Working Class Heroines: the Women of Walford
For about 16 years now I’ve been engrossed in EastEnders and the lives of Albert Square residents. I’ve watched Dirty Den being buried in The Queen Vic, Archie Mitchell get his comeuppance on Christmas Day, Zoe Slater scream “you ain’t my muva” at Kat, and seen the love of Sonia Fowler’s life, Jamie Mitchell, die in her arms after being hit by a car driven by her future husband, Martin. (And will forever hate him because of it.) I remember when the show started airing every weekday apart from Wednesdays, so I’d make sure I was sat down in front of the sofa each evening ready for another slice of East End life. I’d rewatch all the week’s episodes on Sunday afternoon, too. Now, I catch up on iPlayer and I’m still the same fan I was as a kid.
EastEnders hasn’t always had a quality run, which the BBC publicly recognises. It’s had periods where even I questioned why I bothered watching, as I struggled to get my head around some of the most out-of-character storylines. But there was something that kept me going and made me stick around to see how the Walford’s residents lives would unfold. It was the programme’s women.
Unlike TV shows that are condensed to a certain number of seasons, EastEnders is on nearly every single day, not to mention the special episodes (Christmas, New Year, etc). That’s a lot of time I, and other viewers, spend with these characters. It’s got to have something to maintain its audience. There are some roles in the show’s 30 year running time that are definitely more stereotypical than subtle, but would it have been able to survive if its female characters offered so little? Some of EastEnders’ biggest storylines have placed women front and center: remember the Zoe and Kat biological reveal? Peggy Mitchell’s breast cancer? Ronnie Mitchell losing her daughter and Stacey Branning finding out that she had bipolar disorder? Many issues mainstream pop culture finds uncomfortable to discuss — like sexual abuse, miscarriages and other experiences that primarily affect women — are tackled head-on in the show.
But the women of Walford are not solely interesting for the topical plotlines they serve. These are finely drawn characters: determined, caring, sometimes a little (or in Pauline Fowler’s case a lot) stubborn and, most importantly, engaging. They may share similar characteristics when it comes to wanting to protect and love their family — the central theme of EastEnders — but they all have traits unique to them.
The characters that have a shorter shelf life than most on The Square tend to be the middle class types, most of which are women. EastEnders isn’t about privileged lives, it’s about surviving in the most difficult of circumstances and getting by, regardless of what life is throwing at you. Historically, middle class women introduced into the show latch onto Max Branning or Phil Mitchell, and last about a year tops. They’re nothing more but the unfortunate recyclable girlfriend and when they bow out, they’re replaced by someone else.
Middle class women are never treated like this in British television, ever. They aren’t usually the disposable ones, but EastEnders turns that around. This is a radical subversion, allowing working class women — who are often denied a voice in mainstream pop culture — get a chance to be heard.
Working class women are far too frequently belittled and judged and their treatment, both on and off screen, is shameful. EastEnders twists the common middle class-leaning narrative and focuses on a group who are degraded when they’re out of the East End, but protected when they’re in it. Walford is a bubble for them. Women who live on The Square understand this and each other, whether they are friends or not. Just because they’re neighbours doesn’t mean they need to be best friends, but that level of mutual respect goes along way for them. They know what struggling to feed your kids is like; they know how difficult it is to get a job in the current climate. The Vanessa Golds and the May Wrights of the show could never get that – they weren’t born or brought up in families where those things were a problem. It’s why they tend to work so well as villains or evil step mothers: because they represent the system that Albert Square women don’t benefit from; one that disregards less-well off people and those under the poverty line.
Walford women aren’t just known for their bravado and throwing a good slap, though. Duos like Shirley Carter and Heather Trott, Dot Cotton and Ethel Skinner, and Peggy and Pat Butcher find power and strength in their female friendships. All of them had patchy relationships, peppered with soap staples like affairs, catfights, the usual. But the strength of their comradery lied in the fact they would always love each other first and foremost. Shirley, years after Heather’s death, still commemorates her life on her anniversary and the programme acknowledges it. Dot’s love for Ethel is apparent whenever she speaks about her, and Peggy and Pat, no matter the constant bickering, had an admiration for one another which was unprecedented. Dot, Shirley and Peggy not only share a common experience in their best friends passing away, they were also so obviously shaped and formed by the women they loved in their lives.
