The Problem with Context:
The BBC’s Complaint Process and Prejudice

Bernie and Serena drinking in Office

I first came across Berena while searching Youtube for something else. A compilation of Berena scenes from the (then recent) ‘Primum Non Nocere’ episodes came up in the results. I was already a fan of Jemma Redgrave, and knew of Catherine Russell, and I watched because I was curious. Forty-five seconds in they kissed, and I was hooked, and I have been hooked ever since. Berena did something I had never seen before, and do not see now – it took the love and relationship between two older, professional women – my life – and put it on mainstream television, and it did so fairly accurately.

Writing about the emotions of that is hard, because it is something I am not used to feeling when watching primetime (or any time, really) television – validation, and the joy and elation that comes from that. Something deep within me responded. Writing about how I felt as the storyline unfolded at the end of last year is harder still. Because that joy and elation, that validation, came crashing down. I learnt that whatever that part of me was that responded so deeply to the story of two older women in love and in a relationship on mainstream television, that that part of me was not accepted, and would not be acknowledged, by mainstream society.

This is a lesson I have learnt throughout my life, but it was harder this time because I thought it was a lesson I would not learn in relation to Berena. Executive producer Simon Harper, actresses Catherine Russell (who plays Serena Campbell) and Jemma Redgrave (Bernie Wolfe), and the Holby City powers that be had so publicly and so often talked about representation, that “getting it right” was important to them, and that they knew how important Berena was to fans and its effect, that I had believed them. (And while I fully acknowledge actors do not have control over storylines, executive producers do.) So when the storyline degenerated into a series of stereotypes rather than a story that represented something of my life and my community, I believed the foilers, and thought the spoilers were just whatever a drama needed to tell the story. I thought there would be a happy ending, that somehow the stereotypes would be redeemed and the storyline salvaged. I took the foilers at face-value. I firmly believed Bernie was staying (“She’s staying?! YES! HUGS ALL ROUND!”), and that she and Serena would marry.

Harm was done, and this harm is now being compounded through the complaint process. I submitted a complaint to the BBC about the Berena storyline and its (mis)representation of women-loving women (wlw) because I knew others were, and I know we are stronger if we stand together and louder when more speak out. The BBC’s first response to my complaint was – verbatim – what others who had submitted a complaint received: no offence had been caused. I have resubmitted it to the second stage of the complaint process, and await a reply. When I take my complaint to the third stage (because I do not expect the BBC to change its stance on wlw representation overnight) and submit it to the Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), I expect the response to be similar – probably verbatim – to the responses others have begun receiving: offence was caused (“the handling of the relationship [Berena] perpetuated a negative stereotype of lesbians and was, therefore, offensive”), but this offence was “justified by the context”. This context “includes, but is not limited to, the editorial content, the editorial justification and the expectation of the audience”.

All stories are told within a context – context being the circumstances that form the setting of the story and in terms of which the story can be fully understood. Berena worked as representation because it told the story of Serena and Bernie’s falling in love and the development of their relationship within the context of the real-life experiences of wlw. This builds on from an earlier blog I wrote about the difference between visibility and representation – visibility (to be seen) being about the characters in a story and representation (to be shown) being the story told about the characters. The BBC Charter requires the public broadcaster to 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). Stories about characters from “underrepresented communities”, such as wlw, are an “accurate and authentic portrayal and representation” when they reflect the real-life experiences of the community they belong to. In other words, when the circumstances and events that set up a story about wlw characters correspond to, and make sense within, those these characters and the community they belong to would experience in real life. Or, put another way, when the stories about these characters are told in the right context. Wlw can be visible in any context, but representation is very much about the right context.

As the Berena storyline unfolded last year, Bernie and Serena’s relationship began to be portrayed in a new context, and the BBC is using this context to justify the portrayal. Representation and stereotypes are both about stories and both are told within a context. Representation is the stories a community tells about itself. Stereotypes are generalisations, stories, that one group of people tells about another group of people. When the Berena storyline degenerated into a series of tropes and stereotypes, it no longer represented wlw because the context in which the story was told changed. Berena as a wlw story was decontextualised.

