McLeod’s Daughter’s

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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.

Comments

  1. Sunil says

    I used to watch this show years ago in India would you believe. You’re right about it being Bechdel-certified – it was so great to see women outside the usual rubbish roles. Sadly they stopped showing it after a season or so and I don’t know how it ended.

  2. Maartje says

    Oh I loved this show! Well to be honest, I loved the first season and sort of stuck to it for two more and then jumped ship when uhm **SPOILER** Claire died **END SPOILER**
    It got a little too soapy for me there.
    What I thought was really striking about Becky’s rape storyline is that she was considered the town slut, but evident in the portayal was that it was still in no way OK to rape her. “I choose” she cries “I choose.” And that was felt very powerful to me. And she was never afterward labelled “the rapevictim” she was a usefull, hardworking part of the group.
    Just FYI, I think it was said in the pilot that Becky at that time held a lot of jobs. It seemed very natural that a girl who’d grown up around those parts and was always strapped for cash would know how to shear/ride/herd. I just assumed that aside from her other jobs she was also a seasonal Jillaroo.
    What I loved was the usefullness of the women, they never just sat around chatting about this and that, there was always something to be done, a problem to be fixed. I loved that Claire wasn’t sure about how she felt about being a woman but grew and learned to love herself. And that Tess wasn’t sure what she wanted out of life, but she too grew and learned. And the sisters talked about it and helped each other through.
    And I LOVED the headstrong determination: Hurdle we will cross thee! Oh another hurdle, well we will cross you too!

  3. Scarlett says

    I didn’t get to watch the Pilot – my library’s copy wouldn’t let me play it so I started from s2. And yes, I LOVED how it was shown that even though Becky had a reputation for being easy, she CHOSE to sleep with a lot of men and that didn’t make it OK to rape her.

    I actually watched a bit of s4 – I got hold of the disc that had Wil Traval in an episode – and while i still enjoyed it, it wasn’t nearly as cool as s1.

    • scarlett says

      I’m strictly a city girl and missed the first episode so I never got the impression that Becky had the skills that would be useful on a farm. It makes sense now it’s been pointed out – actually I’ve been having a lot of ‘well, duh’ moments – but yeah, didn’t get it at the time.

  4. M.C. says

    I love McLeod’s Daughters for it’s portrayal of women, sisterhood and female friendship.

    And the Grace/Marcus/Ingrid love triangle had the best and most dignified solution any tv triangel ever had. Nobody had a stupid “cat-fight”. Both women were willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the other, Marcus wanted to do anything but hurt them. And in the end not only did Marcus&Ingrid have a happy ending, but they all stayed friends and Grace called Ingrid “part of the family”.

  5. philstar22 says

    I love this show so much. And I’m a person who loved it even after Claire died because the new character, Stevie, was pretty awesome as well. The men became more important as the show went on, but they were still there as backdrops to the women. The later seasons got a little crazy, mostly because cast members started to leave so they had to write out the characters. Still, this show was awesome in its portrayal of different and yet equally strong women.

  6. thais says

    Just now getting to watch this show on Netflex, so if this post is just seen in Australia I’m in the USA. Love this show I’m just about to finish all 9 seasons. I’ve been laid up with knee surgery and thought I would browse threw Netflex saw that it was a Australia show so said why not; feel in love with it I’ve never cried so much through a seasonal type show. So good job Australia love the country, language I’ve actually learned some things about this country watching and getting interested. Would like to take vacation over there since I’ve been watching. Sorry that it’s not still on but I’ve enjoyed the 9 seasons I’ve got to watch. Goodness if I wasn’t already married to a love country boy of my own I would love to go and check the livestock over in Australia!!

  7. Gabriella says

    Thais, I’m glad you liked it, but it’s a *VERY* glamorised portrayal of farm life in Australia. I’m sure American farmers have their own set of (usually environment-related) problems but the show barely touches on how devastating drought, fire and flooding can be – a few years ago flooding wiped out much of the food supply of southern Qld. (About 1/10th the country.) Still, there are quite a few smaller farms/hobby farms who do tourism packages on the side which sound like what you’re looking for. (Remember that episode where Stevie starts a rodeo school? Something like that.)

    Having said that, as written in the original post, what I loved about the show was how female-oriented it was – the few male characters there were rarely got their own storylines, they were mostly there to exist as villains/love interests to the woman. (Y’know, like regular shows, but in reverse.) Funny thing, a few years ago I was reading a historical fiction set in 1400’s England by Posie Graham-Evans which I really enjoyed because her female characters were so fleshed out. The name sounded familar and it didn’t hit me until I was scrolling through the Australian Television Information Archive… MD is created, written and produced by Posie Graham-Evans.

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