Netflix’s Cable Girls: A Turning Point in Spain’s National Historical Memory?
Netflix’s Cable Girls is a gripping, heart-wrenching and fiercely empowering story which traces the lives of four young women who meet while working at Madrid’s first telephone exchange in 1928. The show, spread over five seasons, has achieved great popular acclaim, rated 7.7/10 on IMDB and scoring 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. It presents a dramatic tale of love and loss, with telenovela-style plot twists and moments of great tension and melodrama. The four principal characters each have their own arcs, as their romantic relationships and family troubles unfold, but they also connect deeply through gritty adventures and conspiratorial exploits. Lidia, Carlota, Ángeles and Marga, collectively and individually, develop a new sense of self as they navigate the difficulties of being working women in a patriarchal world.
The fifth series of Cable Girls, on which this review will focus, is set after a seven-year time jump to the final months of the Spanish Civil War. A daring choice by the show’s creators, this forced the writers, producers and actors to grapple with the still-divisive issue of Spain’s historical memory of the Civil War period. Until a Historical Memory Law was passed in 2007, Spanish official political discourse had swept the Civil War under the carpet. This was seen as crucial in order to maintain the atmosphere of reconciliation and compromise that characterised the establishment of democratic government after post-Civil-War dictator Franco’s death in 1975. Although there exist internationally renowned Spanish films and television shows set during the Civil War, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Morocco: Love in Times of War, and Butterfly’s Tongue, Netflix’s Cable Girls is different. Out of necessity, film and television productions within the Civil War genre, including the three aforementioned, define their characters and plotlines by their relationships to the War. Although characters are complex, they quite discretely belong to one side or the other. In contrast, Cable Girls introduces the Civil War much later on, once the major plot lines and characters are already well-established. Viewers watching the earlier seasons as they were released did not know that a subsequent season would be set during the late 1930s. This presents a much more nuanced depiction of the Civil War, where full, complex people, who audiences had come to know and love, now suddenly had to grapple with a new reality which forced them to take sides. This reflects the very real dilemma faced by all Spanish individuals in 1936. For a highly popular show like Cable Girls to take this approach, it indicates an unprecedented readiness among Spanish and global audiences to acknowledge and empathise with both sides’ motivations, preoccupations and ultimate humanity. This review, while hopefully avoiding overt spoilers, will unpack the diverse ways in which season five of Cable Girls represents a turning point in Spain’s historical memory of the Civil War.
To allocate the show’s main characters to the two sides of the Civil War was undoubtedly a challenge for the writers. Hindsight has revealed the consequences of the ultimate fascist victory, including unspeakable oppression and a thirty-five-year dictatorial regime, and many argue that a Republican victory would have avoided all that. However, the recent polemic around the reburial of Franco has demonstrated that there are many who continue to support the fascist dictator and what he stood for since they may have potentially suffered more under a left-wing, republican, secularist government. Moreover, since the Republican side included a range of political stances from moderate democratic socialism to communism and anarchism, support for that cause was, and still is, very diverse and conflicting. Therefore, when the writers of Cable Girls decided which characters would plausibly align themselves with each side, it could not be a simple case of delineating heroes and villains. Some principal characters are indeed placed firmly on one side or the other, but the majority occupy a less clear-cut ideological position. In fact, the characters’ motivations during the War are claimed to be more related to their practical needs for survival rather than their political principles; the series begins in late 1938 when Madrid was under siege by the Fascist forces and rumours suggested that the Republicans would soon capitulate. For this reason, despite certain characters’ clear political convictions in earlier series, the overwhelming mood that they convey is a desire for the siege, and by extension the War, to soon be over. There are many poignant moments of internal conflict; for instance, one much-loved character who aligns with the Republicans but is terrified of dying at the Front considers carrying out sabotage on behalf of the fascists in exchange for escaping conscription. Such moments undermine the narrative expressed in traditional portrayals of the Civil War which categorise Spanish individuals as wholehearted members of one side or the other. Spanish and global audiences of Cable Girls are confronted with an alternative story, one that emphasises human fallibility and desperation for survival.
The way in which the writers and producers of Cable Girls address violence during the Civil War is significant as part of the show’s nuanced portrayal of the period. Gratuitous violence, such as the torture of prisoners and unauthorised executions, is attributed to individuals rather than particular ideologies or causes. Neither side is made to look more abhorrent than the other. Moreover, there are several instances of soldiers granting mercy, compassion and reconciliation to members of enemy forces in certain circumstances, and this occurs on both sides of the conflict. This is not just a useful plot device to aid characters’ miraculous escapes from seemingly hopeless situations; it also helps encourage audience sympathy towards individual characters, irrespective of the political beliefs they fought for. Fear is also treated very sincerely by the writers of the series. Most characters, male and female, are strongly preoccupied by fear for themselves and their loved ones, yet none of them are portrayed as cowardly or unlikeable as a result. This directly undermines the typical perspective perpetuated by films and television shows set during wartime, where bravery and heroism are the main character traits that audiences are encouraged to celebrate. Characters who audiences saw as bold and empowered in earlier seasons of Cable Girls are shown in series five to be downtrodden by years of suffering. Although the writers do give them triumphant moments of gumption and fierceness, Cable Girls offers a more honest portrayal of the grim reality of War. Viewers whose parents or grandparents lived through the War are encouraged to rethink the narrative of heroes and villains, victors and victims, which they were taught growing up, and global audiences too are confronted by a view of War in which cowardice is almost normalised.
Like in all series of Cable Girls, gender is central to series five. Earlier seasons set in the late 1920s, between the Primo de Rivera regime and the birth of the Second Republic, had explored issues including women’s role in the workplace, divorce, abortion, domestic abuse, lesbian relationships, and transgender identity. These issues continued to be prevalent in series five, since they inevitably underpinned the everyday lives of the four female main characters and their relationships with each other and the society in which they lived. However, when the fascist forces take Madrid (not a spoiler, since it’s based on historical precedent) gender issues become problematic to the characters in new ways. For instance, Óscar, a transgender man and part of the four main girls’ inner circle, is put in danger by the Catholic, transphobic views of the new ruling authorities. As well as offering a remarkably nuanced perspective of the Civil War, Cable Girls provides an unprecedented new angle on the period by considering it through the lens of gender history. Once the second half of the series is released, it will be interesting to see how the programme continues to contribute to reshaping Spain’s historical memory. Without doubt, this popular Netflix show should be recognised as representing a significant shift in public attitudes towards a period that was, until recently, exempt from revisionism.
Written By: Sophie Turbutt