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Comment > Women In Neighbours: Part Four by Gareth

Women in soap operas are often given a hard time; they either painted as the eternal victim, struggling to find happiness and to overcome the hardships they face, or as the bitch, who is full of complex emotional problems and struggles to find acceptance. These women have many different hardships heaped upon them before, more often than not, meeting an unhappy end. However, Neighbours differs in its approach to representing women, and seems to give the audience strong, capable female role models whom every woman can aspire to be like. Here we take a look at how women have been represented in Neighbours throughout the decades, and whether they have been given a good or a bad deal. This final part looks at the new Millennium and does contain spoilers.

During the Eighties and early Nineties, Neighbours had given the viewers great women; Helen Daniels, Madge Bishop, Nell Mangel, Gail Robinson and Daphne Clarke set the precedent in the early years, and later Dorothy Burke, Pam Willis, Julie Martin, Cheryl Stark and Gaby Willis continued the chain of strong women who refused to let their men put them down.

However, during the late Nineties there seemed to be a downhill trend in the strong women we were given, and even favourite grandmother figure Helen Daniels was reduced to a series of storylines about her health, rather than showing the viewers how strong and healthy an older woman could be. Characters we couldn’t care less about, such as Joanna Hartman, Lisa Elliot and Ruth Wilkinson came and went.

Yet as we moved into the new millennium, we saw an uphill trend in our female characters; the creation of a strong group of young females who the public took to their hearts; a doctor’s wife became a public institution; her nemesis became one of Neighbours’ most wickedly brilliant creations; and one of our favourite former females returned to give her ex-husband another run for his money.

However, at the beginning of the millennium, in 2001, we had to say goodbye to a living legend when we lost Madge Bishop. With Helen Daniels having departed in 1997, Neighbours writers seemed to thrust the fragile older woman role onto Madge, and after a series of storylines surrounding her health, tragedy struck when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer and told she had just six months to live. In my opinion, this exit storyline for Madge was an insult to the character and the portrayal Anne Charleston had built up during her two stints on the show. Madge was a feisty female, bossy yet loveable and although her exit was heartbreaking and emotional to watch, one feels there could have been a better way to say goodbye to such a popular and immortal character. I know many people would argue that we couldn’t have seen Madge and Harold part in any other way, and I agree that this is true, yet still feel that maybe, just maybe, there could have been another way…

Since Madge’s departure, Neighbours has struggled to fill the matriarch role so famously inhabited by Helen; many thought Rev. Rosie Hoyland was a good grandmother figure, and her friendly and approachable nature certainly agreed with many viewers, as well as her relationships with both Harold Bishop and Lou Carpenter. Alas, writers did not seem to agree and, in what many consider to be another big mistake, Rosie was written out in 2003, creating an uproar amongst fans. While Valda temporarily filled the ‘grandmother’ role, and Mishka looks set to be another temporary stay, Neighbours is desperately in need of a new granny.

Women in their forties, however, have seemed to undergo something of a renaissance in the past few years, with Susan Kennedy leading the way, and the Kennedy’s becoming a central focus for viewers following the departure of the Martin family in 1999. After playing background to many of her children’s traumas, Susan began to take the spotlight once again in 2002 when she suffered a nasty fall at home; she banged her head and fell unconscious, awakening to think she was just sixteen again and having no memory of her former life. The resulting drama saw Susan end her marriage with devastated husband Karl, and forced her to have to get to know her family again. However, she had no intention of getting to know Karl, and tried to shut him out of her life, only to end up driving daughter Libby away from her as well. It wasn’t until Libby’s husband Drew was tragically killed after falling from a horse, and when she started to get more of her memories back, that Susan started to give Karl a chance again, and at the end of the 2002 season the couple remarried, a highlight for many fans. Having been established as motherly and caring, the fallout of Susan’s amnesia saw her become cold and callous towards Karl, enabling us to see a different side to the character, and increasing the strong representation we received of Susan.

Although Susan had become a victim, the victim of a sad accident, she managed to fight back against it and rebuild her life, something she also managed to do when her whole world fell apart in 2004 as Karl revealed that he wasn’t in love with her anymore. Rather than take the predictable route and have Susan fall completely apart and go all out to win Karl back, the writers turned her character around, made her a much more open-minded and warmer person, someone to whom the younger characters (Stingray, Sindi) flocked.

The turnaround in Susan’s character in the wake of her break-up with Karl made her much more popular, given the fact that she was given another dimension and much more scope for storylines; she now had a rival in the form of Izzy Hoyland, who later began an ill-fated romance with Karl, and she had to get back on the dating game for the first time in many years. Susan has, in the past three years, become one of Neighbours’ most popular and beloved characters, and has led the way for a series of older women in the show, proving that women don’t need men to survive on Neighbours, they just need each other.

