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“My journey through life has not been an easy one,” confessed Shirley Ballas in the opening minutes of BBC Two’s “Womanhood”. Over the course of the 90-minute programme, the 61-year-old Strictly judge described the intense and lifelong pressure she had felt to “be a certain weight, look a certain way”. You could see the crumpling shame against which she struggled to hold her frame as she described how her ex-husband had controlled her life. When she was three months pregnant with their son, her husband (not a midwife) ruled she was too heavy and hid a cockroach in a doughnut she’d bought. She has not touched a doughnut from that day to this. Yet Ballas is the woman most resistant to the progressive feminist ideas debated in the programme.
The format felt a little tired. Six women, spending a week living together in a swanky manor house in Leeds to discuss the shifting status of women over the past 50 years. Big Sister, if you will. The ballroom star was joined by Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark (66) Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold CBE (61), 80s pop star Sinitta (58), comedian Suzi Ruffell (35) and author/influencer Chidera Eggerue (26).
Over the course of the week the women were encouraged to share their personal experiences and meet people who “challenge their views on consent, coercive control, cosmetic surgery, women’s safety on the streets, trans rights, sex work and childcare”. Between testimonies from various guests, we were shown a lot of cooking and candle lighting around the house as the representatives of different generations marshalled their thoughts.
But the spa-like mood was probably wise. Viewers' fuses will have been lit by some of the incendiary issues debated. Cooling off was required.
Wark, inevitably, assumed the role of house matron. Incisive and unshockable, she merrily wielded a vibrator like a microphone at one point, as she threw out questions that kept the show rolling. She confidently owned her opinions on fashion. “I’m a tag hag,” she said, “But I think we as a society accord too much importance to looks.”
The ideological division between the generations of women was obvious, but they made admirable efforts to listen to each other. Ballas squirmed as Eggerue hymned the pleasures of masturbation. The younger women winced as Ballas enjoyed the flirty banter of older men at a golf club. Ruffell didn't want to meet a campaigner calling for the exclusion of trans women from women's changing rooms; Ballas wasn't sure how comfortable she'd feel changing next to a trans woman.
The programme lacked a woman in her forties. At 46, I felt my views landing between those of the two groups. I shared the younger women’s support of the trans woman they met. But I struggled with their easy “you go, girl” attitude to the young woman offering online strip shows and “girlfriend services”.
Wark and Ballas looked patiently maternal as this girl showed viewers the can of fake semen she squirts onto her face and bragged of the month in which she made £85,000. But I thought of Emily Ratajkowski, the model who confidently defended the feminism of her topless appearance In the memoir she published this summer, Ratajkowski told her readers that Thicke groped her during filming and the incident taught her “how limited any woman’s power is when she survives and even succeeds in the world as a thing to be looked at.”
As the only housemate to have been a pin-up, to have heard more from the skittish Sinitta on this would have been welcome. But I applauded her brave testimony about the vile sexual assault she has experienced in the music industry. It was unsettling to see her in tears when the group were shown a play about coercive control. The issue clearly hit a nerve and will have left viewers wondering, who was her controller?
Womanhood isn't a revolutionary programme. But it did feel like a safe space. As families prepare to reunite for what may be their first Christmas in two years, the participants offered a good model of productive, inter-generational debate. It showed how we can move forward together if we're prepared to speak up clearly, then listen. The show ended with Ballas throwing her bathroom scales into a dustbin. I really hope she then went out and bought herself a delicious doughnut.