My partner likes soap operas. Because of this, I watch a lot of episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street (often reading or writing whilst only half-watching, I confess). The narratives are typified, stereotypical, predicable, and fundamentally flawed. I never cease to be amazed at the significant flaws that challenge my suspension of disbelief, including a family with three children who seem unable to claim the benefits that would support them financially, and a man on a tag who never gets arrested for being late after his curfew. The children are not seen and hardly heard, and families with babies routinely leave them in other rooms for significant periods of time alone.
What astounds me most, however, is that these widely prevalent narratives, consumed by millions, always feature weak female characters. In a recent storyline in Eastenders, Sharon finds out that Phil, her fiancée, has set up the attack that left her close to death and resulted in serious psychological and emotional trauma. So she sets up a revenge attack, pretending to be in love with him whilst arranging for a financial coup – she will take all his money and dump him.
I have to confess that I was enjoying this storyline, anticipating the great denouement and the sense of satisfaction I would feel when the man finally got his just desserts. But it is not to be – Sharon has, like every other woman in these stories, given in, decided she loves and forgives this man, and will marry him. But you can see that Phil will find out now, and it will be a disaster for Sharon. It seems to repeat and repeat and repeat in these soap operas, these cyclical narratives, that women ‘roll over’ and do whatever it takes to ‘keep their man.’ So the women are weak, not strong, unable to survive without being coupled with another, begging to keep that man at all costs. I long, just once, for a strong female character who stands up alone, who fights back properly, who gets revenge without consequence, who survives positively and happily and does not just submit to the higher destiny of all women in these stories, to give up everything in order to please their man.
I know this sounds like a feminist rant, but it’s not. It’s a writer wondering why it is that such stories, which have such wide-reaching influence (regardless of my opinion of them) consistently and unfailingly represent even the strongest female characters as weak in the face of their relationships with men. I know, as a woman, a midwife, a mother, a writer, an academic, that women are strong. I know that women miracles every day, managing homes, work, child rearing and other activities. I know that women are creative, driven and seriously powerful. I know that our society still favours a male perspective.
When I wrote my novel Inshallah, I was determined to represent a woman who was strong in the face of adversity, a woman who was a survivor from the beginning. It was not my intention to write a polemic, or a rant, but to explore what that story would be like. Once Amanda’s character took shape, she lived separately to me, and her story almost told itself. It was inevitable that she would survive. I did consider an alternative ending, but it was both too dark and too predictable, feeding that pervasive trope of women’s ultimate weakness. Amanda was never weak. In fact, I know few women who are truly weak. Except in these soap operas.
Of course, this doesn’t answer my question. I don’t know why it is that soap operas have to represent women as weak. Maybe my perspective is flawed. But with so many people, especially women, consuming these narratives regularly, almost religiously, it’s a situation that makes me feel very uncomfortable. As a writer, it makes me want to change things.