Jack O'Connell and Michelle Dockery in Godless
Jack O'Connell and Michelle Dockery in Godless (Photo: Netflix)

TV

Godless isn’t a feminist western. But should we be surprised?

Only 27 per cent of the lines in the first episode of Netflix’s new show are spoken by women, despite being trailed as a western about them

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By Emily Baker on

Netflix’s new show, Godless, is a classic western in that there are the usual tropes of gunfights, horses, saloons and steam trains. But what really excited potential viewers – and me – most was that this was about a town run solely by women. The trailer and subsequent posters showed gun-toting cowgirls with the exciting “welcome to no man’s land” splashed under the titles. Yes, the main character was to be a man, but through his navigation of this new town, going by the admittedly uninventive name of La Belle, we’d be given the chance to meet some gritty, complex and interesting women.

And I wasn’t disappointed with the first episode, at least, not while I was watching it. It’s beautifully shot, with an aspect ratio that turns your living room into a cinema and no-expense-spared costumes and sets.

The story is genuinely engrossing too – Jack O’Connell plays Roy, a young man who runs away from home after becoming disenfranchised with his boss and father figure’s increasingly troubled behaviour and is eventually taken in by Alice, a robust yet careful farmer played by Michelle Dockery. Roy is eventually tracked down by his boss, and the women of La Belle must decide where they stand in the business of these men. I waxed lyrical to my friends about how great Godless is, and that they should binge watch it straight away.

There is such a drought of programmes made about women, for women, that we’re looking for shows that aren’t feminist at all, and placing heavy expectations on them

It wasn’t until this morning when I saw this tweet, claiming only 27 per cent of the lines in the first episode of Godless were spoken by women, that I began to rethink what I’d watched.

It quickly became apparent that the women in La Belle were vehicles to tell a classically male cowboy story of revenge and regret. Alice and her neighbours are interesting and layered, though this is mainly because their husbands and fathers all died in a catastrophic mining accident. We rarely see beyond their pain, or conversely, their built-up resilience – their characters are defined by the past they hold with men. It’s the whole reason Alice takes in Roy. There’s also a brief, wholly unnecessary rape scene. I found myself questioning my feminist judgement – was I wrong to enjoy this first episode when I had been let down by something I thought would be so women-centric?

Of course Godless isn’t the feminist utopia series we’d hoped for, because in reality, that was never promised. In an interview with Variety, creator Scott Frank said he never intended to make a feminist series. “I wasn’t interested in making a giant feminist statement,” he said, “I don’t know that I have the right to.” And he’s right – a man is rarely the one to truthfully tell a woman’s story, as proven by singer Keith Urban earlier this month when he released a cringe-inducing song about the recent sexual abuse accusations rattling Hollywood.

Women put the feminist label on Godless ourselves, out of the excitement of seeing a typically male genre not only featuring more than one woman, but a group of women in a seemingly powerful role. There is such a drought of programmes made about women, for women, that we’re looking for shows that aren’t feminist at all, and placing heavy expectations on them. No wonder we’re all so disappointed. Netflix and other creators can learn from the excitement surrounding the run up to Godless, in that there is a very healthy appetite and a huge audience for serious women-led dramas – they just need to learn to deliver.

@emilyrbakes

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Jack O'Connell and Michelle Dockery in Godless (Photo: Netflix)
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