Wednesday, 12 January 2011

I do bite my thumb, sir: Gillian Philip

I don't watch EastEnders. It's on at a bad time for me, and I don't want to get caught up and addicted to the plot. I'd barely heard of Ronnie and Kat before last week, and leaping to their defence isn't something I'd ever planned to do.

On the other hand, I love the internet. I do. Some of my best friends are internet friends, whether on Facebook, Twitter or email.

The net has its drawbacks, though: like its potential for the manipulative and the mob. I daresay 6,000 members of Mumsnet were truly, authentically upset by the famously 'offensive' EastEnders storyline in which a mother devastated by a cot death swaps her dead baby for someone else's live one.

Harrowing, yes. Off limits? Oh, yes, for the Mumsnetters who cannot distinguish between issue-led fiction and... well... issues. Or indeed fiction.

Sorry, but I don't have shades of grey on this one. If I want to write about an individual - an individual - who has been turned completely barking by a terrible tragedy, then I hope I'll always be able to do so. I was going to add 'without being accused of offensiveness and insensitivity by those affected by the same kind of tragedy', but that's always going to happen, isn't it? What I hope is that I won't get the media tarring-and-feathering for it, and I hope I won't ever be bludgeoned into a humiliating climbdown for the crime of writing fiction (as the BBC was this week).

I'm not saying issues shouldn't be approached with understanding and sensitivity. But there has to be room to treat fictional individuals as just that - individuals, with the same quirks, traits and madnesses they'd have in real life.

So maybe it stings a little when miscarriage is portrayed in a TV soap - and happening to a horrible character who had it coming. I remember watching Secrets and Lies, and the ghastly recognition that the infertile wife was a bitch of the first order, and mostly because of her infertility. It touches awful chords when a fictional couple is faced with a possible abnormality showing up on an antenatal scan. Tonight I've just finished watching Silent Witness where, as so often, the killer was a disturbed gay guy. But as Sophie Hannah put it so well in this Sunday's Herald, Psycho is deeply offensive to hotel owners who don't go around stabbing their guests in the shower.

But I have no right not to be offended. You have no right not to be offended. You start ring-fencing fiction with the fear of offence, and it's dead. So is a lot else.

Of course we should write with sensitivity and awareness of the effect of what we write on whoever may read it. But to self-censor for the fear of upsetting anyone? I hope I never do. And kick me if you see me doing it. My editor already has, once or twice.

Forgive me if I start with a still from a frothy soap, and finish with a shot of a man who has been garlanded and showered with rose petals for shooting another man. The victim wasn't actively offensive, but he had defended the rights of people who might be accused of being offensive.

Maybe the comparison is a little offensive, but maybe it's the time of the month for me.

And if my husband said that, I'd be furiously offended...


Anne Cassidy said...

I agree with you Gillian that writers should write about whatever they want without fear of people 'tutting' about it. My problem with soap lines (more often than not) is that the plots are planned by committee and I can't help feeling they all sat round and the conversation was about, How can we better the crashed tram (honestly!!) in Corrie? I know let's have a terrible tragedy and twist it further.Let's have a baby swap!!! Think of the drama! The emotion! But what soapers don't get is that we all know this know and no longer feel the emotion. One tragic storyline a week does not make me cry -it's the law of diminishing returns.
So I'm not against WRITERS doing edgy stuff. I'm against committes planning it for viewing figures. Where's the 'art' in that. And shame on them that they folded. That show's how committed they were to the story.

Keren David said...

Well, speaking as a bereaved parent, I was offended by this particular storyline, by the sheer boring predictability of it. When do you ever see a bereaved mother in fiction who doesn't go raving mad and start snatching babies? It's a particularly irritating trope because so many mothers have to work so hard (with very little help) to overcome the crippling grief that comes when a baby dies. It would be far more dramatic to see this healing process on television. Fine to complain, I think, craven of the BBC to capitulate.

Gillian Philip said...

I agree with you Anne that writing by committee, issues can get hyped up for sensational effect, but I'm not against committee-writing (I do it myself) per se. After all, individual writers can be equally guilty of striving for sensation.

Keren, the horror of losing a child is one of the worst things I can imagine, and yes, a plotline dealing with it should be done with sensitivity. Maybe it wasn't in this case, but I don't accept that the plotline was beyond acceptability - because the character is fictional.

I don't agree that every bereaved mother in fiction goes mad and goes around snatching babies. It may be a tired plotline, and unimaginative, and sensationalist, but out of bounds? No. Everyone has a different line they don't want crossed, and for everyone that line lies somewhere different. When the BBC capitulated to that bombardment, it set itself a very dodgy precedent.

kathryn evans said...

