Why the BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders


by Ellie Mae    
6:03 pm - January 11th 2011

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For those of you that don’t follow life in Albert Square: a controversy has engulfed Eastenders’ baby swap story. It focuses upon the eternally tragic Ronnie Branning (neé Mitchell), and the loss of her newborn son to cot death.

After discovering her son, a grief-stricken and confused Ronnie wandered into the Vic and swapped him for Alfie and Kat’s baby. Since then, Ronnie has become increasingly irrational and paranoid as she attempts to keep her actions secret, whilst Alfie and Kat have been grieving for the child they believe to have died.

Charlie Brooker used his column in yesterday’s Guardian to dismiss the controversy and the 6,000 complaints it has elicited.

Internet behemoth and arch-nemesis of mine, Mumsnet, denounced the story for its insensitivity, and for misrepresenting bereaved mothers as impulsive and dangerous.

Well, sorry Charlie Brooker. You may be right about Kindles, but I’m with Mumsnet on this one.

The BBC responded by taking us into the inner workings of Ronnie’s ‘grief and desperation,’ presumably in a bid to demonstrate that her actions were those of an unrepresentative individual, and not a comment on all grieving mothers. And Brooker’s contribution was to acknowledge the moribund nature of the plot, but to add that, if you’re offended, it’s probably your own fault for taking Eastenders seriously in the first place.

It is somewhat cavalier to dismiss something regularly consumed by 10 million people as ‘not to be taken seriously.’ Eastenders is undoubtedly daft, but like all soaps, its appeal is in its depiction of ordinary British life, which why is it is not populated by individuals but by caricatures: the Kray-esque Mitchell brothers, Kat Slater’s tart-with-a-heart, and now Ronnie Branning’s madwoman in the attic.

Popular culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but instead draws upon the prevalent cultural norms of the society it appeals to. In this case, the producers of Eastenders are taking advantage of our illustrious history of associating women with madness.

Victorians, for example, believed in the ‘Wandering Womb,’ which travelled around the female body, sucking it of energy, rendering its owner vulnerable to insanity. Pregnancy, menstruation and motherhood were all thought to exacerbate a woman’s likelihood of losing her marbles, which is why we have the word hysteria – from the Latin ‘hystera,’ meaning womb.

There is an easily identifiable cultural trajectory of women driven mad by motherhood: from Lady Macbeth’s fixation upon a notably absent child, to a Coronation Street storyline in the 1990s where a character stole a baby following the death of her own, and jumped in front of a lorry when she realised she couldn’t keep it.

For the BBC to then argue that Ronnie’s actions exist in isolation, and are not plots on a cultural map of misogyny, is at best short-sighted, and at worst, disingenuous.

As long as popular culture continues to perpetuate these ideas unchallenged, women will continue to be judged by their sex before their humanity. Charlie Brooker might think I am taking this too seriously; but if it is acceptable be offended by people dressing as minstrels for comedy purposes, I don’t see why I can’t object to the BBC paying lip service to the cultural stereotypes that have held women back for centuries.

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About the author
Ellie Mae is an occasional contributor. She is co-editor of New Left Project. She is on Twitter and blogs here.
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Reader comments


you sound almost surprised to learn that the BBC is just as sexist as the rest of the british media?

surely this is common knowledge…

the entire establishment in the UK is sexist, racist and capitalist, be they the media, government or there tools, they are all part of the problem.

2. the a&e charge nurse

“Almost half (45%) of fictional characters with mental illness have storylines depicting them as violent or posing a threat to others, says a report by Shift, the campaign to tackle the stigma associated with mental issues”.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/22/tv-programmes-mental-illness

The quest for TV programmes that fail to upset anybody still has a way to go it seems?

Perhaps it will be a never ending challenge as the threshold for being upset is continually recalibrated – at least until the likes of this guy grab the mike?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fCnIqYxwBk

Pregnancy, menstruation and motherhood were all thought to exacerbate a woman’s likelihood of losing her marbles

Do you deny that some women are inclined to act strangely when afflicted by these conditions?

Because that would certainly not chime with my observations. Is it not something to do with changes in hormones?

Anyway, Sunny.

If you’d like a structuralist critique of Shameless just let me know.

Sorry, I’m with Charlie on this one. This is Eastenders. It’s a soap. It is, by definition, rubbish. By taking it seriously you give it far more credence than it deserves.

I’m really not sure I agree with this analysis. You acknowledge that Eastenders deserves to be taken seriously due to its viewing figures, but is “undoubtedly daft”. The two seem, to me, to be mutually exclusive. Either it is bullshit, in which case it cannot be culturally important, or it isn’t bullshit, in which case it cannot be daft.

10 million viewers qualifies it as a significant phenomenon, but I don’t know many people who would call Eastenders a culture-altering force in British society. I think one of the underlying features of the reaction has been cultural snobbery – some people don’t credit the Eastenders audience with being able to separate fiction from reality.

I think Charlie Brooker hit the nail on the head in his article when he said that a “self-consciously weighty one-off ITV drama” could have dealt with such an issue, and this is because people would have assumed the audience were middle-class intellectuals, as opposed to the largely working-class Eastenders audience. This is just as insidious as the sexism of the Eastenders writers and producers.

I don’t think this is true, though. I very much doubt anyone who goes to a funeral expects it to turn out as they do on Eastenders, with a blazing row by the graveside or the priest spontaneously combusting (I admit, I don’t watch much Eastenders). When Hollyoaks broadcast a plotline a year or two back in which a lesbian love triangle resulted in murder-by-parachute-sabotage, there wasn’t a national campaign by LGBT groups to ensure lesbians retained access to skydiving. It’s someone taking a soap plotline too seriously, and not trusting an audience to see that it isn’t real, which is insulting to ordinary people and a waste of time and effort.

I’m actually now terrified that someone, somewhere, might take Hollyoaks seriously. The thought that someone takes Eastenders seriously is already making me sweat, Hollyoaks would finish me off!

As long as popular culture continues to perpetuate these ideas unchallenged,

What is the proportion of women who are depicted as being mad?

