A few years ago I was reluctantly cajoled into watching a single episode of The Only Way is Essex (ITVBe) by a friend who found it mildly amusing. The lives of Brentwood’s nouveau riche brat-pack seemed a world away from my own but over time I started to become familiar with firm favourites like Gemma (GC) Collins, Arg, Chloe Sims and Bobby Norris. As the seasons ticked by I became unsuspectingly (and secretly) hooked, finding myself giggly, excitable and perched on the sofa for my double-weekly dose of perma-tanned drama. But where are we now as TOWIE (not be be confused with the Bridge-like card game invented in 1930’s Paris) enters its 22nd series?
This Sunday an episode was aired which sent shock waves out through the nation raising some very interesting debate about where we draw the line at ‘light-hearted entertainment.’ The show exploded back onto our screens and featured long-time standing cast member Lockie (James Lock) seen yelling a string of intentionally abusive expletives at his young girlfriend in front of her friends, whilst she said nothing to either instigate or antagonise his four-letter-word outburst.
In fact it was her apparent silence (during a conversation between her friends and Lockie; expressing their concerns about the way he talks to her) that seemingly caused his disproportionate, misdirected, and utterly unacceptable behaviour.
Boys will be boys?
For some time now (perhaps always) there has been a dark and sinister undercurrent of societal-accepted chauvinism lurking beneath the semi-scripted surface as we witness the young women of Essex regularly tolerate unwanted comments about their physical appearance (either ogled or cruelly criticised), be cheated on/ played (yet rarely observed as walking away first time around), and bearing the brunt of misogynistic aggression in which their Alpha-males feel it is acceptable to lambast them with controlling and manipulative logic which would make the average feminist vomit all over the screen.
There appears to be an uncomfortable message being perpetuated which isn’t immediately obvious unless you become attuned and aware of the bigger picture. The girls and women of TOWIE are often heard celebrating ‘girl power’ but sadly it is an empowerment which speaks primarily of condition-based acceptance and conformity. A notion which suggests that if you look attractive and well-groomed (certainly don’t flaunt your intelligence) that you are somehow powerful and have access to increased social status and romance opportunities. That is, that your inherent power as a woman can be only be accessed and demonstrated through visually compliant sexuality.
The men of the show lap this up- it gives them pack kudos to ‘bag a sort.’
Are these women exercising real choice in the way they look, or are they simply exercising a choice from a minuscule rail of peer acceptability which centres around their desirability to men?
On TOWIE we don’t see women actively selecting partners, perhaps with the notable exception of Gemma Collins who relentlessly pursued Arg for around 8-yrs, endlessly waiting for him to realise that she is The One. Part of his decision for avoiding the inevitable was the shame, humiliation and embarrassment he experienced (and vocalised) from his peer group who constantly attacked (bantered) her weight.
And we don’t see women being selected as partners based on personality, intelligence, ability, standards or aspirations either; we see men assume the role of choice-maker, with their object of desire waiting patiently until said males have either slept with them (gotten bored and moved on) or finally after months of ‘casual not-bothered-anyway (emotionally avoidant) dating’ make themselves ‘exclusive and official.’
Unfortunately this is the kind of toxic message that we’re sending out to young women all over the country- that it’s OK to be treated in a derogatory manner (because we’re a passionate couple and he’s hot-headed) and ‘boys will be boys.’
Week after week I see young women experience nothing less than obvious emotional abuse and the insidious demise of their own inner-confidence masked only by a fake veneer of pouts, boob-jobs and selfies.
As a therapist if I had any of those young women walk through my door I would be interested to hear about their real motivations, beliefs, thoughts and feelings; helping them to draw clear emotional boundaries and set important standards for what they deem to be acceptable behaviour towards them.
I hope the show starts to utilise its position of cultural influence by celebrating real women everywhere- putting across the message that real empowerment involves self-respect, self-love and self-confidence (which is found within and not down the MAC aisle).