Have to say I was shocked at the response to this and have given it a lot of thought. As children, when my mother had cancer, we would flinch at anything on tv that referred to it, we'd change channel, leave the room - we found it offensive however it was handled because it was too raw to be touched. But these things are part of life and faced daily, sadly, by families and should be reflected in 'real-life' drama.

And of course drama is what it is - it's following through the 'what-if' scenario - I don't think it's saying all women will go crazy with grief and steal a baby - Kat counterbalances this with her poignant, deeply sad portrayal of loss ( though I've got to be honest, I've only seen clips....)

I'm rather surprised the BBC pulled the story line because of the response though - they never did over complaints about the rapes/murders/arsons/downright wicked behaviours that have gone on....

Keren David said...

No storyline should be out of bounds, but neither should any complaints. Why can't I complain if I think the BBC is being irresponsible or offensive? The BBC isn't accountable to advertisers or paying viewers, it can't lose its licence. By complaining, people create a debate.
Would add though that I haevn't complained about this storyline, nor would I consider doing so..but certainly haven't watched Eastenders and won't be doing so. So any sensitivity in their handling of the subject has been lost amid the sensational publicity.
As for the portrayal of bereaved mothers...when it happened to me I was scratching around for something in fiction that might suggest that there was a hope that the enormous shock and grief I felt would not be catastrophically maddening. It wasn't easy to find. Thank goodness for Anne of Green Gables.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

They may have changed the storyline not because of viewer response, but because - I believe - the actress in question hasn't wanted to renew her contract, which will have forced their hands somewhat. I've thought about this a lot too, and found myself agreeing with just about everything everyone has said, including Gillian's original post! (Fence sitter, that's me) I don't watch Eastenders finding it too abrasive and miserable - I'm a Corrie fan myself. I do remember, though, after our son was born, not being able to watch or read anything at all that involved cruelty to children, or suffering children of any kind. It was like suddenly being 'mother to the world'. I've even written about it in a story called A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture. It slowly abated and I resumed my normal interraction with the media, fiction etc, but I do wonder if something similar may be responsible for at least some of the reaction. Not that there's anything wrong with the feeling, mind you. I think it's a biological imperative that we share with most of the animal world!

kathryn evans said...

I'm so sorry you've been through this Keren, and absolutely you should be able to complain, I've done so before (though mostly about John Humphries not allowing his guests to get a word in edgeways).

I just don't really understand the nature of the complaints - the scenes I saw didn't seem to validate them at all - have been reading around it and still have to say I don't get it, maybe I just didn't watch enough:

Gillian Philip said...

Catherine, I was exactly the same after my kids were born - I was a huge fan of Val McDermid right up till I went into hospital. Thereafter I couldn't look at her books.

Keren, I'm sure it was horribly hard to find something supportive. It's hard to imagine anything that could help in such a dreadful situation. But I've got to say that most of the mad baby-snatchers I've encountered in drama have been infertile women - one of which I was for 12 years. It never occurred to me to nick a baby.

I'm not saying people shouldn't complain. I'd have liked to complain about the episode in Jimmy McGovern's 'Accused' that was so inaccurate and insensitive about Army life. But I didn't, because it wasn't Piers Morgan faking photos, it was fiction.

What I found downright scary about the EastEnders story was the coordinated internet attack and the swift climbdown. Here's what happened within two minutes of me posting the link to this blog last night: I was threatened with a Twitter campaign against this 'insensitive' post.

I didn't find this threat offensive so much as disturbing. It also rather made my point for me. (Quite apart from the swiftness of the comment, which didn't suggest this post had been read with much care.) Is this what the internet will do for writers in future? Threaten us with massive online opprobrium for anything someone disagrees with?

I was up at four o'clock this morning, combing my post for the 'insensitivity'. Eventually, in a wild stab at what might have caused unforgiveable offence, I removed a paragraph that was tangential to my main argument: it was about the loathsome Frankie Boyle.

I had pointed out that everyone has different lines that may not be crossed. I also said I found his jokes about Downs Syndrome horrible; but I questioned whether the mother who complained about them had much of a leg to stand on, since she had bought tickets for a live show and was happy to laugh at jokes about cancer victims.

So I removed that paragraph; I did feel sorry for that woman having to listen to Boyle's 'joke', and I thought, maybe that's it. But now I'm not sure it is.

The internet is so tempting as a forum for letting off steam, and heaven knows I've done it before, to my cost. But it's no exaggeration to say my blood ran cold when I saw that threat.

Gillian Philip said...

Update! Thank GAWD, the Twitter thing was a joke. I think I can relax now!

Ah, the perils of the interweb...

Book Maven said...

