I’ve decided to divide this topic into 3 parts because I have so much to say about it. The show addresses the issue of women being able to take control of their own affairs; the issue of women being employed, either at home or in a professional setting; the issue of women being capable of holding their own when confronted by men; and the issue of women not settling for anything less than what they really want. Then there are the issues surrounding pregnancy and childcare. I want to first discuss the leading women, Joan and Louisa, and end with a discussion of the many other strong female characters.
It’s hard to recall how many times Joan meets with adversity and comes out with her head held high. She tells Martin and her brother that she’s a survivor and she’ll find a way to manage whatever comes her way. That is not to say that she won’t accept help or that she prefers to be on her own; it is only to say that she is resourceful and confident and comfortable in her own skin. She is a very well-formed female character in that she’s been married, had lovers, runs a farm and an organic vegetable business, unceremoniously kills the chickens herself and cooks them, ministers to her neighbors, and stands up for what she believes in whether she’s confronting a man with a gun or Martin’s sense of morality. One topic that this show addresses that isn’t discussed much in any serious way in TV shows is that of sexuality in older women. Although Joan’s fling with a much younger painter is probably related to her estrogen implant, she is very clear to Martin that she is enjoying the physical and emotional aspects of her liaison with this young man and won’t give it up yet. When Edward enters her life, Joan is feeling her age and lonely and Edward gives her the attention she craves. I won’t deny that the vision of Joan and Edward having sex on her kitchen table is rather disturbing, and Martin’s sensibilities are definitely shaken. Joan’s thick ankles above her sensible shoes rhythmically rocking is an unsettling picture, but it serves to underscore her age. It’s also the only actual sex scene in the show. The point is made that sometimes you have to jump into life with both feet regardless of how that may tarnish your image, either in one’s own eyes or in the eyes of others. And age doesn’t have to be a limiting factor. I suppose Martin’s mother Margaret is another example of this. She’s leaving her husband for another man after many years of marriage and a loss of intimacy following Martin’s birth. She brings up the oft expressed notion that men may stop seeing their wives as lovers after children are born and start seeing them as asexual mothers instead.
Joan dresses in relatively masculine clothing most of the time and she drives her pickup truck unbothered by how it looks. She is the unabashed caregiver of Portwenn. When it comes to Martin, she both loves him faults and all and tries to guide him towards a fuller life. The fact that Martin has chosen to return to Portwenn means a lot to her, but she won’t let that stand in her way when she sees him behaving in a manner she doesn’t like. It is Joan to whom Martin talks the most and who gives him the straightest replies. She is, after all, an Ellingham born and raised even if she has been the least affected by their lack of social skills and general coldheartedness. Joan certainly has her soft and tender side, but she’s pretty clear that everyone deserves to be treated kindly unless there’s a reason she finds to act differently. To the best of my knowledge, Edith is the one person that gets Joan’s ire up, although Bert gets her going at times.
Louisa, too, is a multifaceted woman who won’t be messed around with and gives Martin all sorts of strong reactions while at the same time being soft and caring, apologetic and forgiving. Her internal strength and confidence make her a good match for Martin even if we viewers are not always happy with her responses. She has every reason to be impressed with Martin’s medical ability, but I am surprised by how often she expects him to come running (literally) when there is a sick child she’s concerned about, or when there are various other medical problems she must address at the school. She can be quite demanding at times before she and Martin have a personal relationship. After they begin their own dalliance, there are a variety of times when Louisa gets utterly exasperated with him and either tells him how she feels in no uncertain terms or walks away with her characteristic hand motions and facial expressions that reveal her frustrations with him. Some people find it hard to believe that Louisa would be interested in having a relationship with Martin, but for me the writers have given us plenty of reasons why she would be intrigued. One significant reason is the limited scope of eligible men in Portwenn. I mean, can you really see Louisa matched with any of the others? She’s in her late 30s, accomplished, and a take-charge woman. Mark Mylow has some potential, but he’s so desperate for a girlfriend that he’s kind of pathetic. Even Danny, who has a job of some status and has a level of education commensurate with hers, seems rather inconsequential somehow. I’m sure the writers chose to make the men in Louisa’s life unprepossessing so that Martin would look more appealing in contrast, but a woman like Louisa might like the challenge of taking on a man like Martin. She’s looking for someone who wants a woman who isn’t a pushover, and Martin definitely likes strong women if Edith is any indication. Louisa gives us some explanation of her attraction to Martin when she tells him in season 1, episode 6 that some people don’t quite fit in and aren’t ordinary, but that’s why we love them. Then in season 3, episode 3 we see Martin and Louisa acting in concert with each other and agreeing on several basics. A new couple has moved in next door to Louisa and they are bringing up their son, Sam, in a very undisciplined manner, out of the “mainstream.” By the end of the episode Martin and Louisa have agreed that it’s necessary to teach children the difference between right and wrong and that parents should make sure their children’s behavior doesn’t adversely impact others. They agree that they both hate cats, that Sam’s parents are extremely irritating and that Sam is suffering from bad parenting, and finally Martin momentarily slips and tells Louisa she’d make a lovely mother. Louisa is stunned by Martin’s frankness and flattered. We’ve already seen they are both attracted to each other. Why wouldn’t we believe they could make a good couple?
Louisa has made up her mind that she wants to stay in Portwenn and only leaves when she and Martin call off their wedding. She’s gone to college in London and knows what it’s like to live there, and she’s happier in Portwenn. She’s got a job as headmistress of the school for much of the series, plus she’s considered one of the prominent citizens of Portwenn who is one of two females on the committee to select the next GP. Portwenn is really her family since both her father and her mother have been largely absent from her life. Maybe their absence has made Louisa so self-reliant. As a woman, I revel in her frankness when she frequently stands up to Martin despite his intimidating demeanor. She emphatically tells him that his blood issues are not gossip but of concern to his patients, that he’s acting childish and self-centered by keeping himself an outsider in the community, dramatically tells off Martin’s previous student, kisses Martin but then throws him out of the car when he remarks about her bad breath. When she allows students to come to school even though they have signs of some contagious infection in series 2, episode 2, and Martin accuses her of risking more cases, she fervently defends her actions and distinguishes herself in the process. Furthermore, she later tells Martin she resents him “stitching her up” to the committee (or undermining her). It’s a scene that demonstrates her confidence and fortitude; we clearly understand that she can handle things herself and that trait continues throughout all of the series so that when she returns to Portwenn 6 months pregnant in series 4, episode 1, we’re not surprised that she plans to deal with her pregnancy and delivery on her own. Louisa’s strength is refreshing in a female and, of course, an excellent balance to Martin’s obduracy. The scenes when they go at each other spice up the show and give it the tension that keeps it lively and even more compelling.
Originally posted 2013-09-09 21:56:42.