River took some time away from the campaign to reflect on what this experience has taught her so far. Here’s what she’s learned
When the cheating storyline aired in November/December and Berena broke up, I was devastated. It was an emotionally calamitous time for me. I was furious at yet another stereotypical, derogatory portrayal of women-loving women (wlw) and our relationships, and frustrated because I felt, yet again, that I couldn’t do anything about it. I was angry, but the anger was born of disappointment and a lifetime of raging against a world I don’t quite fit, and doesn’t ever seem able to fit me. I found myself thinking that yet again something beautiful, that I understood and identified with and took to represent me, had been ruthlessly taken away and destroyed. The effect on my mental health was devastating, and I know I am not the only oneto have been so badly affected.
I joined the group of women who went on to form #BerenaDeservedBetter soon after the breakup. There were 13 of us, from four continents, all angry, all disappointed, all wanting to do something but not really knowing what. I don’t like being silent. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, I have learnt that my past silences have not protected me and I know that when I am faced with something that harms me, that causes me emotional pain, keeping quiet about it is not going to stop the harm. It is only likely to continue it. #BerenaDeservedBetter was born of our discussions and our support of each other, our anger and our disappointment and our hurt, to provide a shared voice for our community to support each other through the devastating aftereffects of the storyline, and to provide a platform for those who wanted to explore and/or challenge the representation of wlw on mainstream television.
But in these past five months, I have learnt some very hard truths, and my anger has given way to my having to take a serious look at my mental health and the effect of Berena and its aftermath on me. In an effort to look after myself, I have stepped back from the campaign for a while, and begun to look at how I am feeling. This is not an easy process for me. Like Bernie Wolfe, I am more of an action person than a sit-down-and-talk-it-through person. #BerenaDeservedBetter provided that action, that doing something to improve the situation I found myself in. It helped me process some of what I was going through, but it didn’t take my emotions away.
I’m a sensitive soul. Like Hannah Gadsby argues in Nanette, my sensitivity is my strength – it has helped me, and continues to help me, negotiate a very difficult path through life. So when, as has happened these past five months, the BBC complaints department, Ofcom, Holby City executives, certain Holby Cityactresses, and even some of the Berena fandom, kept telling me, and others, to stop being so sensitive (and Hannah is right, it is always yelled, even if metaphorically), I began to question why. In the case of our Berena fandom and living as a wlw in our society, not being so sensitive can, temporarily, provide a measure of relief and safety, but ignoring emotional harm can never protect us from it. If we do as we are told, and stop being so sensitive (however one does that), the people who cause the emotional harm don’t have to be so sensitive towards us. Sensitivity is a basic component of maturity. I understand that my actions affect others, and that other’s actions have the potential to affect me. Sensitivity holds people to account. Being told to stop being so sensitive is like being told to revert to the emotional maturity and interaction skills of a ten-year-old. Which probably says a great deal about the people who create TV like Berena, and the broadcasting standards that hold them to account.
I didn’t expect the knock on my mental health to be this bad, and being told to stop being so sensitive makes me feel like it’s my fault I feel this way, that I took Berena too seriously, it’s only a story after all. Yet my time away from #BerenaDeservedBetter to try process how I feel has enabled me to understand something of why I feel this way – those hard truths I mentioned earlier. It turns out it’s not only the storyline that has impacted my mental health, but some really hard truths about Berena itself and its aftermath.
The first hard truth I had to come to terms with was that Berena, and the international phenomenon it became, was an accident. Comments and interviews from executive producer Simon Harper, other Holby Cityexecutives, and Catherine Russell (who plays Serena Campbell), have shown again and again that they use the terms “representation” and “visibility” interchangeably, and don’t seem to understand that they’re not the same thing. So at some point, Berena was going to come crashing down because it was not set up as representation. It was not set up to tell wlw stories; it was set up to tell stories about wlw characters within a heteronormative media framework. In this, it is more than “just a story”. Stories show us who we are as a society. They show us our values; they form our collective social imaginary. Stories show us what we as a society think. From the Berena storyline I learnt, yet again (because I have learnt it before, and will likely learn it again), what society thinks of me and women like me. The effect of this knowledge on my mental health is devastating, every time, no matter how much I try for it not to be.
The second hard truth I learnt is that straight actresses playing wlw characters cannot be allies for as long as they are financially dependent on, and psychologically embedded in, the heteronormativity of mainstream television. This one hurts, this one really hurts. I learnt that two actresses I looked up to and respected, who I thought understood something of wlw and our lives because they played wlw characters and because, in interviews, they said how important it was that they played these characters, didn’t actually have a clue. When it all came crashing down, they didn’t have the moral backbone, or the financial independence, or the understanding, or whatever was needed, perhaps not even the care, to take a stand for the community they represented when playing these characters (and made money from, because these were paying roles).