Romantic relationships on The Square are a little less, well, romantic. Everyone has slept with at least two different people in Walford, cheating happens regularly, and the outcome involves lots of tears and hair pulling. Accusations of being a “slag” or a “slapper” are batted around sometimes, but, generally, women are allowed to be sexually active and not have to make an argument for it. Kim Fox, the sister of Denise, is one such character — loud and in your face, yet hilarious and completely loveable. When things are getting too grim — which isn’t uncommon for EastEnders — Kim is there to speak for the audience, commenting on the atmosphere. But there is also nuance to her. In quieter moments, you see her confidence stripped away – she isn’t just used as comic relief to the otherwise lifeless Walford residents drinking in The Vic at 11am.
While the inclusion of complex, rounded women continues to grow, there are ways that the show can really start to represent its audience and London setting. The treatment of women of colour – especially those who identify as LGBT – and other less represented minorities remains a problem. While the borough of Walford is fictional, EastEnders is supposed to depict East London, which is swimming with diversity, and that should be found in every episode. (All the white hipster extras they’ve been getting in recently and setting up a trendy bar doesn’t count as diversifying a show.)
Asian families like the Ferreira’s spent years engulfed in offensive storylines and were widely criticised for reinforcing stereotypes about the community they were representing. The Masoods, three of which are still in the programme, fared better and produced one of EastEnders’ most funny, complex and powerful women in Zainab.
Zainab was a headstrong, feisty woman. When she came onto The Square she was the kind of character the programme had been dying for. Her headstrong attitude was such a key part of her character that you knew, eventually, it would be her downfall. And it was, until she learnt that not everything was going to work out like she pictured it. Syed, her eldest son, challenged her cultural views when he came out as gay. It threw Zainab off in a big way and this is why the story between Syed and his boyfriend, Christian Clarke, was crucial to her character. Nothing or no one could change Zainab’s mind. Even the smallest things, Zainab would put her foot down. This was something so close to home and an experience so alien to her, she had to confront it. Which she did. It was a long, realistic process of someone overcoming their homophobia, which, for her, was rooted in caring too much about what other people thought. Then, the writers gave her nothing else to do. Years past and Zainab became a completely different character. The life had been sucked out of her and it wasn’t fun to watch her anymore. While it was disappointing to see the EastEnders team take Zainab in an uncharacteristic direction, it’s hard to forget what a force of nature she was when the writers knew what to do with her. Other characters, unfortunately, don’t fare as well as she does.
Then there was Tosh Mackintosh, a black woman who was in a relationship with Tina, one of the Carter clan headed up by The Queen Vic owner Mick. Interracial lesbian couples aren’t commonplace in television, let alone soaps. The last non-white gay couple in EastEnders was the awful pairing of Sonia Fowler and Naomi Julien (the programme made Sonia out to be playing ‘fake gay’ for years, until recently). Shirley had talked to Tina about Tosh’s abusive past at the start of her appearance on the show — we never see it, it’s only referenced before Tosh lashes out at Tina. They made one of the only LGBT women of colour in a soap the villain. It’s important to highlight that abuse happens in all types of relationships and, yes, women are very capable of it too, but when you don’t have any positive and diverse representation happening, making a character like Tosh, who is rarely a face the media sees, is a disservice to what the show could be highlighting. Scenes with Tosh’s mum, for example, were triumphs in understanding what was going on instead her head; showing there was more to her than being “Tina’s girlfriend”. This side of her should have been the focus, not a domestic violence plot.
These days, there are only a handful of characters on the show who aren’t white, straight men. The only new addition bringing something different to the Square is Donna, a proud, independent market trader played by Lisa Hammond, an actress with dwarfism. Up until her arrival, disabled characters were written abysmally. Remember Adam Best? (You probably don’t want to; basically he was evil.) With Donna, at least they’re trying to make up for past mistakes and learning — if slowly, but still learning — about representation and what that means. Donna is someone who has fit brilliantly into the show and she is vital to transforming the programme into a more realistic version of London.
Albeit briefly, EastEnders has shown — with characters like Zainab — that it can be much more than the story of white, cis women. So many women have come and gone in the show (some depicted better than others) and there’s no doubt that there is an ongoing struggle to accurately reflect the experiences of all working-class women, not just one ethnicity, gender or sexuality. That’s what EastEnders really needs to do — and I think the team behind the programme have finally got the memo. They don’t always get representation right when stepping outside of the typical white cis narrative, but they have been making a much more considered effort. The cast alone are far more diverse than ten years ago. It may not seem like much, but for British television it’s a milestone. They can only keep going up from here on out. And I’ll be there watching when it does.
Follow Cherokee on Twitter: @TheCherokeeElfby