Kathy Burke's All Woman, episode 1 review: A thoughtful, funny and frank view on modern beauty standards

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Actress Kathy Burke
Actress Kathy Burke Credit: Rankin

Kathy Burke is not like other women. Or, at least, she’s aware that there are aspects to modern womanhood that she hasn't engaged with, and is curious to know more. Her three-part documentary All Woman (Channel 4) looked at modern beauty, motherhood, and fairy-tale relationships. “Everyone seems to have an opinion on what a woman should be,” she stated. “Well, this is my opinion”.

The first episode focused on the beauty industry, including plastic surgery, and the pressures modern women are under to look a certain way. It's not an unusual topic for a documentary (Cherry Healey, Annie Price and even Channel 4’s Plastic and Proud have all looked at the rise of plastic surgery in recent years) and it was hard for All Woman to find something unique to say. 

That being said, it had a good go. Burke interviewed everyone from Love Island star Megan Barton-Hanson to Britpop photographer Rankin and grime artist Nadia Rose to try to understand why so many women are so worried about their looks, and what could possibly be done about it. By virtue of having Burke, Rankin and model Big Sue, the episode was also able to look at where we came from and how things have changed from the 70s and 80s, with the disappointing conclusion that the rot has always been there: we’ve just got more cameraphones and money to really let it set in nowadays.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a show themed around her own exploration of modern womanhood, Burke was the best bit of the episode by far. It would have been so easy to paint the discussion as Burke Vs Them, with Burke being above all the superficial frippery and the women she spoke to as needing to be taken in hand. Instead, Burke was compassionate and understanding, alternating between crude and vulnerable with remarkable frankness.

Love Island's Megan Barton-Hanson and Kathy Burke

When looking at old photographs of herself, she pointed at one where her face was slim and casually explained that she was having a breakdown and could barely talk – but all people would do was compliment her looks. There was a moment towards the end where Burke thanked the universe that she doesn’t have a daughter, because she can’t imagine how a 20-year old woman in 2019 who looks like her would cope with the online abuse. Some producers would have played these moments up with emotional soundtracks and close-ups, but the stark simplicity of what Burke was saying was far more powerful. The episode was better for it.

Burke is a sharp presenter. It would have been so easy for her to rely on her comedy chops, but she took the topic seriously, pointing out that it’s always been the case that “a beautiful woman is extremely powerful” so it makes logical sense to want to look good. She was a good interviewer, too, knowing when to take a step back and let her varied interviewees redeem or condemn themselves.

But, obviously, there were still moments of delightful lewdness which stopped the whole thing from being too depressing or worthy, such as her saying that she's been blessed with a “high, fat arse” so she at least has one-up on Kim Kardashian or responding to news of Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-steaming with some choice four-letter words.

The episode ended on a positive note, with Burke going to an EVE wrestling match and watching women of all shapes, sizes and styles throw each other around a ring to the delight of the crowd. It was an immensely pleasing antidote to a fairly worrying hour of television – which in many ways is the role Burke herself played.

“We’re supposed to have this attitude of being humble and modest. Well, f--k that,” she said cheerfully at one point. If we could just have another episode where she explains exactly how to do so, perhaps the world would be a nicer and easier place to live.