by Louise Perry
Wednesday, 11
January 2023
Review
07:39

Happy Valley: the crime drama that eschewed porn and won

The BBC show includes real women and shuns gratuitous sexual violence
by Louise Perry
Sarah Lancashire as Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley.

On Sunday night, Prince Harry went head-to-head with a middle-aged police officer from Yorkshire, albeit one who is also burdened with a fractious family life. Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood, protagonist of the hit BBC series Happy Valley, gave Tom Bradby’s Harry — The Interview a good thrashing in the TV ratings battle, proving that viewers are still in love with the crime drama that remains the most feminist thing on British TV. 

Across its three seasons, Happy Valley has dealt with the usual nasties found in a crime drama — murder, drugs, rape, and the rest — but manages to stand apart from its competitors, not only because of the unusually high quality of the script and acting, but also because the key characters are so unconventional. This is a show that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours and then goes much further, paying close and sympathetic attention to the lives of women in a way that we rarely see in primetime drama. 


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Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire, is not only middle-aged, she is also unglamorous, presenting herself much like any ordinary British police officer. There is very little attention paid to her romantic life — or indeed anyone else’s — with the focus instead on her relationships with family members, in particular her sister and her grandson. She is a competent professional, but not a Holmesian genius. In other words, she is thrillingly normal — a middle-aged working class British woman, average in appearance, who is usually only seen on screen in soap operas or vox pop items on the news. 

And while the show features a lot of violence against women, these scenes are never gratuitous. Another series (Games of Thrones, say) would have taken every opportunity to show the handsome Tommy Lee Royce (as portrayed by James Norton) committing sexual violence on screen, but in Happy Valley we see none of this. Instead, it is only scenes of menace before the act, and then the emotional consequences for the women which endure for years afterwards. Here is a realistic representation of rape, but portrayed from the point of view of the victims, rather than that of an invisible voyeur. 

On this point, compare Happy Valley with The Fall, another BBC crime drama which also features both a female police officer as protagonist and a gorgeous psychopath as antagonist. The Fall is full of frightening and extended scenes in which the serial killer played by Jamie Dornan tortures and murders young women who exist in the drama solely for that function. Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson’s beautiful detective pursues him in a cat-and-mouse game filled with sexual charge. Titillation is clearly the point. 

Writers of shows like The Fall are presumably trying, consciously or unconsciously, to cater for a female audience with a thing for hybristophilia (a sexual interest in criminals, one of those very rare fetishes found more often in women than in men). A lot of crime drama seems to be geared towards this audience, who I’m sure are disproportionately represented among viewers. 

Crime fiction has not always tried to make violence seem sexy. Agatha Christie, for instance, tended to cast rich old men as her victims, rather than hot young women. It is only in the last few decades that titillation has become the norm in the genre.

But Happy Valley proves that there is a market for crime dramas that resist the temptation to indulge viewers’ baser impulses. Filmmakers take note: it is possible to produce hugely successful programmes featuring women who are neither beautiful nor dead.

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Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
26 days ago

Happy Valley is excellent in all the ways described, except perhaps as my Bradford-born partner says, the Yorkshire accents are sometimes a bit dodgy (it should be more like oot than owt) but that’s a small, very common failing.

I have always thought it ironic in these very ‘woke’ times how gratuitous violence and sexual scenes focussing on women are routinely served up on supposedly mainstream dramas. Who knows why? Perhaps it is somehow permissable to show things you can’t say, as long as you can dissociate yourself from the behaviour while nonetheless benefitting from it financially. I don’t know

In the mean time, Happy Valley eschews this path with its non glamorous, unfashionable, empathetic but nonetheless gripping focus on realistic characters and situations.

