Thank Goodness for Erica Strange!

Monday 23 January 2012

There has been plenty of debate over the past few years over the ways in which the modern woman is represented in television, and as a bit of a TV drama addict, I have seen it all unfold on screen. One show I started watching recently, however, really made me think about how often women are presented in a very generalised light, and I decided that the show, Being Erica, deserved a blog post of its own!

One of the most common ways women are depicted in contemporary television drama (particularly in America) is the Sex and the City, Lipstick Jungle, Cashmere Mafia style modern woman - powerful, successful, wealthy, and struggling to balance her work and home life. The idea that it is possible, but incredibly difficult, to have it all – the great job, the loving husband, the fabulous kids – is visited time and time again in these shows. Admittedly (and shockingly, for someone with such an insatiable appetite for American TV) I haven’t actually watched more than an episode or two of Sex and the City, but have the box sets of both Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia. The latter I found fairly uninspiring, but the former, I loved. For one, I am a massive fan of Kim Raver, she is such an underrated actress! The absolute emotion she puts into every scene is incredible, and she has one of the most expressive faces I have ever had the pleasure of watching on screen, from her portrayal of Audrey Raines in 24 to her stint in the sadly short lived Lipstick Jungle. In the case of this show, once again, the struggle to balance a career and a family is explored, particularly through Raver’s character Nico Reilly. As a powerful magazine editor, who has been stuck in a pretty much loveless marriage since her early twenties, she realises (following the unexpected death of her husband) that her biological clock is ticking, and the desire to become a mother starts to take over her priorities. Meanwhile, her best friends film producer Wendy and fashion designer Victory are struggling with this balance in their own way, with Wendy's career putting a strain on her marriage and her relationship with her children, and Victory’s romance with a millionaire businessman complicating both her work and her love life. This show, I actually loved, and have watched the two seasons of it about three times, each time growing more and more fond of the characters. Cashmere Mafia (starring, amongst others, the lovely Lucy Lui), unfortunately, I did not feel quite as passionate about – and since it wasn’t even renewed after one season, I doubt I was the only one. However, the ideas of the show are exactly the same - twenty first century women shown as a glmaorous, male ego crushing, professionals, who are often single because their powerful attitude intimidates men, rather than any suggestion that they might struggle to meet the right person. Cashmere Mafia was created by the creator of SATC while the book series Lipstick Jungle was written by Candace Bushnell, the author behind Carrie Bradshaw and the gang – perhaps highlighting the importance of the basic characterisation of the women in this type of show.

Struggling to balance work and romance, it seems, is one of the most common ways in which women today see themselves represented on screen. And don’t get me wrong – nine times out of ten, I’m watching shows like Gossip Girl and Lipstick Jungle as a distraction from the mundaneness of the day to day life of a 22 year old recent graduate in Scotland! Watching the drama unfold for the effortlessly beautiful Serena Van der Woodsen as she floats around New York City with every man and his dog falling over themselves to get to her, or Wendy Healey reassure her adoring husband that her successful career is never going to come between them is great! I love these shows, and don’t at any point want to appear as if I’m tearing strips off them, because I’m not! They feature some dynamic, and really interesting women, who go through many trials and tribulations in their own ways. However, it is notable success seems to find these characters quite easily, whether it is from the word go, or when bouncing back after a traumatic incident. Where, I ask, are the women who struggle to find the right job, or go on date after date and never find the right person, all the while wondering what the hell they are going to do with their lives?!

Ahh yes. Comedy. That’s where they are. Shows like (another of my favourites) Ugly Betty, where the protagonist is viewed, physically, as ‘conventionally unattractive’ and ‘quirky’ is where we find the women who struggle to get it together. Betty is intelligent, and a model employee at Mode magazine, yet after three seasons she is still Daniel Meade’s assistant. It is only in season 4 she begins to find her feet, and make her way up the career ladder. And her tumultuous love life is just as complicated. She falls in love with Henry, but it can never work, for various reasons. She then ruins her potential relationship with Gio by still pining after Henry, loses Matt by cheating on him… with Henry, and ends up travelling to London solo at the end of the fourth and final series, to focus on her career, albeit Daniel follows her across the Atlantic, and we suspect they will end up together some day. And while we adore the character of Betty, and are one hundred per cent behind her in her endeavours, the comic and camp tone of this dramedy soften the blow of the problems Betty faces in her daily life. Comedy seems to be the place in television for the slightly clumsy girls, who struggle to have any of it never mind it all, and that is, for the most part, where they stay - which is what makes the amazing Canadian drama Being Erica so fantastic to watch…

Let me start by saying, in my honest opinion, there isn’t one element of Being Erica that the writers and producers got wrong. The script is perfect, and the casting is spot on – Erin Karpluk very quickly became one of my favourite actresses with her totally natural, believable and likeable portrayal of the show’s 32 year old protagonist Erica Strange. I have successfully managed to avoid finding out what happens in the show’s fourth and final series, and I’m eagerly awaiting the day they announce the (hopefully not too far away) release date of the DVD!!

