Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Dangerous Jobs...Full Stop

I do feel that I am becoming more cynical the more media I consume (or perhaps the older I get) and I must admit I would like to start a post without the pre-emptive “I was concerned to find…” or “News has reached me…” but alas it’s as difficult as ever to find material in the mainstream that doesn’t facilitate stereotypical representations of women, and so I felt a certain sense of trepidation when I sat down to watch Channel 4’s Dangerous Jobs for Girls. Patronising/degrading title aside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this programme is about the empowerment of the 21st century woman; about women being just as capable as men of doing “dangerous jobs” (although I still don’t feel entirely sure that one’s ability to undergo risk should be the measure of gender equality). This is the insinuation that the makers of Dangerous Jobs.. seem to want to make. However, one would be – sadly – wrong.

The premis of the show is not unlike a myriad that have gone before it, Faking It being the one that springs most aggressively to mind. A group of women who are considered “strong” – either in the emotional, academic, or physical sense – are set the task of mastering a “dangerous” (this normally means highly physically taxing) job, which apparently is so challenging, only men folk have previously been able to handle it, or have dared to try. So far the female participants have included (among others) a champion kite surfer, an kick-boxing engineering lecturer, and a self-confessed feminist (boo, hiss), and they have been tasked with some pretty heavy workloads: running a ranch as part of a troupe of cowboys, hitting the decks of a deep sea trawler and cutting it as lumberjacks partaking in the most dangerous job of all – felling a 60 foot pine tree. This is where the purpose of the show becomes a bit unclear. Anyone with nouse can see that these are “dangerous jobs” for anyone, regardless of their gender. This TV listing on the Guardian website says it all I think:

“Technically, they're dangerous jobs for anyone without the proper training, since logging, the profession in question here, can be fatal irrespective of whether you're in possession or not of a penis. Of course, such an admission would render this thoroughly dumb programme even more redundant than it actually is, so roll your eyes, shake your head and sigh with irritation as businesswoman Tracy, soldier Anna and student Helen see if they've Got What It Takes to become lumberjills, while coping with the Canadian weather, killer trees - and sharing toilets with 30 men.”

So, we’ve established quite early on that the point the show is trying to make is null and void – so why make the distinction here that the participants are women – or “girls” to use the preferred and presumably less (insert sarcasm here) offensive terminology? Surely to throw a group of “normal” men into the same fray would produce a similar result, correct? Of course the answer has to be no, if we are discussing entertainment television. Most of the show’s content (and what I presume is considered the real entertainment value) is actually made up of the cowboys/loggers/fishermen’s chauvinist asides and the predictable assumption that if a woman can’t fulfil the role she’s been challenged to do, it’s because of her gender and not because she’s been given a mere few hours in which to master it. The editing of the show has come under fire from one of the women participants, who comments on a debate about the programme on the F Word. It confirms what I suspected to be the case – the programme isn’t about gender issues at all. In fact Laura, whose marital status was as noteworthy to the producers as her successful career which should say it all, states that while she actively spoke to women in the area in Mexico where filming took place about relevant gender topics these were wiped from the eventual broadcast.

She makes another interesting point when she says that as well as succeeding in many of the tasks set, the women worked together to achieve them. Depressingly when the programme aired however, these successes had been left on the cutting room floor and the women seemed to be pitted against each other. The element of feminine competition in the show is one that I also noticed pretty quickly. The contestants chosen fit rather neatly into two clear ilks – those that are strong and up to the challenge, or those that are weak and aren’t. It doesn’t stop there though, because god forbid we allow an audience to accept the view that a woman is entirely capable and independent. Anna, an army captain who featured in the logging episode grabbed onto the challenge with both hands and refused to let go. She was positively fearless and couldn’t understand why there was so much uncertainty about her capability to learn and perform the tasks set. Anna is also rather pretty and blonde – which no doubt presented her logger co-workers with a bit of a dilemma as irrelevant as it may seem to myself and hopefully those reading this post. Anyway, surely this is the kind of woman the show’s makers were looking for when they came up with this enlightening idea for a reality TV show? Apparently not! Clearly we’re not yet quite enlightened enough to accept a woman can a) be in the army b) learn logging and c) be attractive all without the help of a man and so – painfully – her gumption was repackaged as hot-headedness, her fervour repackaged as haste and so instead of a woman unwilling to accept the possibility of her not being up to the challenge emerged an obnoxious, ignorant and silly “girl” trying to do a “real man”’s job whilst they tutted and scolded in the background. Rather insulting for a someone who is also training for the winter olympics, no doubt. Thankfully Anna did eventually fell a tree in triumph – although I have no doubt it was only included as something that was perhaps an edit too far for the makers to get away with.

On the other hand you have participants like Laura who I mentioned earlier, and a young business woman called Tracey who appeared alongside Anna. These women seemingly embody more feminine traits – physical weakness and apparently inextricably linked emotional frailty. Clips of these women in tears couldn’t possibly attributed to the harshness of their surroundings and the mental exhaustion that must come with the intense training they are undergoing, could they? Are we to seriously believe that placed under the same strain, men would behave differently? Doesn’t matter, this possibility isn’t even imagined. Throughout, we are told that what makes these women women are the exact qualities that make them unsuitable for the particular jobs they are attempting to master, when in actual fact the socio-historical nature of the industries involved are what has made them male-dominated just as nursing and secretarial roles are associated entirely with women. I’m not sure anyone would get away with saying that a man couldn’t do these jobs without severely offending, we just accept that women have always done them (mainly because they are meagrely paid and subservient in nature).

This raises a question that I have oft been asked by feminist dissenters – do I recognise the inevitable discrepancies between male and female physicality? Do I accept that men are physically stronger than women? Yes, I do. But I’m not conceding anything by doing so and that is not what this programme proclaims to contest. We are supposed to be discussing occupational “danger”, not physical limitation. Head to head lifting weights, a man at his physical peak could surpass a woman at hers – but the jobs concerned are about more than just lifting weights, and what makes a man more suited to withstanding “danger” than a woman? In the constraints of this particular documentary series of course, this argument is as redundant as its artificial premise because we aren’t supposed to seriously believe that these women would or would want to do these jobs for a living, which begs the question “what’s the bloody point?”! Entertainment is the inescapable point – so as much as I would like to suggest that a more equal basis of debate would be to follow the proper apprenticeship of people of both genders in “dangerous jobs” that they actually wanted to pursue as a career – I won’t. The resulting experience for a man would probably be no different to that of their female colleagues – but, who would watch it and more to the point, would we accept it?