Gillian, that's horrible and a reminder of the power of the Net - we should remember it's just a tool, whether for good or ill, and this time it seems as if it's the other kind of tool.

I don't watch EastEnders (was able to give it up years ago thanks to "what's that supposed to mean?" patches) but I do listen to the Archers (I know, I know, give me a break, I'm an addict) and I DID write to complain about the death of a character for the 60th anniversary episode.

Like Anne, I deplore the committee-led writing of such episodes.It stretched credulity to the limit that 2 characters, one a responsible farmer with a track record for being Health and Safety conscious, should climb up on to a frosty roof in the dark in a high wind, to take down a banner, in order that one should fall to his death off said roof.

It was sensationalism - not offensive in the way that EE has been accused of (what are the statistics for listeners who have lost a loved one in this way?) but offensive to a writer because so cynically manipulative.

I think I'm with Gillian on this one. It still makes me wince when someone talks cheerfully of how they could be knocked down by a bus tomorrow - since a dear friend of mine was killed this way a few years ago and I no longer say it myself. But that's my sensitivity and I don't blame them.

Keren, I can't watch anything about cruelty to children - or animals - and my "babies" are all grown up. I think your point of view is perfectly defensible too and I hope the EE storyline has not made life too painful for you recently.

Nicola Morgan said...

I don't think an individual piece of fiction / individual writer has any duty to tell the whole story or to be unbiased. A piece of fiction portrays a character's response to something and as long as it's credible, then I think it's legitimate. (Complaint about it is also legitimate, but not to say that the story shouldn't have been written or should be changed, just in the sense that anyone has the right not to like something, or, of course, to feel very personally upset by it.)

When Liz Laird wrote A Little Piece of Ground, she got a lot of stick for not having told both sides of the story. (It portrays the Palestinian conflict from the viewpoint of a Palestinian boy, so it is inevitably one-sided). But her story portrays that boy's story and was true to it. She had no duty to tell the other side as well. A story could tell both sides but it doesn't have to.

Where people are right to be annoyed is when one side is told over and over again, which seems to be what has happened with the Eastenders storyline. But that's a failing of the fiction writers as interesting story-tellers, not a dereliction of truth or some kind of wrongdoing that deserved to be attacked. (Though Keren had every right to be very upset by the storyline and to complain.) Fiction also doesn't have a duty to make us feel comfortable all the time but we can challenge it if we want to, sensibly and decently.

I hated the threats against the actress and I think they reveal a weird view of fiction. Maybe it's out duty to explain a bit better what fiction does. And I feel that's what Gillian's post did.

Keren David said...

Just to make it clear - I didn't complain about the storyline. But I do think it's perfectly legit to complain, and I don't agree that one shouldn't complain (about offensiveness, bias, inaccuracy whatever) because something is presented as fiction. Especially when the creators of that fiction are funded by a licence fee, unlike novelists! Threats against an actress for the part she portrays is just madness. Bereaved parents upset because they are portrayed as deranged baby-snatchers on prime time Tv - fair enough. Self-censorship is wrong, but thinking about impact of what one is creating is essential - whether one is writing about a sensitive emotional subject or a deeply complex political one.
And Mary is 100 per cent correct about The Archers.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh gosh, yes, The Archers. That was pure clumsy storytelling. 'let's go up on the roof!' 'We'd better not.' 'Are you a man or a mouse?' 'Oh come on then.' 'Gosh it's dark. And frosty!' 'Yes, and the wind's getting up. I think I'll go a little higher!' At that point I'm afraid I did laugh...

Stroppy Author said...

What an interesting discussion. I don't watch EE, but agree with Gillian that fiction should not avoid difficult issues for fear of offending people. Though some issues should perhaps be out of bounds for disrespectful comic treatment (satire is exempt), at least without being hedged around with warnings.

It's sad to hear the actress was threatened. I have a very dear friend who was hounded out of her job, stalked and driven to mental illness in a very similar situation, because of a TV plotline. Who are these people who think it's real??? Or even who think it's worth wrecking a real person's life over a fictional depiction?

Katherine Langrish said...

I don't watch EE either (or any soaps), but this was a thought-provoking post and some very interesting comments. Gillian, I am thankful that the twitter threat turned out to be a joke (goes to show the 'tone of voice' danger of online comments.)

Moderation is a great thing: but it's rare for it to make great popular drama or fiction. From the very beginnings, fiction has set out to twangle the emotions. In very skilful hands it can do so successfully even when the events portrayed are unexciting. But it's easier to get a big reaction from something hair-raisingly dramatic. So the viewers get the adrenaline punch, and punch back. Immoderate emotion - but in a way what the episode set out to evoke....