The Street is a series which features a different home on a street in Manchester, UK each episode. While the first five episodes of series one were a bit hit and miss for me, the finale absolutely blew me away.
My interest was piqued in the very first scene, as Leah, the eldest daughter in the O’Neill household, played with a Cinderella doll. For some reason, it made me think of Purtek’s post about Prince Charming as an abusive control freak. Then it turned out that was exactly where they were going, and they executed it beautifully. I mean, almost Dolores Claiborne beautifully.
We immediately learn that Sean O’Neill has been beating his wife Yvonne. But it’s okay, because he’s been convicted of selling stolen goods and is going to be sentenced to at least two years. Yvonne briefly considers going to the sentencing (with marks on her face from the latest beating), but Sean tells her not to in a manner that’s subtly forceful, intimidating. She acquiesces, thinking while he’s in prison she’ll have time to set herself and the three kids up somehow so they can keep him out of their life from now on.
Only the judge gives him probation. From thereon, we see an escalating pattern of abuse. Worse and worse beatings. Implied rape. After she takes the kids, he becomes even more violent in his demands to see them. When he gets them, he keeps them as long as he wants (taking them to bars to play unsupervised while he drinks and watches the game, and bringing women home to have sex with while the kids are in the next room) but expects Yvonne to rearrange her entire life around taking them whenever his turn doesn’t come at a convenient time for him.
During this time, Yvonne has support from her mother Mary – who won me over instantly by always calling Sean “Gobshyte” both to his face and in third person – her somewhat estranged sister Kerry (who comes up from London specifically to help her sister) and Kerry’s boyfriend Alex. Yvonne tries going to the police, but is practically laughed at by the desk sergeant (yep, all the counselors and sensitivity-trained detectives are worth a bag of hair if the first person someone sees when reporting a crime chuckles the minute she says “It’s my husband”). Alex and Kerry change Yvonne’s locks. They all engage in a rescue when Sean takes the kids and refuses to give them back. And so on.
But it’s not these events that makes this episode spectacular. It’s the fact that at no point did I think Yvonne was stupid. Confused and ignorant, of course – most people are until it happens to them. For example, at first, she thinks it would be wrong to keep him from seeing his own kids because (1) society says women are evil if they “use the kids” to punish Daddy because she doesn’t like him anymore and (2) she’s seeing the abuse as a problem between her and Sean, not a problem of Sean’s alone, which could manifest against anyone – including the kids – anytime they stop temporarily soothing that big giant hole in his soul that nothing can fill.
Yvonne never stupidly believes Sean’s promises to do better; she tries to convince herself maybe they’re true when everything else has failed and she’s desperate as hell. There’s a big, palpable difference there. And except for this one brief lapse, she’s firmly committed to getting away from him throughout the story, but he’s outmaneuvering her (and her support) every step of the way.
This is how it works in real life, people. This is painfully realistic. And meanwhile, Leah watches, and from her blank expression of maximum information absorption, we don’t know quite what she’s making of it all. We do know that she decides Kerry is her fairy godmother, though.
At one point, “Gobshyte” threatens Mary and she tells him he’ll be in the ground before she will. Not long after that, Sean beats the hell out of Alex for helping Yvonne keep his kids away from him and everyone rushes out to stop him before he kills him. Alex ends up recovering, slowly, but Mary has a heart attack on the spot and dies a few hours later. That decides the sisters on what to do: they lure Sean somewhere, beat him to death with pipes, and bury him in the bottom of their mother’s grave, thus fulfilling Mary’s threat and hiding Sean’s body where he’s unlikely to be found.
In the final scene, the two sisters and the kids are walking along happily. Leah asks if Auntie Kerry will be going back to London, and Kerry says no: “What sort of a fairy godmother would leave her princess?”
It’s such a simple juxtaposition: when we teach little girls that it’s all about finding a man to love them, then it becomes all about finding the right man, and since we don’t educate them on how to tell the right men from the wrong ones because that would mean admitting our society produces a lot of hideous people, men included, that means a lot of little girls grow up to find themselves with men who pretended to be wonderful right up until the trap was sprung: when he’s got her positioned so that no one will believe her, or even if they do, he can hold everyone hostage against each other to get his way.
And this is why, even though abuse is abuse and it’s all a big ugly cycle that must be attacked from all sides if we’re ever to make any progress against it, male-against-female abuse is a different animal from female-on-male abuse in some ways, and demands different solutions. Men are kept ignorant that women can be abusive, aren’t taught what constitutes non-physical abuse, and are shamed into not admitting a Big Strong Man can be mistreated by even a sociopathic woman. Women, conversely, know that men can be abusive and we’re taught to deal with that in various ways (accept being abused, don’t “put up with it”, “try harder”), none of which tell us how to get away from someone who will do anything to keep his favorite victim where he can get at her whenever the world’s frustrations bowl him over. We’re not always ashamed to admit we can be abused, but we realistically expect to be blamed and/or laughed at if we admit it. While men face a justice system that sometimes – especially in the case of white, middle class women – assumes women must be victims rather than abusers or thinks God intends the kids to stay with Mom no matter what, women face a justice system that knows what some men do to their families but often doesn’t seem to care.
The bottom line: while boys are being taught they need a woman around to give them love and support and stuff, girls are being taught they need a man to survive. That’s the difference, and that’s what this episode defined in stark relief.