Gender Critical Dad
Gender Critical Dad
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

We do seem to live in times when lots of things are only permissible if you have one hand full.

leculdesac suburbia
leculdesac suburbia
26 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Because “wokeness” has reactionary sexism at its heart….with white women the group that can be mocked more than any, even white men. Transgender activism and brainwashing is driven largely by increasingly violent pornography–the addiction of young boys to it and the fear of young girls that they’ll have to “be” those exploited young women if they grow up as “women.”
Autogynephilia is a real sexual fetish of straight men who get off on cross-dressing and particularly exhibiting it to females, preferably involuntarily. Our crazy world has made their fetish into a civil right and if we protest that we don’t want to participate in their sexual fetish we’re called bigots, threatened with impunity, filmed illegally in bathrooms, assaulted and even arrested. Go to Gender Heretic, Feminist Current, Fourth Wave Now, or any other gender critical group and you’ll see the connection between the ubiquity of exploitative, abusive Lolita pornography and the sudden fixation of Incel guys on enjoying the female puberty they missed and “becoming the hot girl you could never have.”

Galvatron Stephens
Galvatron Stephens
24 days ago

White women can be mocked more than white men? Someone has forgotten their meds. White men are, apparently, responsible for every bad thing that ever happened.

I don’t blame transmaxxers. Remain a man and be blamed for everything that ever happened, be discriminated against in job applications, slug it out in an education system that hates you, be told you are evil or useless by the feminist industrial complex.

Or, become the girlfriend they could never get by being trans. Be lauded as a hero by the cultural left. Stick it to feminist by stealing their boyfriends. Make piles of money streaming on Twitch. Look at Keffals. Cooked up some story about harassment. Made six figures. Nobody cares.

I don’t agree with it, but I can see why they would do it.

Last edited 24 days ago by Galvatron Stephens
Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
26 days ago

Thank You for this. I couldn’t get past the first two episodes of The Fall for the exact reasons you described. Game of Thrones? Never watched an episode – it sounds sickening.
Happy Valley is by far the most realistic show on tv when it comes to sexual violence & one I have watched since the first season (the first and third seasons of Broadchurch also handled the issue very well).

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
25 days ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

If you accept Thomas Hobbes characterisation of life in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” then Game of Thrones (GOT) would seem to provide historically accurate illustration of those realities.
Without the visible violence, GOT would lose all credibility …

Alan Edwards
Alan Edwards
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I think the GOT mention was inadvertently left in from an earlier draft. The reference is to ‘Happy Valley’, as per the subsequent example of James Norton and his character in that show.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
26 days ago

Why have women authors not written about the many women who served in the SOE and won GCs( Hallows, Khan and Szabo, GMs( Wake and Skarbek) plus other awards for bravery.
In the 1980s there was TV series called ” Wish Me Luck ” about the SOE written from the perspective of women agents and the adviser was Pearl Witherington CBE and films “Odette” and ” Carve Her Name with Pride ” filmed were made in the 1950s.
The reality is that very few American women have undertaken dangerous work in the last 150 years whereas British women have worked overseas and served in three wars, Boer, WW1 and WW2.
Lady Antonia Fraser has pointed out that during the Civil War many homes were defended by the women as the men were away fighting.
American TV and films are produced for the average min-western teen age boy whose knowledge of women undertaking difficult and dangerous work is close to zero.
Gloria Steinem said she did not want to grow up like her Mother. What if her Mother had been Szabo GC or Sansom GC?
Are the depictions of young women being harmed due to some insecure boys with a sense of inadequacy when meeting tough, athletic, skilled and beautiful young women?
I suggest the fault lies with American culture and that very few women in the USA have undertaken dangerous, arduous and secret work. Those British and Commonwealth women who did undertake dangerous and secret work largely kept quiet until the mid 1980s due to The Official Secrets Act. Large numbers of British women served in nursing, anti- aircraft batteries, airfields, all sorts of factory and farming work, and in many in army, navy and air force roles.
Why do women authors not write about SOE, RAF Photo Interpretation, WAAF working on airfields, nursing, land army and all organisation where women played a vital role in WW1 and 2 and have the books made into TV Series and films?

