While watching the first episode the new season of the hit UK television drama Skins last week, I wasn't thinking about which character would have a confrontation with authorities or who was going to cheat on whom. The outspoken show about the notoriously experimental teens got me thinking about women at work.
Consistently portrayed as an out-of-control party girl in previous seasons, in this seventh season Skins character Effy Stonem (Kaya Scodelario) is now all grown up, working as an assistant in a leading hedge fund in London. She's focused, serious, professional; the girl's payin' bills. To a degree, we begin to believe that Effy has in some way 'made it' in the 'real world,' and using the financial sector—a high-paced, competitive and lucrative career field—as the setting for this story undoubtedly contributes to her perceived accomplishment.
[Spoiler Alert: I am about to tell you all about this episode.]
In the beginning scenes of the episode, I hoped that this narrative had empowering potential: a young girl makes her way into and through the world of investing and trading. But my expectations were too high, and slightly unrealistic given Effy's role in previous seasons (namely, as the subject or object of sex-fueled drama). Early on, a flirtation is established between her and a superior, Jake (Kayvan Novak) who is dating Effy's boss, senior analyst Victoria (Lara Pulver).
Parallel to that story line, when Effy tells Victoria that she found a mistake in a report, Victoria dismisses the information only to later present and take credit for it in a meeting. Instead of apologizing to Effy or even acknowledging this sneaky move, Victoria then asks her to make coffee. My knee-jerk reaction to this was an eye-roll at the show's writer for the cliché portrayal of catty female competition, but I was pleasantly surprised, when instead of responding with like-minded cattiness, Effy takes the knowledge-is-power route: devoting herself to learning everything she can about hedge funds. The next day, rather than following instructions to cancel a meeting with an important client, Effy tells the client she was sent to take Victoria's place. And, refreshingly, she pulls it off.
Effy's transition from the sex-focused party girl into the button-down world of finance seems, on the surface, that it would be a positive one in terms of representation of women in media. There are lots of portrayals of women at work on TV, but how often do television shows or movies that have young female characters working in finance? When it comes to young women, we're more likely to see teachers (New Girl), writers (Girls), or fashion interns (Gossip Girl and Ugly Betty) than aspiring hedge fund managers.
But whether it's progress that women on TV can fall in love with hedge funds is debatable. Even if hedge funds aren't exactly achieving radical social change, showing that 'male' areas like mathematics and economics do not belong exclusively to men can be a small part of that change. On the other hand, Nancy Fraser critiques the whole idea of women "leaning in" to corporate culture, noting that power, like a tax break, won't "trickle down" through an oppressive economic system.
That's exactly the problem with what happens in Skins—while Effy secures a position in the high-powered world of finance, she certainly doesn't use this privilege for anything other than money and revenge. She gets ahead by calling a male boss a "pussy" and flirts with big investors she's asked to meet. When she gets out of her depth doing actual hedge fund business, she's rescued by a male colleague who slips her an inside tip because he has a crush on her. Ultimately, little to nothing is changed about Effy's character or her role in relation to other characters, despite the extreme shift in environment.
All of this reads like a page out of Merrill Lynch's real-life "Seducing the Boys Club" training for female employees.
Needless to say, I had mixed feelings about this woman-in-a-man's-world plotline. As much as I appreciated the fact that Jesse Brattain, the episode's writer, placed Effy in a context rare for young adult female characters and—to a degree—portrayed her as successful in navigating it, Effy's success ultimately relied on the help of a men who, we are led to assume, helping her because she's sexy. What's moving the plot forward is her role as the object of heterosexual male desire, rather than her knowledge or skills. Sometimes, then, portrayals of women on television that can seem to be subversive reinforce rather than challenge stereotypes.
Ultimately, we're supposed to believe Effy is a 'strong' character, 'tough,' but a closer examination reveals that this strength is tied to her character's sex appeal, her ability to attract men and the subsequent control she has in accepting or rejecting them. As the British daily the Mirror described it, "she wraps the men in her life around her little finger and uses her young, bumbling and ever-so-slightly smitten colleague to reveal financial secrets that could be her ticket to stock-trading gold," language that reveals the perception as Effy's power as purely sexual in nature, and perhaps more importantly, the perception of this kind of power as destructive.
To criticize the show's creators or writers for this storyline would be to ignore the fact that they're catering to someone – the audience, us — and evidently believed that to be entertained, we needed to see Effy not just fail, but crash and burn.
Related Reading: Grace Bello wrote all about women in the workplace on Mad Men, Girls, House of Cards, and other shows on her guest blog Women's Work.