I can’t profess to have followed EastEnders in any depth at all, not particularly caring much for soap operas, but last night’s episode was a prime example of how big mainstream television programmes can bring difficult and challenging topics to the forefront of public discussion.
It was a lofty and intense episode set entirely within the confines of the famous Queen Vic as Ruby (Louisa Lytton) was forced to endure the idle chatter and gossip about an anonymous news report of her rape in the local rag. Pub patrons each shared their thoughts and opinions on consent, what it means to them, and just why it is an uncomfortable topic for all genders to discuss, in an intelligent and mature fashion.
Whether you love them, loathe them, or simply just put up with them, the humble(/highly dramatic) soap opera has a strong tradition in the UK. BBC Radio 4’s The Archers is the longest running soap in the world, while ITV’s Coronation Street is the longest running soap on the box. BBC One’s shouty, moody and slightly edgier EastEnders has also carved out its own niche of pushing the envelope in mainstream television.
Last night, the show – that has racked up more than 5,800 episodes since it began in 1985 – delivered another of its more hard-hitting storylines. There were no big brawls, no-one died in a big explosive car crash, and nobody called anybody else a slag (although it did come close on occasion). This was a tight, detailed and clearly thoroughly researched debate that handled the topic with sensitivity and an openness.
Instead of high drama and thrills, Thursday’s episode took a gentle pace building a series of constructive arguments for a variety of angles around the consent debate, ranging from being innocent until proven guilty, through to the reasons why women (and men) might choose not to speak out, or how people might conceal their experiences for a whole host of different reasons that may be difficult for some people to comprehend.
In half an hour of television, it can be difficult to grapple with weighty topics. It’s much easier over the course of an overarching storyline; especially so if it involves characters that viewers are already aware of. It’s simple enough to say that “rape is wrong” and “no means no”, and few sensible people would ever dispute that, but it also raises the point that a “yes” is more important than not saying “no”. The whole story stems from an incident in which Ruby didn’t say no, but she also didn’t give consent. Shows like EastEnders reach a wide variety of viewers and, being a BBC series, the episode also adheres to the Reithian values to inform, educate and entertain (in that order) – albeit weighted far more towards the latter end of that trio than the former, one might add.
As a programme that pops up for 30 minutes in front of a regular and (mostly) loyal fanbase, EastEnders has a captive audience. It can engage in topics with a broad spectrum of the public in ways that might not otherwise reach them. It can ignite conversation – just as it did in the 80s with the first onscreen gay kiss between two men (even if it was more of a “peck” than a full on snog) – or it could be a case of preaching to the converted. Tell enough people something they already know and the show could have slipped into being quite pompous spending its entire runtime explain the whys and wherefores of consent. However, it is the fact it tries to engage and throw some light on the subject that is commendable.
Characters within the show represent large swathes of the programme’s audience. As such, questions it raises are more likely than not the same types of questions that people watching might have held. Is it rape if she’s really drunk? Is saying “not all of us are like that” insensitive to survivors of sexual assaults? If a man regrets sleeping with someone, is that rape? Is believing someone who reports an assault more important than the accused’s reputation? These questions all have very straightforward answers, but if you have never thought about them before – of if you have never confronted the way you think about your answers to these questions, and other similar questions – then putting the debate in front of such a large amount of people is no bad thing.
Soap operas have a history of trying to normalise certain taboo areas in British culture. By showing characters living with AIDS holding normal lives, or gay people being accepted into society, or by allowing the role of consent to be put in front of primetime viewers, soaps can (and do) have a social responsibility for their output. They can help to break stigmas around entire groups and cultures by normalising certain behaviours. If a white East End cockney skin head can rub shoulders with a BAME character because, guess what, they’re all just people too, then what reason does anyone watching have to not do the same?
Setting the episode in one small space, with that many whispering voices, also served to mimic the pressure on Ruby. The anger, the injustice and the disputes all bubbles over in the cauldron of characters with individual reasons to protect or support various others’ claims. After Ruby states that she’s suffered the most traumatic part of the ordeal and that it can’t get any worse, she erupts when confronting someone accusing her of making it all up. She screams at the perpetrator that “it’s a brave new world so get used to it”, meaning to empower women to speak up rather than stay silent. It’s a powerful end, even if a stand up row in the middle of a pub is slightly more akin to what one expects from EastEnders.
The show took careful steps to get across as many viewpoints as possible before culminating in a big and sensible conclusion. Of course, the storyline will continue to unravel over the coming weeks as episodes revert back to their usual format, it’s important to acknowledge that soaps, while not always the most sophisticated or high-brow forms of television, have an increasingly prominent role to play. The whole episode is a tough watch for many different reasons, but that’s what makes it a story worth telling. And, it’s being told responsibly.