Friday, 19 February 2010

Who Killed (Archie) Progress?

A short, and not particularly sweet, post.

Just over a fortnight ago, on February 1st, I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference on the media portrayal of mental health,thanks to the conference organisers, Social Spider and One in Four magazine, the super aspirational lifestyle mag for those of us with mental health difficulties who don't define ourselves that way (OK, they let me write an article for them so I'm biased in thinking their content's fab). I was speaking as a writer and blogger who's bipolar and has written about mental health issues fairly uncompromisingly as well as using it as the painful heart for some of my creative work (see the previous entry).

Also speaking was the BBC's head of diversity, who spent much of her time being roundly praised (and rightly so) for the BBC's handling of the Stacey Slater bipolar storyline, a superb, amazingly acted portrayal of the horror and unglamorousness of living with this crippling illness.

Two weeks late I feel kicked in the teeth.

Who killed Archie? The bipolar nutjob. Of course. And if you really think people are too nuanced to see it like that, try searching twitter for "bipolar".

I have personal experience of the ridiculous myth that associates bipolar with axe(or bust)-wielding violence (in the form of a particularly hurtful jibe from a work colleague who should have known better). This ludicrous association keeps many out of jobs in the first place, sees us muttered and giggled about, accused, victimised, bullied, without considering the damage it does to our already vulnerable health - or to society as a whole.

Then along comes Eastenders and does a great job of breaking some of that down. Which is why it feels like so much of a betrayal to have this done to us. Better to have done nothing at all! Sure, maybe they're going to use it as a kicking-off point for a HUGE debate that breaks the bipolar/violence connection once and for all. Maybe not :p Maybe it's too late anyway.

Just consider this. In the 70s and 80s black actors were cast as baddies in the media at a time when much opinion on race relations was disgustingly backward. Sure there was no direct statement of causality, just as the BBC didn't say Stacey's illness made her kill Archie. But such casting is easy for us to see as reprehensible, revolting, and doing nothing but contribute to preposterous racial stereotyping. I'm not saying things have got better or worse as far as the way we handle race is concerned, but here's the thing - people will say "but it's obvious those casting decisions were wrong, what are you talking about with mental health, no one's implying a connection" and they genuinely won't see their illogic. And in a way the BBC's unawareness that they've done anything wrong is more worrying than malice - it shows just how ignorant we still are - and will remain as long as such stereotyping persists.

Shame on the BBC; shame on the head of diversity who smiled and talked and took our praise. I am ashamed and embarrassed to have shared a platform with you.


  1. Outstanding post.

    Karita AKA Narkyness

  2. Stacey killed Archie because he raped her, not because she is bipolar. I didn't think her being bipolar had anything to do with it although I can understand why someone who is bipolar themselves might have such concerns.
    Similarly I, as a Scottish person, get annoyed when Scottish people on TV are so often portrayed as violent drunks.

  3. yes, anon, that's a very good analogy, and I'm very glad that you didn't see a connection. Sadly, a brief search through twitter shows that all too many people did. Your analogy actually brings to mind the last time Eastenders really got its knuckles rapped for insensitivity and irrsponsible broadcasting, which was when the Fowlers went on a trip to Ireland, and the portrayal of the local population was, well, not their finest hour.

    Thank you @Karita @marcella

    Maybe I owe an apology to the head of diversity (maybe) - I realise that there's been a lot of publicity about how few people, even in the BBC, knew the outcome of this storyline. Maybe she was one of those in the dark - in which case I'm not quite sure what those who kept her in the dark were thinking

  4. couldn't agree more - what a shame

  5. I don't think I would dare to write what I actually think Dan!

  6. perhaps you could miaow it quietly :)

  7. Searching Twitter isn't really representative of the whole British public and I just searched the words 'EastEnders Bipolar' and almost all the people are saying what you've said, I've yet to see anyone suggest that Stacey murdered Archie because of her bipolar disorder.

    When hinting about the murderer's identity, the producers told the press that the outcome was inevitable. Everyone knows that not all sufferers of bipolar disorder are inevitably going to become murderers. They were referring to the fact she was raped and now she was having her rapist's baby (or so she thought at the time) and this came just as she was reunited with her 'soulmate'.

    I think you underestimate the viewing public, it's common sense.

  8. I wish that were true, but sadly I don't think it is. The point I was trying to make in the post is that one doesn't have to imply causation for many members of society to map that onto a correlation. Especially given ackground assumptions and prejudices - it's why the BME community gets outraged by stop and search figures, for example. I'm afraid that post-MacPherson, pleading lack of ill-intention is not only not not a defence, it's just irrelevant. I really wish I were underestimating the viewing public, but if you look at a twitter search on "bipolar" in the immediate aftermath of the episode you'll see it wasn't - the subsequent searches are, I would wager, skewed by the fact that the web is full of gobby campaigning oiks like me. Mental health rights campaigning is a lot more in its infancy than many other diversity streams. As a society we have decades more sensitivity to issues of gender behind us, for example, and yet we still see the most basic and disgraceful inequalities in, for example, pay for the same work, that cut straight along gender lines. It would be irresponsible of me as someone who is, by dint of luck, currently well enough to do so, not to speak out about this on the assumption that society was several quantum factors more progressive on mental health than it is on gender or race.

    Sadly "everyone knows" just isn't true. By a long long way.

  9. I didn't see the program you are talking about, but I agree with you about the tragedy of the 'bipolar therefore violent' stereotype. Depression of any sort is a tough thing to live with and ignorant portrayals of people afflicted by it, by the media just reinforce prejudice. I also think that there are personality disorders - Narcissist, BPD and others - that mimic bipolar in various ways (such as wild mood swings, abusive behaviour, lack of empathy and so on) and are unrecognised by the general community who tend to lump those who demonstrate such behaviour into the manic-depressive category because that is what they are familiar with. It's like labelling a depressive who has a psychotic episode as a schizophrenic - when they are completely different conditions and treated in different ways. The general public will continue to hold onto their comfortable sterotypes and dismissive, cruel prejudices as long as the media continue to flog them for the sake of ratings. It pisses me off,Dan, it really pisses me off..

  10. Thanks, Phillipa, yes - you've put your finger on something there - there's a real laziness, as though one mental illness is the same as any other because they can't be bothered to differentiate them. They wouldn't do that with blindness and deafness, for example.

    Me too - I was shaking at the end of the episode.

    thank you :)