I May Destroy You on BBC One

Finally there are women we can relate to on TV – but why now, and why has it taken so long?

This has been a groundbreaking year for female TV characters: but why has it taken so long to create women whose experiences ring true? Weruche Opia, Hayley Squires and Gbemisola Ikumelo discuss the emergence of a new kind of on-screen womanhood. 

2020 has marked a groundbreaking moment in TV, with a surge in relatable female roles that depict women in all our messy, complex and authentic glory. Gone are the days of one-dimensional characters who are the living embodiment of every gender cliché going: instead, the small screen is becoming a place for genuinely exciting female-led creation that delves into the many different facets of modern-day womanhood. 

It’s this dramatic sea-change that formed the basis of a compelling round-table at Stylist Live @ Home this weekend, as Stylist’s Helen Bownass was joined by three leading lights of new-era TV –  I May Destroy You’s Weruche Opia, Hayley Squires, who plays the lead in Adult Material, and Gbemisola Ikumelo, the BAFTA-winning creator and star of Brain in Gear.

All three women agree that this year feels like a game-changer for women on TV, as the female experience takes centre-stage via a lens of issues that ring true for many of us (including sex, power, consent and mental health), alongside a drive to capture more diverse voices and perspectives. 

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Ikumelo notes that growing up, “in the UK, a lot my references were male” and it was “only in the early noughties was I seeing British Black women do things that I could connect to”; notably in the form of Jocelyn Jee Esien, star of the 2003 sketch show, 3 Non-Blondes.

Opia agrees that Esien was “one of the few Black women who was able to break in back then,” adding that “there were not that many British people that I could relate to” on TV. 

Squires, meanwhile, is also conscious of this glaring representation gap, recalling that as a teenager, she didn’t see “anything to do with working class, or people that weren’t white”.

Kitchen-sink dramas aside, “I couldn’t tell you a film or a TV show that was either representative of, or helped with escapism for, a working class girl from where I was from,” she adds.

Why, then, has it taken us so long to get to this point? And why is change happening now, in 2020?

Women can’t be ignored anymore

For Opia, who stars alongside Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You – one of the breakout series of this year that fictionalises Coel’s real-life sexual assault – the shift is happening because men’s hold on TV is finally starting to wane. 

“I think it’s because the patriarchy is falling,” Opia tells Stylist Live, only half-joking, of the movement towards capturing authentic on-screen female experiences. 

“It’s crazy to say that we’re finally at a point where women’s voices are valid,” she adds. “You know, women are recognised as creatives, and we can produce exceptional pieces of work. It’s wild to say that we have waited to be let in. But we do know that the industry has been manned and the ‘gatekeepers’ are majority male.” 

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For Opia, women and the issues that embody their lives “can’t be ignored anymore”. 

“That’s why we’re seeing a resurgence of wonderful women writers writing such incredible work that’s hard-hitting,” she says. “So it’s amazing that we’re finally here; a bit disheartening [to have taken so long] but we’re here and we’re here to stay.”

Art is catching up with life

Ikumelo created, directed and co-starred in her own Bafta-winning show, the BBC’s Brain in Gear, that brings “my insides out”, she says, in charting the internal dialogue of an anxious 20-something woman. 

“I think there’s also something about art imitating life,” she says, in response to why women have been reframed on TV. “It’s taken a while for women across the ages to be humanised, as opposed to reduced to our boobs or our weight […] are we attractive, are we married, are we single. And it’s this amalgamation through human fighting in the ground, and art reflecting that change of women just showing all the faulty facets of themselves in reality.”

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For women’s experiences to continue to be recognised authentically on the small screen, however, Ikumelo believes this change needs to be normalised and consistent, rather than a passing fad. 

“Because sometimes there is this feeling like, ‘OK this is a moment. OK we’re in #MeToo, so this is the season where everyone goes, ‘it’s the thing to let women do their thing,’” she says. 

“And if it becomes that, then we’ll have a helluva lot of a longer journey because, in ten years, we’ll have another ‘moment’ […] But if it’s a consistent, all-the-time women thing, and we’re just part of the discourse when it comes to what we’re programming, then we’ll get there a lot quicker.” 

Women are reclaiming their narratives

Squires, whose lead role in Channel 4’s Adult Material rethinks the porn industry from the perspective of one of its leading stars, believes women are now taking charge of their own stories on TV.

“Rather than someone else who hasn’t experienced it, or is coming at it from an outside point of view and so therefore is going to put their agenda to it, it’s about claiming the narrative,” she says, pointing to Coel’s re-telling of her assault in I May Destroy You as an example. 

“So it’s always going to be more human or more truthful or more authentic if we’re able to tell those stories ourselves. And I think that, because that’s starting to shift, that’s why the level of what’s coming out is so much more affecting to people.” 

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Although Squires recognises that this revolutionary moment in TV “one the one hand, feels amazing” she also sees that “on the other side, it’s 2020” and therefore long overdue.

To watch more of this excellent and compelling chat between Weruche Opia, Hayley Squires and Gbemisola Ikumelo about relatable women on TV, tune into Stylist Live @ Home, available to 29 November.

Stylist Live @ Home tickets are still available from just £15 and give you full access to the weekend’s events. Don’t worry if you can’t make it this weekend: you’ll also have two weeks to watch the sessions on demand on catch-up, available until November 29. Stylist Live @ Home guests will also get first access to discounts across our curated shopping collections courtesy of The Drop. All tickets include a £1 donation to Women for Women International.


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