8. Just Visiting

Ellie Ellie Ellie

I worry about the feminists on LC, I really do.

You stood out of the recent thread on the exploitation of young women by groups of Pakistani men.
Real women, real crime.

And now you get all worked about about soap fiction – and write such flannel as this:

“For the BBC to then argue that Ronnie’s actions exist in isolation, and are not plots on a cultural map of misogyny, is at best short-sighted, and at worst, disingenuous.”

There are surely plenty of misuses of women more worthy of your time, if you genuinely wanted to advocate ‘making the world a better place’ for women.

@2. the a&e charge nurse: “The quest for TV programmes that fail to upset anybody still has a way to go it seems?”

For dramatic presentation of mental illness, the film _A Beautiful Mind_ was considered accurate and praise worthy.

10. Just Visiting

stood out of….
what I meant was:
stayed out of

Just a couple of points on accuracy:
The etymology of hysteria is from the Greek, not from Latin. It is in Aristotle’s writing that you will find reference to the wandering womb: thought of as roaming the female body in search of semen (!), the lack of which (sex) led to hysterical behaviour. This was not literally believed in the Victorian era; in fact, was not believed after the seventeenth century due to advances in scientific knowledge regarding anatomy. The Victorians did, however, still believe that women who were not satisfied sexually would become hysterical, which is why treatment for hysterics usually involved vibrators and masturbation.

You are right in asserting that there is a cultural (and historical) association between women and madness, but was is probably more dangerous and disturbing in the Eastenders stirrings is the association of that ‘madness’ with criminality.

‘what is more dangerous and disturbing in the Eastenders storyline is the association between madness and criminality.’

Sorry, commenting on my phone which does love to change words without me noticing!

This is another moral panic and really shouldn’t concern us. After all, you can always change channels if you are upset. Or go and make a cup of tea.

I can understand that some people might be sensitive due to personal experience. However they have no right to argue that they should therefore be given any greater consideration than the rest of us when it comes to the content of TV drama.

I’ve caught the odd bit of Eastenders. It’s wound me up too. But that’s just because it’s shit. And don’t get me started on Holby City…

I understand that work is advanced on a technological solution to the problem which will allow viewers upset by a particular programme to cause the television set to display a different one. It’s rumoured that some of these “smart” sets will actually be capable of being switched off.

@ justvisiting

“There are surely plenty of misuses of women more worthy of your time, if you genuinely wanted to advocate ‘making the world a better place’ for women.”

Exactly. Sheez.

Who in the right mind takes ENDERS seriously?? Didn’t Dirrrty Den come back from the dead??

Isn’t Phil’s son a new actor who is also taller and creepier? Ben? Or that other girl who is the daughter of the ginger haired guy who is jack branning’s brother-she’s at least a foot taller and wider then the other girl!

Come on now…..

Ugh. It’s a programme known for being dramatic and OTT. I don’t think it dealt with it in a insensitive manner.

I would hardly call it sexist; maybe they were playing on the fact that Ronnie has had the worst life out of every Eastenders character ever? And she’s already had a child die. Maybe that’s why she acted so nutty? Possibly?? Nothing about her being a woman, but her crappy life. You are reading wayyyyy too much into this.

People have an off button. They should utilise it more.

Speaking as a cot death mother, I would just like to point out that one of the key issues for me in this case is the way in which the BBC sought advice from the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths about a cot death in the Moon family, and then changed the plotline entirely for sensationalist purposes. This has led to an inaccurate portrayal of cot death.

I am also unhappy that the BBC has stimulated a surge in calls for advice & support, placing additional demands on FSID helpline volunteers and volunteer peer befrienders, without any regard for what that means to a charity such as FSID.

The programme was screened over Christmas & New Year – a time when many families who have lost children are reminded of and reflect on their loss.

“the producers of Eastenders are taking advantage of our illustrious history of associating women with madness”

Why the sarcasm?

“Research by Platform 51 revealed 53% of Welsh women are suffering from “low level” mental health problems.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-12156198

It is surely more mysogynistic to ignore this problem than to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

19. the a&e charge nurse

[9] thanks, Charlieman – I never caught the film.
If interested here is another take on Nash’s life.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrAc5CVw2zQ&feature=related

Should we change Shakespeare as his characters are pretty atrocious stereotypes!?

‘I can understand that some people might be sensitive due to personal experience. However they have no right to argue that they should therefore be given any greater consideration than the rest of us when it comes to the content of TV drama.’ (by cherub)

I’m not sure about this. The ‘jeez, just another moral panic’ line seems to get thrown out whenever anyone has the temerity to question certain strains in popular culture (porn, sensationalism, callousness, violence – jeez, get over it, what’s with the moral panic). I think it’s perfectly valid for people who feel strongly – yes, about anything, even if I personally disagree with them – to speak up when they feel that their personal experience, or something they hold dear, is being treated with contempt in some way. It’s not special pleading, it’s just people expressing their opinion – in this case, about something that appears on a channel that they fund out of their own pockets.

And as for arguing that parents who have experienced cot death should not be accorded any special consideration – I think that’s a shamefully unpleasant attitude, to be honest.

22. the a&e charge nurse

[21] I’ve heard some classics ARE being re-written?
http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/01/sanitising_huckleberry_finn

Who gives a toss because after all it is only a silly soap ! Get real because we all live in the real world. Dont we ?

@23 – do you not see that that argument might not be very persuasive to people whose babies have died? ‘Get over it’ isn’t really an option for them, I’d imagine.

@21 Rowan Davis: “The ‘jeez, just another moral panic’ line seems to get thrown out whenever anyone has the temerity to question certain strains in popular culture (porn, sensationalism, callousness, violence – jeez, get over it, what’s with the moral panic). I think it’s perfectly valid for people who feel strongly – yes, about anything, even if I personally disagree with them – to speak up when they feel that their personal experience, or something they hold dear, is being treated with contempt in some way.”

I do not have a “right and wrong” opinion either about Eastenders.

