Ashes to Ashes: a modern heroine back in the 1980s

26 Apr

I contemplated Season 1 of Ashes to Ashes that just finished airing on BBC America.  [Note to BBC America:  will you please stop editing for time and just show us what the British audience has seen?  It is highly annoying to have small chunks of plot missing and can somewhat ruin the entire narrative effect.  And, if you are going to put entire episodes up on your OnDemand, please kindly leave them up a bit longer.  Thanks.]  I reflected on what I had seen on TV in the 1980s when it came to crime drama and women.  I know I watched Hart to Hart and Remington Steele but I missed out on things like T.J. Hooker (I’m not sure I missed out on it, it just never appealed to me).  Everything in the 1980s was glossy when it came to crime and TV, with the exception of Cagney & Lacey and Hill Street Blues. Otherwise, crime-fighting tended to have some level of glamour to it.  It should be noted that Cagney & Lacey did have substance and dealt with being a working woman, both personally and professionally, in the 1980s.  Issues such as alcohol abuse and abortion rights were tackled.  Looking back, it’s surprising that show was allowed on the air in 1981.

During the 1980s, the one thing that women tended to be was straight-forward.  If they were fighting crime, they might have had some character flaws but overall, they were ‘good’ people.  It’s only in the last decade and a half that crime fighting women started to develop character.  Now we get to enjoy the dark sides of women.  Not every female crime fighter is a good girl.  Peta Wilson in La Femme Nikita, the mid 1990s USA network vehicle is an example of a crime fighter with a dark side.  This begs the question, which I am only beginning to pose:  can you be a crime fighter as well as a femme fatale in this era of crime fighting women on television?

As for Ashes to Ashes, I am undecided whether Alex Drake is actually a femme fatale, or at least, not an intentional, traditional femme fatale.  Alex’s desire to enforce the law (and do her job) is seemingly fatal to herself in the first episode when she is shot by a man who seems to know about her past but will not tell her the truth about her parents’ deaths.  As the series progresses, we learn that Alex’s mother’s beliefs and actions make her a femme fatale on some level, mostly, her belief system endangers the traditional way of thinking and makes her enemies on the police force.  Alex’s mother, however, is less traditional.  She isn’t only a mother, she’s a successful barrister and involved in politics.  And, in many episodes, she seems to be on trial by Alex for her decisions and choices.  Essentially, my issue is this:  does being a strong woman in the 1980s make you a femme fatale?  And, more interestingly, how is it contrasted in the first series between the three main female characters on the show:  Alex, a modern woman who has “gone back in time” because she’s been shot and is about to die; Molly, her mother, who is a modern woman and definitely a feminist in 1981, who is much more political and radical and also tends to represent the Second Wave of Feminism — a wealthier, more privileged member of society who can afford to be idealistic; and finally, WPC Shaz, a sort of androgynous young woman who isn’t sure where she stands.  She doesn’t quite realize her ‘position’ as a female on the police force and the important implications it could have if she gets promoted and takes herself a bit more seriously.  She’s sweet, but she is also one of the guys on some level…but not so much so that she can’t have a sexual liaison with one of the officers/detectives on the force.  If Alex represents ‘today’s woman’ and Molly represents the second wave of feminism, Shaz, it could be argued, represents the initial third wave…or the split between the second and third wave.

*Spoiler Alert!* in the following paragraph:

In addition to the three women and their respective representations in the series, their inter-relationships and those with men, in paritcular, Gene Hunt and Alex’s godfather, as well as, we soon learn, her mother’s lover, will help illustrate how these women function within a shifting patriarchal culture.  While Gene Hunt is the old representation of patriarchy who represents outdated ideals and prejudices, Alex’s godfather represents the newer enligtened man “as feminist”.  These two characters help Alex find her way as a woman and a detective in 1981.  They also show her that both types of men can have compassion, as in the final episode of Series One, and, ultimately, their good intentions can be grossly misguided.  Both men function as father figures in the final episode of the first series.   Gene Hunt functions as a protector when he picks up Young Alex and then carries her away from the explosion, and subsequently her Godfather acts as her substitute father after her parents’ death.  Both father figures make a joint decision for Alex’s “feelings” which will be what causes her to be shot in the first episode.  Father doesn’t always know best.  It is Alex’s deathly journey as well as her education and intellect that allow her to discover that the sins of her real father, coupled with good intentions by the other men in her past might just kill her.

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