When my husband travels, I often dive into a new series to pass the time in the evenings. He’s taken two extended trips this year, which was just enough for me to get through both seasons of Happy Valley on Netflix. If you haven’t seen Happy Valley, you should watch it. In Happy Valley, middle-aged women are portrayed by actual middle-aged women. This should not be remarkable, but it is. Of course, it’s British; American television would never stand for so many sagging jawlines and wrinkled brows.
The show is anchored by Sarah Lancashire, an actress capable of radiating any emotion with the barest purse of her lips. As police sergeant Catherine Cawood, she is amused, depressed, angry, and despairing, often all at once. Siobhan Finneran plays Catherine’s sister Clare and she, too, expresses more with a dour glance than most actresses manage in an entire career. Naturally, the show is written, directed, and created by a woman. Sally Wainwright is the driving force behind the camera. No man has the chops to make a series like this.
You don’t have to watch Happy Valley for the female empowerment; you can watch it for pure entertainment. Each season centers around a police investigation that intersects with Catherine’s complicated personal life. The writers do a great job of building suspense and putting the characters in perilous situations.
I think they do an even better job of writing women as real people. They resist the urge to soften Catherine. One of the running themes of the show is how everyone is a little bit terrified of her. She is widely respected on the job and in the community, the sort of police officer who genuinely cares about the prostitutes, the alcoholics, and the misfits. But she is also brusque and efficient. She is kind, but she doesn’t twist herself in knots trying to please everyone. As a result, many people seem to fear her as much as they admire her. And lest the viewer think this is the result of some menopausal transition, one of the characters makes a point of saying he was terrified of her back in high school.
On television as in real life, strong women frighten some people. On American television this is often portrayed by making strong, accomplished women seem ruthless and cruel. Ambition, it seems, is the result of some distinctly feminine character flaw. Not on Happy Valley. Catherine is great at her job, but not because she’s ruthless. She’s great at her job because she cares about the people she’s sworn to protect. She’s never soft or sentimental. She’s practical and she can be calculating. She’s smart and she never pretends she isn’t. She loves her work and doesn’t apologize for it. You never get the sense she’d rather be home cooking dinner or knitting an afghan.
If this were an American series, the producers would insist on casting some young and pretty ingenue to serve as a bit of sexual distraction. On Happy Valley, even the 20-something police officer in training shows up to work with dark circles beneath her eyes. In fact, the prettiest person on the whole series is the psychopathic man who plays Catherine’s nemesis.
We need more series and movies centered around realistic middle-aged women. I’m tired of seeing every female role played by actresses who can barely crack a smile for all the filler in their lips, and I’m completely done with watching 30-year-old actresses play middle-aged characters. It’s bad for women. It’s certainly bad for the careers of female actors, but it’s bad for the rest of us too.
We hear so much about how representation matters on the screen and in literature. It does matter. If you never see yourself accurately portrayed in the media, you begin to imagine there is something wrong with you. If no one looks the way you look, you start to believe you should be ashamed of your appearance or you should alter it in some way.
Look, I know the inadequate representation of middle-aged women pales in comparison to every other under-represented group in the world, but as a 49-year-old woman in America, it matters to me. I don’t have the resources or the desire to look like a 35-year-old for the rest of my life, but that’s what American media demands of women. You can look 35 (or younger) or you can look 75 (or older), but look anything in between and you become invisible by Hollywood standards. I think it’s because those years between 35 and 75 are usually a woman’s most productive years. It’s scary to contemplate a world filled with ambitious, productive, intelligent women, whose sole focus is neither to find a man nor to raise one. So Hollywood pretends those women don’t exist. That’s a terrible message to send to women of any age.
Consider this my plea to Hollywood: bring us more shows like Happy Valley; bring us more actresses like Sarah Lancashire; bring us more writers and directors like Sally Wainwright. Or lose us altogether. You need us, but we can live without you.