Review: “White Heat” (BBC2)

Cast photograph

White Heat on BB2 is a “six-part drama series about the interwoven lives of seven people whose relationships are forged in the white heat of the 60s through to the present day.” Jack, an anti-establishment liberal trying to reject his bourgeoisie roots, hand selects six strangers to be his college flatmates in the early 1960s. He chooses the following six students: Lilly, a white painter; Charlotte, a white burgeoning feminist; Orla, a low-income North Irish woman; Victor, a Jamaican law student; Alan, a white suburban computer scientist; and Jay, a gay Indian doctor. In choosing such a host of people, Jack (and the show creators) intentionally ensures all kinds of drama and tension, often speaking to issues of social justice.

The promise of a heartfelt drama mindful to issues of class, race, gender, religion, and sexuality was enough to get me watching this show and the prominence of a self-identified feminist character made it even more tempting. In many ways, the White Heat did not disappoint.

Major Spoilers Ahead

The Good

Charlotte, Feminism, and Romance

I loved watching Charlotte grow into her feminism. I empathized with the disrespect she took from Jack, who’s supposed liberalism only extended to women’s rights if and when it translated to free and easy sex. Eventually, Charlotte removes Jack’s influence from her life and finds partnership with Victor, who genuinely sees Charlotte’s passion for feminism as an admirable and desirable trait. The fact that Victor is continually presented as the “better” candidate for Charlotte’s affection is pretty refreshing. The man who sees her as a complete person gets the narrative’s blessing, while “bad boy” Jack is rightly portrayed as nothing more than a bad habit that the once-naive Charlotte will come to break.

Jack, Victor, and Privilege

Photo of white guy. Upper text: "The real enemy is classism" Lower text: "Too bad you are too blinded by your racism and sexism to see that"

As the son of a rich conservative British politician, Jack dedicates his existence to rebuking his father. He is the white-boy campus radical who protests the Vietnam war and worships Che Guevara, decrying class injustice… all while living on his fathers dime. Even though liberalism is core to his identity, he trivializes the Women’s Movement and publicly humiliates Victor for his blackness at every turn. Jack reminds me of all the young white male “liberals” who worship at Ron Paul’s alter, choosing to ignore his racist, homophobic, and sexist agendas and commentary (because women, blacks, and gays are acceptable collateral damage, amirite? *eyeroll*).

What I love is that the show explicitly portrays Jack’s liberalism as incomplete. The other characters call him out on his hypocrisy and Victor, in particular, holds him accountable. For Victor, a black immigrant from Jamaica, inequality and injustice are facts of life rather than cerebral theory. It makes sense that at the end of the story, Jack, lacking any actual experience with oppression, has become a politician of the sort he once despised, while Victor, armed with first hand experience of injustice, has applied his law degree to civil rights cases.

Lilly, Orla, and Abortion

Lilly discovers she is pregnant after a one night stand with Jack. She needs an abortion, but it has not yet been legalized. She confides in Orla who, despite her devout Catholicism, agrees to help. Regarding her religious families use of aborficiants, she concedes “Before she was 30, my mum had seven kids. Much good the Pope did her.” There is no hemming and hawing about keeping the baby. Lilly, Charlotte, and even Orla take a women’s right to choose for granted. The scenes in which Lilly’s illegal abortion is performed is painful to watch. It really highlights how awful an unsafe abortion is. Maybe portraying abortions on British television is less of a rarity, but an (unapologetic) depiction like this is almost unheard of on US television.

Sadly, Lilly’s unsafe abortion causes scaring which leaves her unable to have children when she tries later in life. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t think the show’s writers made it clear that it was the unsafe, illegal abortion that she regrets, not her choice to have one. It comes across to Lilly (and the viewer) that she is being punished for choosing to abort, which is an unfortunate stereotype to perpetuate. Which brings me to…

The Bad

Stories About Women = Stories About Motherhood

Once Lilly realizes she can not have children, the rest of her story is colored by her feelings of inadequacy. To her and her husband, it’s pretty much the worst thing ever. The writing of these scenes and the small moments where you see Lilly crumble a little bit inside are beautifully written and very powerful. It is a story worth telling. However, when I realized what narrative path feminist-protagonist Charlotte also took, I noticed the disappointing theme.

Charlotte, while in a committed relationship with Victor, also becomes pregnant by Jack during a one night stand. Charlotte lies about the baby’s father and only Lilly knows the truth. Charlotte uproots her family to the North to keep the baby out of sight from Jack and her friends.

I can’t help but be reminded of The Mythical Pregnancy Trope, which ostensibly means “if you are a women in a narrative, your reproductive organs will be used against you.” Two of the three women in this series are completely reduced to their biological (in)capacity to have babies. Only Orla escapes this, which is not much of a success because she is unfairly cast as a sex-less, lust-less care taker.

It gets worse, from a feminist perspective, when Charlotte and Victor reunite with their old flatmates after living away up North. Lilly is consumed with jealous and resentment toward her former best friend. So much so that she maliciously reveals the true father of Charlotte’s baby in front of everyone, including Victor. This outburst wedges the former friends apart for 20 years. Lilly and Charlotte hold their grudge up until the final moments of the series, when they finally make a small gesture of reconciliation. This Girl-Hate vitriol (stereotypical jealousy, competition, back stabbing, etc.) was pretty disappointing.

Arguably, a series that charts the adult lives of multiple women will statistically involve motherhood. But, their stories could have literally been about anything. Yet, the result is two women, at odds with each other, consumed by their child-bearing plots (again).

Overall

I really enjoyed this show. I didn’t find anything flagrantly offensive about it and I loved watching a dramatized depiction of the Women’s Movement. There is lots of juicy stuff here, so: would watch again.

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