EXCLUSIVE: An interview with “Bomb Girls” co-creator Michael MacLennan

When the Bomb Girls finale airs tonight, don’t expect loose ends to be tied up. The Canadian show was just picked up for 12 more episodes, which means we can look forward to more of Betty, Gladys, Lorna and the rest of the women who have joined the war effort. As one of the strongest new shows to emerge in the last year, it’s also one of the only period-pieces that has survived a first season. Pan Am and The Playboy Club were both cut short, and Mad Men seems to be what Bomb Girls co-creator Michael MacLennan calls “an exception yet also proof of the rule,” considering its critical success but less than exceptional ratings.

Bomb Girls takes place in the 1940s, a time when Canadian soldiers were overseas so women had to enter the workplace. MacLennan said he was creating a show that had broad appeal, as he was doing something for network TV, unlike his former venture as a writer for Queer as Folk.

“It had to be a show that would attract all ages — attract men, attract women, straight, queer,” MacLennan said. “And I think that was a big part of why the show was ordered, is people could see that grandmothers would want to watch this and 20-year-old girls would want to watch this and guys would want to watch stuff blow up and sit there and watch it with their girlfriends. It was meant to have a broad range and you can’t have a successful network show without that.”

That being said, MacLennan wanted to tell the stories of real bomb girls, including the gay ones.

“It was very important to tell the story of a character of someone like Betty,” MacLennan said of the show’s gay bomb girl. “Partly it was exciting because the more research I did, the more I realized that really most presentations of the ’40s are just not accurate. It was a time of immense experimentation, social experimentation, sexuality — these were women who were, many of them, working for the first time in their lives. They were meeting up, cross-pollinating. Before that, basically, if they weren’t in your church or in your family, you would never meet them. There was just no way to meet other women. So I just really wanted a wide swath of women to come together and form a kind of power and sisterhood that would not have been possible if it were not for the war; to combine their strength and diversity. And in part of creating that diversity was creating a character like Betty.”

In his research, MacLennan found that many lesbians in the 1940s had jobs before the war, this making them stick out as different until the other single women, mothers and wives were made to come to work in factories.

“Before, it was very unusual for a single woman to have a job like that. Suddenly everyone was and you could — I don’t know if ‘pass’ is the right word — but suddenly the thing you were doing that was so out there became something that was validated,” MacLennan said. “To me, I think Betty is somebody who had worked before, was really only comfortable in a male milieu and probably the character as she has grown up in a farm, she was around men all the time and now she’s getting to do that kind of work and her challenge is that she’s never really known or trusted women and so I wanted to make sure there was a kind of complexity with her where as a lot of other women have never had a job before.”

That’s where Betty’s story begins, as each of the women have their own history (and secrets) they bring into the bomb factory. Over the first five episodes, viewers have learned Betty doesn’t seem to connect with women well, or have female friends. She does, however, know a lot of cool places to go to dance and drink and have a good time. She also knows a guy who knows a guy if you need something — like illegal papers drawn up for you. That’s one way Betty helps Kate Andrews, her new friend, co-worker and crush.

“In terms of the story I wanted to tell of [Betty], it was not of somebody who understood herself and could identify or have the language to come out, per se,” MacLennan said. “Rather somebody, like many women at the time, who is discovering herself. And discovering her kind of, what sets her heart ticking. I think she’s somebody whose been very guarded until this sort of transformative force comes along in the shape of Kate Andrews.”

Meeting Kate has given rise to feelings inside Betty that MacLennan said weren’t always acted upon, especially not right away.

“There is temptation to dive in when it’s Kate and Betty, but we’re respecting the time, and these things didn’t come easy for these women,” MacLennan said of the relationship. “There was an incredible fear of showing themselves and experiencing feelings that had been long shut down, so I hope that audiences can be patient with that, because we feel — we open ourselves up to an opposite criticism in ‘Oh my god, come on! They just jump into bed and just do this and just do that?” It’s more for the titillation factor than honoring the character.”

Also, there’s no telling if Betty’s love is unrequited just yet. While it appears her feelings are coming closer to the surface, Kate doesn’t seem to know what she wants, or how to know what she wants. Having escaped from a strict religious background to be incognito at the bomb girl factory, Kate is living a secret life.

“I think that they’re both on a journey of discovery and Kate is coming from doubly and triply oppressive world,” Maclennan said. “She’s really very sheltered and she doesn’t really know herself; she doesn’t know her body, her sexuality. So I think that any kind of sexuality right now, for Kate, is a kind of scary thing.”