The ECU argues that there is “no reason why a lesbian relationship (or any other) has to be written in a particular manner” but there is every reason. “Editorial content” – the set-up, the events, the circumstances the characters find themselves in – determine context. Stories are “accurate” and “authentic” – representation – when they are set-up correctly. When stereotypes (that wlw, particularly bisexuals, cheat, and will cheat with a younger woman; that wlw are predatory and tempt; that women can love each other and want to be together but cannot lead happy and fulfilling lives together; that the sexuality of wlw is only about sex) are used as the circumstances and events (the much younger Leah Faulkner’s temptation of Serena; Serena’s subsequent cheating with a work subordinate; Bernie and Serena agreeing – to quote the BBC’s response – “that they would always love each other but that their lives and priorities were not currently in the same place”) that set-up a story (the break-up of Berena) it creates a different context for the story. Stereotypes misrepresent a group of people by giving them the wrong context. The circumstances and events that form the setting of Serena’s cheating and the subsequent break-up of Berena do not correspond to, or make sense within, those the community these characters belong to would generally experience in real life – these circumstances and events are stories other people tell about wlw.

Responses from both the BBC and the ECU say exactly whose context this is. First and second responses have stated that “Holby City approaches LGBTQ relationships as it does heterosexual ones”, and that the BBC does not “believe such a storyline would fall outside the expectations of the majority of viewers” – the majority of viewers, even of Berena, being heterosexual. The ECU states “the expectation of the audience” played a part in determining the context in which the offence was (justifiably) caused. It implies that because Holby City is fictional, the majority of viewers, being heterosexual, will not find the Berena storyline from November and December last year offensive because there is “a very clear understanding among viewers that the storylines of television dramas are fictional”, and that the “extent to which the audience might be given a false impression of a minority group in a drama, therefore, is different to the impression which might be given by factual programmes”. In other words, the BBC is using a majority – heterosexuals – to determine the context of a minority – wlw – and saying that because Berena is fiction, this is ok

Justifying offence by context like this is deeply problematic. It’s heterosexism: one sexuality (heterosexuality) is standard (because it is the majority) – that is, the only context – and all other sexualities are represented and determined within this context. (As opposed to sexuality being a plethora of many possible contexts, of which heterosexuality is only one.) In heterosexism, sexualities other than heterosexuality are decontextualised – the circumstances in which they can be fully understood are removed. Homophobia stems from heterosexism, because it is seen as ok to harm those who do not fit this single context (those who are decontextualised), because the overall context, that of the majority, is still intact.

Heterosexism is not an argument. It is a prejudice and like all prejudices, it is reductive and circular – it needs itself to justify itself. Stereotypes about wlw will always be considered acceptable within a heteronormative context. It will always be ok to determine another’s context, in fiction and non-fiction. This is never ok. Harm is never justified. Because where do we draw the line about what is “acceptable” harm and what isn’t? And who gets to draw this line? In a single context determined by the majority, this would be the majority, every time.

Many interviews with those involved in the Berena storyline have discussed the high levels of mental health issues within the wlw community (and LGBTI+ community in general) and those interviewed have often acknowledged how Berena mitigated some of this, and that “getting it right” was therefore important. But Berena is now part of what causes these levels of mental ill health – the context of the stories told about us, stereotypes, storylines that depict other peoples’ view of wlw instead of being an “accurate and authentic portrayal” of wlw’s lives, prejudice, “justified” harm. This is real-life harm, with real-life consequences. One only has to think of the suicide rates within the LGBTI+ community of whatever country you are reading this in. Harm can never be, and should never be, justified.

If Berena is to become representation again, it needs to be recontextualised as a wlw story. Bernie’s return and a happy ending (as much as I want it) without this recontextualisation will not address the prejudice and resulting harm. Two groups of people cannot be accurately represented within a single context. One will subsume the other. One will learn it is not welcome. I wish I could say I hadn’t learnt this lesson in relation to Berena, and that I won’t find myself learning the lesson again, but mental health doesn’t work that way. Without this recontextualisation, I (like others) will learn (again) that that deep part of me that responded to Berena will not be accepted, will not be acknowledged, and cannot be validated within a context that cannot tell wlw stories.

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