December 15, 2023

Television

‘Strife’ is a rollicking, if shallow, look at 2010s women’s media

By Tara Kenny
A group of women with serious expressions are huddled around a laptop computer.

BeBe Bettencourt, Maria Angelico, Olivia Junkeer, Bryony Skillington and Asher Keddie in Strife. Image by Kane Skennar / Binge

Plus, a girl-band rises to the top in ‘Paper Dolls’, heartwarming family dysfunction returns in the fourth season of ‘Bump’, and the Stan documentary about Ben Roberts-Smith delves into his defamation case against the media

In the second episode of Strife (now streaming on Binge), the editorial team at Eve – a stand-in for women’s media magnate Mia Freedman’s digital publication Mamamia – is brainstorming the day’s content. “I’m looking for vulnerable personal essays,” commands an editor named Christine (Maria Angelico), noting that confessional writing is driving record traffic to the site. When Jeet (Olivia Junkeer), a confused new hire, asks what she’s meant to be reporting on, her colleague casually suggests that she write about the first time she took cocaine or had an abortion. Upon learning that the newcomer is a practising Catholic, Freedman-avatar Evelyn (Asher Keddie) encourages Jeet to write about how religion has informed her life. “I’m still a virgin?” offers Jeet, which Evelyn deems uninteresting given she’s only 22. The young writer then ups the ante with, “I’m still a virgin… thanks to anal sex,” before later admitting that she’s never actually had anal sex but just thought it sounded cool.

Strife, an eight-part, fictionalised adaption of Freedman’s 2017 memoir Work Strife Balance, is set around 2012 in the Wild West of women’s digital media, a time when the confessional, first-person essay reigned supreme and radical openness was considered an inherently feminist and empowering act. The interaction between Evelyn and Jeet gestures toward the ethical complexities of that era: young women and minority writers were often expected to gamely narrativise their most intimate experiences in service to clickbait and amorphous awareness-raising. While there’s no doubt that personal essays on topics such as abortion and sexual assault can be immensely impactful, it’s telling that male writers are seldom required to mine their trauma for content in the same way. Through Mamamia, Freedman has built a wildly successful empire that is still heavily reliant on confessional writing. (Recent headlines include “Like Belle Gibson, I faked having cancer” and “My husband cheated on me a week into our relationship. It was the best thing that happened to us.”)

Freedman has had a truly remarkable career, becoming the editor of Cosmopolitan at just 24 and building Mamamia from a small blog into a media company with a monthly audience in the millions, but she has a penchant for raising hackles. There was the Roxane Gay incident of 2017, when the masthead publicly disclosed the practical considerations for the esteemed feminist writer’s visit to Mamamia – “Will she fit into the office lift?” – which Gay deemed “cruel and humiliating”. There was the time Freedman donated a “priceless” unpaid internship at Mamamia for a charity auction, which, shockingly, sold for $10,000. And then there is her underlying commitment to her particular brand of feminism, which seems to centre on hating Donald Trump and supporting abortion rights, and which pays only fleeting regard to intersectionality.

Admittedly, Freedman has been savaged in the specific way society reserves for successful women, receiving consistent online vitriol including death threats, as well as slights from her feminist peers (she’s been deemed “execrable” by Marieke Hardy and “intellectually sluggish” by Helen Razer). Freedman’s seemingly boundless capacity to trigger people and divide public opinion is rich subject matter, and Strife explores it in entertaining fashion. In one episode, Evelyn appears on a Q&A-esque talk show called Discourse, only to be berated by the other panellists for exploiting feminism to sell ad space, with one zippy young woman asking her point blank why she feels the need to speak at all. “You’re telling me, a woman, that I should just stop talking?” asks Evelyn incredulously.

If you’re interested in digital media or have followed Freedman’s trajectory even fleetingly, you’ll find this slickly produced series centred on Evelyn’s struggles to keep the lights on at Eve, while navigating a divorce and attempting not to humiliate her kids, worthy viewing. Keddie brings her signature warmth to the role of Evelyn, and Eve’s harried staff are pitch perfect in their depictions of a 2010s start-up newsroom, from BeBe Bettencourt as the sexually liberated millennial writer to Rhys Mitchell as the bumbling token man trying to prove he knows what thrush is. The show animates Evelyn’s many contradictions and struggles, but it offers scant further commentary beyond the takeaway that being a girlboss in a pantsuit is a damn tough gig. Perhaps this is to be expected given Freedman’s role as an executive producer. It’s not exactly revolutionary stuff – a little intellectually sluggish, one might say – but if you’re fine with that, Strife is still a fun look into how the women’s media sausage is made.

Worth a look

Based on a concept by Belinda Chapple, one of the founding members of late 1990s/early 2000s girl-band sensation Bardot, Paper Dolls (Paramount+) charts the intoxicating rise of a derivative (but as per the disclaimer, entirely fictional) pop group, also born of a reality TV show. For fans of: women with unbridled ambition and personality disorders, cute but highly flammable clothing and girl group choreography.

Revealed: Ben Roberts-Smith – Truth on Trial (Stan) follows the extraordinary work of investigative journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie to uncover Australia’s most decorated living soldier’s role in abhorrent war crimes in Afghanistan. For fans of: inconvenient truths and tireless journalism.

Bump (Dec 26, Stan) jumps forward two years for its fourth season, with former teen parents Oly (Nathalie Morris) and Santi (Carlos Sanson) back together, navigating the demands of parenting alongside her upward career trajectory and his fledgling art career. For fans of: families as dysfunctionally functional as your own, uniquely Australian stories and warm hugs.

Tara Kenny

Tara Kenny is a culture writer and The Monthly’s television critic. Online, she is @slurpette.

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