Sex and the Substitutes

BBC - Drama - Mistresses.jpgWas 2008 the year of the girl gang? Sex and the City made a come-back at the cinema, while a whole host of substitutes on the small screen queued up for a piece of the action: Mistresses on the BBC, Cashmere Mafia on ABC in the US and Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle on NBC. So what’s behind pop culture’s current obsession with all-female ensembles? Cynics might mutter ‘ratings’ and there’s certainly a healthy audience for this kind of drama; Mistresses regularly pulled in around 5 million viewers and although Cashmere Mafia hasn’t been renewed for a second season, it was sold to eight countries around the world. To recreate the zeitgeisty feel that made SATC so popular in the late 1990s, these dramas must have found something relevant to say about women today… but what? With female-focused dramas still so few and far between, this crop demands some attention. Should we be celebrating or boycotting?

Perhaps a bit of both. When it aired in the US earlier this year, Cashmere Mafia was a mixed bag of stereotypes and pleasant surprises. Storylines about juggling motherhood and a career are nothing new, but Cashmere Mafia took a particularly ballsy approach. “Look at what a man gives up to be with one of us,” says uber executive Juliet in the first episode. “We make more money. We rise higher. We take up more space. We are as far from the idea of a wife that he grew up with as it’s possible to be, and still wear his ring and go by his last name.”

Yes it’s a little heavy-handed, but how refreshing and unusual for a US network drama to be so direct. Likewise, it’s all a bit literal when publishing director Mia has to choose between her fiancé and a big promotion. But she’s living a dilemma that’s much more relevant today than it was even five years ago. We’re still a long way from smashing the glass ceiling, but women are gradually taking more of the top jobs. In October 2007, Forbes – the upmarket New York financial magazine – published a supplementary magazine targeting the growing numbers of women in the upper echelons of the corporate world. And ForbesLife Executive Woman clearly found its audience: Forbes commissioned four more issues for 2008.

Mistresses are hardly ever the focus in relationship dramas. Often the ‘other’ woman is just that: a two-dimensional or background character

Unlike SATC – where Carrie’s weekly dalliance with an iBook classified as hard graft – Cashmere Mafia’s characters all have high-powered corporate jobs. They deal with insubordinate office workers and flirty work boyfriends. They’re asked to make the coffee at business meetings they are chairing. They meet up for martinis. They wear look-at-me-I’m-totally-chic clothes. They exchange withering looks. They use their ex-classmates and friends in high places to get what they want. In short, they are a girls-only version of an old boys’ club. And while this reappropriation of a male institution is bound to irritate some, how fantastic to see women wielding so much power, and loving every minute of it!

On our side of the pond, the BBC’s quartet of strong women is less high fashion and more high drama. Mistresses dealt with the various ways that women experience infidelity: as the instigator, the other woman or the wife. Like Cashmere Mafia, all the women are financially independent of the men in their lives. Most of them have demanding careers, but their day jobs are incidental to their extra-curricular activities. They all afford a grudging respect to Jessica, the carefree single girl who’s getting the most sex. “I want your life,” says Siobhan, the lawyer and soon-to-be-unfaithful smug married, before adding, “Well, just your sex life.”

Jessica has the sex, Siobhan the dreamy husband and Trudi, the 9/11 widow, has the kids. But what about Katie, the GP who’s been having an affair with a married patient? “Katie, multiple choice: sex, love or kids,” says Siobhan. “What, can I only have one?” she laughs. Negotiating these kind of compromises is a familiar subject, but Mistresses treats it with lightness and sensitivity. It’s still unusual to see female characters on TV who are comfortable with the idea that, sometimes, sex is what motivates them.

They know they’ve been conditioned to want it all – love, sex, kids, career – and they’re beginning to wonder if having it all will make them happy

And let’s not forget that mistresses themselves are hardly ever the focus in relationship dramas. Often the ‘other’ woman is just that: a two-dimensional or background character, her own motivations unexplored. And how frequently have we seen the mistress-as-sexy-then-clingy-then-bunny-boiler cycle in TV dramas? In Mistresses, although the characters aren’t always acting in their own best interests, they’re aware of their own sexual motivations and, crucially, engaged with the consequences.

cashmeremafiacover-1.jpgPerhaps less successful is the now-ubiquitous Experimenting With Lesbianism storyline that popped up in both dramas. Both Caitlin in Cashmere Mafia and Jessica in Mistresses are otherwise straight women, who experience an unexpected attraction to a women they meet at work. So far so predictable. In Cashmere Mafia, a lesbian baby shower drives a panicked Caitlin into the arms of the nearest chiselled hunk. And, in Mistresses, Jessica’s dalliance with a soon-to-married lesbian is, at first, just another notch on her bedpost.

These dramas use lesbian experimentation as a plot device – a way to talk about the ‘new’ female sexuality, where women who earn more than their male peers and form their own boys’ clubs can do away with men in the bedroom, too. They also make it seem irritatingly easy to ‘do the gay thing’ for kicks. But, in the end, Jessica’s first encounter with a woman ends up changing everything. “She did something to me,” a puzzled Jessica tells Katie. “Not just a physical thing, although I felt it in a physical way.” The doctor’s diagnosis: “You’re in love.”

Metaphorically older and wiser than their SATC predecessors, the characters in Cashmere Mafia and Mistresses are done with giggling over vibrators and dreaming about Prince Charming. They know they’ve been conditioned to want it all – love, sex, kids, career – and they’re beginning to wonder if having it all will make them happy. Perhaps sticking to one thing and doing it really well can be just as satisfying. If, like Trudi in Mistresses, that’s motherhood, then it can still be empowering. One of the most moving scenes in the series is when Trudi gets her husband arrested to protect her family. And if, like Mia in Cashmere Mafia, it has to be career first and love later, that’s OK too.

These dramas have their faults – unrealistic storylines (had an affair with your dead lover’s son? Anyone?) and some clichés – but what’s important is that they explore the kind of choices women (or at least women in particularly privileged circles) are making in their lives today. They show female characters that are powerful and vulnerable at the same time. They underline the power and potential of female networks. They remind us of how far we’ve come. And how far we’ve got to go. And in my book, that’s something to celebrate.

Alice Lawlor is a 29-year-old magazine editor and freelance writer who lives in Toronto. She enjoys ranting at the TV and sipping lychee martinis, preferably at the same time