Random thoughts on #BerenaDeservedBetter and the confusion at how a beautiful and rare fictional flowering was allowed to become the toxic shambles that BBC Holby City decided to unceremoniously dump on us – and then refuse to discuss with us.
Guest Post by Jojo
I am entirely admiring of those of you who created and continue the conversation that is #BerenaDeservedBetter. And all of your writing is beautiful. And often very moving. Thank you. I am now retired, out of any influential media networks, and gently past it… so not currently in a position to help the BDB in any practical way to make our case be heard. I can only offer you women my respect. Plenty of it.
This is the month of Brunei, and Saudi executions of 5 gay men (apparently for being gay. Just that), the intimidating demonstrations outside primary schools against Inclusive Relationships teaching, more of Trump’s homophobic posturing, and daily, daily, worldwide denial of rights and violence against gay people, disgustingly too frequently to death.
Crumbs are really really not enough. Please all of you keep rising to the top of the apathy blancmange. Demonstrating. Writing. Broadcasting. Explaining. Living honest lives in whatever manifestation works for you. Protest against prejudice, against bullying, against unequal rights, against hypocrites. And continue to try to open the eyes of people that smugly sit comfortably in their little bubbles and congratulate themselves on the sophistication*, selflessness and generosity of their Ally Status and Organisational ‘Good Lesbian Representation’ – all of which continues to be rewarded with media access, Gold Stars, assorted ribands and statuettes, and of course don’t forget the twitter ‘likes’. (* I smile that the original meaning of ‘sophistication’ was false, synthetic).
How can I start? A testimony maybe – as sought by a wonderful feisty clown and her partner who freeze their tits off at Elstree on a regular basis to try to improve lesbian lives.
I don’t have a social media presence – I am one of the Silent Lurkers (I apologise). I have nothing relevant to say on a daily basis, I am not accustomed to wishing ‘Sleep Tight’ to people I haven’t met, and there are just very limited quantities of cute animal videos before my brain melts. But Berena made me look from the outside at twitter, briefly even join it (it’s not a place for me, but thank you to the small group of generous souls who briefly followed me).
Here goes……….. Please bear with me!
I used to actually *be* Serena. In unnervingly many ways. The *good parts* of her professionally, I hasten to add… (I do freely confirm though she’s better-looking than I was at the same age). I was an NHS consultant physician, additional senior management roles, teacher/mentor, head of department. All that Serena stuff, all those degrees and diplomas, with bells and whistles on. Even the brightly coloured silk shirts (but I drew the line at leopard spots) worn with black trousers (even a smart black skirt many decades ago). And I too never wore stilettos – you just try heels in a 14 hour working day spent mostly on your feet. I was even, thank you fanfic, Brunette.
But I was I hope less snarky than Serena could sometimes be, certainly I was less Machievellian, and god forbid never ever even a sniff, so to speak, of a charmless fumble with a junior doctor in the on-call room… And to add to the confusion and conflation, my wonderful partner of many decades is more than slightly Bernie – officer in the armed forces, then senior management roles in healthcare. And Blonde. And skin tight jeans sometimes. Just as beautiful as Bernie too (truly!). And, yes, for many years, she even has a Mazda MX5. 2
And us older (we are noticeably past middle-age now I’m sad to say) pair of lesbians had never, ever, ever, seen a lesbian couple remotely like us in films, TV or books. Never our age. Never flirty and sexual. Never successful at work. Never people lucky enough to have good mental health (quite often something of a challenge for us though, as with most bullied and disadvantaged minorities). Never saw fictional gay women leading high-end urban professional lives. Never saw a couple staying together and being happy (except we did at least have that one thing in common with Cay and Vivian in the wonderful Desert Hearts – my god, was that film 30 years before its time). Too too often saw one of the couple deciding she ought to return to her hetero life. And didn’t someone in one awful film or another decide to leave her lesbian lover to become a nun?
In fact we very rarely saw fictional lesbians who were not actually imprisoned – or about to be arrested for some hideous crime or other. Or serial cheats. Or on the edge of, or deeply immersed in, profound mental illness or addiction. Or rich glitzy silicon dykes leading ludicrous semi-pornographic lives. Or the ultimate, frequent, trope of course – in the throes of actual rigor mortis. (Is that a thing? – does rigor mortis actually have ‘throes’? I should know, I am a doctor after all).
And then Berena…
We had never watched Holby before that evening. Like some others have said, it was completely by chance. One day we were waiting for a programme and switched the television on by mistake an hour early, only to stare, stunned, Life in the Freezer, at two beautiful mature women, apparently senior doctors, kissing each other in their office. Bloody hell – what *is* this? Gracious me… How lovely.
Us two battle-hardened veterans were however, by the end of the same episode, immediately alerted to the likely outcome of this affair, even echoing Serena’s later words – “Well – surprise, surprise.” we said, (I would insert an eye roll emoji thingy here – if I knew what one looked like), “The dark-haired one more or less told the blonde one she had fallen in love with her. And now the blonde (is that Bernie? That’s an odd name?) has, of course, buggered off to Kiev. Never mind eh, at least it makes a welcome change from one or both of them being fatally attacked by a random poisonous tropical reptile wandering the NHS corridors. But Bernie will probably get shot in the Ukraine – stray Russian fighter plane…”. So, the cynics amongst us could say we were primed from the beginning.
