‘The Duchess’ Calls Gender Stereotypes Into Question
Arts, Television, Review

‘The Duchess’ Calls Gender Stereotypes Into Question

Is it possible to have a child without having sex? Who said that one had to be married in order to have a family? Well, the patriarchy, obviously, but that’s a story for another time. Why get trapped in an unhappy, unhealthy relationship if the goal is just to have a child? For the ladies out there who are pondering these questions, The Duchess may have the answers. 

The Netflix original, which premiered on Friday, is a semi-autobiography starring comedian Katherine Ryan as herself. She is a young, single mother raising her daughter, Olive (Katy Byrne) in London. Katherine rebels against societal expectations for women in their 30s. After experiencing the “normal” process of relationshipping (if this twist of English can be excused); getting pregnant,;and realizing the biological father, Shep (Rory Keenan), is a deadbeat, Katherine decides to parent on her own terms. 

Ryan, who wrote and produced the sitcom, is aiming to combat the shame that surrounds single motherhood. The show only slightly resembles her private life—the majority of the show is pure comedic fiction meant to highlight just how hard it is for women to single parent the “right way.”

Unfortunately, Ryan’s acting, along with that of other supporting actors, is subpar compared to the quality of the storyline. The deliverance of expletive-filled lines should have the viewer bent over in laughter. Instead, the unsatisfactory acting makes the audience more apathetic toward Katherine’s situation. 

The plot centers around Katherine’s casual relationship with Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), and her fears that it will develop into something more serious. “I don’t wanna be trapped with you. Do you understand?,” Katherine says to him literally hours after Evan expresses his desire to become a bigger part of her life. It’s not difficult to understand her thought process, yet the emotionless manner in which she speaks makes it easy for the viewer to think that Evan deserves better. 

This sentiment only grows by the start of the second episode, when Katherine reiterates her desire to have a child, albeit not with Evan. In fact, not only does she not want to have a child with him, she prefers to string him along until it becomes obvious that she is pregnant. In the meantime, Evan claims bragging rights for having found “the one.”

Viewers will find themselves switching between feelings of total antipathy for and absolute solidarity with Katherine. A mother wants nothing more than to protect her child from the evil truths of the world, and when it becomes apparent to Katherine that Olive has discovered how babies are made, the two get into a fight. It gets worse when Katherine believes she owes Olive, who is 9, an explanation of where she and Shep conceived Olive. In the heat of the argument, Olive calls her mom a tart—British slang for a prostitute. Seriously, how can the viewer not feel the urge to give Katherine a consoling hug? 

Even as the acting does not necessarily improve as the show progresses, the high caliber of the writing carries the show forward. The Duchess comments on several themes, including the appropriate way to parent, a universal dilemma without a tried-and-true answer. Although, ask any African parent and they will not hesitate to discuss their learned solutions to kid troubles.

Does The Duchess answer the questions that are being asked by more and more women worldwide regarding gender roles and norms? It certainly presents an answer that could be satisfactory to women of a similar background to Katherine, but it could also be wholly inadequate to others who do not share anything in common with her. 
While there is no denying Ryan’s excellent writing skills, her delivery conveys the opposite effect of her intentions—to destigmatize single mothers. Yet, The Duchess has the potential to engage many viewers who find themselves in Katherine’s position as a single mom struggling to find the perfect balance between being a parent and finding a partner.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix.

September 14, 2020
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