonists, the time has come for a different kind of tale to be told. Female stories where it is OK not to be OK. It is OK to struggle. It is OK to ask for more.
When it hit our screens earlier this year, Big Little Lies was a mini revelation. Not just because of the huge Hollywood A-listers - Nicole Kidman! Reese Witherspoon! - and jaw-droppingly stylish Californian house "porn". But because it lifted the veil on the chaos beneath the gloss. Who knew that rich women would be so relatable? But pain is pain.
The stars talked about menopause, they talked about anxiety, and they talked about violence. They may have sipped soya-lattes in a hipster cafe in Monterey after the school run, but they also laid down a new gauntlet for story telling.
What happens to women when motherhood threatens to hijack?
What happens inside a marriage that looks perfect from the outside? And what happens when women begin to share the truth? Something powerful.
We had Kidman and Witherspoon talking about motherhood in a car. "I feel so ashamed for saying this, but being a mother is not enough for me," says Kidman's character in tears. To which Witherspoon responds emphatically: "I want more." And she begins hitting the steering wheel and beeping her horn.
"I want more" she howls, throwing it out like a lifebelt. All of a sudden we had the permission to share all the different complexities of our lives as never before.
Suddenly we felt seen.
And an even darker take on motherhood was coming our way. Sharp on Big Little Lies' Louboutin heels came all the horror of The Handmaid's Tale. It is well-documented that Margaret Atwood's novel is a litany of terrible crimes against women. A dystopian vision of a future where only a small number are fertile, leading to a crisis and a cruelty that is jaw-dropping: FGM, slavery, torture, murder. As Atwood has pointed out: "Nothing went into the book that hadn't happened at some point in time, in some place."
It was painful to watch (most women I know medicated themselves with wine and chocolate each episode), but compelling to view.
Women on screen have never had so much agency. The real drama comes from the inner stories of these women's tangled lives: the fractures, the fault-lines, the fears, the doubts. The distress all suddenly in view for everyone to see and all winning against a backdrop of increasingly hostile "locker-room talk".
These are women's stories, based on books by women where the female protagonists are as far away from the 'Oxo' mum's soft hands and apron stereotype as you can get.
"They should never have given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army," warns Offred, Moss's character in The Handmaid's Tale. There is the sense that women are increasingly shrugging off their "uniforms" of "yummy mummy", "busy, working mother", "tragic spinsters", "ball-breaker". The characters in these shows are winning us over because they are doing just that.
They are also telling us that nothing about motherhood is linear. At the school gates, work water coolers, over numerous cocktails, women are able to articulate their frustrations and exhaustions like Kidman and Witherspoon. And here in Ireland we have Sharon Horgan's brilliant series Catastrophe. Imagine calling pregnancy a catastrophe out loud in public. Imagine. But then, saying the unsayable is part of the joy. Take Veep, also a big winner at Sunday's Emmys, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus's president is a disastrous working parent. Not so much "I don't know how she does it", but rather, "Do I really have to do this?"
This new motherhood trope is not only on-screen, either. The bestseller lists are stuffed with books by The Unmumsy Mum, Hurrah for Gin and The Scummy Mummies, all providing an unvarnished look at the highs and lows of parenting.
Recently I asked a friend at a parents' evening how she was. And she forgot to say "fine". Instead, she looked me straight in the eye, and said: "I am suffering from terrible imposter syndrome, work is terrible, the kids are driving me mad and I have a terrible chest infection." Better than a watery "fine" wouldn't you say? In this new climate, it is OK to find life tough.
Some days you are amazing. Some days you leave your keys in the fridge. Some days you sit and cry and don't know how you will carry on. On Sunday, Moss thanked her own mother in her acceptance speech: "You have taught me that you can be kind and a f***ing badass."
Only time will tell whether women will be rewarded the same way on the big screen, too. How long until the Oscars?