By Fronia Rose Knott (@beforedesire)
Content warning: mention of suicidal thoughts
I have debated a long time about what to write about this topic. It’s something that has profoundly affected me, and I haven’t had the easiest time articulating why it’s been so difficult. I applaud all of the women who have stepped forward and voiced their concerns and their outrage—they spoke out when I could not. After reading some of the posts, I feel that perhaps it is my time to start articulating what exactly Berena meant to me, and why I was so devastated when it ended.
First, it is rare to see an older wlw couple on TV. More than that, it is rare to see two women come to terms with their sexuality later in life on TV. As someone who has long had crushes on older women, seeing Bernie and Serena together gave me hope that one day I too might find this type of friendship-turned-romance. It gave me hope that I might get married one day, that when I had fulfilled my passions professionally, there would be someone there to sustain me personally. I admired both women for their dedication to their professions, and as an academic, I empathized with their struggles to be the best professionally while things were crashing around them personally. To see them work through trauma together gave me hope that one day, I too could be there for someone I love.
So as you can see, above all else, Berena gave me hope.
Throughout my teenage years, I always thought I’d commit suicide. As dark as that sounds, it’s not far off base from my diagnosis and prognosis, both of which are quite serious without proper care. Even as I fought to get better, I didn’t dare hope for a happy future because of what doctors told me. They said people with my disorders do not have long, happy lives, much less fulfilling relationships. However, seeing Berena on screen gave me hope that, if I fought long and hard enough, when I was older, I too would have a shot at love and happiness. In Berena, I saw the best possibility for my future.
When it became clear that Bernie and Serena would be breaking up, I was devastated. I had invested years into this storyline, and, like many fans who don’t live in the UK, had to put in lots of time and effort just locating the episodes. I felt like all of the work I had put into this TV show was being thrown back in my face. Two people that I’d come to love were never going to be the same. When the split became inevitable, I felt my pessimism and cynicism kick in. “Of course they broke up,” I heard myself saying. “This is TV. Who gives lesbians happy endings on TV?” And sadly, that is how it’s been. Besides a few rare instances, we never see lesbians get happy endings on our TV shows. And it’s killing wlw audiences. For me, Berena’s breakup was confirmationthat I would also never have a happy future. If they couldn’t make it, then I certainly wouldn’t make it in my own relationships. I lost hope for them, but perhaps most disappointing was the fact that I lost hope for myself.
Out of the two characters, I’d always favored Serena, and I found myself gravitating toward her. My personality disorder makes it hard for me to nail down who I am as a person, and to fill those gaps, I often look towards my favorite characters for quirks and mannerisms that I find personally appealing. This isn’t exclusive to people with personality disorders – in academic studies, this kind of identification is commonly noted in fan behaviour of all sorts. As Kathleen Smith writes in The Fangirl Life, “we could all benefit from adopting some of the traits we admire in fictional characters.” Taking on traits from fictional characters that I love is nothing new—I have done this before when I wanted to be academic like Hermione Granger, when I wanted to be scientific like Dana Scully, or when I wanted to be political like Laura Roslin. In this case, I found myself becoming more like Serena. In fact, my ex-girlfriend used to call me “Campbell” and had me listed as such in her phone; I used to call her “Major.” I started wearing leopard print, drinking Shiraz, and I even considered enrolling in a business class or two. Serena gave me confidence—I walked with more purpose, I spoke more often, I went out with friends—Serena gave me the ability to inhabit a space where I could be confident, sassy, and sexy, something that I’d never been able to do before. Another thing I loved about Serena was that she didn’t fit the stereotypical mold of tall and thin. She had a body that looked like mine, and that representation was something I craved. Serena allowed me to become more authentically myself through her confidence and charisma. When Serena fell in love with Bernie, it made me feel even more confident in my sexuality, as well. I felt braver to speak about my gayness, to hold hands in public, to be out and proud.