I look at how producers of drama choose to portray subjects of child abuse; survivors or victims. I think that producers encourage the survivor representation, but I do not know how valid that is. Which is most accurate?

@23

Believe me, I do know the difference between fiction and reality with regard to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I learnt the hard way and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Very sorry to hear about your baby, MsChin.

@Charlieman – sorry, quite possible I’m being thick, but I don’t follow.

@23. Mr Grunt: “Who gives a toss because after all it is only a silly soap !”

I tossed the coin, Mr Grunt, to determine whether your comment was ironic. It was heads, and heads said that your words were intended literally.

James mentioned Shakespeare. My thoughts were on King Lear.

I think that it will be a long time before we remove Shakespeare from culture in the English speaking world. On a modern note, _Abigail’s Party_ redefined party.

Good drama makes us all think. I simply don’t know whether that Eastenders story is good drama.

@Rowan Davies

Apologies for the incoherence.

Survivors of child abuse can present their cases strongly. We have a culture in which they are encouraged to survive and to not be victims. With the normal caveats about support.

Men and women who lose a child, pre-natal or in youth, are damaged. Their pain is deep and not easily explained. The resolution is different to child abuse survivors, but “get over it” does not suffice in either case.

I once went through a Soap character’s life and found his sisters had been killed; his murderous stepbrother was hit by a car; he’d had an affair with a teacher while underage; he started a relationship with someone who convinced him that they’d been together before he developed amnesia…Really, if you think a Soap isn’t a close portrayal of life you’ve got to end the form, not attack manifestations.

I don’t want political activists Left, Right, feminist or anti-feminist from trying to inflict their agendas on popular TV shows. That said I would rather shoot myself in the head than watch Eastenders.

I believe the “get over it” comments are aimed at people taking a soap opera far too seriously and not aimed at people who have had a cot death experience.

If Eastenders, Corrie, etc had to show exactly what happened in real life without any twists then they would be very boring to watch.

Everyone knows that these are dramas and everyone knows if you suffer from a cot death it is horrendous but you are not going to go off and steal a baby from someone else.

The problem with the complainers is that they don’t think the public have any intelligence to tell the difference between real life and a soap opera which is much more insulting to me than the current storyline.

@11 Wendy: Victorians did, however, still believe that women who were not satisfied sexually would become hysterical, which is why treatment for hysterics usually involved vibrators and masturbation.

Are you sure it wasn’t an excuse for pervy doctors to gain sexual contact with women (and be paid for it)?

@17 MsChin: I would just like to point out that one of the key issues for me in this case is the way in which the BBC sought advice from the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths about a cot death in the Moon family, and then changed the plotline entirely for sensationalist purposes.

I can empathise with FSID for wanting the issue to be tackled in an accurate way. But I can also empathise with the BBC for wanting a drama programme to be, well, dramatic.

@21 Rowan Davies: I think it’s perfectly valid for people who feel strongly – yes, about anything, even if I personally disagree with them – to speak up when they feel that their personal experience, or something they hold dear, is being treated with contempt in some way. It’s not special pleading, it’s just people expressing their opinion – in this case, about something that appears on a channel that they fund out of their own pockets.

Imagine for one moment that the BBC took great pains to ensure that its programmes were really culturally sensitive and didn’t offend anyone. What do you think would happen to the viewing figures? They’d go through the floor. And most license fee payers would have good reason to be cross.

35. Daniel Factor

The thing that pisses me off the most about Eastenders is the way it always portrays men as wife beaters, rapists, child abusers, adulterers and all round scum.

10m people can’t be wrong. Or can they?

37. Shatterface

Eastenders dead baby/stolen baby story is less disturbibg than Emmerdale’s Lisa-raped-by-a-Chuckle-Brother one.

Mumsnet seem to combine the authoritarianism of Keith Vaz and Mary Whitehouse.

‘what is more dangerous and disturbing in the Eastenders storyline is the association between madness and criminality.’

I wish that those who speek up on behalf of the mentally ill would just fuck off. As someone with a bipolar disorder it offends *me* deeply that others assume they can speek on my behalf. Its bad enough that people with physical disabilities are stereotyped as paragons of virtue. Villains get the best roles, for christ’s sake.

Its paternalistic, disempowering and infantilising: stop steeling our voices!

I don’t buy the argument that ‘it’s just a soap.’ Yes the storylines are ludicrous but the characters involved are supposed to reflect ordinary people. So if the only representation you have of a bereaved mother is that she is dangerous and irrational, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there is a representation there – all soap characters are two dimensional representations, rather than individuals.

It’s a publicly owned TV channel and this is its most popular programme. So yes I do take issue with it portraying women in this way. To dismiss it s being culturally irrelevant is just snobbery.

I wasn’t aware of the thread on Pakistani men but I’d be happy to respond if someone gave me a link.

39. Shatterface

Oh, and see this?

‘I would hardly call it sexist; maybe they were playing on the fact that Ronnie has had the worst life out of every Eastenders character ever? And she’s already had a child die. Maybe that’s why she acted so nutty?’

I’ve no objection to the ‘n-word’ in this context. Its comical yet vague – unlike the thousands of pseuds who’ve been diagnosing ‘schizophrenia’ based on a shooter’s Facebook page for the last couple of days.

I’d rather see honest ignorance.

@ Shatterface: Yes … but did you read the comment above (2) that *45%* of fictional mentally ill characters are portrayed as violent or dangerous? As someone with mental illness myself, I agree that it’s important not to go to the opposite extreme of reverential or pious portrayals, but I really can’t see the Eastenders storyline as the kind of authentic representation of mentally ill experience you advocate. Charlie Brooker got that much right: it is sensationalist nonsense with as little to say about mental illness or trauma as if Ian Beale had wandered round Albert Square with a dead baby in his hat. It’s the same weary old mad woman trope being wheeled out instead, which I take it is the point being made in the OP.

41. Shatterface

‘I don’t buy the argument that ‘it’s just a soap.’ Yes the storylines are ludicrous but the characters involved are supposed to reflect ordinary people.’

No, they’re not – otherwise soaps would be full of people watching TV. It’s you who has problems dealing with soap modality, not the fans.

