Sunday – a rare evening in, a night on the sofa, some home made felafels and a chance to watch the box. My girlfriend stumbled her way through the TV channels, looking for something to catch our interest. Mostly rubbish, but then: ‘The Last Tango in Halifax.’
‘Yes,’ says I, ‘ It’s got lesbians in it, let’s watch.’
And before you say it, yes, I’m aware we are in danger of becoming parodies of ourselves. But never mind. Parodies aside, just like everyone else, we sometimes like watching things on TV that include us- things that haven’t forgotten us.
I went to put the kettle on, came back in five minutes later to find my girlfriend staring morosely at the screen:
“The lesbian lady’s dead.”
Surely not? But actually, yes, they had killed off one of the two lesbian characters, a lesbian character of colour, one of the hugely under represented groups of women on TV and in the media – there one week, gone the next. Frustrating to say the least. There’s been much debate on my Facebook and Twitter over the past 24 hours, especially about there never just being a ‘normal’ lesbian relationship played out on TV. The writer claims that she did it to help drive the other character story lines forward, and was thinking less about the fact that she was killing off a (much needed) under-represented character. But it gives out the wrong message. By killing off the only BME lesbian on the programme, I suspect she has killed off a colossal percentage of BME lesbians currently being shown on TV: now ‘story lines’ and ‘character progression’ aside, that’s pretty huge, and pretty crappy if you fall in to that demographic and were hoping to see ‘yourself’ acknowledged and represented by British Television.
I watch bits and bobs of TV, I’ve loosely followed the lesbian story lines on Eastenders and Emmerdale, I’m just about old enough to remember the first ever lesbian kiss on Brookside and the scandal it caused. I’m not denying that we’re there on screen from time to time, but it’s also a matter of the type of representation we’re given – when is British TV going to stop having a hoo-ha about lesbian relationships? When are lesbians going to be allowed to exist in soaps and drama without the main point of their being there to tell a challenging coming out story, a life riddled with homophobia or at worst, to simply be the token lesbian or gay character in the soap?
I’m disappointed that Sally Wainwright killed off a character that was much needed on British TV. I’m disappointed, because out of all arts and culture, TV is the most accessible art-form in this country. Where as a limited few (which is another issue entirely) access theatre, visual arts and dance, which can persuade and open debate – TV is available in the majority of households across the country and could therefore play a part in addressing homophobia, through simple and mindful representation of LGBT characters and relationships. It’s also vital for (all of us, but especially) younger members of the LGBT community to see themselves fairly and equally represented on TV – inclusivity and a suggestion that their stories are as valued in our society as the heteronormative stories we are so often told (which, aren’t at the moment.) They may not, for many reasons, be able to get to their local fringe theatre’s latest contemporary dance piece telling a lesbian love story through movement and voice, but they can flick the TV on of a Sunday evening and experience same-sex love being a non-issue, at least, they would be able to if more people wrote it. I know that for me, although being gay is an intrinsic part of my make-up, it’s not the most exciting thing about me, I am gay, and a million other things too, all of which (I hope) are more interesting than the being gay thing.
Wainwright certainly will have a lot to answer to from a lot of her audiences, but it’s not just about Wainwright, it’s not just about the killing off of a character on one TV show – it goes beyond that. It’s about the representation of ALL minority groups on TV, and they way they’re portrayed and valued, this does need to change. But I expect the change won’t come until more individuals of those groups are able to also be the writers / programmers / commissioners more often, and who knows when that may be?
I think one of the things I’m most passionate in with my work for the LGBTQ Arts review is (as well as promoting LGBTQ work and artists) to keep questioning the representation of LGBTQ characters and relationships on stage, on screen and in the arts. To just be there is not enough, to be there, fairly represented, to keep representing in the same way non-LGBTQ characters and story lines are, is.
A final question (linked to this), which I’ve been musing on since the whole debate began on Sunday evening, and I’d love to know your thoughts on this, is: If TV has the potential ability to shift modes of thought surrounding homosexuality – largely homophobia, but also ignorance and a misunderstanding, is it more useful to demonstrate homophobia and the consequences it can have on individuals and communities OR is it more useful to lead by example and represent gay characters, where gay is rarely an issue to them or their community, but just one tiny part of their character make up? Discuss.
(C) AmieTaylor 2015 for The LGBTQ Arts and Culture Review