Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Review: Divine Women (BBC2, Wednesdays 9pm)

I have a lot of love for history documentaries on the telly. I'm often a little leery of programs that seek to Overturn Our Understanding Of History!!!1 (I'm looking at you, Niall Ferguson) but it can be a genuine pleasure when a historian genuinely seeks to shed light on an unconsidered period of history. As such, I've been quietly enjoying Divine Women, written and presented by Bettany Hughes who mostly specialises in ancient history. As a rule, that's not really my area – can't get my head around such an alien landscape. Hughes makes it sound effortless and wonderfully romantic, which is quite the skill.

This newest series looks at the role of women in religion throughout history, with previous programmes (at the time of writing, only the first two episodes had aired) on the mother goddess in various cultures, and ancient priestesses. Hughes is wonderfully enthusiastic and infectious in her joy, although she spends too often nodding away at historical experts who are a little superfluous at times.

More contentious, unsurprisingly, is also Hughes examination of modern religions and the role of women in them. I can see why Hughes takes the time to speak to experts here, as it keeps her detached from the subject.. She remains carefully detached from all she sees in terms of belief, instead looking at the effects and emotions presented rather than whether or not there was a Mary Magdalene or indeed an Aphrodite. There was a great look at the present-day traditions around the Hindu goddess Durga. I was pleased to see, however, that exactly the same 'travelogue' style was presented around modern day Christian beliefs, all academic with very little judging.

From a feminist perspective, though, I've found the programmes so far to be fascinating and a little depressing. Although women can be strong and represent often terrifying goddesses, there's example after example of women who are stomped down on and unable to expert any power or control except out of the odd ritual. Even the odd rituals have slowly been stamped out in most of the Western world, which on contemplation is really very depressing. Even as the rest of the world moves forward in terms of women's liberation (agonisingly slowly as it sometimes seems), many religions are moving backwards.

Overall, it's well worth a watch for an introduction for ancient religious beliefs and for the role of women throughout history, and I'm looking forward to further episodes.

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