‘So if the only representation you have of a bereaved mother is that she is dangerous and irrational, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that there is a representation there – all soap characters are two dimensional representations, rather than individuals.’

Wow, you mean all teachers aren’t serial killers? But John Stape is so real!!!

‘It’s a publicly owned TV channel and this is its most popular programme.’

If its publically funded the entertainment of 10m license payers trumps the interests of a few hundred manufacturing outrage on behalf of a few others

‘So yes I do take issue with it portraying women in this way. To dismiss it s being culturally irrelevant is just snobbery.’

And to think that soaps only exist to ‘educate’ the ignorant is elitist. Soap characters can’t even finish a pint without some interfering busy-body telling us they’re turning into a nation of alcoholics.

The middle classes have no interest in popular culture other than how it can be used to indoctrinate the plebs.

Also – the ‘off button’ argument. If I see something lazily perpetuating a stereotype I don’t see why I should have to ignore it. Why can’t I challenge it?

Funnily enough I don’t actually watch Eastenders regularly, but I still found it crass and offensive. In the same way that I don’t watch Jim Davidson’s comedy, but I find that offensive too. The fact that we have space for these things and that people consume them says something about the values of our society. An off button is irrelevant, and frankly that argument reeks of ‘I’m far too sophisticated for this.’

By the way, my version of this post – which is longer and a bit more explanatory – is up tomorrow.

43. Shatterface

‘@ Shatterface: Yes … but did you read the comment above (2) that *45%* of fictional mentally ill characters are portrayed as violent or dangerous?’

And about 90% of Holywood villains are English* – boo-hoo. Who wants to be Robin Hood when you can be the Sheriff of Notingham?

‘ As someone with mental illness myself, I agree that it’s important not to go to the opposite extreme of reverential or pious portrayals, but I really can’t see the Eastenders storyline as the kind of authentic representation of mentally ill experience you advocate.’

I didn’t advocate anything of the sort.

Eastenders is drama – it’s only tangential to reality. People pay for fried breakfasts everyday yards from their houses; nobody owns a washing machine; the murder rate is higher than Los Angeles; Janine has regenerated more times than Doctor Who; women actually marry Ian Beale. No, really.

Eastenders is modern gothic.

44. Shatterface

‘Funnily enough I don’t actually watch Eastenders regularly’

No shit – yet the offense you felt at a programme you don’t watch trumps the entertainment of those who watch it regularly?

You know why I never comment on The X Factor? I don’t watch it. Twilight films? Not my bag. Glee? Not aimed at me. My opinions on stuff I don’t watch are worth sod all.

I like the bit where she swapped the baby.

46. the a&e charge nurse

One of the subplots to this story is the way machiavellian BBC producers shoehorned the actress into the story line and how life has been a living hell ever since i.e. women being exploited in the workplace narrative?
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1345487/Samantha-Womack-attacks-EastEnders-bosses-ruining-life-sick-cot-death-storyline.html

Mind you the Eastender’s cast have been asked to put up with all manner of tosh including Dot Cotton finding a baby in an abandoned church, looking after him and hiding him from the authorities.
http://tv.sky.com/eastenders-25-worst-storylines

I dread to think what Charlie Brooker might have made of Dot acting just like her son, if Nick was to ever come across an unguarded van loaded assorted electronic goodies?

It does seem a little unkind to think that the ten million people or so that watch Eastenders, watch it and swallow it wholesale as being representative of real life. Personally I’d like to think that those 10 million have the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
But perhaps I’m wrong and they are all a bunch of brainless tosspots.

Ellie,

… In the same way that I don’t watch Jim Davidson’s comedy, but I find that offensive too. The fact that we have space for these things and that people consume them says something about the values of our society. An off button is irrelevant, and frankly that argument reeks of ‘I’m far too sophisticated for this.’

When was the last time Davidson was on TV? Doesn’t that “say something about the values of our society”?

49. enhughesiasm

Hmm. Is there really an “association between women and madness”?

Without even trying, I can think of tens of fictional men who have been afflicted by madness. The only difference is that none of them were driven to their madness by motherhood, pregnancy or menstruation, for very obvious reasons.

Yes, it is true that 100% of fictional characters driven mad by motherhood are women… but that is surely not meaningful!

For comparison, you have to look at all the fictional women where motherhood is portrayed as a source of strength, contentment, etc, which easily outweighs stories like this. The fact that occasionally some fictional women are shown to struggle with motherhood (especially in difficult circumstances such as cot death) is surely to be expected?

Or what… do we just ban all fiction involving women who can’t cope with motherhood? I’m not sure what’s even being proposed here.

I didn’t say people swallow it wholesale. If you read the piece, you’ll see that. My issue is that it takes advantage of an already existing stereotype, and then regurgitates it without criticism.

I also haven’t said my feelings on this are more important than others’ feelings. I’ve just said what I think.

Anyway, thank you to all the cultured people who have taken time away from reading The Seagull to comment on this. In the interests of your busy schedules, I have typed out your responses for you so that, in future, all you need to type is #1 or #2.

So, we have:

Cliched Response #1:

I AM SO NONCHALANT ABOUT EASTENDERS THAT I’M GOING TO READ THIS ARTICLE AND THEN METICULOUSLY EXPLAIN WHY I’M SO NONCHALANT AND THEN I’M GOING TO RETWEET IT TO ALL MY FRIENDS JUST IN CASE ANY OF THEM DIDN’T GRASP THE LEVEL OF MY NONCHALANCE. DO YOU SEE HOW NONCHALANT I AM?!

Cliched Response #2:

Eastenders is a load of plebeian shite. But you’re being really snobby about it.

I like the bit where Charlie Brooker said something about Monster Munch.

@33 Phil,
The prescribed treatment for hysteria in women in the Victorian era could be read as somewhat perverse; but what it epitomises more than that is the medicalisation of female sexuality and the female body.

@37, Shatterface,
If you read what I wrote (ie the association of madness and criminality) you will see that in no way was I attempting to give voice to people with mental illness; rather, I was stating a well-researched fact.