We meet Erica, in the pilot episode of the show, at quite possibly the lowest point of her life. She is thirty two, single, unemployed and has absolutely no idea where her life is going, or what has happened to get her to this point, and there’s nothing funny about it. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the show is a televisual equivalent of War and Peace, it has plenty of hilarious moments, but Erica’s situation is emotional and confusing, and we instantly empathise with her. It is at this point that she meets Dr. Tom, a therapist with a somewhat unusual take on helping his patients. He sends them back in time to confront their biggest regrets.

The wonderful thing about the show is that while it isn’t a comic representation of a difficult point in Erica’s life, equally, it isn’t a dark and depressing tale of an abused childhood, or some sort of addiction, or traumatic past. In fact, Erica is a totally normal girl, from a loving family (her parents are divorced, but that’s hardly unusual in this day and age) who is attractive, intelligent, witty and likeable. She has the support of her parents and sister, and the tragic death of her older brother Leo, while devastating, didn’t cause the family to split apart or become estranged in their grief. She has a Masters in English Literature, a good group of friends and lives in Toronto, a vibrant and exciting city. And yet she has managed to get through her twenties with no real direction, and worries that she has achieved nothing. This is the kind of representation that is missing from television! This is a girl who women can relate to, and empathise with, and is someone who we instantly want to be friends with, not because of her Manolo Blahniks, or her gorgeous boyfriend and crazy social life, but because it is very rare (even in this day and age of equal opportunities and good educations and even internet dating) for a girl in her twenties to have everything worked out! The lucky girls who find their perfect partner, study their perfect course and land the perfect job all before they are twenty five are few and far between, and Erica is a shining example of this. She is intelligent and fiesty and generous, but despite dating guy after guy (and nice guys at that), the really deep connection, and total understanding of each other that she so desperately desires has never really been there. Equally, she has a passion for books and literature, but since graduation with her Masters, she hasn’t been able to find the right job for her, drifting from dead end job to dead end job, terrified that she’ll never succeed in finding a fulfilling career that will make her happy. Thank goodness for Erica Strange!

This all might sound a little on the bleak side, I realise, but the wonderful thing about the show is that, with Dr. Tom (played by the marvellous Michael Riley), Erica begins to work through all of bad choices she thinks she has made in her past which are holding her back, and starts to move forward. She lands a great new job, starting as an assistant at the very bottom of the food chain, but starts to work her way up as she confronts more and more of her regrets by going back in time. Now, obviously, we viewers don’t have a Dr. Tom to help us do this, but what her time travel teaches her (and us) is that rather than wishing she could change her past, or remake bad decisions, she has to accept the things she has done or gone through, and learn from them. Rather than wonder what might have been had she not quit that job, or not broken up with that guy, or if she had gone travelling, she should focus on what that regret tells her about her future. Her trips back in time are important, as when she alters the past (as much as she can) she realises that really, it doesn’t make any difference to the place she is in now. Life is about making choices, and being content with them, no matter how difficult they might be, because every decision has both good and bad consequences. Erica realises this more and more with each episode, and each season of the show, and her attitude to life shifts along with it. Once again, the show (despite the time travel) keeps an air of realism about it by not having everything work out perfectly. Her career doesn’t stay exactly on track, her relationships build up, only to sometimes be broken down again, but with every change in her life, Erica accepts more and more that she is in control of her decisions, and regardless of what anyone else thinks, only she can make the choices that will leave her truly happy. The show represents the journey of lots of real women out there, and is such an important theme to explore on television, and any other form of storytelling. While there are of course many women out there who are, thank goodness, in positions of power in the workplace, within the media and government and medicine, women who have always known what they wanted to do and are succeeding daily in whatever field they work in, there are also plenty Erica Strange’s out there, desperately looking for a girl in their favourite show whose life is just as much of a rollercoaster of the unexpected as theirs is! So congratulations Being Erica, and the lovely Erin Karpluk, for representing women in a really important, realistic and relatable way!

As a sidenote, I was totally inspired to write this after watching ‘The Women of Harry Potter’, one of the Special Features of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 DVD, in which JK Rowling talks about growing up reading book after book, searching for a girl who reminded her of herself. It made me realise that with the increasingly vast number of television shows accessible to us today, finding relatable characters on screen is just as important an issue in 2012, as finding a heroine to relate to in books for JK Rowling as a child! And a shining example of such a character, I think, is Erica Strange.

Lynsey x

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