Queerly Autistic

Queer Rep In The Time of COVID – why a socially distanced Ballum wedding is not a step backwards

In the next few weeks, Ben Mitchell and Callum Highway, EastEnders’ current flagship queer couple, will finally be tying the knot, more than two years after their story began with a meet cute handshake in the Queen Vic.

From the very beginning, with a very closeted Callum engaged to Whitney, and very messed up Ben indulging in, let’s tactfully say, the less charming elements of soap criminality, their relationship has been built slowly and organically, allowing Callum time to come out, giving them a prolonged period of dating, before the honeymoon phase settled into something more serious, leading to them moving in together in September and getting engaged in January this year. Their relationship has had more time taken over it than most soap relationships, establishing them firmly as a real, solid power couple, and that is to EastEnders’ credit – they are right slap bang in the middle of the storylines and drama that lie at the heart of soap operas, rather than existing purely to be the token ‘gay couple’ on the Square.

However, since their engagement, there has been some pushback from fans towards the upcoming nuptials, with many stating that they believe that a socially distanced wedding – that is, a wedding filmed with COVID-era restrictions and distancing imposed on the cast and crew – will impact the quality of EastEnders’ first ‘legal’ gay wedding (Christian and Syed having gotten married the year before equal marriage legislation was passed in England) and ultimately serve as a step backwards for LGBTQIA+ representation.

Although I fundamentally disagree, and will be going over why I feel that way, I do actually understand where these concerns are coming from. For a very long time, queer audiences had to make do with the suggestion of intimacy rather than the reality of it – a world where queer couples wouldn’t touch for fear of angering either the censors or the audience, the fact of them as tactile, affectionate, sexual partners left more to the imagination than to what we saw onscreen. Indeed, when Christian and Syed had the soap’s first ever topless gay bed scene ten years ago, there were over 150 complaints and even the Daily Mail got involved with their reliable pack of salivating readers looking to be outraged. The socially distanced filming techniques that have been in place since the Summer have drastically impacted the amount of physical affection that can be shown on screen, and this does somewhat prod some of those old experiences of watching queerness on television.

But, as much as I understand, I don’t believe that’s what’s happening here, and I truly don’t believe that a socially distanced Ballum wedding will be anything like a step backwards for LGBTQIA+ representation – if anything, to me, it represents a step forward in the amount of investment and energy they’re putting in to making their queer characters embedded into the fabric of the show.

As a starting point, I think there is misunderstanding around just how close to impossible it would be EastEnders to move their plans so significantly. Soap storylines are planned out up to a year in advance, with some even stretching to two years (for example, Whitney is currently in the tail end of what has been confirmed as a two year arc).

Think of it as like an intricate domino set: each domino falls into the next as each element of the story moves forward, each domino dependant on being struck by its predecessor in order to fall. An example of this would be with Ben and Callum: the Mitchells ordering a hit on Keanu at Christmas 2019 led to Keanu kidnapping Callum in February 2020, which in turn played a significant part in the boat crash storyline, which was where Ben suffered the head injury that damaged his hearing, which was the impetus for Ben taking part in the warehouse job with Phil (to prove himself), which then led us into the blackmail storyline with Callum gathering evidence on Phil for Thompson in order to keep Ben out of prison for the warehouse robbery, a story which carried through Christmas and into early 2021. These were not isolated incidences that existed independently of each other – everything is connected, and whether you value the quality of each bit of the storyline or not (let’s be honest, it’s fluctuated from very, very good to ‘oh dear no please stop’), each bit pushes the story forward to the next stage.

So it’s not as simple as merely picking up the wedding and moving it to a different point in the story. This would be like removing a domino from the chain – the whole thing comes to a halt.

I spoke to my good friend, Alex, an award winning writer who is not only a soap fan and aspiring soap writer, but knows people in the industry and has attended industry workshops run by people working in the great machine that is making a soap.

“The closest equivalent that I can come up with is imagine you’re looking at a massive house of cards,” she told me. “And now imagine if someone says ‘can you just take that card from the third row and move it to the top?’.”

