A disclaimer or two:
I gave up the soaps a couple of years ago, and only ever watch Eastenders when my maw is around or as happened on Monday, I switched the TV on and there it was. I couldn’t help myself: it was classic car crash TV.
I have the flu. There are eminently more complex things to be blogging about but the burdz brain isnae up to the task currently.
For all those who pretend to eschew popular culture, allow me to enlighten you. On Hogmanay, Eastenders began a plotline that involved the almost simultaneous birth of two babies on the Square. One died within 24 hours, the distraught mother swapped her dead baby for her neighbours’ living one. The parents of the supposed dead baby, as you can imagine, are in bits – and in fact are acting all of it superbly. The father of the supposed living baby was away when his wife gave birth so is oblivious but worried about his wife’s inability to bond with their baby, or feed him, and her baby blues. Said mother is in meltdown, as you can imagine.
The storyline has caused an outcry – Radio 5 Live, Mumsnet, Loose Women and the Daily Mail have all had a pop this week. Now, Samantha Womack (nee Janus), the actress at the heart of the plot, has announced she is leaving the soap, with some reports suggesting it is because of this storyline.
Nearly everyone agrees that it is a good thing for soap operas – or serial dramas as they like to call themselves – to cover social issues. Most agree that in general, Eastenders has a good track record here. Most also agree that creating a storyline whereby one family lost their baby through sudden infant death syndrome would have been appropriate: the preposterous bit has been the baby swap angle.
Keeping up? Good. Cos here is the nasty bit – Eastenders and the BBC have got what they wanted. Everyone is now talking about the plotline: it will be a ratings winner, which was the purpose, and no doubt champagne corks will be popping. Which just adds to the burdz’ flu-induced queasiness.
Because one has to wonder what kind of planet TV executives, controllers and writers are living on when they think it is okay to traduce and denigrate women in such a callous and contemptuous fashion. For make no mistake, the plot centres on the actions and reactions of the women who gave birth: the blokes are bit part players.
The story suggests that women who lose a child are mentally unhinged, will readily become criminals and are a threat to other babies. It taps into our most primal fears and suspicions about women and childbirth. Moreover, the rantings of the apparently bereaved mother – “this is not my baby” – are ignored and pitied. She is reduced to swinging aimlessly in a playpark in her pyjamas. The very idea that a mother suffering a traumatic homebirth would be admitted to hospital while her baby would be left at home is in itself nonsense (though the likelihood of mother being admitted to one hospital and baby to another several miles apart is all too real). The midwife too does not cover herself in glory – apparently, a newborn baby showing 20 ounces of weight loss in a single day merits merely a frown,not an immediate admission to a neo natal unit.
And because politically and practically, this is a health issue which has little priority – precisely because it is one which primarily affects women – our public service broadcaster feels it can get away with it. Here are some unpalatable facts about neo-natal and maternal health issues in Scotland:
- The numbers of babies who die at birth, or in the first week or month of life – known as perinatal and neonatal deaths – in Scotland has risen from 441 in 2002 to 493 in 2008
- women in Scotland are more likely to die in childbirth than in any other country in Western Europe
- rates of death from conditions like pre-eclampsia remain stubbornly high, with little reduction in the last 20 years
- the numbers of women in Scotland breastfeeding their babies beyond six weeks has increased by 0.2% in two years; in areas like Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, less than one in five women breastfeed their babies
The figures for the UK as a whole are little better. Maternal and neonatal health are very much Cinderella services, requiring much more political and public attention and investment than they currently receive. Eastenders could easily have created a much more realistic and topical social issue story around these two babies’ births: the shortage of midwives which causes a lack of appropriate through and aftercare care for mothers and babies; the difficulties around breastfeeding, particularly culturally in certain communities and in public; the risk that conditions like pre-eclampsia and diabetes pose in pregnancy and childbirth; the continuing lack of support for mothers experiencing post natal depression. All of these issues could have been explored in sensitive and helpful ways, contributing much to public knowledge and awareness.
Or if the programme makers had really wanted to be “edgy” they could have promoted childbirth as a positive, life affirming event which it is for the majority of mothers, parents and children. Instead, they went for the cheap thrill and in the process have offended many.
But complaining and talking about it simply serves the BBC’s purpose. Turning off and shutting up is likely to be far more effective in registering our message of disgust.
UPDATE: A friend who had her own very traumatic birth experience, who has spent much of the last few years in and out of hospitals with one of her children and whose bravery and dedication as a mum shames the burd did in fact complain to the BBC. This was the response received. As she points out “this will definitely widen your eyes at how they justify this completely sickening ploy of upping the ratings”.
“Thanks for contacting us.
We’re sorry if you’ve been offended or upset by the current storyline in EastEnders. The high volume of complaints we received about this reiterate the same points and so a generic response was deemed the most effective way to respond on this occasion. We have however, approached the production team for a response to the concerns raised and they’ve supplied us with the following statement:
We appreciate this is a particularly emotive storyline and as with all such sensitive subject matters, we approached it with great care and attention, seeking guidance and advice from a number of experts in this field in order to ensure as realistic a portrayal as possible.
EastEnders has a long history of exploring difficult issues, and the storyline regarding Ronnie and Kat follows in this tradition.
We acknowledge that for some members of the audience this storyline will have particular resonance and significance, however we can assure viewers that it’s not our intention to cause distress or upset, and we have ensured that key episodes are supported by the BBC Action Line in order for those affected by the storyline to be able to obtain information regarding sources of further help and advice.
It’s important to note there is absolutely no inference that Ronnie’s actions are in any way typical of a bereaved mother of a newborn baby. In her grief and desperation at the discovery that her much longed for baby has passed away, and finding herself in the exceptional circumstance of being alone with her neighbour’s newborn son, Ronnie acted on impulse in the heat of the moment, without really knowing what she was doing, or considering the consequences or repercussions. On a wider sense, we were careful to select Ronnie, who we felt was the only character capable of acting in this way in a believable manner, following all the difficulties she’s experienced in her life and the emotional toll this has put on her.
Over the coming weeks, we will see Ronnie and Kat each coming to terms with the loss of their babies, and explore how they re-build their lives in the wake of such tragedy. Viewers will see the situation resolve itself over the coming months.
We were careful to signal the nature of the content of the episodes to the audience in advance through publicity, programme billings, and continuity announcements.
Thanks again for contacting us.
BBC Audience Services”