But that particular week, we foolishly somehow let naïve optimism overtake a lifetime of disappointment and anger as to how lesbian life stories were treated in all mainstream media. And so we devoured the total Youtube back catalogue of Serena, Bernie and Berena (and no thanks to the BBC for since then removing the excerpts on copyright grounds – taking full episodes off Youtube is understandable but removing brief fandom character videos seems pathetically fussy and unnecessary. But now, two years on, I understand better the sort of minds that appear to run most of the august Broadcasting Corporation).
We loved the back catalogue of Berena scenes – romantic, flirty, witty, beautifully acted, rang true to what really could have happened in a workplace that we both knew so well. My partner and I had met at work after all. And so – very very strange, so alien to us both – we became totally hooked on Berena. Excited, addicted, all anticipatory and delighted – and we began to dip into a whole new world. Before then ‘fandom’ meant absolutely nothing to either of us, ‘shipping’ was the merchant marine, ‘canon’ more Her Majesty’s marine, ‘trope’ still meant to turn towards, and ‘fanfic’ was probably a rare genetic disease. And while I understood, sort of, what Facebook did, Twitter had escaped me.
A little background – I came out of the closet for the first time in 1968. Not to many people, but I identified as definitely not ‘straight’ and very definitely not on the university swap-partners-fortnightly hetero dating roundabout. But I lived in London so Vietnam protests, some radical feminism beginning to flower from the USA and leaking over the Atlantic (and a few years later, all those Cris Williamson and Meg Christian records. Still have the vinyls…), and the Gateways and the Sols Arms provided some sort of wondering and wandering. Which was good, and fun.
But I never fitted in. I wore a pearl necklace and Bond Street shoes, not dungarees. I voted Tory, repeatedly even. I adored high-opera and evening-dress dinner parties. And I was trying to progress in university and junior posts in a then extremely conservative and paternalistic profession. And, 20 years before I met her, my partner was busy, as the innocent bystander, trying not to be courts martialled in the military because of being very enthusiastically chased by a senior female officer who had a crush on her. My partners’ letters were read by lawyers, her parents were called in to the Base to be lectured to, and assorted other delights. You of younger years may not recognise such a tableau (and we are both truly thankful for that). Except perhaps from lesbian fiction…
But I trotted on, so to speak, proud (probably silly of me) before Pride existed, trying to cut some sort of honourable path between what society – often in the newspapers, on a daily basis – called perverted, but I knew in my heart and head was entirely normal just somewhat in the minority. By the early 70s I was fully out, family, socially and at work. That’s what I needed and wanted. Be true to yourself. But because of my honesty I lost opportunities, lost promotions (which continued, on an occasional and rather subtle basis, until the day of my retirement), and to my sadness lost a number of friends. A few were disgusted, full stop. A few were too confused and ignorant to bother to deal with it. A couple of others, it became clear decades later, were closet lesbians… Didn’t want to get too near to the ‘ramming it down throats person’, I guess? (Don’t forget, if you are gay, ‘ramming it down throats’ means mentioning, when asked, the correct pronoun of the person you love and share your life and bed with).
Exploring that other GirlsLovingGirls must exist started for me at the age of 12 with my then one and only findable, and unfortunately actually read, lesbian book – ‘The Well of Loneliness’. Christ on a bike, one really needs that book, not, while trying to sort out your sexuality in your early teens… It is such a huge delight to see the thousands of books and TV/films with gay stories that are now available. Coming out for the first time is seldom 100% a delight at any age but at least younger WLW can now find plenty of evidence that people like them exist and most of them live very happy and fulfilling lives.
OK – I’m off-piste now, sorry. Back to Berena. But maybe the above explains two things – why my partner and I (and I suspect many many other older lesbians) just *fell* on Berena and, secondly, why we were cynical from the start – not even the hype of a self-fulfilling prophecy, just a bog-standard experiential prophecy which was then fulfilled by a paltry bunch of, at best, unprepared sort-of-well-wishers, and at worst, arrogant pretenders.
Berena before Kiev was for us just magical. It really meant something very profound, to see ourselves reflected positively for the very first time in our entire lives, and in a pre-watershed family show watched by (now diminishing, and I am not at all surprised) millions. But our cynicism about Happy Endings for Fictional Lesbians comes from a lived long life as Out in Real Life Lesbians.
Along with thousands of others we have gone through some unenticing homophobic decades, even for most of that time living in a mostly generous and gentle England. Section 28… The formal complaint made about me to a professional body after I had instigated disciplinary procedures with a dangerously incompetent male doctor “Because you can tell from her sordid private life that she hates men”. The ‘looks’ when my love and I hold hands in public. The hospital, the solicitor, the bank manager, who refused to share information with the ‘not-husband’. A friend, we had thought a good one, giving us separate bedrooms when we stayed with her. And most bizarrely, an actual guest at our Civil Partnership who ranted on for some time about how unfair it was that two lesbians could get the tax and inheritance advantages that she would very much like to share with her sister… On and on and on and on.