“Nothing about these storylines exists in a vacuum. There’ll be storylines of different durations – some long-term that span months or even years, some medium-term and some that may only span a few weeks – and these are all intertwined so that something that happens in one may trigger something that happens in another. Soaps are also designed so that there’s never closure. Stories overlap so that when one ends, others are still running, in order to keep people watching. The ideal is that stories don’t end, they just take another twist. And it’s not just a creative process, it’s also a practical one that has to take into account the logistics of filming. This includes actor schedules, which like all of us, includes planned holidays, dentist appointments, family weddings, etc. Then there’s the availability of sets. Some shooting days are on the lot (i.e. outside on the Square) and some are in the studio (i.e. inside houses). It may be that a particular actor is only available on the day that the external filming is happening, but another is only available on the day that the interior scenes are being filmed. If these two characters need to have a conversation, then a logistical solution has to be found. In short, they’re juggling the story demands of several interwoven plots with actor availability and location availability.”

“I attended a TV Drama Writing masterclass given by one of the writing team in October 2019, and they mentioned that Christmas 2020 was already being storylined. That’s how far in advance these things are planned.”

Add into this the fact that, unlike previous queer couples before them, Ben and Callum’s stories are enmeshed with other stories and other characters. Christian and Syed’s wedding, for example, very much came across as something that it would have been possible to pick up and move (still with a lot of work, mind you), but this was not a sign of good representation – quite the opposite, it was a sign of how neglected they were and how little connection they had to the wider lore of EastEnders. But Ben and Callum’s wedding is not like this. It’s connected to a huge number of different things, including, as is now becoming clear, Whitney’s big two year story arc, Davood Ghadami’s departure as Kush Kazemi, and the introduction of a brand new character, Violet Highway (Gwen Taylor).

A good example of how difficult it is to move around a storyline is what inevitably happens when a member of the cast goes on maternity leave – stories and characters have to be reshuffled across the board, scripts amended, plans reworked, because, unlike in the situation with Ben and Callum, there is literally no choice but to do so. As a result, the stories around the departure are often weak both on substance and character, with arcs and character development sacrificed in order to facilitate the necessary exit. Do we really want them to do this with Ben and Callum’s wedding, when it’s previously brought us such dross as Mickney, Dark!Martin and Ruby’s weird pregnancy plot against Stacey?

And let’s just say, after all that, that they could delay the wedding, that they could make it work – this would essentially pause Ben and Callum’s ongoing storyline and ensure a lack of substantial screentime for goodness knows how long…and how is that in any way a win for LGBTQIA+ representation? Not to mention that, with new potentially aggressive and vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variants popping up, they could push everything back until 2022 and still have to film it in socially distanced conditions.

Ultimately, the idea of moving the wedding is not only unreasonable, but nigh on impossible given the immense logistical task that is storylining and filming EastEnders (especially considering how much time must currently be taken up with the logistical complication of COVID regulations). And, not only that, but the fact that Ben and Callum’s wedding is so tightly connected with other ongoing stories, and so interwoven with other characters, both new and old, as to make moving the wedding impossible to do without tearing the show into pieces, is actually a sign that EastEnders has taken several important steps forward with their queer representation, not backwards.

One of the main areas of concern that people have expressed around having a socially distanced Ballum wedding is on what we could lose: highlighting elements like the first dance, hugging Ben’s daughter, close family interaction, cutting the cake, etc. and arguing that these are elements that are afforded to straight couples on the show and, whatever the reason, it’s important for the first ‘legal’ gay wedding to get those things too. And, as with previous concerns, I do understand, to a point, where they’re coming from – but I also, as with previous concerns, fundamentally disagree.

Even without the added complication of COVID-19, it is presumptuous at best to assume that we were going to get any of these elements as part of the wedding storyline. This is, after all, EastEnders. They are not going to be dedicating an entire episode of the show to depicting every element of Ben and Callum’s wedding: if a scene isn’t there for a reason that pushes along the plot or character development, it simply isn’t going to be there. This is how all wedding on EastEnders play out – if the wedding is going to plan, and going well, element by element, then it’s only going to be background at best, and off screen at worst.

