Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Debates about representation

Representation is one of the key concepts in Media Studies and of course is a focus of the textual analysis question in the AS exam. In the last couple of weeks, however, it has made the news on a number of occasions and become quite a live issue in public debate.

Over the past few weeks, EastEnders has run a storyline about cot death, in which the character of Ronnie loses her baby and then steals Kat and Alfie’s baby to replace it. As any regular viewer will know, Ronnie is a character not blessed with good luck and this latest disaster has sent her over the edge; but it has also led to around 9000 complaints from viewers, apparently a record for a soap storyline and to the BBC apparently agreeing to end the story early.

So why the fuss? soaps are known for their high emotions. Well, for viewers who have lost a baby to cot death, such a storyline not surprisingly brings back painful memories, but that is the case with many of the narratives of programmes like Coronation street, Casualty, Hollyoaks or Emmerdale - often followed by an announcement on the lines of ‘if you’ve been affected by the issues in this programme, here’s our helpline. In this case the objection was not to having a storyline about cot death- apparently the programme makers had consulted with the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths in advance anyway- but to the way the story represents the grieving mother. Much of the campaign against it was led by Mumsnet, a parenting website which has built up a reputation as a pressure group and regularly hosts webchats with public figures such as .... The argument they put in a letter to the Director General of the BBC Mark Thompson, after thousands of negative comments about the storyline on Mumsnet was that

“as is all too common, a bereaved mother has been portrayed as deranged and unhinged... For many, EastEnders might be their first or closest experience of a newly bereaved mother's reaction and subsequently they may treat baby snatching as a typical desire”

They go on:

“Mumsnetters are also frustrated that so much potential to raise awareness of SIDS and to show viewers what it is like for bereaved parents and their families and friends has been squandered.

The approach shown by the programme makers appears at best to be ill-informed, and at worst looks like a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy.”

So the argument is that the way Ronnie is represented is typical of fictional portrayals of mothers who have lost a child to cot death, concentrating on a negative and volatile response to bereavement but also that this representation will create or reinforce an impression in audience members that this is what all such grieving mothers will be like. Many of the personal tales on Mumsnet from mothers who have lost babies in the past focus on how this is the opposite of their experience and their response to the death of their baby, thus suggesting that it is not a ‘true’ representation.

The story was compounded with newspaper reports that the actress playing Ronnie, Samantha Womack, had handed in her resignation from the programme in disgust after first reading the script, which was swiftly denied. There have also been reports of the actress being verbally abused in the street (it’s not clear if she was addressed as the actress and attacked for playing the part or as the character and attacked for stealing the baby). So a line between fiction and reality is blurred in more ways than one.

I don’t feel qualified to have a strong view on this particular representation, because I don’t really follow EastEnders anymore, but I think it is important to put all representations carefully in their context. If people are saying ‘grieving mothers are frequently portrayed as unhinged’ I’d want to know about the other examples they are referring to; if they are saying ‘audience members will think all bereaved mothers are going to react like this” I’d want to know how real audiences have read the story. Clearly, the level of coincidence involved is typical of melodrama- there are two babies in the same square at the same time of near identical age, they both happen to be wearing the same outfits, the mother of one has been taken back into hospital without her baby, the grieving mother manages to take her dead child into the pub and swap it over. So the story needs to be seen within its genre too. OFCOM is more measured in cases like this, and will not pass judgement on the complaints until the storyline has run its full course, by which time the story may feel very different.

the other recent controversy around representation involves the new comedy series from Walliams and Lucas, 'Come Fly with Me', which began on Christmas Day. If you haven’t seen it, they draw heavily on the sketch show style of Little Britain crossed with the docusoap format of programmes like 'Airline', which has run for a number of years. The pair play all the eccentric characters who appear each week to work at the airport, often in very heavy makeup, which must take hours to apply. As in 'Little Britain', there is a wide range of grotesque stereotyped characters, a lot of dressing up in drag and some predictable jokes, but the show has come in for criticism because of their portrayal in particular of ethnic characters.

The tradition of ‘blacking up’ has long been seen as offensive, used to make jokes at the expense of ethnic minorities, particularly in sitcoms and variety shows in the 60s and 70s and criticism here has been levelled at their portrayal of the West Indian character, Precious Little, who always finds an excuse to shut the coffee shop, and at Asian concourse vehicle driver, Taaj, who fantasises about becoming a film director and describes his vehicle as a ‘pussy magnet’. Following complaints on Twitter, Matt Lucas responded: ‘Like in Little Britain we try to reflect, affectionately, the multicultural Britain we love. No offence is intended. x.’

In this case, many of the complaints focus on the idea that this kind of representation is a throwback to how TV (and by extension British society) was in the past, with casual racism being apparently acceptable, whereas Lucas and Walliams argue that in playing all of the characters (each of whom is the butt of jokes) they are dishing out the comedy in equal measure to black and white, rich and poor, men and women, gay and straight. Interestingly, comedian Jim Davidson, who has been accused of racial stereotyping in the past, has come out in support of the show and used it as an excuse to attack ‘political correctness’.

He said: ‘I don't believe for one minute they have a racist bone in their bodies. They are falling victim to political correctness - just as I did. And political correctness is killing comedy.

‘We are a multi-racial society and we should celebrate the fact. They are showing the characters you would expect to see at an airport and that includes people like Precious and Taaj. Wouldn't just showing white characters at the airport be more racist?

‘It amuses me in a way that Lucas and Walliams have been allowed to "black up". I'm glad it seems common sense is now starting to replace political correctness in telly land.’

Davidson added: ‘A lot of ethnic people come to my live shows and I have never had anyone tell me they had been offended.’


Unlike 'EastEnders' where the complaints entirely focus on what is seen as sensationalising the representation of a serious issue, for 'Come Fly with Me', the issue is about making fun of people because of their ethnic background. But once again, context is everything. I’d want to know what sense real audiences make of those representations; the cross-genre context needs to be taken into account in terms of how we might read it, since anyone who has seen the programme which it spoofs will recognise the behaviour of the characters and the conventions of storytelling with which it plays.

Representation is always contestable and always more complex than the newspaper headlines which try to define it! So how do you see the representation of the cot death and Ronnie's response and what do you think of the accusations of racist stereotyping in 'Come Fly with me' ?