Wilderness writer Marnie Dickens: Women are full of contradictions – why doesn’t TV celebrate that?

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The loyal wife. The caring mother. The good daughter. And this is when women are winning. The other side of the coin? The temptress. The slut. The spinster. Pick a box, or better yet get one picked for you, and whatever you do, do not step outside of its. This is society, yes, but it’s also television, however far we keep hearing we’ve come.

Undoubtedly, there are more female characters on screen, and if they’re lucky these days they might get to be ‘feisty’, or a ‘workaholic’ rather than just ‘hot’ or ‘mum’ or ‘dead on a slab’.

Of course there are homegrown exceptions, Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley, Arabella Essiedu in I May Destroy You, Suzie Pickles in I Hate Suzie/Too and further afield the Mantle sisters in Dead Ringers, Mare Sheehan of Mare of Easttown, and Deborah Vance in Hacks. There is not a single box you could lump any of these standout characters into. But television is still nowhere near reflective of the truth – we women don’t exist in boxes and we never should have done.

As a scriptwriter I have the enviable job of entertaining people, but also of trying to change things, even a teeny tiny bit. Every TV show I’ve written has taken a box or a label and then – I hope – exploded it.

First there was Thirteen, with the inimitable Jodie Comer playing a young woman escaping from years in captivity. And so, instantly, we had ‘the victim’ – expected to be traumatised but not in a scare-the-horses way, expected to be grateful for liberation, not furious at the failures that kept her imprisoned, expected to be passive in doing what she was told, rather than wielding any sort of agency against the perpetrator.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman in Wilderness
Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Jenna Coleman in Wilderness

Breaking this unwritten contract with the media, her family and the police meant her label soon had a question mark over it. Was she who she said she was? Ultimately, yes she was, she just didn’t want a label.

Then in Gold Digger, the lead character, played by Julia Ormond, was not just in a box marked ‘The older woman’ but written off for being in it. Cast aside by society as her usefulness depleted, child-bearing years over, historically deemed ‘past her prime’, yet refusing just to go quietly into the night.

Deciding she wanted something for herself, not to just be a conduit for her children and her ex-husband and all the people she spent a lifetime bending and breaking herself out of shape to please. And so embarking on a love affair with a younger man, and daring to become that most challenging of things – an older sexualised being.

And now, my new show arriving this week on Prime Video, Wilderness. The heroine of the tale, a woman called Liv Taylor, played beautifully by Jenna Coleman. Her box? ‘Loyal wife’, which in and of itself wouldn’t make for desperately thrilling drama, so of course she’s soon being betrayed and having her entire sense of self – which she built around her husband to best facilitate him and his life – blown apart.

Marnie Dickens (BAFTA/Charlie Clift)
Marnie Dickens (BAFTA/Charlie Clift)

Other boxes come into play thick and fast – once Liv has recovered from the shock of his affair, she slips into ‘scorned woman’ mode with murderous revenge fantasies. The actions she takes over the course of the series could earn her other labels too – ‘harpy’ or ‘bunny boiler’ to name a few – and that’s before she begins to fixate on that most tired old trope, ‘the other woman’.

When a wife cheats in a heteronormative set-up, there’s no collective blaming of ‘the other man’. The gendered language only goes the one way. We unconsciously swallow ideas that ‘the other woman’ is at fault. She lured him away, seduced him, tempted him, often skipping over the fact that she has no ring on her finger, no moral or literal ties to this marriage, and she is her own person.

But time and again we pit wife against mistress, then sit back and enjoy the fireworks, and Liv does the very same. At first. Because she’s drunk the same cultural Kool-Aid as the rest of us. Women beware women.

So no, we haven’t pretended the stereotypes don’t exist in Wilderness, if anything we’ve leant into them, but then the handbrake turn is – everyone breaks out of their box. That was my guiding intention when I took on adapting BE Jones’s brilliantly twisty-turny novel of the same name.

I didn’t want to shy away from the fun of the plot, the cliff-hangers and the dubious actions all the characters take, but I did want to examine the boxes these characters were put in or had shoved themselves into, and then let them bleed beyond those boundaries.

All the women I know in my life can behave terribly one moment, then with utter thoughtfulness the next, be reckless then terrified, loving then withholding, callous then kind. Just like the heroine in Wilderness, we can be full of rage, and instead of biting down on it like we’ve been told to do since girlhood, we can be allowed to express it. We are our contradictions. We should celebrate them.

No more boxes. And please, no more slabs.

Wilderness is available on Prime Video from September 15