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
25 days ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

There are plenty of books about the women of WW2 written by women. See Sarah Helm, Claire Mulley, Sonia Purnell, Madeleine Masson, Jean Overton Fuller, Beryl Scott and many others. And the subject is well covered in film and TV.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
24 days ago
Reply to  Jaden Johnson

Better late than never. Books were writtten 80 years after WW2 and read by specialised readership. No block buster films or TV series have been made. Horowitz who wrote Foyle’s War included Miss Pierec who who based upon Vera Atkins.Horowitz was unsuccessful in raising money for a series on the SOE
Women in SOE who fought against male attackers. Szabo GC fought members of the SS Division Das Reich allowing her colleague to escape .
In the early 1980s a retired lecturer in French was attacked by three men whom she beat off; one was hit with a knife hand to the throat; another a kick to th groin and a third thrown down steps. She was a a former member of the SOE trained by Fairbarn in close quarter combat. She underwent no further training after leaving the SOE. The lady said the training by Fairbarn was so effective, the skills came back in split second.
Gloria Steinem said she did not want to be like her Mother. Well what if the Mother had been an Szabo GC, Sansom GC or another SOE agent. Wing Chung Kung Fu was developed by a Buddhist nun.The Spartans trained their women in gymnastics and wrestling.
Women rightly criticise male violence and the depiction of violence against them in the media . Why do women not use SOE women agents as role models and undergo the same level of physical fitness and unarmed combat training in order to defeat males who attempt violence against them ? Women attend yoga, pilates and other fitness classes; why not unarmed combat ?There is great similarity between Shaolin Temple exercises, yoga and pilates as they have the same roots.
Much of modern day life is complaining about a problem as it attracts money and people obtain status and salary in managing a problem. Solve a problem and it no longer attracts money and hence provide employment for people.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
26 days ago

Louise Perry links (a) crime shows, movies or novels, (b) female viewers or readers, and (c) female directors or writers. She mentions that women enjoy these violent productions no less than men do. I have no reason to doubt that. In fact, I can think of several factors that could account for it. I suggest here one factor that has taken on particular importance since the 1980s, at least in the United States.
 
This was the rise of victim-oriented feminism, what I usually call the ideological branch of feminism (as distinct from its earlier egalitarian one). It sustains a profoundly dualistic worldview according to which all of history amounts to a titanic conspiracy of men to oppress women. In some fictional worlds, the emphasis is on men as oppressors, sometimes on women as victims of men but almost always on both. In fictional terms, this means that major male characters in these stories are evil victimizers. The antagonist, or villain, enjoys terrorizing and murdering female characters. Major female characters, by contrast, are innocent victims. The protagonist is not only victimized, however, but also, eventually, heroic (sometimes with help from a male character, often black or gay). Katherine K. Young and I tracked this pattern in popular culture throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and later in other segments of culture). Misandry was not a universal pattern in popular culture, of course, and co-existed with misogyny (although the former was ignored and the latter carefully monitored by both private and government agencies). But this new pattern was common enough to qualify as a distinct genre (known in the entertainment industry as the “woman in jeopardy” genre). And we were hardly the only ones to notice it.
 
That narrative and symbolic pattern was an early manifestation of identity politics. This emerged after the switch from Marxist class theory and then “critical theory” to the critical gender theory of feminist ideology (which has by now morphed into the critical race theory of woke ideology).
 
Why would people tolerate, let alone support, such a cynical worldview in the guise of entertainment? More than a few men eventually realized the ideological and moral implications about themselves and began to protest. Now, some men monitor the phenomenon on their own websites. More than a few women, however, found the new genre “empowering.” I suspect that it made sense to them both psychologically and politically. Ideological feminism relies heavily on the idea that women are the perpetual victims of men. Women who disagree, therefore, present a threat to that ideology. What wins many women over, though, is the characteristic ending of each story: a female character who fights back and prevails. This allows women to have their cake and eat it, too, vicariously. They can identify themselves as both victims and heroes.
 
