Eastenders and the responsibility of language

What responsibility do soap operas have to use sensitive language? Danni Glover takes issue.

Content note: this post discusses and directly references transphobic language.


I, like around 6 million other people, am a regular Eastenders viewer. I love it. I love the feeling of watching a bit of escapist, intricate telly that’s always moving forward, always thinking big. I love the fact that it’s communal; it doesn’t have the isolation of binge watching The West Wing on Netflix, though it admittedly doesn’t have the prestige of that exercise either. I love the sympathetic highs and the schadenfroh lows. Most of all, I love that it gets people talking about stuff that matters. Soaps have such potential (too often untapped; imagine if Eastenders decided to really commit to the housing crisis in London?) to bring together a few talking points about current issues in an accessible, water cooler-friendly way. It also has Kathy Beale coming back from the dead. It’s brilliant.

I remember being a teenager and my mum talking to me about the risks of unprotected sex because of Sonia Jackson. I remember feeling vindicated by seeing Jane Beale’s first husband David suffering from Huntington’s disease and knowing that the disease, from which many members of my family have suffered, would be better understood by my friends. Recently, the infant death charity Sands reported an uptake in calls after working closely on a stillbirth storyline with Shabnam Masood. They even managed to use the word “bisexual” on a recent episode (I’m still reeling from the shock) but there was another word said on Friday’s episode that was striking for different reasons.

5.7 million people watched Les Coker reveal his cross-dressing alter-ego Christine to his wife Pam on Friday, and as many heard his grandson Paul, a cis gay character, cry out in horror that his grandfather was a “tr***y”. In all fairness to the writers, Les’s crossdressing storyline has been handled with tact and diplomacy usually not reserved for those living outside of the cisnormative gender binary, and though actor Roger Sloman’s performance is usually one of a comic ham, his dedication to the Christine storyline has been sensitive and considered. It was all going so well. Les told us that Christine was a part of himself, was clear on how he wanted her to be seen, explained emotionally why he felt the need to keep it a secret and how glad he was to be more open. The scene in which Pam meets Christine for the first time was touching, and acknowledged the confusion that partners of newly out people may feel without making it all about Pam. All in all, well done I thought. Until the scene’s emotive nuance and truth was ruined by the violent language of transphobia.

5.7 million people watched Les Coker reveal his cross-dressing alter-ego Christine to his wife Pam on Friday, and as many heard his grandson Paul, a cis gay character, cry out in horror that his grandfather was a “tr***y”.

It’s not that shows like Eastenders don’t have a right to discuss transphobia. In fact, I’d say they have a responsibility to do so. It’s that this word is rarely considered as part of that violence. The fact of the matter is that to use that word against a non-cis person is an act of hateful aggression. When transphobic hate crimes are rising by as much as 44% in the UK within a year, it is irresponsible of such a widely watched pre-watershed show to normalise the language of these crimes, particularly without challenge (I hopefully await forthcoming instalments). If Eastenders wants to make the UK more trans-literate, they might consider specifically coming out against the use of this word, as the prevailing opinion seems to be that the word is not only appropriate but at best humorous and at worst deliberately hateful. Coronation Street took the similarly disappointing step in 2013 when Hayley Cropper, the UK’s first transgender soap character (played by cis woman Julie Hesmondhalgh) was described as a “tr***y” in a throwaway comment by another character. The slur was never addressed.

I have hope for Eastenders. The soap is to become the first to have a trans character played by a trans actor this winter, and has long been ahead of the curve in responding to issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. The problem is that the curve is far behind where it ought to be. The soap’s writers may feel comfortable affording non-cis people the dignity of representation, but they haven’t made that representation peaceful or respectful. It’s disappointing to see such a powerful platform being used to make half a stand, and I’d like to see my community represented with the same respect given to other marginalised groups, but I’m optimistic about the track this story has been on. I hope Les – and Christine – get the duff-duff they deserve.

Follow Danni on Twitter (@danvestite)

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