Representation is about more than visibility

It’s about our stories

I was 14 years old when I finally found words for why I felt different. It was 1991, and my sister (13) and I had procured a video recording (remember those?) of the previous Saturday night’s episode of LA Law, and surreptitiously watched it when we came home from school. It was the “lesbian kiss episode”, where C.J. Lamb (played by Amanda Donohoe) kissed Abby Perkins (played by Michelle Greene). It was the first kiss between two women on American primetime television and it had, somehow, made its way to our scruffy, threadbare living room in rural apartheid South Africa. Our deeply conservative and religious (or, as my sister more kindly put it, “old-school”) parents had forbid us to watch it – so of course we watched it the first chance we got. That moment, lounging on the floor next to my (far less affected) younger sister, changed my life. For the first time, I felt visible, I felt solid. And I knew. That kiss told me two important things: the reason I felt different was because I wanted to kiss girls, and there were others like me. Suddenly, I was visible.

But it didn’t tell me anything else about myself, although it certainly told me a great deal about how the world perceived women like me, and the stories it told about me. A possibly lesbian, possibly bisexual, most definitely probably woman-loving-woman (wlw) character with a hint of the predatory about her, kisses a seemingly straight woman character and is never seen again. The heterosexual character goes on to a happy, long-term relationship with a man. At the age of 14, I felt doomed. I had suddenly, gloriously, been made visible, only to find myself in someone else’s story about me.

Visibility is not the same as representation, although, almost 30 years on from the “lesbian kiss episode” and with an increase in visibility of LGBTI+ people in mainstream media, the two words seem to be used interchangeably. Visibility – to be visible – is about being seen. Whereas representation – to be presented – is about being shown. Representation is very much about stories: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we tell about others, and which of those stories we choose to tell. Visibility and representation are separate but they interplay. To have representation I need to have visibility – to be shown I need to be seen. But to have visibility I don’t need representation, and therein lies the rub.

Berena as it currently stands is not about representation, although it used to be. The BBC Charter clearly focuses on both the representation and visibility of wlw in that it requires the public broadcaster to “overall provide a duly accurate and authentic portrayal and representation of diverse communities” – representation – with “particular regard to the need to reflect underrepresented communities” – visibility (Article 14). Put simply (and possibly oversimplifying), wlw visibility in a television show is about having wlw characters; representation is the stories the television show tells about these characters, and how these stories reflect the real-life experiences of the community they belong to. In other words, it is about how the characters are shown.

Looking at it like this, Berena is very obviously about wlw visibility. But this visibility was more nuanced. The romance of the Holby City characters Serena Campbell (played by Catherine Russell) and Bernie Wolfe (played by Jemma Redgrave) – two mature, professional (and professionally confident) wlw in their 50s – was unusual because it made visible the twice-invisible: older wlw. (Ofcom noted in 2018 that gay or bisexual men appeared on the BBC five times more often than wlw and that older LGBTI+ people seldom appeared at all.) And to begin with, Berena represented the underrepresented. Serena and Bernie’s falling in love and the development of their relationship followed a fairly standard trajectory for wlw relationships in real life. The storyline took visibility and did something beautiful with it. It told wlw stories. Berena became an “accurate and authentic portrayal” of our lives.

But in late 2018, things began to go horribly wrong and this tenuous interplay between visibility and representation began to unravel. When the stories told about wlw characters do not accurately reflect the real life experiences of the community these characters belong to, it is usually the result of stereotypes – easy generalisations that one group of people tells about another group of people and that benefit the group telling the story, not the group about whom the story is being told.

The storyline of the arrival of F1 Leah Faulkner on the AAU, the temptation and subsequent cheating of Serena, and the Berena breakup is a series of tropes and stereotypes rather than “a duly accurate and authentic portrayal” of wlw relationships. That wlw, particularly bisexuals, cheat (and will cheat with a younger woman); that wlw are predatory and there to tempt (think Leah’s continuous come-ons, her enigmatic “that’s what I’m here for” in reply to Serena’s “don’t tempt me”, and her disappearance from the show as soon as the deed was done); that although women can love each other (“for eternity”) and want to be together (“I cannot imagine a life without you”) they cannot lead happy and fulfilling lives together. But perhaps most troubling is that the overarching trope of this storyline is one of wlw’s sexuality reduced to just sex when, as every woman who exists outside heteronormativity knows, sexuality is about so much more than sex. 

Wlw characters ensure visibility but do not guarantee representation, because representation is dependent on stories, and whose stories the characters are being used to tell. Berena ceased to be representation the moment the storyline stopped telling wlw stories and became instead this series of tropes and stereotypes. These are the stories others tell about women-loving women. It’s as if Berena rode the wave of the 30 years of progress (and Berena was particularly progressive) in wlw visibility and representation since my own Sapphic awakening, and then just crashed. It became painfully obvious that there was no lesbian or bi script consultant on the Berena storyline by the time it ended – or if there was, that their advice went unheeded.

Wlw are still visible on Holby – Serena does ward rounds, Bernie for some reason seems to be mentioned weekly. But their break-up was told through a series of stereotypes and tropes. It’s not “a duly accurate and authentic” reflection. A happy ending (and don’t get me wrong, I am rooting for a happy ending) will not solve these representation issues, because the damage has already been done. Wlw have been written out of their own story.

2 Replies to “Representation is about more than visibility”

  1. Fantastic article. So clear and logical in the delivery. Everybody on holby needs to read this. In fact everybody who doesn’t quite get why this website was set up should read it. Well done.

  2. This is so clear – the difference between representation and visibility. I hope it helps programme makers understand better in future. Then at least the brilliant response to the Berena storyline debacle will have led to positive change. In my eyes, authentic representation helps consolidate visibility and acceptance of wlw throughout society and our culture. I feel we will need the cushion this provides as our society rides the waves of change.

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