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Voices: I can’t believe people are still writing female characters like The Idol in 2023

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When I was 17, a group of boys tied me to a chair, blindfolded me with a school tie, and shoved a camera in front of my face. If you’re thinking that this sounds like the start of a horror film, that’s because it was. Except the film was only 12 minutes long, and the result of a teenager’s poorly judged AS Level media studies project about a woman being kidnapped that I had somehow quite literally been roped into.

“Look scared!” the filmmakers enthused. “Like you’re worried something bad might happen! Cry!” I don’t remember if I had any lines. But if I did, they wouldn’t have been much beyond, “help” and “oh no”.

I hadn’t thought about my short-lived experienced as an actor for quite some time. Then I watched the first episode of The Idol and wondered if the writers had somehow stumbled across that unsophisticated piece of cinema from my childhood and thought, “now, there’s a story that needs to be told!”

In case you haven’t seen Sky’s newest drama from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, The Idol tells the story of troubled pop star Jocelyn (played by Lily-Rose Depp). Following a nervous breakdown and the death of her mother, Jocelyn is very much not okay. That much is clear from the opening sequence in which we see her oscillate between sadness, joy, seduction and terror within seconds for a photo shoot.

But after just a few minutes, the show morphs into a sordid tale of misogyny, exploitation and abuse in an attempt to make some powerful points about sexism, fame, and the way we pigeonhole women in the public eye. It would be a noble attempt, too, if it didn’t also seem to endorse the same tropes it satirises.

The opening scene interrogates female agency, with Jocelyn asking why she can’t show her breasts in a photoshoot without having to overwrite nudity clauses and paperwork. It’s her body, surely she should be the one controlling it. Fine – but the prospect of challenging who has autonomy over a woman’s body is undermined throughout the rest of the episode by dint of all the gratuitous nudity.

Do we really need to see Jocelyn’s breasts and ass in the morning when she wakes up? Does she really need to rehearse for a dance scene in her own home wearing a bra that barely covers her nipples and a tiny piece of fabric masquerading as a skirt? And does any woman ever actually go to sleep in a thong?

In fact, nothing about Jocelyn seems authentic. Consider the way she speaks. When discussing a seedy but potential romantic interest, Tedros (Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd), Jocelyn’s best friend Leia (Rachel Sennott) says: “He’s so rapey” to which Jocelyn replies: “Yeah, I kind of like that about him.” It was this line that had me on Googling to confirm the obvious: yep, there were few (if any) female writers for this show. According to IMDB Levinson, Tesfaye, Reza Fahim and Joe Epstein did the majority of the scripting, with Neon Demon writer Mary Laws being credited on an “unknown number” of episodes, and Clara Mamet being credited as a story editor for one.

Jocelyn is not so much a character as she is a conventionally attractive cipher for the myopia of four men and their fantasies about young women. All we really learn about her in the first episode is that she loves smoking, hates clothes, and has terrible taste in men. Sure, we get the sense that she is a “damaged” woman. But so far have been offered little insight into why or how she got that way.

Emotionally, she is dead behind the eyes: even when a photograph of her with semen on her face goes viral, she mostly just shrugs it off. It’s jarring to see a female character portrayed so brazenly through the male gaze.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising. After all, The Idol was mired in controversy months before it debuted. In March 2023, Rolling Stone published an expose featuring allegations about a toxic on-set environment due to various delays, rewrites, and the sudden departure of director Amy Seimetz due to a change in creative direction. According to some reports, Seimetz left the show because Tesfaye, who is also the show’s co-creator, felt it was leaning too much on a “female perspective.”

Well he needn’t worry anymore, because female perspective is completely non-existent in The Idol. I get the sense that this was part of their point: to expose the perverse and horrific realities of being a young woman in showbiz, an industry that is also often devoid of female perspective. But the intention falls flat when your own lead role is reduced to little more than a walking pair of breasts.

From Euphoria, which features a multitude of well-drawn female characters, we know that Levinson can do better than this. The jury is out on Tesfaye. But with five episodes to go, we’ll just have to wait and see.