Passing the Bechdel Test

· life ·

There aren’t many dramas on TV (or films, for that matter) that pass the Bechdel Test, meaning that they feature at least two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. There are even fewer dramas with leading women in positions of some power, who are friends with each other as well as colleagues, and talk to each other about all kinds of things. However, Scott & Bailey is one such TV drama, and one that I really enjoy.

For those who haven’t seen it, Scott & Bailey is a police procedural, set in Manchester. As well as depicting the procedures involved in police work (specifically the work of a Major Incident Team syndicate) in what I’m guessing is a pretty faithful and realistic way (for example, there is often mention of risk assessments — not something you find in many cop shows), they do a wonderful job of showing a friendship between two female colleagues and their female boss. In many ways, the setup is overtly inspired by Cagney & Lacey, but with added grit and a more deeply embedded female team.

Janet Scott (played by Lesley Sharpe) and Rachel Bailey (played by Suranne Jones) are part of the syndicate presided over by the magnificent DCI Gill Murray (aka ‘Godzilla’) played by Amelia Bullmore. The friendship between Janet and Rachel is mirrored by that between Gill and her friend (and line manager) DSI Julie Dodson (Pippa Haywood). What Sally Wainwright (who writes the show) does so well is to capture the way in which women who are friends and colleagues talk to each other, with all the camaraderie, good-natured insults1, humour and mutual supportiveness that those relationships tend to involve. Yes, they occasionally talk about men2, but mostly they talk about problems at work, their families, and generally set the world to rights.

It’s also great that they are (for the most part) incredibly competent: we get to see them doing their job well. In the context of a typical cop show, this is interesting, because they have a different approach to interviewing suspects than you usually see on TV. Janet in particular is incredibly calm and unhurried (and completely non-aggressive) in interviews. She often remains silent, and just lets the suspects fill in the silence with stuff that will eventually reveal their lies. Gill is a pretty fearsome boss (hence the ‘Godzilla’ nickname behind her back, which she almost certainly knows about), in that she expects very high standards. However, she is very fair, offers praise freely where it is due, and works hard to act as a mentor to those in her team (particularly the women). Generally she says what she thinks to your face and doesn’t harbour grudges, so you know where you are with her.

If you’re not a woman, it’s possible that you don’t realise how rare it is to see your own experience of normal interactions with other women depicted on TV or in films. The content may be different, but I instantly recognise the tone of their conversations from my own with my (female) buddy at work. They are good at their jobs, but only human, but can only confess their worries and insecurities to their buddy, or it would be taken immediately as a sign of weakness. Take this example, which particularly stuck in my mind from the previous series3. Gill and Julie are at the scene of a particularly gruesome discovery of bodies in a basement, and Julie has just got off the phone with her boss (Karen Zalinski), who is coordinating the investigation:

Julie Dodson: Look at me, I’m shaking, I’m sweating. An hour in a cellar with four putrified corpses and I’m cool as a cucumber. Thirty seconds on the phone to Karen Zalinski and I’m a nervous wreck! Look at me, what’s going on?
Gill Murray: You’re ridiculous.
Julie: Oh sod off!
Gill: Rob says Mitch remembered…
Julie: Is it just me? Does she not have this effect on everyone?
Gill: It’s just you. Mitch remembered, he was the exhibits officer on…
Julie: No, seriously?
Gill: Seriously.
Gill: Karen Zalinski’s got a PhD in clinical forensic psychology, ‘course she’s scary.
Julie: Thank you.

Scott & Bailey isn’t a perfect TV show by any means. It has its share of overblown drama and plot points that strain credibility. And though there are some good, competent men on the syndicate, Sally Wainwright has a slight tendency (in all her dramas) to make the men useless or unpleasant (or both). However, I still love it for doing that rare thing and showing women with close friendships in the workplace. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone.

  1. Julie and Gill have a tendency to address each other as “you old slapper”. ↩︎

  2. For a highly intelligent woman, Rachel is a complete idiot when it comes to relationships, and they have been — almost without exception — a disaster area. Consequently, Janet spends some time helping to pick up the pieces and acting as a sounding board for Rachel. ↩︎

  3. I was delighted to find the exact quote I was looking for on IMDB, in case you think I remembered it word for word. Obviously someone else liked that bit too. ↩︎