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Killer women of the small screen

One thing SA showrunners will do? Kill powerful men and let the women take the spotlight. But is that the only way female characters can shine?
Thu, Jul 08, 2021

Warning: Spoilers for the first episodes of The River, Legacy, Skemerdans and DAM

There is a well-known cliché that Disney films tend to kill off the main characters' mothers in their films.

From Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella to even Bambi, having the characters lose their support system means that they start their hero's journey on a backfoot. Because mothers in traditional storytelling often play the roles of carers and supporters and if they remained alive, our heroes would be less likely to be manipulated, hurt or mistreated.

However, there has been a recent trend in South African television series which has seen the father character often killed off within the first episode. This trope has opened up the content for some of the most interesting forms of storytelling on television today.

In The River, the first episode introduces us to the Mokoena family, led by Thato (Don Mlangeni). We learn that the mine that Thato works at, Khanyisa Diamonds, is about to go bankrupt before Thato discovers a large diamond at a river near the mines.

The owner of the mines, Lindiwe (Sindi Dlathu) kills Thato in order to plant the diamond in her mine and thus claim ownership of the diamond.

As he was the breadwinner of his family, Thato's death forces his family into a tailspin, and his daughter Tumi (Larona Moagi) and wife, Malefu (Moshidi Motshegwa) must look for other opportunities to make money and get justice.

Living in a home that is financially led by women is something many South Africans are familiar with. We're no longer living in the times when only men would go off to work while women stayed at home to look after the children – women nowadays juggle work and childcare.

This trope was also the catalyst for the compelling standoff between the powerhouse actors Dlathu and Motshegwa and allowed them to be the stars of a story which might have previously side-lined them.

Legacy tells the story of the Price family, between whom the death of the patriarch, who is murdered by his daughter, Felicity, causes a rift.

As the bridge between two families – his first wife and three daughters, and his second wife and son – Sebastian was often the mediator. But when removed from the equation, the family's true motivations, betrayals and ambitions are revealed. It seemed almost like Sebastian was the safety pin holding them all together and without whom, they returned to their baser instincts.

Yes, this is a recipe for drama, but it also allows for amazing moments between Kgomotso Christopher (who plays Dineo), Mary-Anne Barlow (Felicity) and Michelle Botes (Angelique) – three actors who have become a staple on our screens but often play second-fiddle to men.

In real life, we have women who lead companies and families: this trope allowed Legacy to mirror this while letting the male characters play supporting roles.

In the Showmax original series, Skemerdans, the death of the male parent, Glenn Fortune (Kevin Smith) is what drives the first season.

The perpetrator is a mystery to the characters (much like in Legacy) and while it seems as if the power battle is between Glenn's younger brothers, it is his mother Mercia (Vinette Ebrahim) and his wife Shireen (Ilse Klink) who have the most compelling battles.

In another Showmax series, DAM, the suicide of her father is what causes Yola (Lea Vivier) to return to her small-town home in the Eastern Cape. Her father's death is not just a catalyst to bring Yola home – she also unearths a conspiracy and secret society that he was involved in, led by another powerful woman.

In both dramas, the dads each have a dark secret that comes out after their deaths. We see the characters coming to terms with the fact that their dads might not have been the people they thought they were, something many of us have gone through, realising that our parents are neither perfect nor candid about their weaknesses.

Even though many of our traditions and beliefs can be seen as paternalistic, the main characters in most of our lives are women. Women lead homes, successful businesses and communities, yet on our screens, popular series are often led by men.

This trope of killing powerful men, while perhaps overdone, has given us some of the richest forms of storytelling on our televisions and has allowed actresses to get meatier roles.

But maybe we don't need to kill off the patriarchal characters in order to let the women shine – we can give them the respect and agency they demand while their husbands, fathers and business partners are still alive.