@Ellie May: It seems to me that many are missing the point that you are trying to make, and I would suggest that this is due to a general lack of awareness of how popular culture feeds into social consciousness and assists in the forging of social (including gender) stereotypes. Many might be able to switch of the telly, or see a soap as simply hyperbolic drama, but many cannot / do not (I am reminded of Blair calling for Deidrie’s release in Corrie). It is highly significant that the way women (and, indeed, men) are portrayed in the media has a direct link to the way women are treated in society. We only need to look at the research that charts the ‘pornofication’ of popular culture and the rise in domestic violence and rape.
The power of visual representations (just like the written word) is something that we should not be frivolous about or with; and we must be careful to infuse our culture, popular or otherwise, with social responsibility.

To return to the Victorians briefly, this Eastenders storyline smacks of the sensationalism of the popular nineteenth century broadsheets which fed the population with ghoulsih stories of murders etc–the bestsellers were, unsurprisingly, about women who transgressed the social, legal, and moral boundaries prescribed by society.

“In a Channel 4 poll of the 100 Worst Britons, [Jim] Davidson came in at #20.” – Wikipedia

Perhaps Ellie’s fear is unfounded.

@ 53 …and H from Steps was 8th. Your point is?

55. the a&e charge nurse

[50] I think you might have missed a 3rd angle – some are inclined to take a highly selective view of cultural minutiae then hold it up as something representative of something that is highly significant, even though it is more a vehicle to reinforce a set of pre-determined prejudices?

@shatterface – can’t resist pointing out the glaring logical inconsistency between these posts of yours:

‘My opinions on stuff I don’t watch are worth sod all’

and

‘Mumsnet seem to combine the authoritarianism of Keith Vaz and Mary Whitehouse’

Now, going by the second, you’ve never spent a singly solitary moment on Mumsnet (a place where porn use by adults is enthusiastically discussed, Friday nights are anal sex nights, and ‘Daily Mail agenda’ is one of the worst insults people can come up with). So either you should really STFU about Mumsnet, or you should accept that people can comment on cultural artefacts that they don’t directly consume.

I think Wendy’s post sums it up excellently, myself.

Wendy

Damn I hate it when the commenters do a better job than me ;-)

My version of this article is now up on my blog. I prefer it to this version: http://lurehumano.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/soap-suds/

58. the a&e charge nurse

[56] you don’t have to surf Mumsnet – the world of Mumsnet comes to you in so far as it is able to lobby for certain social changes or promote certain ideas which are disseminated in other media.

Whilst I am erring to the side of Charlie Brooker you still can’t deny popular culture has some sort of effect on peoples perceptions and attitudes. So I can understand why people might get irate in portrayals of certain issues on a popular soap opera, shown on the BBC 1, on at prime time, during the weekdays. We are talking about one of Britain’s biggest shows, not Man Vs Food on Good Food.

@58 I’m not arguing that people who don’t surf MN shouldn’t comment on their perception of it. But Shatterface was.

61. the a&e charge nurse

[59] “So I can understand why people might get irate in portrayals of certain issues on a popular soap opera” – somebody, somewhere is always being offended by telly.

The options as I see it are;
*programming designed not to offend anybody, ever.
*discretion left to the film maker to decide what should or shouldn’t be portrayed.
*committees set up to vet content before transmission.

Just a brief reply / postscript this time:

The critical issue is not about offense being caused: we cannot possibly hope to produce anything that will not offend someone; and nor should we. As the recent Frankie Boyle debacle demonstrated, people are often offended because they don’t understand something (sadly our sense of irony is being diminished). Indeed, this was demonstrated most strongly a good few years back with the national outcry in response to the (very funny and intelligent) Brass Eye.

The issue IS one of social responsiblity. As a writer / artist / film maker / director etc, you must be very mindful of what you produce, in the knowledge of the role popular culture plays (as I outline above). The way that women are represented on television etc is increasingly negative, and increasingly reductive. Think about the way many TV programmes have effected the way young girls envsage themselves in recent years: to be powerful is to be pretty, to be successful is to be famous and pretty…etc…it is no coincidence that this coincides neatly with X Factor style programming and the ‘pornofication’ I refered to above. (Ther alternative, of course, is the pseudo-male ball breaker, Apprentice-style).

I’m not calling for it to be banned, but I have a right to be offended by it as much as the producers have a right to show it.

Accusing me of Mary Whitehouse-isms is just laziness. Why not engage with the article? If it’s not misogynistic, why not?

64. enhughesiasm

@63
Ellie, I had a go at explaining why I don’t see at as misogynistic… because by definition anyone unable to cope with motherhood (in extreme circumstances of cot death in this particular case) is female.

What is the alternative, except never showing the possibility that some women cannot cope in these circumstances? Which is undeniably true, just as some people (men and women) cannot cope with work, spiders, traffic jams and confined spaces. The fact that by definition only women can be affected by the pressures of motherhood doesn’t make it misogynistic to show this in fiction.

Furthermore, it’s not like every time someone has a breakdown on screen they are female. By restricting your commentary to “everytime someone has a breakdown about motherhood” you are making your sample 100% female, so yes it would appear misogynistic. But the sample of “everyone who has a breakdown about anything” I would imagine is far more split along gender lines. (My instinct would be it is majority male, but more likely because of the leading-character-is-male syndrome that sadly is still prevalent).

I certainly didn’t mean to accuse you of Mary Whitehouse-isms if it was my comment about banning you’re referring to, I’m just unsure what you would rather they did?

Re Mumsnet

My first interaction with Mumsnetters was to fall out with them, which coloured my impression of them thanks to one particularly… erm… forthright member.

Now I know the site a little better, I have to disagree with Shatterface and a&e charge nurse: pretty much every time Mumsnet are in the media, they are presented as a load of Daily Mail reading, PTA attending, self-indulgent busybodies. When in fact, I’ve found them to be very insightful, very engaged and very politically savvy.

Again I would put their misrepresentation down to an inherent bias in the media against women, but that’s just me…

Oi! I was PTA co-chair once. What I don’t know about tea urns isn’t worth knowing.