Dr. Young and I don’t argue that all or even most of these productions were intended as agitprop. And conscious personal motivations were in any case not at the heart of our research. Rather, we argue that leaders of the entertainment industry correctly intuited (as they often do) the cultural climate—that is, what people already wanted to see. Some of those leaders were women (who might or might not have had ideological axes to grind), but most of them were still men (who probably wanted nothing more than to make big bucks). 

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
26 days ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

An interesting comment.
… the critical gender theory of feminist ideology (which has by now morphed into the critical race theory of woke ideology).
I have been a reader of James Lindsay’s output regarding woke marxism for some time – primarily because he has done the hard lifting in reading much of the primary literature back to such ‘luminaries’ as Hegel and forward to the present.
Lindsay’s current thesis is that much of woke ideology is in fact a consequence of marxist analysis aimed at identity rather than class or economics. As such, he – and Helen Pluckrose – reckon gender theory, what he calls gender marxism, has morphed into queer marxism.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
18 days ago

I agree… basically the British left lost the class war so have moved onto various new “wars” with the same old anti-family, anti-country drivers..gender, race and also inter-generational.
The intellectual underpinning is always weak, indeed often non existent and even internally contradictory…just as it was for Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn in the old class war.

leculdesac suburbia
leculdesac suburbia
26 days ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

You’ve really butchered radical feminist theory and second way feminist epistemology. The term “feminism” is as complex as “humanism” at this point and you’re straw-womaning it isn’t advancing anything except once again erasing the reality of male violence. 3k women are murdered in the US annually by their male partners–the murders in reverse (a handful), are with clear hx of domestic violence. This is a 9/11’s worth of women killed by men each year, just in the US, but you speak of misandry? The men killed are killed by _other men._ The problem here is male violence and sexual predation, and it’s simply morphing into transgenderism as another way for entitled whiny guys to claim access to young female bodies. The transgender movement really does separate the men from the incels here, because it’s an inherently histrionic movement unless you’re an old-fashioned transsexual (see Ray Blanchard’s work) who’s gay and simply wants to mind his own business (see Debbie Hayton). At least you can see decent men horrified when they finally learn the truth about this movement–that it’s a cover for straight loser guys to force lesbians to sleep with them, ,to exhibit their junk to young girls in locker rooms and public restrooms (and masturbate about it–it’s all over social media), and assault women at protests or in “sports.”
See Graham Lineham for an example of a male who “gets it” and is using his particularly male wit and energy to call out the misogyny at the heart of all of this.

cara williams
cara williams
25 days ago

hurrah for your comment. thank you.

jmo
jmo
24 days ago

I believe Debbie has a wife (who’s a real woman)? More likely to be AGP, though point taken about the other type of transexual

Galvatron Stephens
Galvatron Stephens
24 days ago

Linehan gets pilloried by feminists even though he “gets it”. He was accused of being a creep and a perv by feminists online.

He’s another one who was woke when it suited. Supported the no-platforming of those who were non-woke. But when it happened to him…..

Last edited 24 days ago by Galvatron Stephens
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
22 days ago

