Broken representation and our broken hearts, for eternity

What is left to say, other than my heart is still broken? And a little bit of it even breaks for the loss of Serena – a double loss, the first one 14 months ago when she lost sight of the lion within, and the other on 21 January 2020, when she walked away physically.

For some reason I expected 21 January to magically afford some closure for the butchery of #Berena and death of Bernie Wolfe (and in a way Serena Campbell too), but closure remains elusive. Instead, what I’m left with is the crushing knowledge that Holby City’s producers never really understood anything about the politics of representation.

Serena’s exit from Holby City leaves me with contrary emotions – relief that a line has finally been drawn under the whole #Berena disaster; anger that another strong, middle-aged, female character had been beaten down and discarded; grief at having lost that ghost of the once-fearless and fantastic Ms Campbell; and an undefinable grief at how something that should have been engraved in television history as a groundbreaking representation of lesbians ended up a case study of what not to do.

Women’s stories, particularly stories about queer women, are sidelined due to intersecting, systemic biases that tell us these are secondary to the stories about men and the stories about heterosexual love. We all internalise this, even if we don’t know we do – it’s called social conditioning, and breaking out of it is no easy task, not even with self-awareness.

A promise of representation, therefore, requires being aware of these implicit prejudices even as one addresses them. Particularly with stories about lesbian and bisexual women, as this is a demographic so used to seeing their lives chucked into the non-priority bin (no, I did slip that in on purpose!) that they almost expect it. Which is to say, it is imperative to understand the nature of the promise you make to them.

To spell it out, a promise of fair representation is more than the sum of its words – you know which words I mean and to whom I refer. It’s quite simple, really:

  • The tropes and stereotypes are there for a reason, but I’ll still elaborate: they are lazy (usually hetero-patriarchal) assumptions about women/queer people/non-white people/add-your-minority. It doesn’t mean these conditions don’t exist; it means that these cannot be the only way to tell these stories all the time. At the very least, don’t kill any lesbians. There is NEVER a good reason for it.
  • If you are a storyteller who comes to this representation from a position of privilege (such as a straight person telling a queer story, a man telling a story about women, a white person talking about brown culture), then you don’t get to define what “good representation” is.
  • Neither do you get to tell your audience they’ve understood it wrong. This includes trying to indirectly imply that they are immature for not getting it. In fact, the audience tells you if you got it right (or not).
  • Silencing and gaslighting a marginalised audience that you set out to represent will not win you any favours. In fact, it cancels out any intent at representation, and sets you up as an entitled and privileged storyteller who believes their perspective is the only right one.
  • Your audience does not owe you kudos, particularly if you have played fast and loose with their expectations. Refer to points 2 and 3. You can’t throw a tantrum if they point out you made a mistake.
  • You’re unlikely to get everything right, even as an insider. Listen and learn.

With #Berena, the powers-that-be got each of these wrong. They killed the lesbian and they ticked off about every gay trope they found; they bent over backwards to insist they were right; they shut out gay women in different ways and gaslighted them, calling their protests “abusive”.

The most heartbreaking comments on social media with reference to Holby City’s treatment of the fans who called them out on the #Berena storyline are tinged with hopelessness, an inevitability that nothing has changed and won’t. “Who are we to them? Just overly sensitive snowflakes,” someone said.

What a pity, Holby City. You could have gone down in television lore as spearheading a new wave of fearless lesbian representation. It’s too late now. You will be known as the tone-deaf, unimaginative production team that shot themselves in the foot.

But at least, thank you for ending it. #Berena belongs to the fans now and it will live the glorious life it deserves.

I write, but I am not really sure what to write. What does one say in a situation like this? Other than my heart is broken? Serena Campbell, former deputy CEO, former head and co-lead of AAU, left Holby City Hospital on Tuesday, ousted by Max McGerry, consultant neurosurgeon and acting CEO. Remember when Bernie said Serena would always be her first port of call? Remember how refreshing it was? To see two professional, successful, confident older women on mainstream television supporting each other rather than being pitted against each other? Holby City, how far you have fallen in all manner of your representation of women.