My take on the media/public perception of MN is a bit more specific – I think many people (men and women, but largely those without children) have unexamined assumptions about what mothers are, and what they should do. Mothers are (in these people’s minds) emotional, unreflective, socially conservative, closed-minded and a bit thick. Mothers should absolutely not seek to participate, as a group, in public or cultural spaces beyond those directly relating to the domestic sphere.

Any sign that an organisation is seeking to represent [a sub-section of] mothers’ views on anything is met with deep discomfort, suspicion and hostility – in a way that would never be the case for groups seeking to represent, say, pensioners.

God knows where this stuff comes from, but I’ve come across it regularly in the last few years. There’s a whole lot of work for the therapy industry, right there.

Wendy – to add to your list of tropes: how could you forget woman-as-cadaver? All those loving depictions of women lying on mortuary slabs having been killed – always after a spot of salaciously described sexual violence. This is one of the most damaging (and terrifying, in what it reflects and its effects on women’s sense of autonomy and confidence).

@ 46 Nah I ain’t suggesting any of that, that’s censorship. God forbid, did I sound like a censor. Sorry about that. I agree with a lot of what Charlie Brooker was saying, just I don’t doubt the effects that popular culture has on our attitudes to certain issues and people.

68. Birmingham Observer

Soaps are unrealistic, I hear many people say. Consider this as a scenario.

A Birmingham suburb. Married couple, three kids. Wife splits with husband, brings in new boyfriend, but ex kips in the sitting room for several months. New boyfriend about a year later brings home new baby, not hers, which joins the family.

Couple always rowing and fighting, woman, who by now is a very heavy drinker, one evening breaks man’s favourite glass bowl, he whacks her with the bigger bit of it, nasty injuries. Kids often fighting, one day younger boy rams older boy’s head through a glass door pane.

Family has sizeable menagerie in their quite small house; several cats, two dogs, various ducks, and a crocodile that lives in the bath.

Eventually, all move out, man goes to the local mental hospital and is occasionally seen in local town centre, others’ whereabouts unknown.

It’s all true, I, my family and my neighbours saw it all. And they say the Eastenders dead-baby swap is unrealistic.

69. the a&e charge nurse

[65] I read the Mumsnet letter of complaint to the Beeb – to my mind it exemplifies a rather insidious influence on program makers?

If Justine Roberts & Co feel so strongly about a negative portrayal of cot death then why don’t they use their considerable muscle to develop their own film?

In effect Mumsnet approach amounts to little more than a soft form of censorship by feeding into a climate prohibiting esoteric narratives.

Eastenders is not a public information service it is a ragbag of different characters telling different stories – stories that may or may not bear any resemblance to those of the wider population.

Haha sorry Rowan, I was trying to think of a British version of ‘soccer mom’ and that was the closest I could get.

I agree with all your points about Mumsnet too.

@Rowan,
You are absolutely right: the woman as cadaver is definitely one of the most disturbing. I was trying to limit my tropes to non-fictional pop TV, but the (oft eroticised) dead woman is an important and prevalent image. Indeed, this particular trope extends far beyond popular culture and has been a feature in art and literature for thousands of years. It feeds directly into and from the ingrained notion that women’s bodies exist to be objectified, and, having little or no agency, are subject to the will of others. (Hasn’t this been the case with the recent murder of Jo Yeates, and the call for the women of Bristol to stay indoors after dark?!)

All of these tropes seek to keep women in ‘their place’ — the domestic sphere, where she is ‘safe’ from the potential horrors of the world. A win for patriarchy, a lose for feminism, sadly.

However, those of that work in the cultural and educational realms must continue to discuss and analyse such issues. :)

TC,

@ 53 …and H from Steps was 8th. Your point is?

Hmm, I thought my point was obvious. To spell it out, Ellie appears to fear the consequences of certain people or media on society, and holds up Jim Davidson as an example.

Given that he is quite high on the list of worst Britons, and that his comedy goes straight to DVD (apparently some people still enjoy him, go figure), I don’t think Ellie has much to be concerned about with regard to Davidson.

@69 – what’s insidious about it? And what’s the difference between ‘soft censorship’ and expressing a view? I think your response is over the top, to be honest.

@Wendy – absolutely.

@Shatterface (way back at 43):

By authentic representations, I didn’t mean realistic representations, but living, breathing representations that could conceivably have been written by or for people with personal experience of mental illness. I understood you to be saying that you liked villainous representations of mentally ill people because they had more character and flair than dull saintly portrayals.

What I find problematic there is firstly, if portrayals are predominantly negative, this feeds into real stigma with real consequences. I don’t imagine any English person has ever been stigmatised in America because people were worried they were secretly an evil genius, but people with mental illness face discrimination on the assumption that they could be unstable or even violent.

Secondly, although it would be dehumanising for all portrayals of mentally ill people to be saints, it doesn’t following that it’s necessarily any better for them to be portrayed as villains. A portrayal as a baddy can actually be flattering, but it depends exactly how it’s done. For instance, although black characters are frequently portrayed as criminal, in The Wire it’s kind of unusual and cool that Stringer Bell is a black criminal *mastermind* – he’s a real personality, a force to be reckoned with, not a caricature gangster. But mentally ill people aren’t usually portrayed as superawesome villains so much as monsters – irrational, scary, beyond or below comprehension. They lack agency and personality – they are dehumanised and reduced to caricatures.

Oh my days, this website!

I make one offhand reference to Jim Davidson, and a load of people immediately rush off to find set of facts about Jim Davidson!

Replace ‘Jim Davidson’ with ‘Bernard Manning’ or ‘Roy Chubby Brown’ or ‘Jeremy Clarkson,’ or anyone you fancy – the point still stands.

What is it about internet commenting… I don’t know..

The wider point, Ellie, is that your concern about the Eastenders or media’s effects on society or what a particular programme “says about society” may well be as unfounded as your concern about Davidson….

The important thing to remember about Eastenders is that (like 99% of all other popular TV) it’s irredeemably shite.