MacLennan does say that he thinks the story of Betty and Kate is “truly the great love story of the first season. “And the fan response has really proven that. It’s extremely gratifying to me that this happening and we’ve been able to do this in a way that isn’t alienating a wider audience. It’s comfortable and not sort of pushing buttons and turning televisions off, which you don’t want because you can’t continue to tell the story.”

Bomb Girls airs on GlobalTV at 8 p.m., which means it’s during a time when networks tend to censor what can be said or shown on air. But MacLennan said that the era’s own use of euphemisms and code words for sexual innuendos and acts have helped, and that there’s never been any watering down of Betty’s storyline. In fact, the only thing that has been affected is the depiction of heterosexual sex.

“There’s so rarely a character like Betty that’s allowed to be on television. That sort of thing the network was behind,” MacLennan said. “I think in casting there was a little bit of a concern like ‘Let’s not butch her up too much,’ and I just felt like we sort of proved our point when we cast Ali, who was really a clear frontrunner right from the get-go. She has this way of occupying space and using her voice that you can construe as butch, but it doesn’t feel put on. And why the hell not? I didn’t want to do — I just felt like, especially in that time when roles were so, butch/femme roles were so clear, why not, if we’re talking about variety, why can’t we have that character and tell love stories about her and make her this beautiful complex haunted person? They were more like questions asked early days but once we got the character rolling and got her cast, they were really supportive around that.”

And Ali Liebert is the perfect choice for Betty, a woman whose stature shows confidence and whose facial expressions can show viewers what she’s feeling while Kate might be oblivious. Coupled with the fantastic writing, the character of Betty is one of the highlights of Bomb Girls, and one of the reasons the show has made it past the first season where other period-piece shows like The Playboy Club and Pan Am haven’t. The character development is there, which might also be due to MacLennan’s experience having worked on another ensemble show with similarly complex characters.

Having written for the Showtime series Queer as Folk, MacLennan said he chose to write a lesbian character because he was, frankly, sick of writing about gay men. In fact, he said he pushed for more Melanie and Lindsay, Queer as Folk‘s resident lesbian couple, so he could “balance out the male” on the show.

“If you look at the kinds of stories [Melanie and Lindsay] were given in the first season versus where they ended up going, they became — they were sort of almost very token at the beginning,” MacLennan said. “It had a lot to do with the quality of the actors we were writing for, but they were expanded on and given these sort of rich lives. I have a lot of friends who are lesbians, I don’t seem them represented accurately on television and I think in that case it was a really interesting. I mean, I’m a gay man, but it was a much more interesting point in my career to take both the women in my life and the women, the lesbians who were so important and so forgotten in the war effort, and so I just felt — to be honest, it was much more challenging to do this kind of writing.

“I feel incredible responsibility, is that the right word?” he continued. “I just don’t want to screw it up. I feel like I’m sort of more allowed to write gay men than I am to write gay women and i continually in my career have written a lot of women and have been known for it. The other thing is Betty, in a way, is me. So I really identify in a way with her vulnerability. It was just way more exciting with the theme of this show to have her as a lens of a deepening queer narrative on the show.”

MacLennan said AfterEllen.com readers and the lesbian fans that have shown their support to the show have blown him away, and that the conversations that have been sparked because of Bomb Girls have given him hope that TV viewers are ready for more intelligent shows about women.

“The fact that we can point to [fan art] when talking to the network really helps our case and hopefully will make the case for other shows like this, that not every show needs to be about a tough as nails cops solving grisly and largely misogynistic murders,” MacLennan siad. “You can have smart stuff that factors in women and women aren’t just talking about men; talking to men or about men. Those sort of things are so not common on television and the fact that audiences are recognizing that and saying ‘Wait a second, this is actually doing a lot that most shows don’t do.’”

Now that the show has been given 12 more episodes in which to tell these stories, there is a lot more room to flesh out relationships between Betty and Kate and the other characters on the show, which could go on, as MacLennan said, for another seven or eight seasons, considering the amount of historical material they have to work with.

“That war went on a good long while!” he said. “I’d also like to do what it was like when men come back from the war and what it was like for women and how some continued to work and others didn’t.”

After all, that was a time when things began to change for women all over the world, and MacLennan has done a superb job showing why that is and what good it has done for everyone, Canadians and otherwise.

The season finale of Bomb Girls airs tonight on GlobalTV.

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