It’s additionally hard because my body responds to them. When I see pictures or screencaps of Berena (I cannot yet re-watch the episodes, it’s too painful), I know that neither actress was able to take a moral stand for me. Yet my body betrays me. Both are incredibly physically attractive women. At the sound of Serena’s voice, that fission of attraction runs right through me, and my heart betrays me. All I can think is how much Serena loved Bernie, how the timbre of her voice would change when she said, “my darling Bernie”. My heart breaks. Every time.
A truth I have found myself re-learning in the aftermath of Berena is that people on the margins will actively participate in their own marginalization and ensure the circumstances that create that marginalization are perpetuated. They will keep quiet. They will argue that challenging the Berena storyline will scare the Holby powers that be off Bernie returning, not seeing that the only thing this tells Holbyexecutives is that fans accept her leaving, and that we agree with a stereotypical cheating storyline that has caused so much emotional harm.
I have learnt that in order to speak, one has to knowthat one has the right to. To demand more than living on the edges of society, people have to know they have a right to this. Not a right that they earn, or that they deserve, or that they have to work for or prove themselves worthy of, but a birthright, simply for being who they are. But this requires the very things we usually don’t have because we are marginalized. It requires good mental health. Perhaps this is self-worth. Or knowing that we have value. But we will never learn this in a society in which our stories as wlw are not valued. We don’t learn this from television shows that destroy Berena with a storyline filled with harmful stereotypes simply for “drama”.
I have learnt that one group of people cannot speak for another group of people, that to do so is privilege. And I now know how blindingly obtuse people, however liberal, can be about their own privilege. Simon Harper (a gay man), straight actresses, and executives in the heteronormative framework of mainstream television cannot speak for or represent wlw. The problem is expounded because they are in a position to determine wlw culture. We are so starved for wlw content, especially on mainstream television, that any relationships portrayed, we immediately ship. These become incorporated into our culture very quickly. But they are designed for mainstream audiences, not us. To tell our own stories through the heteronormative mainstream system, we need money and influence – neither of which people on the margins tend to have a lot of. So we will always end up with stories like Berena, stories that degenerate into negative and stereotypical portrayals of wlw, forming part of our culture and how we think about ourselves.
And I have learnt how conditioned I was to accept that. Before the Berena breakup, before #BerenaDeservedBetter, before I began talking with other women just as frustrated as myself, I had always just accepted these negative portrayals. At another killing of a lesbian on a soap opera I would simply have rolled my eyes and thought, “well, we all saw that coming”. At the cheating and subsequent breakup of a rare wlw relationship on primetime television (even rarer because the relationship was between two women in their 50s), and the emotional devastation this causes to the wlw community, I would have admonished myself with, “well, I’m not surprised they managed to ruin it”. This shocks me, just how much I was participating in my own marginalization and harm.
Finally, I have learnt that there are women in our fandom and our wider wlw community who are very vulnerable, and women in our fandom who do not care. I have learnt that bullying and blocking on Twitter and Facebook only serves to further isolate and marginalize these already vulnerable members of our community, and ensure that they are even less heard than what they were. I have learnt that there are certain actresses with a platform, role models, who actively encourage this bullying and blocking, with the consequence that the most vulnerable in our fandom have even less of a voice, and are even less supported. This has shocked me beyond what I can describe.
I don’t expect our fandom to be a unifying force, but I do expect people to be kind, an understanding that one looks after others who are in the same boat as oneself. It’s in our best interests after all – it ensures a better boat. From Jacquie Lawrence’s article in this month’s DIVA, the media executives who determine the storylines like Berena and Kana that cause so much harm have got this one off-pat. It’s also why straight actresses cannot be allies. They’re not in the boat. They may be good-willed, and well-intentioned, but they have no vested interest in our community.
These past few weeks, taking a break from #BerenaDeservedBetter, all I have found myself thinking is, “I should be saying something”. I have watched from the sidelines as other women, many of them women I have met since the campaign, have spoken up, taken on mainstream media, voiced their ideas and experiences. They continue to provide a platform for women who don’t usually have much of a voice, a shared experience for women who often feel isolated. It’s a big deal.
At the same time, my mental health has been such that I have struggled to participate with these women. I feel the hard truths I have learnt these past few months have so affected me because I have suddenly found myself disillusioned. When I joined #BerenaDeservedBetter, I knew wlw representation would not change overnight, in fact it would probably take years, but I did not expect the levels of insensitivity I have since encountered. There are some who would argue that to be dis-illusioned, to loose one’s illusions and the illusions of the world, is a blessing, a step in the right direction, that ignorance is not, indeed, bliss. I feel like I am mourning, not only for Berena, but for how I thought the world was. My time out to process has enabled me to understand that this sadness is a consequence of mainstream media executives’ (to quote Simon Harper in that DIVA article) “sparky, sexy” – rather than sensitive – decisions, and that these decisions won’t change until people – fans, actresses, writers, media executives, audiences, even magazine editors – start being more sensitive. To paraphrase Hannah again, insensitivity is not something to strive for, and hindsight is a gift.