We’re introduced to a woman. In a scene or two’s time we gather that she’s an integral part of the plot in this new, ambiguous but intriguing TV show – great. Not long after that, we find out that she is a) in the aftermath of a life-changing trauma, b) dead or due to die pretty soon, or c) struggling with a neglected mental health issue.
Sounds pretty familiar, right? That’s because it’s the lens through which women are presented on television at the moment. First it was fridging; a concept born out of comic book fiction in which women were put in fridges (both literally and metaphorically, but mainly it means they were killed off) early on as a centring plot device for the big strong man to resolve. More recently, abduction and abuse crept to the forefront of the female narrative, though. It’s no secret that entertainment has a worrying fascination with missing girls – Kiri, The Missing, Top of the Lake, Sharp Objects and so on all lean on society’s deep-rooted fear of and protectiveness towards young, vulnerable women. But now, within this new, weird realm of contemporary female archetypes, women’s psychological torment is the crux of today’s most popular programmes: Villanelle in Killing Eve, Camille in Sharp Objects and, if we venture into recent films, Claire Foy's Sawyer in Unsane.
The latest addition to the sub-genre is BBC One’s new psychological thriller (read: Woman Being Pushed To The Edge Of Her Mental Health drama), The Cry. It follows new mum Joanna (played by Jenna Coleman) and her husband Alistair (Ewen Leslie) as they travel from Scotland to Australia with their newborn baby who, once they arrive, goes missing.
We're just one episode in and familiar themes are already seeping into our consciousness – a lost child to tap into every parent's deepest fear and the brand of tragedy that normally unites the surrounding community either with or against the mother involved (see: Sharp Objects, Kiri and so on). But at the centre of this narrative is Joanna's deteriorating mental health.
Though it’s not explicitly discussed (at least, not in episode one), it’s clear that Joanna seems to be experiencing postnatal depression. Through choppy flashbacks and snippets of scenes with a court-ordered psychiatrist in the future, we quickly gather that her mental state is going to be a significant driving force for the plot. When the psychiatrist is asked at trial whether she considers Joanna to be "of sound mind" and able to participate, my stomach lurched at an unwanted prediction: somewhere down the line, Joanna will be blamed for her baby’s abduction and someone will use her mental health to discredit her.
This speaks to the fears of many of today’s women. After an eternity of having our opinions, voices and presence devalued by systemic sexism, having to defend our feelings isn't anything new. Rhetoric about women being "too emotional" or "crazy" are so deeply ingrained that when "gaslighting" snuck into our day-to-day vocabulary, many of us were relieved at just being able to name that feeling of being persistently psychologically manipulated. So leaning on a lead character like Joanna, whose mental health is brought into question and thus her credibility both as a mother and in the wider context of the show, is troubling. It makes the female audience just as overwhelmingly confused and intimidated as we imagine her to be.
So, in reality, we haven't achieved all that much by moving on from being killed off to serve a greater (male) purpose. Instead TV's obsession has shifted towards vulnerable women whose internal struggle and mental strain are enough of a device for the community that surrounds them to question their legitimacy all on their own. Terrifying, isn't it?
The Cry is on BBC One on Sundays at 9pm