EastEnders: Freedom from offence

When I moved to the UK, I decided to try to absorb as much British popular culture as possible. You think that PBS, Hugh Grant films, a common language, and a huge crush on a country would prepare you somewhat. But, no, most North Americans have a bit of learning to do if they want to get all the injokes and truly feel if they understand even a small bit about the popular culture here.

It was fairly obvious that I was going to have to choose a soap. Soaps here are a whole lot different from American soaps. I could probably write a thesis on the differences, but it would probably be easier just to list how they are similar. They are both called soaps, and people tend to sleep around a lot in them. That will have to do for now.

So when I got here, I was looking forward to getting into one, and eventually (after a few false starts) settled on EastEnders for telly and the occasional listen to The Archers on the radio (which is a whole ‘nother blog post, trust me). After watching EE for a year, I was considering giving it up. As much as I liked British soaps better than American ones, I felt a bit bored with them. What kept me watching was the fact that it was a part of the evening routine. Four days a week, after dinner, I could pop on EE (or “Albert Square” as my father in law calls it) and try to suspend disbelief.

So after them making a pig’s ear of some story arcs and doing a fairly decent job with a few, the anticipated baby swap New Years episode came up. I say anticipated because most people were spoiled about it ahead of time, and some of the subsequent complaints came before the swap was aired. For those not well versed in EE lore, the end of the year saw two women heavily pregnant: one was Ronnie Branning, a former teenage mother and victim of incest who didn’t get to raise her child, and Kat Moon, a former teenage mother and victim of incest who didn’t get to raise her child. Do you see what they did there? They became mirrored foils of each other. Of course on top of that baggage, Ronnie had a history of miscarriage. Tragic.

Of course both women go into labour roughly the same time. Kat gives birth in the Queen Vic where she is the landlady, and Ronnie in hospital without her husband who is in Dubai for convenient plotting reasons. New Years Eve finds Kat in hospital because of haemorrhaging and Ronnie home alone with her newborn son James. Yadda yadda yadda, James dies and Ronnie snaps and eventually switches his corpse with Kat’s living son who was alone in the flat above the Queen Vic while a party raged below. Oh, was that insensitive of me to yadda yadda a cot death? Well, I wouldn’t have done that if it were real, and this wasn’t real.

I don’t think that this was a great story line. It’s not the first or even the fifth time EE had used women gone mad (or at least a bit irrational) over their inability to have a child/keep a child alive as the catalyst for a story arc. However, I don’t really get the furore that has happened since then.

Since I’ve been watching, EE has covered a lot of things that people would find highly personal in a less than responsible way. From mental illness to crack addiction to miscarriage to murder they’ve used events which when they happen to people in real life, don’t result in the outcomes as on the show. They are used to drive the story along. Sure, they might justify it by saying that it raises awareness, but we all know that is B.S. Not one “issue” raised in the time I have been watching has been handled very realistically, at least in my experience (and I’ve had my life touched by quite a few, including, believe it or not, a crack addict almost burning down my home). Yet, it never crossed my mind to ring up Ofcom.

In fact, it seems to only cross the minds of people when it involves a murdered dog or a bereaved parent of a baby (not a bereaved parent suffering a miscarriage) going off the deep end. Sure not every parent who lost a child to cot death would swap their dead one for a living one, but Ronnie isn’t any parent. She’s a character on a soap. Do people really think that the public will now view mothers who have lost their child to cot death with suspicion? Do they think that the public will hesitate to offer sympathy to a bereaved mother in case they are the victim of such a horrible swap?

Yes, cot death is horrific enough, but so is mental illness. You really don’t need to make one of the two crazy people in the square a murderess. And you don’t need to make the resident serial killer into a psychotic either (most serial killers may be psychopaths, but they rarely are psychotic). Yet both of these became a part of the EE narrative this year. Did anyone ring Ofcom of the Beeb? Talk about picking on an already stigmatised group of people…

I don’t know, I trust people to understand that what we see on telly isn’t real. And for those who can’t, you aren’t going to avoid the misconceptions by sanitising our airwaves of potential offence. We’re not talking about speech rooted in hatred. We’re not even talking about speech rooted in ignorance. We’re talking about people expecting to never be reminded of horrible things unless it’s treated with a certain level of respect. While I can understand people wanting that to happen, it doesn’t with most things on telly, so why make the case in only a few instances?

If most people found it repugnant, they’d not tune in. However, it seems to have sparked something with viewers because EE is still pulling very strong numbers. Again, we’re not talking about hate speech, we’re talking about something you shouldn’t expect to be protected from: the fact that the media will try to use tragedy to its own ends. Sure, complain to the Beeb (you probably pay your licence fee, so by all means, let them know you’re disappointed), but don’t expect Ofcom to step in. But before firing off that email or picking up the phone, imagine a BBC which totally reflected reality. You wouldn’t watch, and you’d be a hypocrite to expect it to only be real when it involves puppies and cot death.


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January 2011
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