Berena and ‘representation’

Some BBC responses to those submitting complaints about the Berena storyline in the latter parts of 2018 have claimed that the characters are not intended to represent the LGBTQ community. For example: “any character in a drama is an individual rather than a ‘type’ to represent whole groups of people”. While, clearly, Serena, Bernie, Fleur and Leah are all individuals, they are also the only (known) queer female characters in the cast of Holby City; Serena is the only such character on the regular cast. She and they undoubtedly have a role to play in representing women-loving women to and for viewers of the show.

Elsewhere, the BBC states: “Our ambition is to reflect and represent today’s UK in all our content and services.” (Note, this does not differentiate between fictional and non-fictional output.) In the corporation’s own research into their portrayal of LGB people (emphasis on LGB because these are their parameters, not ours), it was found that audiences wanted LGB characters in drama and entertainment to be portrayed with authenticity (i.e. not stereotype), and that lesbians and bisexuals were underrepresented. This report was produced in 2010, and the BBC Working Group on Portrayal and Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Audiences published a commitment to addressing this. For the BBC to respond to complaints about the perpetuation of negative stereotypes (infidelity, predatory behaviour) by suggesting that fictional characters are not intended to be representative is, at best, disingenuous.

We also have a list of examples (below) of people involved in making Holby City discussing Berena in terms of its representation of an underserved community. We’re publishing this here not to criticise any individual for saying these things – they were, we don’t doubt, said sincerely – but to further evidence that viewers have been encouraged to think of this storyline in terms of representation, and therefore concerns about stereotypes and tropes are legitimate. They therefore demand reflection and engagement from the BBC, rather than dismissal. If you are still to submit your complaint, please feel free to include the link to this page in order to pre-empt any suggestion that the complaint is not valid on these terms. Complaints are limited to 1000 words, so this might help you to stay within that limit. Please do not use this list as the basis for attacking individuals; it is intended only for use in engaging with the BBC complaints process.

“[F]rom the perspective of a lesbian viewer, there’s so little out there on regular TV that they can look at and go: ‘That represents me, there I am’, that I feel a great responsibility to get this right and I hope we are getting it right. And I think for those people it will be really quite significant.  (Catherine Russell, interviewed in What’s on TV, Aug 2016)

“If you don’t have representation, which as a lesbian you don’t, then to be on prime time television and see yourself is an occasion to hang out the bunting, light a sparkler and shout ‘hurrah, at last!’… (Catherine Russell, interviewed on This Morning, Feb 2017)

“Hang out the bunting, light a sparkler & shout HURRAH!” #representation @thismorning #Berena #ItMatters #Holby City #WTBS (Catherine Russell, tweet, 21 Feb 2017)

“I think the reason that it’s caused such a stir recently, over the last year, is that my character Serena Campbell has fallen madly in love with Bernie, who is another surgeon…. and that has caused an awful lot of attention, and deservedly so, not because of us or what we’re doing, but simply because the fact of representation. There is very few representations of lesbians on the television… I think we’re getting it right. It does feel like a huge responsibility because there is so little representation on the television, certainly in a mainstream show like Holby…“ (Catherine Russell, interviewed for BBC Radio Bristol, March 2017)

“We felt very responsible for getting it right. Because the lesbian representation on mainstream television particularly for our age is non-existent. So were very keen to make sure that we got that right for you.” (Catherine Russell, Berena Q&A panel at MCM Comic Con, London, May 2017)

“Lesbian representation is so rare, particularly on a mainstream, pre-watershed television show, that people were thrilled to see it, and rightly so.” (Catherine Russell interviewed in ‘Holby Behind the Screen’ by Sue Haasler, 2018)

“I’d never anticipated that whatsoever. I perhaps hadn’t appreciated the issue of under-representation of gay women of that age.” (Simon Harper interviewed in ‘Holby Behind the Screen’ by Sue Haasler, 2018)

“A lot of people felt they were under-represented and I think it meant a lot to a lot of people that they felt themselves represented on screen.” (Jemma Redgrave interviewed in ‘Holby Behind the Screen’ by Sue Haasler, 2018)

“I think it’s also about women who feel that who they are and what they are is being made visible, because I don’t think there are a lot of storylines… there’s lots of male gay storylines and representation but very little for women, for lesbians.” (Jemma Redgrave, interviewed for DIVA Radio, Jan 2018).

“I was delighted to be part of what is a rather important storyline in so much as representation of lesbian and bi-sexual women of a certain age on television just isn’t there. It was a marvellous thing to do, so to just drop that storyline would have been a mistake.” (Catherine Russell, interviewed in What’s on TV, Jan 2018)

“They would never let that story die a death, it’s too popular… It has a lot going for it, representation is everything.” (Catherine Russell, interviewed on Lorraine, Feb 2018)

[When asked if the under-representation of lesbians on TV played a part in the unexpected strength of reaction to the storyline]: “I think that’s a huge part of it, if probably not the number one part…. “ (Catherine Russell, interviewed for DIVA Radio, May 2018).

“We are all aware of how important representation is, and feel a huge responsibility to the fans and the support that they’ve given us. We do care about them!” (Catherine Russell, interviewed in Inside Soap, June 2018)

“I realised that I’d never seen my friend represented on television, and so I was determined to change that.” (Kate Hall, accepting the DIVA award LGBT Series/Storyline of the Year, June 2018)

“We can’t take for granted our visibility… we’ve got to keep fighting for it, we’ve got to keep putting it on screen.” (Simon Harper, accepting the DIVA award LGBT Series/Storyline of the Year, June 2018)

“We are not beating a drum, we are representing life #loveislove” (Catherine Russell, accepting the DIVA award LGBT Series/Storyline of the Year, June 2018)

“I hadn’t really clocked how bad gay representation is, particularly for women. I have to put my hands up to that. So I hadn’t really understood quite how impassioned and important it was going to be. But as soon as I did, I was delighted.” (Catherine Russell, interviewed in DIVA magazine, June 2018)

“I believe we have also been groundbreaking  with  LGBT representation with the Berena storyline.” (Simon Harper, interview released by BBC Media Centre, Dec 2018)