This isn’t EastEnders doing wrong by their first ‘legal’ gay wedding, it’s a fundamental part of the type of narrative storytelling that they’ve been doing for over thirty-five years. In fact, many of the biggest and most popular straight couples have not had these elements of their wedding depicted.

My friend, Jenni, has an almost encyclopaedic (one might even say – autistic?) knowledge of EastEnders, particularly Classic EastEnders, and so I asked her about the history of weddings across the show.

“Weddings on EastEnders, like the other soaps, are usually an excuse for drama,” she says. “Actually showing the happy couple make their commitments, and all the other frills and frivolities of a wedding, are usually a secondary consideration. A wedding where nothing goes wrong and the happy couple are in love and not hiding any secrets from each other is, frankly, very dull – weddings are tedious and loved-up couples gazing into each other’s eyes is boring to watch, so they’ll always jazz it up a bit with either drama between the couple or drama elsewhere. Most often, we’ll see brief glimpses of vows and exchanging rings, but those will be intercut with drama happening elsewhere. And out of the thirty-six years of weddings I’ve seen on EE, I can count the number of first dances I can remember on one hand. And all of those first dances were ironic – a happy moment before someone turns up to ruin the reception, or the bride drowns in a swimming pool, or else an opportunity for one of the newly-married couple to look guilty about something.”

“One of the biggest and most popular love stories EE ever did was Shannis (Sharon Watts/Dennis Rickman), which was huge. It was before social media, but they were huge fan favourites on the forums, there was plenty of fic etc. and they were the tabloids’ darlings – and I don’t mean the tv mag part, I mean front pages. Their actual wedding? Very lowkey, registry office with only a handful of guests. We saw almost nothing of the actual ceremony – no vows, no rings, the little screentime there was was devoted to Dot giving a reading, and when the happy couple kissed, the camera immediately panned away to Pauline and Dot looking disapproving. All the real drama – and the screentime focus – was happening back at the Square, where Sharon and Dennis arrived back home to find their reception venue had been cordoned off as a crime scene by the police, as the corpse of Sharon’s father had just been dug out of the beer cellar. The reception was unsurprisingly called off.”

But this is just one example – there are decades of EastEnders weddings to look through, after all. And Jenni has done just that, specifically breaking down the seventeen onscreen Mitchell weddings that we have seen over the years (Ben and Callum’s wedding being, at heart, a good old Mitchell wedding).

So there’s an incredibly good chance that these elements, which people have expressed concern about losing under socially distanced filming restrictions, were never going to be a part of Ben and Callum’s onscreen wedding anyway. And that’s okay – because they are fundamentally a soap couple on a soap opera. And that’s just another indication that their relationship is built into the fabric of the soap, more than just tokenistically, and treated equitably to the many cishet relationships and weddings we’ve seen (and, let’s be honest, more favourably than many: look at the amount of focus the engagement got compared to Jack and Denise or Kush and Whitney, and the amount of angsty build up and focus it looks like we’re getting for the wedding itself is not something afforded to every couple).

And, furthermore, I would go on to argue that equating good queer representation with ‘getting everything the straight people get’ is fundamentally flawed. A queer couple does not need every traditional element of a heterosexual wedding to play out in order for them to count, or in order for them to be seen as equal to cishet characters and couples. In fact, I’ve long been an advocate for something to go wrong with their planning, and it lead to a small registry office ceremony, with only those closest to them present, because the only thing that matters is their love and commitment to one another: not the ceremony, not the traditional and expected elements, but them, in that moment, doing what they do best…loving each other.

