Media strategies can help challenge domestic violence and a fictional story can often give audiences a unique perspective on the lived reality of abusive relationships. This is because it is considered to operate outside of the legal and ethical constraints found in factual programmes. Even given these qualifiers the ongoing ‘Rob-Helen’ domestic violence storyline in Radio 4 serial The Archers remains highly contentious. Supporters have the show depicting a realistic case study of Rob Titchener who isolates his wife Helen Archer from her support network, and gas-lights her repeatedly, undermining her confidence.
He has created a ‘perfect’ husband and stepfather persona which means Helen is unable to share her fears with family or friends as he slowly exerts more and more control over her life. Critics however have argued that the character of Helen is deeply unsympathetic and fits neatly into an outdated media stereotype, a willing ‘doormat’ who is an easy target for victim – blame and frustrates audiences rather than challenging their misconceptions.
This controversy raises interesting questions about the interplay between fictionalised drama and real world implications of the way in which that drama is represented and portrayed. It raises questions about the role of stories like this, particularly in terms of issues of responsibility and realism in the context of a deeply personal, yet political story line.
It is now over two years since Rob Titchener first appeared in The Archers and his character has changed during this time from laddish philanderer to a sinister controlling abuser. There is no doubt it is a ‘successful’ storyline – it has generated significant social media ‘chatter’ – the regular tweet-along that accompanies the omnibus each Sunday morning becomes animated with any reference to Rob (retweets of links, jokes, and memes that typify user driven engagement on social media).
The actor who plays Rob was booed by audiences attending the Radio Times Festival and has now declared that he cannot read online comments such is the strength of anger from fans. These material events are all positive for the show as they manage to create a sense of relevancy where fictional story arcs link with real life emotion. The storyline has even been used as a useful hook for lawyers to explain ‘Coercive Control’ and the Rob-Helen story allows the opportunity to give concrete examples of how to recognise abusive patterns of behaviour.
These examples show very clearly the real world relevance, and real world responsibility that the programme makers have to ensure events portrayed and characters described are relevant to the situations they depict. But, it goes even further than this. Some of those who have themselves experienced abuse have also praised the story as authentically depicting how abusers groom their victims:
I’ll also mention a character on ‘The Archers’, Helen Archer, who is currently being reeled in by an abuser who has discovered her achilles heel! It is beautifully done and has me screaming at the radio whenever they are in a scene…
However many people are equally frustrated by the story. In particular the character of Helen has drawn negative comments as she is seen as a weak compliant character. A recent episode alluded to the possibility that Rob had raped Helen, leaving many listeners uncertain about what they had actually heard. Some listened several times to the same episode and were unsure that she had been assaulted and others disagreed that this could be considered rape https:
One critic described the assault thus:
In terms of questions of responsibility, the episode was transmitted without prior warning about content. The programme has been reticent in linking listeners to support resources following other episodes where Helen is clearly intimidated by Rob and which might trigger a powerful response from those in similar situations:
Production teams do have a special responsibility in representing domestic violence and the team have reportedly taken advice about abusive relationships though have not disclosed their sources. At the same time the programme has mentioned that they want to maintain ‘ambiguity’ about the Rob/Helen relationship. Given the real life resonance that this story line will have for many listeners, is a desire for dramatic licence appropriate, or would the media be better suited to dealing far more directly with the implications of and consequences for women living in abusive relationships? Whilst ‘ambiguity’ might enhance the entertainment value without a clear message the story and the programme risks perpetuating negative stereotypes concerning weak women complicit in their own abuse.
Domestic violence in soaps is not new and British drama has led the way in depicting manipulative abusive characters who manage to conceal their true nature while exerting control behind closed doors. The stories are not only educating audiences but entertaining them. Narrative techniques are used where characters successfully conceal their abuse within the programme but this is revealed to audiences. This special knowledge maximises engagement (anger towards the abuser, frustration when others seem to be oblivious to their true character).
In many ways the topic of domestic violence fits neatly within the soap format which deals with the domestic sphere of life and tends to foreground female characters who are often overlooked in mainstream media. The Archers is also a particularly appropriate format given that its origins lie in educating post-war audiences about food and agricultural issues. However in moving into this territory and choosing Helen as the ‘victim’ The Archers misses the opportunity to significantly challenge perceptions. Helen has been cast very much as victim throughout her time on the show with a past partner who committed suicide, as well as her ongoing problems with anorexia and depression.
Helen is now pregnant, presumably as a result of Rob’s assault and this week a health worker has visited the couple at home. The introduction of a health professional raises the possibility that the programme might directly tackle the issue of domestic violence and send some clear unambiguous messages. It is more difficult to convey the nuances of storylines in radio serials and as one listener describes, Helen is clearly in denial
Right up until the rape Helen was living the dream. We know a lot more about Rob than she does. Until that night she did think he was perfect and that she had the life she so desperately wanted. For a person living the dream, pregnancy through rape is simply inconceivable (no pun intended) so she refused to accept it until Pat broke through to her. She sounds so out of it because she is in a terrible place. She wants to want the baby, she wants to share Rob’s excitement but she knows, although she might not be able to articulate this, that it’s been forced on her.
This makes it all the more important that messages concerning abusive relationships are unequivocal. There is no place for ambiguity in a domestic violence storyline otherwise the risk is that the issue serves little purpose beyond using male violence as entertainment.