Using as a template Diedre Beddoe’s influential essay “Images of Welsh Women”, Siobhan Denton looks at the contemporary depiction of Welsh women in film and television.
The concept of the sexualised woman is not new. Women are, and always have been, associated or defined by their sexuality. Regularly, this sexuality is largely demarcated through a male perspective, rather than a woman defining or identifying her own, personal sexuality. This is certainly the case in the depiction of Welsh women and sexuality. Deirdre Beddoe’s five identified types include what she refers to as ‘The sexy Welsh woman’. This concept stems from the Welsh custom of ‘bundling’ or ‘premarital “courting in bed”’. Thus, the version of sexuality is one of ‘Pre-marital sex between couples who intended to marry’ which ‘seems to have been the normal practice in old Wales, especially before the rise of nonconformity’. This custom was later criticised by the 1840s commissioners sent ‘to investigate the state of education in Wales’.
Superficially, it may seem that this identified concept has little relation to the representation of Welsh women on screen. Particularly as Beddoe’s discussion focuses on a specific custom, but it is important to highlight this identified type as arguably its perceived problematic nature can be identified in the contemporary television. In receiving criticism, the custom has arguably been associated with negative connotations, and has, in turn, led to a seemingly negative and problematic depiction of the sexuality of Welsh women on television.
Certainly, this version of sexuality is, largely, defined through its relationship to men. It is a male perception, and a male gaze as defined by Laura Mulvey, that is consistently at the root of these portrayals. Yet this sexuality is not one to be admired or viewed positively. Rather, a woman whose sexuality is clearly highlighted and emphasised is largely viewed as being entirely questionable in her nature. She is not a woman to be relied upon, or in many cases, treated positively, but rather is one to be scorned at and questioned.
The second series of The Office saw the department relocate to Swindon, and with this geographical position came the tokenistic inclusion of a Welsh woman. This character’s immediate defining feature was her Welshness, and it was her nationality, viewed and marked as separateness, that instigated her ‘otherness’. Later in the series, once her character has been further established, it becomes apparent that combined with her Welshness, her other defining characteristic is her latent sexuality. This version of sexuality is one that is to be laughed and judged. She is referred to as ‘an embarrassment’ and it is clear that the viewer’s complicity in this view is to be encouraged. We are supposed to view her in the same manner and question her apparent brazenness. While some may argue that this version of sexuality is not tied to her nationality, it is clear that given that these are her two defining features, and thus the marker of her identity and character, they cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they are undeniably linked, and in turn, instantly problematic. Such depictions in isolation are questionable, but when intentionally and purposefully linked, they become utterly reductive.
Josie in Fresh Meat, while a far more developed character, is presented in a similar manner. As discussed before, her defining characteristic is, when first introduced to the viewer, her Welshness. Previously I have noted Josie’s depiction as ‘the Welsh Mam’, and certainly, her portrayal is largely maternal, but it is interesting to note the depiction of her own sexuality. Despite her apparent matriarch status, Josie is represented as becoming increasingly wanton as the series progresses. This version of her sexuality is defined as such by the other characters. Her relationship with Kingsley is marked by his questioning of her sexual decisions, and it is clear that for him, her active sex life is one that is largely wrong.
The trajectory of their relationship is continually marked by Kingsley’s view and perception of Josie’s sexual proclivities. Once in a relationship, he immediately attempts to confine her, and effectively entrap her into a relationship that bears little resemblance to her own desires. Her own attraction to JP is one that is marked with shame and humiliation, representing a decision that she knows she will be judged upon. Josie is all too aware of the perception that is created through her choices, and thus is never truly afforded the opportunity to explore or create her own definition of her desires. Her increased activities are intended to mark a breakdown for her character, rather than an opportunity to discover her wants. The viewer is invited, along with Kingsley, to critique Josie’s behaviour, and yet are encouraged to praise similar behaviour in male characters.
Once again, it is necessary to return to Gavin and Stacey, which due to its proliferation, cannot be avoided when discussing specific Welsh representations. It is important to note when discussing the series, the marked shift in tone between series, and in turn the change in depiction of its female characters.
The first episode features Gavin, Stacey, Nessa and Smithy meeting in London and enjoying a night together. Gavin and Stacey have been communicating through work for a period of time prior to their meeting, and their relationship is treated largely positively, as is their decision to spend the night together. Despite this, it is clear that the depiction of both Stacey and Nessa’s romantic intentions are coloured by a perceived negative national connotation. The four, returning to the room that Nessa and Stacey are staying in, discuss the bedroom arrangements. Stacey’s suggestion that they can all spend the night together in the same room, each couple taking one of the twin beds, is met with disdain by Gavin. Immediately Stacey and Nessa’s sexuality is presented as nonconformist, and in turn, questionable.
Later, as the series progresses, and the intended audience demographic alters due to its popularity, the depiction of Stacey and Nessa’s sexuality becomes both increasingly comedic and less demanding. Nessa’s hypersexuality is presented as humorous, and the dynamics of her relationship with Smithy is intended to be viewed as funny. A marked change in tone from Smithy’s assertion in the first episode that he’s ‘not going in there bare back’.
Stacey’s declaration of having ‘three while watching Cash in the Attic’ is met with bemusement, and Smithy quickly asserts that the ‘Welsh [are] filth. The lot of them’. Thus, their sexuality is one that is non-normative, and in turn, questionable.
Each woman discussed here is defined by both her Welshness and her sexuality. A sexuality that is perceived through the lens of her nationality, and through a clearly gendered male perception. Each depiction is questionable, not only through their problematic nature but in its very presentation in the series itself. Each woman is, within the diegesis of the series, viewed by the other characters as questionable and as willfully inviting judgment. This judgment regularly renders the woman powerless within the narrative. They are women whose decisions are intended to be questioned and at times, reprimanded.