This was perfectly summed up in their engagement episode, where they both tried the ‘traditional’ proposal – Callum with a big speech and getting to one knee in the middle of the Square, Ben organising a big fancy party with signs saying ‘will you marry me?’ – and both fell short because it’s not who they are. It’s why, when the traditional attempts had failed, them finding themselves on that freezing cold balcony, with Callum admitting he’s not sure how this works (do they both get down on one knee?) and Ben reassuring him that it doesn’t matter because they make their own rules, was so beautiful. They are not a traditional, straight couple, even though their relationship encapsulates many traditional elements (particularly in their every day normality, living together and parenting Lexi, Ben’s daughter) – they are, fundamentally, a queer couple, and that’s important. Because queerness has never been about ‘see, I’m just like you’, but about ‘no, I’m not like you, but I still deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as you’.

Is a socially distanced wedding what any of us wanted (including the cast and crew)? No. Do we miss the natural, regular physical affection between these two characters? God, yes. I was touch-starved before lockdown, so the past year of my family shielding has only served to ramp that up – the affection between my ships are often how I vicariously tackle that starvation, and not having that has undoubtedly made it harder. This isn’t what any of us would have chosen, if the options had been freely available.

But is a socially distanced wedding for Ben and Callum some sort of ‘step backwards’ for LGBTQIA+ representation? No. Not at all. They have never previously held back on the physical, affectionate, sexual side of Ben and Callum’s relationship, and, even amongst the restrictions of social distancing, they have reinforced with heart-eyes and very obvious flirting that their relationship is as affectionate and physical as ever. And whilst I understand people’s concerns, and where they’re coming from, I must admit that I find such accusations of homophobia, and the idea of this being an issue of queer representation, a tad offensive.

Because the fact is that EastEnders does have a problem with queer rep, but that problem isn’t in them treating Ben and Callum badly – it’s in how their white cis gay male couple is given so much time and attention whereas their queer women are given so little.

They had a wonderful multi-faith relationship between a lesbian and a bisexual woman, two women of colour, and then promptly neglected them for eighteen months before breaking them up and pairing off the bisexual character with the blandest, whitest cishet male character they could find (who ‘woo-d’ her by flagrantly violating her boundaries and ignoring her rejection, a huge problem considering bisexual women of colour are hugely fetishized and at elevated risk of abuse). In addition to this, we have barely seen Bernie for years, missing both her sixteenth and her eighteenth birthday (whilst the Ben and Callum fandom complained that there was ‘only’ one scene for Callum’s thirtieth).

It was, I would say objectively, a much bigger blow for queer representation when they decided to murder their already-neglected middle aged lesbian character than it is for a young white cis gay male couple to have socially distanced filming in place during their wedding.

At the end of the day, we are in the middle of a pandemic that has killed over 140,000 people in the UK (60% of which have been disabled people, a devastating loss for the disabled community in this country), and that is the reason that social distancing is in place. We are living in extraordinary times, and the cast and crew of EastEnders are working desperately hard in extraordinary circumstances to bring us the show that we love. Ben and Callum’s wedding will have planned long before the cast and crew knew that social distancing measures would still be in place, and the fact that they have chosen to go ahead with it just shows how interwoven and integral they and their story are to the wider fabric of EastEnders – a fact that is, for me, a leap forward for queer representation on the show (or, at least, for the white cis gay male characters).

You can be sad that this is the circumstances under which the wedding is being filmed. And those feelings are valid. It sucks. This whole thing sucks. But framing that in terms of representation and discrimination is unnecessary, and, I believe, makes it harder for us to combat the real issues with representation (the neglect of queer women, harmful stories for disabled characters, etc.) that EastEnders is currently perpetuating.

And should close cohort filming (which would allow touching between certain actors if strict protocols are followed at work and at home) between the actors not be something that is workable, for whatever reason (and we shouldn’t demand an explanation if we don’t get this type of filming – EastEnders will have a reason why they didn’t do it, and this is tantamount to demanding private medical and personal details from the actors involved), then no doubt we may see the return of the body doubles that were used in their engagement episode in January. The amount of additional work it takes to bring in two new people (testing them, making their own costumes for them, and ensuring that they are also safe within the regulations in place) just so that our favourite couple can kiss and hold hands should not be overstated.

And, considering that this would be an actual gay couple, at EastEnders’ first ‘legal’ gay wedding, I’m not sure I can think of anything more beautiful for queer representation.

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