Holby City gives Payal Dhar a horrible feeling of deja vu…


Getting under your skin is the hallmark of a good story.

When that story seeps into the lives of people across borders and cultures, it’s an indication that there’s something monumental afoot. Something monumental is exactly what happened when two middle-aged women kissed in a British TV series.

Holby City’s Serena Campbell and Bernie Wolfe, or #Berena, went on to become—until it crashed and burnt—an iconic portrayal of a mature lesbian relationship on television. More so because the show—the creators who crafted the story as well as the actors who brought it to life—professed their awareness of the historic misrepresentation of LGBTQI+ characters on screen, especially of lesbians and bisexual women, that too “women of a certain age”.

They promised a responsible representation that was respectful and free of tropes. In short, it was encouraging enough for lez/bi/queer (and other) viewers to lower their armour of cynicism.

In return for our faith, we got a sweet, slow-burn, friends-to-lovers story, played sublimely by Jemma Redgrave (as Bernie, the battle-hardened trauma surgeon in the British army, coming off a fling with a female colleague) and Catherine Russell (as Serena, dyed-in-the-wool heterosexual, disarmed by the charms of her new friend). 

There was a lot else that Holby City deserve credit for.

To begin with, they sidestepped the self-hatred motif that late-blooming gay storylines often are. Serena accepted her attraction to another woman with the poise and self-assurance you would expect from an independent, 50-something, professional.

But Holby’s masterstroke was giving a cheeky middle finger to the #KillYourGays trope when Serena locked herself on the hospital roof. 

Given scheduling issues and the fact that Jemma Redgrave was never to be a long-term series regular, #Berena also got a long-distance relationship, something quite rare in soaps. It was completely believable, though, and ever so empowering—that two women at the peak of their careers, neither having to give anything up.

Of course, none of this happened without drama, but ultimately it was a mature, well-thought-out story arc, a positive representation of two bisexual women, and the portrayal of a same-sex relationship in a respectful, matter-of-fact manner.

It was this normality that resonated with many lesbian and bi women across the world, across cultures and age groups. More than 4,000 miles away from the perceived location of Holby, in New Delhi, India, I was introduced to #Berena by my partner, who possesses an uncanny ability to ferret out lesbian dramas from around the world.

Living in an orthodox society where most same-sex couples accept being mistaken for siblings or friends (and in one unfortunate situation mother and daughter, but we don’t talk about that) as a trade-off for being with the partners of their choice, we get few representations of lesbian and bi women in our pop culture.

So, when Bernie Wolfe and Serena Campbell kissed on the floor of the operating theatre one Tuesday evening two years ago, something shifted in our world. 

#Berena burst its shores, spreading to Germany, Belgium, Kazakhstan, India, China, Vietnam, the US and more, sweeping all of us in its wake. And what a journey it was.

We rode the crests and troughs along with Bernie and Serena; we soared when they triumphed over the odds; we crashed when they were brought down by circumstances—they were us, we were them.

They were a snapshot of our future, of the happy endings we’ve yearned for and deserve. 

So when the ship sank, an entire fandom crumpled with it. The loss was palpable, the grief real. And so was the feeling of having been here before.

It wasn’t just that #Berena didn’t get a happy ending (which is a problem in itself, of course), but that, after promising a respectful representation, the series delivered more of the same, with an infidelity storyline reinforcing the stereotype of promiscuity among bisexual women and the perceived lack of commitment in non-hetero relationships.

The last scene of the break-up episode showed Serena Campbell catching the bride’s bouquet in a cruel twist of the knife, and then leading the conga line celebrating the union of two young men, and a straight couple, while her own heart was (we hope!) breaking. As if it needed to be trebly reinforced how dispensable the story of the two older women and their happiness was.

In the wake of this inexplicable self-sabotage of the good ship #Berena, what has incensed fans is the absence of a collective responsibility from the powers that be at Holby City.

The baiting and misleading of fans in the lead-up to the #Berena finale included the official Twitter account, tweeting: “She’s [Bernie’s] staying?! YES! HUGS ALL ROUND!” This was blatantly a lie.

As were repeated commitments of the Holby team to the story and to positive representation in public as recently as June 2018. Considering that boss Simon Harper admitted recently that storylines are up to a year in advance, this can best be seen as posturing.

In general, fans are also disappointed with the lack of accountability. Whereas Holby City had no hesitation lapping up the plaudits, they baulked at taking responsibility for the criticism.

When you become the embodiment of the promised faithful representation of a traditionally marginalised demographic, you cannot shut yourself in when harm has been done. Nor can you dismiss the hurt. And you can never, ever turn your backs to the (mis-)represented audience and tell them they are the ones who have got it wrong.

That said, we must remember that #Berena’s greatest achievement was it touched lives across the globe. Friendships were born, relationships cemented, and a vibrant community came into being in the borderless virtual space of the internet.

Some gained the confidence to start conversations, understand themselves, come out to their near and dear; and even others were accepted into the fold of their loved ones.

Now, with #Berena no more, the community is dismayed, bereft, grieving and angry. And in all this, the world screams at them to get a grip. 

The academic Georgina Turner speaks for us all when she writes:

“Behind us all there are decades of invisibility and misrepresentation, of miserable endings, and middles, and beginnings. We have been and continue to be hurt, in ‘the real world’ and the unreal.

“Yes, we’re hungry for any representation, grateful even, but we cannot afford to be beholden, to be cowed by the threat of being labelled ungrateful when harm is done. And harm has been done in recent weeks.”

Thus, the deja vu—and a considerable amount of anger. Can the #Berena wreck be a lesson so that this mistake doesn’t ever repeat itself?

That is the crux of the matter now.

Opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of DIVA magazine or its publishers.

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