Women regularly have it tough in the workplace. Sexual harassment, lower pay, the glass ceiling, general misogyny and the tricky fact that many women can get pregnant. Yup, even the miracle of childbirth can be used against women to deny them jobs, get them replaced and ensure they don’t return to work. Naturally, the BBC thought it was high time to sensitively delve into this issue and what we got was The Replacement. Ellie is a successful architect (cue the odd reference to ‘sight lines’ and sky lights) working on a fancy, new library when she becomes pregnant with her first child. Her employees are more or less thrilled and help Ellie find her replacement. Enter Paula. She’s nice. So nice. Like, really nice. All pearly, white smiles and over zealous efficiency. She does work ahead of schedule, makes friends with everyone in the office super quickly and is just so darn friendly. Naturally, everyone thinks Ellie’s a little mad when she suggests that maybe Paula is out to replace her for good. That is until Paula kidnaps Ellie and tries to get her to kill herself so she can take her baby to replace the daughter she tragically lost in a car accident even though she was pretending her daughter was still alive. Who knew maternity leave could be so dangerous!?
Now, don’t get me wrong this was really well acted and it had me compulsively clicking ‘watch next episode’ until it ended (ok, I was recovering from a virus, that’s my excuse) but I couldn’t help but feel we’ve been here before. Two women go head to head in mortal combat to prove who is a better mother and colleague. Sure, they’re being defined by their motherhood and ability to function as a decent capitalist worker but I feel the show knows that. It must be aware of the constant hum of sexism throughout the episodes given that the men in this show are just awful: Ellie’s husband turns on her, tries to take the baby away and nearly ends up with Paula. Ellie’s boss, also wooed by Paula, reveals that on the night his wife, Kay, supposedly committed suicide she’d accused him of having an affair with Ellie which he didn’t deny (even though it wasn’t true) but he did tell Kay that if he’d been with Ellie at least he might have had a child. Good news is that this didn’t actually lead to Kay taking her own life because it turns out Paula killed her because Kay wouldn’t stop going on about the fact that Paula’s daughter wasn’t actually alive anymore.
If this all sounds quite farfetched and just a little silly that’s because it was (and don’t get me started on what the library ended up looking like..there weren’t even that many books in it and it was super kid unfriendly, or the bit with the baby basket being left on a window ledge, or the bit when Paula clearly hasn’t researched her effective poisons etc). Yet this steady patter of sexism was never really commented upon because what we ultimately saw was two women coerced and conditioned by patriarchal capitalism forced to fight each other to the death. It proved entertaining(ish) but I did feel the team behind it may have just thought “Girl On A Train in an office” just like those behind Apple Tree Yard probably thought “middle-aged Gone Girl“. So whilst the programme does showcase some epic acting from Vicky McClure and Morven Christie and passes the Bechdel with flying colours this doesn’t classify it as novel or even offering something verging on feminist critique. It doesn’t need to (I hear the defenders of the status quo cry) but just because Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff and the 9-5 crew got their happy endings doesn’t mean more women can’t take on the patriarchy in style. There was scope here to see something interesting done with the genre and have Ellie actually try to team up with Paula (ok, minus the whole Paula-murdering-Kay bit, which really didn’t make sense given Paula ends up telling loads of people her secret anyway) and have them transcend the patriarchal binds of the work place. But instead they were forced to endure the limited plot devices that their hackneyed characters had to offer. So whilst The Replacement could, at a push, be critiquing our culture’s obsession with defining women by the children they may or may not have I feel it’s just cashing in on this trope and maybe even making matters worse especially as just after Ellie’s shut the door in her dire husband’s face her boss appears in the background implying that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get together because heaven forfend Ellie be a single Mum.