But, on a lighter side, the ludicrous worldwide pantomime of 30+ years of the Hotel Reception Two-Step Tango – when we arrange for only one of us to turn up at the desk so they don’t withdraw our booking of a room with a double bed. Many, even most, of you will know what I am talking about. Tedious stuff isn’t it? And none of this *ever even features* on hetero radars, they have *no* concept of how this drip drip of disrespect and prejudice and discomfort affects people’s lives (but I refer to sexuality only – not to ethnic origin, or religion etc. I once worked with a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian. I nearly wrote to the Queen to ask her to give her some sort of medal. Just for having the guts and humour to live a good life and be wonderful).
And that godforsaken question (rarer now for us two, but it still happens) “When did you come out?”. The answer is “*Almost every single day of my adult life*”. It is without an end. The formal business stuff, I have a wife not a husband – will you *please* sort out your official forms. The doctor’s receptionist last week. The plumber called to the apartment – two women live there but there is only one bedroom. The keen male admirers we have both had – 10, 20, 30 years ago. The two of us together trying out (yesterday as it happens!) super-king mattresses in the shop before buying one. *It never stops*. It is often demoralising and tiring, and sometimes unsafe.
Us out lesbians have to expose ourselves to random judgement and prejudice on a daily basis. Quite often it is OK, sometimes it is not. Life can easily become diminished like that. And then people dare to judge lesbians for often having fragile mental health? And for becoming too ‘invested’ as in “It’s only fiction you silly girls, get over it”, and “Berena aren’t real, grow up” and “Keep the faith” and “Drama needs drama”. And, I haven’t read the original, but what precisely was that recent tosh about from Simon Harper in Diva magazine about Berena and ‘sexy’ and ‘linen cupboards’?
Hear this, you self-proclaimed and untested allies. You superficial people-that-be who smirk that you have provided wonderful representation. Imagine having to explain, even to well-disposed people, almost every day of your life, why you ‘choose’ to live your *heterosexual* life, if such a life, like ours, is attacked on a daily basis by someone somewhere, some article somewhere, some church somewhere, some fascist politician somewhere. And, (maybe a minority opinion?) never underestimate the profound and innate dislike that some gay men have for gay women…
Holby City really did not have to do to Berena what they did to them. The dull little challenge – not drama, not enjoyable – we had watching each Holby episode of “Shall we see some happiness? Shall we see the relationship deepening and becoming (pre-watershed) sexual. Shall we see the love and respect? Please say so. We deserve that. Berena deserves that”. But instead we chuntered to each other, discouraged and resigned, “Oh bloody hell – look what they have done this week – she can’t even hold Bernie’s hand in the car park”, “They are in a brand new sexual relationship – have you actually noticed them even touch each other over the last 6 episodes?”. “Oh look a lovely silly Swedish wedding and hang on, what is this? Oh terrific… Nephew near death and surely they are not going there? Wait for it, oh yes they are. Ventilator switched off. Daughter dead”. And the farcical toxic spiral of Serena bullying her staff and loved ones. And, yawn yawn – will she jump off the roof or not? FFS, give us a break. And then, all mixed messages and emotional chaos, “Good god, Serena has just left Bernie crying in the corridor and gone to see the baby by herself. Holby have actually scripted and directed that?”.
And so the final tawdry unimaginative misplaced (insert your own adjective here) cheating storyline. “You have to be *kidding*, the bizarre pixie junior doctor? Hand on thigh. Come back to my place. Oh super, now the (very strange) kiss. Oh, of course, into the on-call room, while on duty, for a quick and nasty shag”. (By the way, dismissible offence in the NHS for the consultant concerned). “They have to be *bloody joking* – she has just given lacy knickers to Serena! And Serena has shown more affection and tenderness to Pixie than she has to Bernie this entire year”.
So, Berena destroyed. Just like that. And Serena herself destroyed – the character is now but a shadow, physically and mentally, of her former deeply attractive personality and professionalism. Fans baited, gaslighted and patronised. For nigh on two years. Well-paid Big Corporation cowards who will not respond to polite and thoughtful comments on why this was all apparently necessary. Even ‘brave and sparky’… Ha bloody ha.
We so deserved better. A little respect. A little kindness. A little comprehension of what the Berena story meant to so many women and girls. A very special fictional creation was murdered. It did not have to be done the way it was. It was not funny, or clever, or creative. It was offensive and deeply juvenile, and also either spiteful or incompetent – take your pick. Might well have been both.
Good real life continues, as it should. Berena was after all fiction. But I am not going to write ‘just fiction’ – Berena metamorphosed organically to actually be something much more important than that. But we pair of resilient Gay Ladies still sometimes talk, with little tinges of sadness now and then, about the Splendid Lesbian Creation we were all very nearly enriched by.
Please, please could all you BDB women continue what you are doing to try to make sure that this disrespectful, cheap and tropey rubbish happens less and less frequently in the future – particularly when produced by a publicly funded broadcaster. Kudos and love to you all.