But they didn’t kill any lesbians!

Bandaid

Yesterday morning I woke up to a Twitter storm. Since December 2018, that’s been par for the course—someone associated with Holby City makes an ill-judged comment and the fandom rises up. This time, however, it was different. DIVA, the British magazine dedicated to LBT culture, seemed to be somehow involved in it. Someone I’d met on the Berena Deserved Better (BDB) campaign had left me a Twitter private message, saying: “That DIVA article has me seriously fucking depressed/possibly dissociative and I realised you might feel that way too, so wanted to send a virtual hug.”

The word on the metaphoric gossip alleys of social media, as I discovered after some amateur-sleuthing, was that Simon Harper had been interviewed by DIVA about the Berena break-up, and he had blamed Jemma Redgrave for the ending of Berena.

My first reaction was: How does a man who has refused to engage with any of the fallout from Berena (to the extent of arranging to have a representative with a protest letter signed by 280 people from around the world turned away from the gates) get a platform on one of the most acclaimed magazines for WLW? It’s a question that I still haven’t found an answer to.

But, I told myself, at least they hadn’t killed any lesbians.

*

Like gossip mills of any kind, the one on the web can be somewhat over-dramatic as well. In this case, “interview of Simon Harper” translated to: he had been quoted in a longer piece on the history of lesbian TV. “Blaming Jemma Redgrave”: well, let’s put it this way, a Holby executive was quoted saying everything except her name. Neither of which is to say there wasn’t fire to all the smoke.

In a three-page feature called “It started with a kiss…”, Jacquie Lawrence takes the reader through the history of lesbian TV, “from Brookside to Berena”. And when the timeline alights on Casualty and Holby City, Simon Harper is quoted expansively. Harper is the executive producer for both these shows based in the fictional, drama-prone city of Holby.

Harper claims that, since this is 2019, they “approach LGBTQI characters in exactly the same way as the straight ones—as complex. Which is to say, flawed, sometimes heroic, sometimes not, sometimes bravely doing the right thing and saving the day, sometimes screwing up in both their jobs and their relationships.” He adds that Holby City has always been a “sparky, sexy show”, its characters not above a tryst in the linen cupboard, “so to speak”. The freedom of a same-sex couple to be “just as free in this respect as a straight couple has a powerful significance”, he says.

“I’ve never killed a lesbian,” says Casualty event writer Barbara Machin a bit later, “they’re too rare”. Fizz Milton, a former BBC Drama executive, is the one who specifically addresses the Berena backlash. “The machinations of drama production are complex and complicated. So much is being decided and negotiated behind the scenes. If an actress wants to leave the series, then relationships have to end otherwise the storyline will dwindle into a long-distance relationship with an invisible and silent partner… This can often create a space in the storyline for another lesbian character to inhabit.”

The space left by Bernie Wolfe, mathematically speaking, is large enough to accommodate not one but TWO whole other lesbians who, Harper promises, will “make some major waves”. The story ends with Machin declaring that while “being lesbian in society is seen as no big deal”, showing a WLW couple on television is—but that this is the right time for a push on having more les/bi stories

Well, they didn’t kill any lesbians. That’s good, right?

*

Let us pause here for a deep breath.

Deep breath done. Let’s get that magnifying glass out.

First of all, the timing, tone and author of the article make it difficult to pass the whole thing off as coincidence. Considered all together, it seems like an advertorial for the BBC, trying desperately to look like an authentic feature. (There is no mention of the death of a certain South Asian Muslim lesbian in a certain other soap.) Turns out, not only did DIVA give them the space to “defend the indefensible” (yes, I did that on purpose), but they let Holby get away with apologist nonsense, such as saying they treat their queer couples “just like the straight ones”. More or less the same words with which the BBC tried to fob off initial complaints. In fact, some of Simon Harper’s lines sound like they were straight out of the BBC Complaints Team’s pro-forma replies.