I will miss Serena Campbell. But the truth is that the Serena Campbell I knew and loved died a long time ago. She died for me the moment she didn’t push Leah away. And thus it all began – the cheating tropes, the death tropes, the we-cannot-be-together tropes. Or so I thought at the time. In hindsight, I realise that all that began the moment Elinor died. Because two women who have just consummated their relationship need tragedy, that’s the trope. That’s the way our story is told. But not by us.

Holby City failed in representing me. And it failed thousands of women who believed the promises that their representation mattered. Because it does matter. It’s not only a matter of the quality of our lives. It’s often a matter of life and death. If the Holby City powers-that-be, if anyone who played a part in the Berena storyline, truly cared about the women they chose to represent, especially the young women in our community, and especially the newly out, they would have gone out of their way to tell them it gets better. We lose so many in our community, our friends and our loved ones, every year because they don’t see it getting better. Because they learn how society views them from shows like Holby City. And society learns how to treat us from shows like Holby City. We are one of the demographics most vulnerable to suicide, and we are one of the demographics most vulnerable to attack.

It’s so frustrating to challenge a monolith like the BBC. It’s so frustrating to challenge the way wlw stories are told in our heteronormative society. Because that’s not the way our stories are. I am a lesbian. If I am challenging the stories told about me, it is because they are inaccurate. I am the one who lives my life, and therefore I am the one who knows. It really is as simple as that. If the people whose stories I challenge just keep repeating the reasons why they have their story of me, they never actually hear my story. They remain in their heteronormative bubble. They never see what it is like, to be me. And if they don’t see what it is like to be me, they will never be able to represent me.

So the BBC has failed me. So its complaint department has failed me. So the Holby City powers-that-be have failed me. So all who played a part in the Berena storyline have failed me. And thousands of women like me. Because all the reasons for the Berena storyline I have heard since last December – that drama needs drama, that the storyline developed in a way that heteronormative audiences would expect, that couples never end happily on shows like Holby, that Serena needed storylines, that other characters needed to develop, that actresses were not available, that (gasp) they didn’t kill any lesbians – all these are just reasons for why society has the stories of me that it does. And just because those in power repeat these reasons over and over, it doesn’t make them true.

#BerenaDeservedBetter fractured over a decision to become more involved in the mainstream powers-that-be and therefore assist a greater number of women into these roles, or to stay on the fringes where our challenges would remain uninfluenced. So much has happened since last December, when we thought Berena had ended. It turned out it hadn’t. What was to come was far, far worse. I often think about that time, at the beginning. So many women challenged the women speaking out. They said the fandom would be punished if we did. That it was safer to remain silent. I chose to speak out. And I stand by that decision. Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? In a heartbeat. Silence is never the answer – that’s why we come out the closet. We have lost everything and nothing. Because it turns out we didn’t have it in the first place. All those promises of representation, they weren’t real. When the chips were down, when they would have had to take a stand or break their promises, those who had made the promises didn’t choose representation. We all know the result.

Holby City failed us. It failed Bernie Wolfe. And it failed Serena Campbell. We have seen exactly what its writers and executives think of strong, capable, independent, sexually aware older women. I hope Serena Campbell walks away from Holby City Hospital and never looks back. I hope she keeps walking. I hope she walks so far away that she finds her sunset. So far away that she walks through it and finds Bernie Wolfe, waiting for her on the other side. And I hope they keep walking, together. I hope that they walk so far away that they find their happy ending. Long live Bernie Wolfe. Long live Serena Campbell. Long live Berena. May they have their eternity.

By Payal Dhar and River Kingston

3 Replies to “Broken representation and our broken hearts, for eternity”

  1. Della Walker says: Reply

    Am crying as i read this it is so true. Thank you

  2. Julian Saunders says: Reply

    Honest, Heartfelt and agonisingly Accurate. There’s nothing I can add to what you have said, other than ‘Same’ xx

  3. Maggie Scarborough says: Reply

    Powerfully, honestly and beautifully written. Payal and River, you captured all that needed to be said. I loved your hope “that Bernie and Serena keep walking together; walk so far away that they find their happy ending.” I am so happy to know there are writers like you, Payal and River. You keep people honest.

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