Happy Valley: Portraying Prostitutes as People – #stillshot

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Isabella Bornholt

#stillshot features a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.

image1.pngFor the last six weeks, I have been counting the days not by their names but by how far they are from the next episode of Happy Valley. As far as I’m concerned, Sally Wainwright is the God of Scriptwriting and Sarah Lancashire has been sent so that she might teach us the holy ways of Dialogue Delivery. I’m a bit of a fan.

I could easily fill this entire article with a fangirl’s ramblings (‘Happy Valley, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…’) but I won’t. I have a specific topic in mind. It’s something that struck me the moment it first became apparent in episode one of this series. The fact that it struck me at all speaks volumes about certain attitudes within our society, which have found their way onto our television screens. In Happy Valley, being a proper character and being a prostitute aren’t mutually exclusive. 

All of Sally Wainwright’s female characters are exemplary in the way they are portrayed and they are, generally*, given the storylines that their fully realised characters deserve. I could go on and on about each of the female characters in Happy Valley but I’d like to focus on two of them. These two characters are prostitutes but are known as something other than ‘Caucasian female, early twenties, exhibiting signs of assault’. They’re Leonie and Annette. Annette looks out for Leonie like a sister. Leonie thinks putting sweetcorn in tuna sandwiches is unnatural. These may seem like arbitrary details but it’s little pieces of information like these that make up a fully realised character. 

I think the treatment of these two characters is best exemplified by the above shot from episode four. Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) has gone out in the middle of the night, despite the fact that she wasn’t on duty, to take a statement from nineteen year-old Leonie (Hebe Beardsall) who states that she has been sexually assaulted.  Catherine is the audience’s moral reference point in Happy Valley and she treats both Leonie and Annette with respect and sympathy. Unlike her colleagues, who brushed off Leonie’s claims, Catherine gives Leonie her full attention. She sits facing her, poised to note down what Leonie says – prepared to listen. Leonie herself is the focus, in the centre of the screen. Although Catherine is the show’s main character, this scene is about Leonie – her experience, her story.  She’s supported on either side by Catherine and her friend Annette (Keeley Forsyth) while she delivers her statement about how she was violently attacked and almost killed. Leonie gets to tell her side of the story in its entirety, complete with close-ups showing the intensity of her distress. I can’t think of another example of a scene from a television show when a prostitute is the focal point in this way. Yes, Catherine has to use a flattened-out cigarette packet to take her notes because that’s the only piece of paper in the house. Yes, Annette’s body language suggests that she is on some sort of substance. The reality of their lives is perhaps alien to most viewers. Does that make Leonie’s obvious distress any less valid or gut wrenching?

There are plenty of procedurals/crime dramas that have decent female leads but still reduce prostitutes to bodies, not real people. This is often literal as, most commonly, prostitutes appear as the victims of the killer-of-the-week and are merely nameless cadavers on a slab (Silent Witness, I’m looking at you). There seems to be a notion that such characters can be reduced to plot devices – that they’re expendable. We get all the drama of a murder mystery without the discomfort of identifying with the victims because their lives are different from the majority of the viewers at home. 

This begs the question of why?  Is it less tragic because their jobs are less ‘respectable’ than most? Or can this attitude be traced back to that terrifying phrase: ‘asking for it’? Do we excuse reducing characters like prostitutes to bodies rather than people because we can argue that they did it to themselves first? Doesn’t the audience, then, share a mind-set with the characters that feel they have the right to mistreat and murder these women? They’re bodies to be used as devices for our voyeurism with minimal consequences?     

Yes, five out of the six victims in season two of Happy Valley are prostitutes.  However, their names (never their profession) are repeated over and over throughout the course of the series as the police appeal to the public to help catch their murderer. They’re the ones who end up being harmed, not because they’re expendable, but as a result of tragic circumstance. Their job puts them in that position and also means that they are mistrusted and disrespected by those who should be protecting them. They’re vulnerable. ‘Vulnerable’ is, in fact, the word that Catherine uses most often to describe Annette, Leonie and the other girls they work with. When she’s warning them about the killer on the loose she refers to the victims as “vulnerable women, like yourselves”. The audience identifies with the events in Happy Valley through Catherine and we share her protective instincts towards Annette and Leonie. The unfamiliarity of this presentation is frightening. The characters of Annette and Leonie make one question other television shows’ engagement in genuinely dangerous, wider social narratives about sexual availability and guilt.

Christian Brinsden

Christian is a Classical Studies student at St Andrews. When she’s not attempting to be productive in the library, Christian is likely to be found giving dramatic renditions of Disney songs whilst cooking.

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*I’m still bitter about the death of Kate ‘Sunshine’ McKenzie in Last Tango in Halifax for various reasons.

(Image sourced from: here)