Actually, I’m very careful to distinguish egalitarian forms of feminism from ideological ones. The difference between the former and the latter is profound. And neither is synonymous with “women,” who choose for themselves what they like and dislike in the worldviews that are out there.
I reject the notion of comparative suffering, which amounts to competitive suffering. I do so (and have written extensively about it elsewhere, because it is always subjectively experience (at least to some extent), because there are many kinds of suffering, and because not all of those can be adequately measured either scientifically or statistically. (Even those that can be measured in those ways are easily distorted due to carelessness or manipulated due to political opportunism. The latter, in particular, often amounts to “statistics abuse.”) I could throw stats at you to show the ways in which men are in worse shape than women (suicide rates, high-school drop-out rates, crime rates and so on), but what good would that do? My point is not that men suffer more than women, only that both sexes can suffer in distinctive ways (and sometimes in ways that are common to both sexes).
Moreover, I suggest that comparative suffering is morally absurd and therefore cannot lead to reconciliation. It can lead to revenge, yes, but revenge has nothing to do with justice. Consider the following question as a thought experiment. Who suffered more: black Americans under slavery and segregation or Jews under the Nazis? Those who even ask that question and expect to be taken seriously, in my opinion, misunderstand not only suffering but also compassion. There is no helpful answer to that question, because both suffered horribly, albeit under different circumstances, and need not compete for compassion. To put it bluntly, compassion is not like money. If you have to budget it for emotional or political reasons, then it isn’t really compassion at all.
I’m glad to say that many, many women understand this universal moral principle (known in Western countries as the “Golden Rule”).
P.S. You trivialize male victims of violence (referring presumably to street crime but ignoring male victims of domestic violence). Correct me if I’ve misunderstood, but you seem to be implying that male victims deserve no compassion (let alone protection by the state), because their victimizers, too, are almost always male. In other words, male victims have it coming and therefore deserve their fate. That might be emotionally gratifying, but it makes no moral sense at all. It’s a non-sequitur.

Lindsey Thornton
Lindsey Thornton
17 days ago
Reply to  Paul Nathanson

A well argued piece. What struck me was your example of a thought experiment: ‘Consider the following question as a thought experiment. Who suffered more: black Americans under slavery and segregation or Jews under the Nazis? ‘
Both examples of violence against humanity were largely the responsibility of men, and viewed through the narrative of men. For example, the rape victims of the Jewish Holocaust are hidden, and repressed, see article: https://www.spiegel.de/international/nazi-sex-slaves-new-exhibition-documents-forced-prostitution-in-concentration-camps-a-459704.html
But this is an inconvenient truth to the overarching narrative of an ideological racist war.
Until ‘women victims’ are uniquely recognised as such then I think feminists are entitled to discriminate in the way you suggest.

Tim Lever
Tim Lever
26 days ago

It is indeed an excellent show which has many fantastic female characters who are both realistic and sympathetic. The plot and storylines are gripping. However, as is the case with many men who write drama and fiction, the female writer in this case, struggles, in my opinion, to produce realistic characters of the opposite sex. The male characters are often toxic male caricatures or simply weak and / or dumb. Even, the two main male characters – Tommy and his son Ryan are thinly drawn. I can’t really discern any motivations for the villain Tommy, other than the fact that he is simply evil. Ryan on the other hand seems to be simply a weak young man who cannot control his emotions and rages at the world when things don’t go his way. I suppose many women will unsympathetic having, for many years, seen female characters portrayed poorly, but it would be a better programme if the portrayal of the men was less one-dimensional.

Last edited 26 days ago by Tim Lever
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
26 days ago
Reply to  Tim Lever

And you’ve explained why I can’t watch it – the usual shallow, but fashionable, illustration of men being bad or weak just makes it unbalanced.

Last edited 26 days ago by Ian Stewart
Tim Lever
Tim Lever
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I don’t just watch it for the male characters and as I said women have had to endure this type of thing in the past. Is it perfect? No, but still excellent and very enjoyable.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
25 days ago
Reply to  Tim Lever

Nope – I try for an episode or two then have to give up, no matter how well acted or written it is.

Adam Wolstenholme
Adam Wolstenholme
25 days ago
Reply to  Tim Lever

Agree. Male viewers are turning away from the BBC and one factor might be the portrayal of men in TV dramas. Did anyone watch Am I Being Unreasonable? Very well made drama but terribly bleak portrayal of men.

Galvatron Stephens
Galvatron Stephens
24 days ago
Reply to  Tim Lever

Men as evil or useless? That’s standard fare nowadays. I don’t watch anything contemporary now.

cara williams
cara williams
23 days ago

just watched season one and two of happy valley again and agree with everything louise perry so eloquently writes here. happy valley rocks. it is so much better than any other crime show. for all the reasons louise perry states.