As for the characters being “supposed to reflect ordinary people” – if I really thought that was true, then the complete genocide of the entire human race would be the only sane course of action. They’re all horrible. Absolutely everything about the entire show is horrible – I wouldn’t say it’s misogynistic so much as misanthropic. It degrades all humanity by its very existence.

If you’re just noticing that popular TV promotes negative stereotypes, all I can say is “Welcome to my world. Where the fuck have you been hiding all this time?” It’s a much, much wider problem, and its roots lie in the culture, not the medium. We’re hateful people living in a hateful society, so of course we produce and watch hateful TV. We also produce hateful movies, hateful books, hateful art…

@78 – think I’d go along with a lot of that

80. Jack Graham

Oi, lay off Shakespeare. Say what you like about Easties but leave Macbeth alone!

81. the a&e charge nurse

[73] “I think your response is over the top, to be honest” – maybe, but are some people’s lives so circumscribed that they are easily buffeted by naff British telly?

Complain away to your heart’s content if that’s what floats your boat – but do we really have to wrap it up in such portentous tones when this sort of ephemera will be soon tucked away in the Mary Whitehouse locker?

@81 – the Mumsnet letter was representing the views, as expressed on the board (extremely widely and strongly – MN didn’t orchestrate the response, it was spontaneous and extremely heated) of parents who have lost babies to SIDS. So yes, such people are easily buffetted when it comes to their personal experience of grief – why the hell would you expect them not to be? And what you perceive as ‘portentous’ could also be described as ‘taking a hugely emotionally significant issue seriously’.

83. the a&e charge nurse

[82] I think you are conflating personal tragedy and the endless stream of good, bad and indifferent stuff that gets churned out on the box every 24 hours.

Put another way I think a couple (or individual) might have a bigger problem if momentous life experiences (of any kind) are too easily influenced by script writers on a BBC soap – isn’t it an old cliche that such people are sometimes accused of living their lives through TV characters?

Meaningful artistic freedom (which will always entail some degree of risk taking) ultimately leads to more interesting drama, as opposed to the kind of programming requiring the approval of ‘Mumsnet’ before it is fit to be broadcast.

No, I’m not conflating anything – this entire thread/issue is about people’s responses to a TV programme, as filtered through their personal experience. The parents who’ve been upset by this aren’t complaining that they’re influenced by it – they’re complaining that by portraying grieving parents as baby-snatchers, EE is going to make life even harder for parents in that situation. (Posters on the board described how their friends already found it extremely hard to relate to their grief, and that fellow parents are already sometimes reluctant to leave their babies alone with mothers who have lost babies to SIDS.)

And again, your response to Mumsnet’s letter is over-egged. Nobody, at any stage, has come anywhere close to suggesting that Mumsnet should pre-approve anything. Are you one of the people (described above) who can’t hear the word ‘mother’ without thinking ‘censorious controlling bitch’?

“The important thing to remember about Eastenders is that (like 99% of all other popular TV) it’s irredeemably shite.”

Nope, the important thing about leading pop culture TV programmes is that they are a major cultural filter through which the public consume, entertain and engage in political debates.

The wider population are disengaged from political parties and much of the parliamentary process because they still seem divorced from our 24/7 however much rolling news and commentary invades our consciousness: we want to hold our government up to higher standards, but there has never been a government yet which hasn’t disappointed.

Look at the development of social commentary in any of the soaps throughout their histories – they either evolve to tackle more topical subjects in more realistic ways or they become Brookside and get buried under the patio.

This storyline shows Eastenders is in serious trouble.

The cause: those parts of London are gentrifying and programme-makers haven’t worked out how to address the growing divergence between its subjects and audience.
The effect: a growing dependence on narratives of hysterical stereotypes around ever more extreme and emotive minority interests.
The standard solutions: new writers, new characters, new producers. Or old writers, old characters and old producers.

Eastenders could cull blog threads from Mumsnet for storyline suggestions which are better than this one, but I doubt that alone would make them more watchable!

I read David Miliband is looking for alternative career opportunities… has he applied for a cameo and a creative consultancy position yet?

Oh, and if audiences are “complaining that by portraying grieving parents as baby-snatchers, EE is going to make life even harder for parents in that situation” then that also shows audience attitudes to be in a bad state.

Surely the plot can also be understood as a plea for greater compassion and assistance (something producers under the strain of cuts at the BBC have a definite interest in).

87. the a&e charge nurse

[84] “they’re complaining that by portraying grieving parents as baby-snatchers, EE is going to make life even harder for parents in that situation” – the logic of this sort of thinking is that any distressing life event should not be depicted in an usual or challenging way?

As I say drama is not without risk but I still think we should trust film makers to take the audience into areas that are sometimes uncomfortable – in the longer run I think being confronted by something, even if it is painful in the short term, is a way of generating dialogue about subjects that are often not welcome in polite society.

78. I’m not just noticing, but I am just writing about it. But thanks for patronising me anyway.

80 – I did my MA Dissertation on instinct in Macbeth ;-)

90. Just Visiting

Ellie

> I wasn’t aware of the thread on Pakistani men but I’d be happy to respond if someone gave me a link.

Here you are:

http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/01/08/why-are-all-pakistani-men-are-being-smeared-in-the-sex-grooming-cases/

91. Just Visiting

Ellie

> I don’t see why I can’t object to the BBC paying lip service to the cultural stereotypes that have held women back for centuries.

You can object – but you haven’t given much evidence to support your claim that the BBC/media are following ‘our illustrious history of associating women with madness.”

And there really are bigger things to write about – women being raped, killed, acid-attacked, raped and then sentenced by the state to flogging, not allowed to drive, not allowed out of the house alone, etc. Some in the UK, Many more overseas.

But anyway.
Interestingly, sometimes the BBC changes tack, due to fears of the potential to cause offence:

The BBC has abandoned plans to screen a fictional terrorist attack by Muslim suicide bombers in the primetime drama Casualty after internal clashes over whether the highly sensitive subject matter would cause offence.

That plot line would of course be based on the reality that Muslim suicide bombers exist, and most days, somwhere round the world, blow themselves up.