Second, if this was indeed a band-aid applied to the Berena backlash—and if this was what the BBC’s CEO Tim Davie meant when he said that our open letter was being taken seriously—then it is quite clear that they either didn’t read it, or if they did, they didn’t understand the first thing about what we are upset about. So…

ALL TOGETHER NOW, one last time for Simon Harper in the back, loud, and in bold, red letters: It’s not the break-up that we’re upset about (of course, we aren’t dancing in the street about it). it’s the sexualisation of wlw and the promiscuity stereotypes you used, the careless storyline to break Berena up (a two-minute afterthought well after Bernie had offered to commit to Serena), the viewing of Serena as only being worthy of romantic stories now that she has been identified as a “lesbian”.

Yes, yes, at least you didn’t kill any lesbians, we know.

*

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so heartbreakingly unjust that DIVA actually pedalled the “at least they didn’t kill them” line. Just one step away from “Wait!” and that it was “grown-up”. That they excused Holby for the tawdry second-thoughts crumbs they threw at us. That Serena’s infidelity with a woman young enough to be a daughter and then receiving lingerie from her was something that increased her lesbian-street-cred.

In fact, the entire Berena section of Lawrence’s feature has a distinctly patronising tone to it. It reeks of talking down to the viewers, and reads as if the harm caused or the baiting and lying by Holby City never happened. Harper’s “sparky, sexy” and linen cupboard references in terms of lesbian representation speaks directly of the sexualisation of WLW, at least in his head.

Machin’s statement about the exit of Bernie “leaving space for two more lesbians” is really a dead giveaway of how they regard the whole issue in the first place. It shows that, for them, it was just a matter of ticking boxes on a diversity checklist. Now that Bernie is gone, they can fill the gap by another lesbian. Oh wait, she was a powerhouse of a character, so make that two lesbians. Therefore, it is safe to put the question of whether they purposely crafted Berena to be a worldwide phenomenon to bed: they did not; it was an accident.

Perhaps the lowest point of the article is Machin’s remark about how being a lesbian “is no big deal in real life”. How does any publication aware of inclusivity get away with allowing something so shortsighted to be published without comment? How terribly classist of them all to deny the complex factors, including where you live and work, how much you earn, and the people you move with, that go into creating the lived realities of each of us.

This hurts because this is DIVA. This is our magazine, our platform, our champions. It is us. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. But here is DIVA telling us WE got it wrong. This is DIVA telling us that we are overreacting, that this is just a story and we should get over it. This is DIVA letting us know that they are not on our side. This is DIVA making a sweeping statement that the battle for respect and representation has been won on the terms of the likes of Simon Harper.

The author of the piece, Jacquie Lawrence, is a TV producer herself, and is on the board of the DIVA Media Group that was formed in February 2019. Fizz Milton, the ex-BBC exec also quoted in the story, is a fellow-board member. This topic presents a clear conflict of interest for both women, and what we see is that the programme makers’ network wins. Not lesbians, not bi women, not the people that DIVA claims to be for.

That at the end of the day, only money and contacts matter.

Oh, and that no lesbians were killed.

8 Replies to “But they didn’t kill any lesbians!”

  1. Very well said, PD. It is quite frustrating having to shout oneself hoarse that it’s not the break-up that’s the issue because it seems these guys are just not listening.

    Whereas actually they are listening and consciously choosing not to address the real issues. The BBC and its people have a much wider platform, a much bigger audience than the BDB campaign, and if the former keeps defending the accusations that were never made and ignoring the issues the campaign has raised, it works to the BBC’s strategic advantage. They can then direct the narrative in the direction they want it to go and garner public opinion against the campaign. After all, they have been in this game much longer than most people and know how to play it really well.

  2. absolutely brilliantly said

  3. A fab article. I am not a lesbian. I may be asexual or straight, at this point I don’t know and don’t particularly care, but I am however an LGBTQ ally and was delighted by Berena not only as representation as an older same-sex couple, but also as powerful women in the workplace. I’m currently studying for a BA Hons in English Literature and CW, in hopes of one day being a part of the industry. This article is well-written and I read the portion of the DIVA article. I’m so happy you guys have DIVA, and so disappointed in them. Simon Harper comes across as tone-deaf.