But then came the Twitter drama. Catherine started tweeting more and more problematic things. I tried to ignore them, but they just didn’t stop. Finally, I responded to a tweet about her feeling uncomfortable that women were putting on makeup on the train. As someone who puts on her makeup during their commute, I felt personally called out by her tweet and said as much. It also got me thinking… if she was that uncomfortable with women putting on makeup, how would she feel if it was a man putting on makeup? After voicing my opinion, I was blocked. Needless to say, I was crushed. Catherine was the main reason I joined Twitter in the first place, and now, I found myself on the wrong end of her fandom. Part of my personality disorder is called “splitting,” which means that I can go from absolutely loving something to completely hating it. I felt myself splitting after I was blocked. Immediately, I had to get rid of everything Serena-related in my life. I didn’t want to wear leopard print; I threw out all of my leopard print shirts. I stopped drinking Shiraz. Things that had once been a staple in my life were things that I couldn’t look at anymore. I was unrecognizable to myself. I couldn’t look at pictures of Catherine without feeling triggered. I couldn’t rewatch my favorite episodes anymore. I didn’t want to hear her voice. I took my fan fiction off of AO3, wanting to distance myself from the fandom. Fan fictions that I’d grown to love and reread over and over again were now a source of pain—I couldn’t look at them anymore. What had become a cornerstone of my life was ripped away by the careless blocking by someone who I thought was my ally.
And I wasn’t the only one who was blocked for my comments, either. Lots of fans who took to Twitter to say anything negative about the way Berena ended found themselves being muted or blocked. The silencing of our voices is something that I did not expect from someone who called themselves our ally. While it is hard for anyone to receive criticism or negative feedback, it is inevitable for someone in the public eye to receive comments from audience members—especially now when something they loved so dearly was ripped away from them. Instead of listening like an ally, Catherine blocked people, only commented and liked posts that were blindly supportive, and alienated herself from anyone who spoke against what had transpired. From her Twitter interactions, it appears that she took the critique of the show and the storyline as a personal attack. While some may say that it was her job and she could not speak out about the issues, it is clear from her response to the positive feedback that this is simply not the case. In short, we as an audience had been baited and dragged along by both Catherine and Holby City, with promises like “Keep the Faith” and “Wait.” The June episode left us all hopeful and happy, but by December, our hopes were crushed. Neither Catherine nor Holby City/BBC would admit that they’d done anything wrong.
The Twitter incident taught me an unfortunate if not important lesson—that people who are Straight™ do not have the same depth of understanding about queer representation. Their livelihoods are not at stake. They get to go home and have their happy spouses and children, they do not have to fight for their right to love, they get to be loving in public—they do not suffer. It is easy to be an ally when things are going right, but it is clear that when things get tough, their ideological prejudices and upbringing will win out. And it’s devastating to find out that people you thought cared actually don’t. Not just devastating, it’s harmful. I thought that I had someone to look up to in Catherine, someone who could represent a future me. Instead, all I got was someone who portrayed a cheater, someone who took the easy way out, someone who, in the end, was anything but an ally.
I suppose perhaps the bigger question here is: what do we as a queer audience expect from our allies? And another question: what could have been done differently in this situation? First, I think it’s important for actors who are active on social media to take care to listen to all opinions, even the ones that are not favorable. If audiences say that they are hurt by something that’s been done on TV, actors should take the time to listen thoughtfully. Catherine didn’t just take on a role, but the role of a queer woman. Initially, she was very receptive to audience feedback and opinion about the character, but following the breakup, she seems to have completely changed her stance by discounting audience reaction—an audience that she is representing through Serena. It was clear from the beginning that this relationship was very important to audiences: fans flocked to conventions to hear the actresses speak, many followed on social media, and even more tuned in every week to see their favorite couple.
I also think it’s important for writers, directors, and actors to work to actively avoid falling into harmful clichés and stereotypes about their queer characters, namely, the cheating bisexual trope that Serena fell into. While the character of Leah was added to inevitably add drama to the storyline, there could have been a million different ways to have her interact with Serena. She could have flirted, could have tempted her, but she could have served as a catalyst to reaffirm Serena’s love for Bernie. And to be fair, Holby City did give a “middle finger” to the dead gay trope in 2017, when they had Serena drinking Shiraz on the roof instead of throwing herself off, which tells me that not only are they aware of the tropes, but (at that time) they were also doing something to work against them.
I hope that in the future, I can guard my heart against this kind of hurt again. Hope is so fragile and special, but it is so often abused. The BBC and Holby City has abused our trust, and it is not something that will be mended without direct action. I hope that I can find a new role model to look up to. I hope that y’all can, too. This isn’t over, we are just beginning.
Berena deserved better. We all deserve better.
You can find links to LGBTQ+ mental health support services here.