Lyn Scully was another woman who gained a huge turnaround in the wake of marriage break-up. With Joe Scully written out of Neighbours in 2004, dowdy Lyn’s character had to change from being a housewife and mother to being an independent single woman, and it is only recently that we are really beginning to see the results of this as she enjoys a new life as Paul Robinson’s assistant. Shedding the hairdressing role for which she was famous, Lyn has slowly embraced life as powerful weapon in Paul’s business dealings, and their relationship has become very interesting to watch over the past few months. The fact that Lyn is, first and foremost, a mother and a grandmother, gives her an added dimension over her contemporaries (Susan, Janelle) as she is single-handedly trying to bring up young Oscar as well as holding down a tough job. I am, personally, a huge fan of Lyn’s and loved the pairing of her character with Joe Mangel last year, though am sorely disappointed that the end of their relationship hasn’t been dealt with in any great depth… The whole thing seems to have just fizzled out as Lyn is turning her attentions to Paul. The fact that Janet Andrewartha is to depart Neighbours in 2007 is also a source of great sadness to me; giving her this new role has seen her to come into her own, out of the shadow of her relationships with Joe (Scully), Joe (Mangel) or her children. I hope she gets the massive storyline she sorely needs to prove all her critics wrong before her departure.

Other ladies who gave good, strong representations of women of a certain age were/are Liljana Bishop and Janelle Timmins. Lil was truly a strong woman, someone who wouldn’t let husband David put her down and someone who could truly hold her own in any kind of argument. Another woman who fell for the spell of Paul Robinson, she was strong enough to walk out on him and shut the door on their love and return to her family, before they took an ill-fated flight out of Erinsborough… Janelle, meanwhile, is an over the top, dramatic, yet fun loving matriarch of the Timmins clan, who has a little reminiscence of the 80’s Madge about her. Over the past year, Nell Feeney has excelled as an excellent actress as she has dealt with the many dramas of her children, as well as her own traumas; and she has still managed to be a strong, independent woman who would always stand by her man and her kids.

The younger women were also given their fair share of representation after 2000 as Libby Kennedy, Stephanie Scully, Dee Bliss and (for a time) Teresa Bell formed a group of close friends, and went through their personal traumas together. From Libby losing husband Drew, to her and Tess being involved in a devastating motorbike accident, to Steph being diagnosed with cancer and Dee’s tragic death on her wedding day, these young women had viewers gripped like never before. They all had distinct personalities, likes and dislikes, and this is what made them appeal to viewers, rather than making them clones of one another, as we had previously seen with young women of their age.

As viewers, we had seen Libby grow up on the show, and her maturity into womanhood and more adult storylines saw her become a strong, independent young woman – as evidenced when she refused to take husband Drew’s name after marrying him, instead preferring to remain Libby Kennedy. Meanwhile, Steph’s cancer ordeal, and her fight against it, gave her a broad appeal to viewers, as her strength and determination were inspiring, and she still remains a much-loved character on the show during the present day.

But in 2003, one young woman arrived in Erinsborough who would prove to be one of the best ever characters; Isabelle Hoyland. Mischievous minx Izzy has become increasingly popular with viewers as she has manipulated Dr. Karl Kennedy into a relationship with her, lied about being pregnant with his child, only to subsequently lose the child in a heartbreaking storyline. However, just as she fell in love with Karl, he discovered the devastating truth about the paternity of ‘their’ baby – it had been Gus Cleary’s and not his – and he ended their relationship in some very powerful scenes. Writers subsequently paired up Izzy with Paul Robinson, and their relationship has developed over time, from a mutual attraction to true love – yet now Paul’s son Robert is trying to destroy all that.

Izzy changed the face of Ramsay Street forever; finally we had a character who didn’t care whether she was liked or not, yet she was a young woman who craved love and affection, and when she finally found this it was cruelly snatched away from her. Natalie Bassingthwaighte’s powerful portrayal of Izzy has kept me nothing less than enthralled, as she can one minute play the bitch, the next the victim, the next the perfect neighbour. She flaws, hidden insecurities, stuff about her past that makes her uncomfortable; she has lied to get what she wants, and yet we still care deeply for her.

The departure of Izzy from Neighbours this year will be a great loss to the show, and I can truly say that she is irreplaceable; no-one will be able to take the place of such a legendary character.

Even the teens have been given more scope in the past few years; Sky Mangel returned to Ramsay Street to live with grandfather Harold Bishop and had inherited her mother’s eco-friendly streak, as well as a strong temperament and an opinionated manner; she fights for what she believes in. Her romances, first with Boyd Hoyland and then with Dylan Timmins, have also been interesting to watch and not the usual teen romance fare we are used to.

Janae Timmins is also an interesting new creation; a teenager with much to learn about herself and the world, yet she has come a long way from the bogan we first met last year. Her relationships with those around her, first Karl Kennedy and then Boyd Hoyland, have given her an interesting role within Neighbours. She is slightly reminiscent of Charlene Mitchell, especially in view of the fact that she and Boyd are headed for a teen wedding, yet she still manages to be completely different to anything we have ever seen before.

Sisters are definitely doing it for themselves in 2006, and it seems Neighbours have gone back to basics with strong characterisations of women, not just badly written, badly acted bimbos. Also, with the recent return of an old favourite, I hope that the representations of women within Neighbours stay as strong as ever. The women on the show are fabulous at the moment and I, for one, hope it stays this way… for good.