    The way I look at representation, whether it be right or wrong, is that they are important. I find it comforting that I see women with short hair like I have, never mind in terms of something as intrinsic to our identity as sexual orientation. My question to Simon would have simply been: would this have been done to a straight couple?

    Holby is a continuing drama, is has had couples come and couples go and whilst Berena did not survive, it was poorly handled. I personally want to know what changed between the summer episodes and the winter break-up. Whether this was a product of bad writing or bad timing? A long distance couple is a headache, yes, but not insurmountable. Or at least, it wasn’t for a few months. But many relationships happen off-screen. We only see part of their lives at the hospital, that’s the deal. Johnny, for instance, Jac’s ex and father of her child. He is no longer part of the drama, yet we hear of him. Ric and all of his weddings, or Fletch with all of his children that we only rarely see. Bernie isn’t just an off-screen character like some sort of Mrs Wolowitz from the Big Bang Theory. She was present in the show for a long time and we know her. Why would this be any different than Johnny, or Hanssen and his family, or Ric and his? Especially now with Cameron working at the hospital.

    They didn’t kill any lesbians. True. But just because they are off-screen, doesn’t make them dead to the world.

    But that’s just the argument concerning them breaking up in the first place. The harm, I feel, is what has come of how they broke up. The fact that they seemingly broke up due to the same issues they had in previous episodes that they overcame. The fact that it was rushed, and cheap, with the feel of a quick rewrite. The fact we had had a scene previous that said this new issue of Leah was not a reason to break up. Serena’s cheating in the first place!

    It is interesting to note as well, that these two episodes, whilst being a two-parter, were not written by the same people. And the last episode? That was written by someone who had never done a Berena-centric episode… and was a man.

    I feel an explanation is owed. It’s disheartening for a writer like me to see how this has been handled, and to see the pain it has caused and the damage it has done. And now what? Serena is fine. There seems to be no fall out from her breaking up with a woman she has been with for years, no emotional toll or consequence for her cheating. Indeed, she seems to have rather gotten away with that!

    I don’t mean to sound callous, but what was the breakup *for*? Drama cannot just happen for drama’s sake, and I wonder what we are being led to, if anything. If we look at the spring trailer? Nothing. Instead, Serena is once again the mother hen of AAU, with a manageable minute of screen time and very little else to do but “Netflix and Cheese”.

    Poor show, Holby.

  4. Bloody Dead Brilliant!

    Thank you, Payal, and everyone involved here for keeping on.

  5. Well said. You are right, they really don’t get it. I’m not looking forward to the two new lesbians they’re bringing in later this year – this feels immensely patronising. I’m sick to the back teeth of the inferences that it’s Jemma’s fault – I don’t believe them because they never name her. Oh, and, if you also watch Casualty, there’s a new lesbian in that too – she’s a fucking stalker. Thanks, but no thanks, Simon Harper.

  6. It’s just one slap in the face after another. Simon Harper should be nowhere near Diva. Next we’ll be having C Russ talking about being ally of the year. Basically if they just keep throwing lesbians in the mix, then people will just be quiet. I mean some are stupid enough to lap it up after the disaster on and off screen. Not me. Holby turning their back, C Russ, turning her back, members of the fandom that was turning their back. And now Diva. Well played everyone 👏

  7. Julian Saunders says: Reply

    Fucking well said!!!!!!!!!

  8. fucking_glorious says: Reply

    😠👏👏👏👏👏👏😡👏👏👏👏👏👏🤬
    Okay now that I’ve attempted to get across how furious I am at the DIVA article but impressed by your article I can write something more coherent.
    How ignorant and elitist of this individual to suggest that being a lesbian is no big deal! The ignorance is mind boggling. How dare they belittle the continued struggle of so many women. It’s ignorant of intersectionality, of real life facts, it’s like a masturbatory fluff piece for all the creatives who want a FUCKING AWARD for doing the bare minimum and using it as a shield to get away with doing harm. Okay, so maybe the emojis didn’t convey all the anger.

    Phenomenal piece Payal

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