Do you think the BBC would have been sensible to drop their Enders plans in the same way as that story?

Other times, the BBC seems happy to generate offence,and ignore the complaints before and after – eg “Jerry Springer -The Opera”.
Or

Bonekickers – BBC1 Drama Featuring Extremist Christian Beheading Moderate Muslim Draws Complaints

Even Richard Dawkins says there are no Christian suicide bombers. I guess a story of Christian fundamentalists beheading their victims is not drawn from reality,

Where the BBC in your view right to show that story despite the complaints that followed.
Why is it different in your view to the Enders situation?

Go beyond ‘just writing about’ to being explicit about how you’d expect the BBC to behave?

92. Just Visiting

doh – need an edit button..

That last bit was my words:

Even Richard Dawkins says there are no Christian suicide bombers. I guess a story of Christian fundamentalists beheading their victims is not drawn from reality,

Where the BBC in your view right to show that story despite the complaints that followed.
Why is it different in your view to the Enders situation?

Go beyond ‘just writing about’ to being explicit about how you’d expect the BBC to behave?

OH DEAR

94. Just Visiting

Didn’t think you were so easily silenced Ellie?

Still nothing to say on the recent LC thread about the organised abuse and rape of young women in this country?

I’d certainly agree how popular culture programmes like Eastenders helps feed into the subconscious of the audience.

Every time the portray a local newspaper reporter (not a national, I hasten to add, just the local rag) they’re always an unkempt, illiterate thug or a brassy tart Sky-presenter-wannabe who will do everything underhand and act like a complete and utter shit.

I’m neither, but everyone thinks I must be, because programmes like Eastenders shows it like it is.

Oh and don’t get me started on the way bloggers portray “all” reporters… they’re even worse than the scriptwriters for the soaps…

*doffs hat*

I bid you good day.

96. john p Reid

The Dily Mail don’t like eastenders becuase historically it was teh first soap to have gay characers when that was still throwned on,and was criticial of Thathcer, the old style bigoted police, clash of races,IT also goes agasint het myth that every one in Thatchers Britain is a loveable middle class ecentric and that theres no mass poverty or violent crime,

As for the stereo types of the Krays, or Tart with aheart, thats more reflective onthe eastenders I know, than any arty guardianesque middle class take on working class ,Kitchen sink drama,
As for Ronnie beign amad woamn in a kitchen, I th ink its prudish anf typical of liberals to actually be conservativer in outlook if it can’t accep that even heroic tragic characters have flaws, I don’t think thr BBC is sexist or ashamed, I think its brave that they can show that mental health issues can effect all of us, it someitmes can’t be noticed at the time and also if someone has had a hard upbringinghtat Menatl heatlh issues can come out at alater time,and that people who amke a mistake,can still have good sides even if they don’t know how to get out of those tragic cicrumstances and that there in denial to themsleves theres something wrong

Pedants’ Corner: just for the record, ‘hystera’ is Greek, not Latin.

@ 97 Paul, I pointed that out in comment 11. Pay attention!


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why the BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  2. rowan davies

    . @misselliemae stands up for Mumsnet, 'internet behemoth and arch-nemesis' http://bit.ly/fkIGxd @mumsnettowers

  3. Mumsnet Towers

    RT @rowandavies: . @misselliemae stands up for Mumsnet, 'internet behemoth and arch-nemesis' http://bit.ly/fkIGxd @mumsnettowers

  4. Johnny Steyn

    RT @rowandavies: . @misselliemae stands up for Mumsnet, 'internet behemoth and arch-nemesis' http://bit.ly/fkIGxd @mumsnettowers

  5. Ellie Mae

    It's baby funeral day on Eastenders. So here's my opinion: http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  6. scruffian

    RT @MissEllieMae: It's baby funeral day on Eastenders. So here's my opinion: http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  7. Anna Ingram

    RT @rowandavies: . @misselliemae stands up for Mumsnet, 'internet behemoth and arch-nemesis' http://bit.ly/fkIGxd @mumsnettowers

  8. sunny hundal

    The BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders controversy says @MissEllieMae – http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  9. Jos Bell

    RT @sunny_hundal: The BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders controversy says @MissEllieMae – http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  10. Lucy Greenfield

    RT @MissEllieMae: It's baby funeral day on Eastenders. So here's my opinion: http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  11. The Daily Quail

    This is truly some rambling meandering bollocks http://bit.ly/fkIGxd It's just a f'ing story in a f'ing soap, for heaven's sake.

  12. earthboundboy

    RT @sunny_hundal: The BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders controversy says @MissEllieMae – http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  13. Seven of Diamonds

    RT @DailyQuail: This is truly some rambling meandering bollocks http://bit.ly/fkIGxd It's just a f'ing story in a f'ing soap, for heaven …

  14. Kevin Arscott

    RT @DailyQuail: This is truly some rambling meandering bollocks http://bit.ly/fkIGxd It's just a f'ing story in a f'ing soap, for heaven …

  15. Lucia

    RT @DailyQuail: This is truly some rambling meandering bollocks http://bit.ly/fkIGxd It's just a f'ing story in a f'ing soap, for heaven …

  16. richdavidson

    RT @sunny_hundal: The BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders controversy says @MissEllieMae – http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  17. Daniel Selwood

    RT @DailyQuail: This is truly some rambling meandering bollocks http://bit.ly/fkIGxd It's just a f'ing story in a f'ing soap, for heaven …

  18. no2cuts

    RT @sunny_hundal: The BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders controversy says @MissEllieMae – http://bit.ly/fkIGxd

  19. damiank

    Why the BBC and Charlie Brooker are wrong over Eastenders … http://bit.ly/fMuWV6

  20. FlyingRodent

    Fuck a duck. When I wrote this post here http://tinyurl.com/3xppoe4 I was talking about this kind of thing http://tinyurl.com/6dcbuf9

  21. Kyra Choucroun

    Check this awesome piece on Eastenders by @MissEllieMae http://t.co/nLmmWXs via @libcon





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