BBC EastEnders has a reputation for socially realistic gritty drama but recently commentators have been asking if the programme has gone too far. The current story attracting a spate of complaints involves a social work storyline which has caused the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) to condemn the producers as “lazy and arrogant”. It is interesting that while there are many popular drama series that depict the twists and turns of hospital life, legal teams or teachers we very rarely see social workers portrayed on screen. The EastEnders plot focuses on Lola Pearce, the troublesome teenage grand-daughter of Billy Mitchell. She becomes pregnant after a one night stand and insists she will keep the baby. Contrary to expectations Lola seems able to overcome her difficult background (the narrative refers to her childhood in the care system) and audiences see that she is clearly managing to love and care for her baby, Lexi. But this is a soap opera and it is not long before Lola’s life is disrupted and her baby taken from her in heart-breaking scenes. Over a period of weeks we have seen a build-up of circumstances leading to this (Billy loses his job, Lola takes on cleaning work and life becomes more and more chaotic). The viewing audience know that Lexi is being cared but not so her social worker, Trish. Using typical soap tricks (where audiences know more than the characters) we see Lola miss appointments with the social worker, or witness her wrapping Lexi in a tea towel instead of a nappy or forgetting to clean the flat. The narrative and dramatic pace increases when Lola meets a group of girls from her past who bully her and threaten her friend Abi. They also turn on baby Lexi and at this point Lola retaliates violently. As Lola is charged with assault it seems seems clear to social services (if not those watching) that this baby is not safe. Lexi is taken literally from the arms of her crying mother into temporary foster care. The professional protest raises questions about whether audiences care about how issues like this are represented, and indeed if they care about how professionals are portrayed in popular drama.
Bridget Robb, acting chief of the BASW, said the storyline had provoked “real anger among a profession well used to a less than accurate public and media perception of their jobs”. The programme makers were quite defensive; their response centred on the professional ethics of these fictional social workers, asserting their actions were based on “a genuine desire to protect Lexi” and that “[t]here was certainly no inference that her actions were anything personal against Lola or her family”. This raises several issues. Firstly the assumption is that these portrayals do matter to professionals who feel they have been poorly represented. Indeed it is striking that many online commentators draw parallels between this fictional story and factual cases. It must be distressing for many social care professionals the regularity with which the “Baby P” scandal is mentioned in online comments about the EastEnders story. For many audiences then this fictional story represents the reality of their view of social workers ‘getting it wrong’.
Secondly, we assume that British TV soap production teams are careful with their portrayals. Indeed EastEnders in particular have a strong reputation for well researched stories. Previous interviews with members of the production team show the meticulous care taken over storylines involving cancer and other illnesses. In this regard, the current story is a surprisingly one-sided depiction of social work. A few years ago I was involved in a study that examined representations of social care in popular drama. The background to this was that the Department of Health was finding it hard to recruit to the profession. The study was designed to explore if different images and messages could be found in popular media to counter the predominantly negative coverage that social care/work received in news media. Social workers when they featured in soaps and drama storylines were predominantly involved in stories concerning children (e.g. access disputes, fostering, adoption). However there was an unexpected paradox. TV dramas portrayed social workers in positive terms, as friendly, sympathetic and `good listeners’. Conversely, social care characters in programmes such as Emmerdale were represented as highly bureaucratic, isolated, sad individuals rather than an integral part of the — largely working class — community that they served.
Social workers and social care professionals are likely to be disappointed with this on-going EastEnders storyline. It shows that TV drama can still fall into such stereotyping and yet drama represents an important cultural resource where stereotypes associated with news media can be challenged (and are in many other cases). Given that social care has a marginalised voice in mainstream media and that we see such few examples of social care and social work in popular drama at all it is perhaps even more important that the profession is portrayed in a range of ways. These stories bear tremendous scrutiny because social workers are portrayed so rarely. Meanwhile as with any soap storyline it is unclear quite how the Lola/Lexi story will be resolved and what impact, if any, this will have on public perceptions of the profession. Perhaps the media image of social care/work has not moved very far beyond what many social workers would describe as “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” perception of child protection.