Australian drama series McLeod’s Daughters (2001-8) was never going to win awards for its sharp, witty writing (nothing credible at least – the Logies don’t count). In the dozen or so episodes that I watched, it was frequently highly predictable with extremely basic camera tricks. But at the same time, it’s one of the strongest female casts I’ve encountered, with the male characters largely peripheral, orbiting around the women. Imagine Desperate Housewives, only with women you can respect.
It starts off with Tess McLeod (Birdie Carter) going to stay with her older half-sister Claire (Lisa Chapelle) following the death of their father Jack on Drover’s Run, Jack’s farm in South Australia. They spent their childhood together but have barely seen each other since Tess’s mother left with Tess when she was four. The homestead is run by Meg (Sonia Todd) with her daughter Jodi (Rachel Campini) living with her, and shortly into season one they bring in local girl Becky Howard (Jessica Napier). There’s a few men who feature in the series, most notably those belonging to the Ryan family who run the next farm over, but they’re largely used to further the women’s storylines.
There’s initially some friction between Claire and Tess; Tess is ignorant as to the ins and outs of country life (in one of the show’s funnier moments she buys a dairy cow because she wants fresh milk for her coffee, not realising just how much milk one cow produces each day) and she and Claire often clash over the best way to run the farm. Halfway through the first season, where I got up to, they’re slowly working out their differences and forming a closer bond, with Tess learning the nuances of farm and country life. Claire in particular knows a hell of a lot when it comes to running a farm, partly fueled by the determination to prove that one of Jack McLeod’s daughters can run the farm, and Tess demonstrates a willingness to learn.
Meg provides much of the backstory to the show with her memories of Jack, life on the farm and the neighbouring town that stretches back before even Claire can remember. Jodi actually felt a little superfluous, although Campani was one of the last cast members to leave the show, so maybe she gets to do more as the series goes on.
But one of the stand-out storylines I’ve seen so far is when local barmaid Becky is raped by her boss. Becky has a reputation as being promiscuous, see, and while there isn’t a lot of dialogue between her and her boss about it, it’s clear that the guy is both so full of his sense of entitlement and considers Becky to be so beneath him that he honestly doesn’t see that he did anything wrong. There’s some contention between the main characters about whether it actually happened – Meg in particular, while believing Becky was raped, is reluctant to believe that a married man who has been a stalwart of the community would do it, while Tess points out that Becky has nothing to gain by making such an accusation against such a man. But what I liked about the storyline was we, the viewer, know it happened; the writers and producers don’t shy away from the fact that married, stalwart members of the community can do such a thing, or try to excuse the man’s actions on account of Becky’s reputation. In a very cool, if somewhat unrealistic, scene, when Becky is being harassed by a bunch of men, Claire and Tess come riding to the rescue, Tess literally scooping Becky onto her horse and riding off with her. (I say unrealistic because no way could Carter with those spindly arms of hers hoist an adult onto a horse one-handed.) Claire and Tess end up taking Becky in and Becky becomes an integral part to Drover’s Run. (Though I wish they had explained how a barmaid came to be so useful on a farm.)
Meanwhile, in an ongoing arc, Tess is enjoying a flirtation with Nick Ryan, which hasn’t gone anywhere at the point I got up to, but it gave me a few chuckles because the Ryan men exist on the periphery, either to provide an antagonist in the form of the father (the Ryans are far better off than the McLeod’s and the Ryan farm in far better shape) or a potential love-interest for the women. There’s also Terry Dodge, Meg’s friend-on-off love interest, who I can’t remember having a single scene that didn’t involve Meg.
As far as the Bechdel test goes, not only does McLeod’s pass it brilliantly, but it often fails to do the reverse; have two men talking to each other about something other than women. In an ideal world, we want to see media representations of men and women that are equal; men talking to men, women talking to women, men and women talking to each other about every subject under the sun. But in lieu of that, and in light of the amount male-dominated storylines out there – with female-dominated storylines often reduced to romance and clothes – it’s nice to see a show dominated by women where romantic relationships account for a small fraction of the conversation, and discussions about clothes are frequently limited to what’s the most comfortable for that kind of work.
As I said, McLeod’s Daughters doesn’t grab your attention with its sharp writing or layered characterisations. It does, however, feature a strong cast of women who are highly competent at work that’s traditionally considered a man’s job, and who don’t while away the days talking about men and whether or not a certain guy fancies them. (Though they do that sometimes. After they’ve finished discussing the price of cattle and fixing the fences.) And I think that makes them a good addition in the search for good women characters.