The Blonde, White Woman and the Politics of Rape Survival in EastEnders; or, Why Skin, Hair and Bodies Matter if You Want to Bust Rape Myths
The popular BBC One soap Eastenders has, over nearly two years, portrayed a story surrounding the serial rape or attempted rape of women living in the fictional Albert Square. The narrative began when Dean Wicks raped his sister-in-law Linda, the local pub landlady, in her kitchen in October 2014. In November 2015, Dean attempted to rape Roxy Mitchell, his girlfriend. She was saved from the attack by the timely arrival of Shirley Carter, Dean’s mother. Apologies if this description sounds like painting by numbers but adjectives such as ‘brutal’ or ‘violent’, which might dress up the prose, are redundant in this context: let’s take it as a given that rape is always brutal and always violent.
The soap worked with Rape Crisis to ensure that the storyline accurately reflected women’s experiences of rape, reporting, and living through the aftermath of the attack. You can read about their collaboration here. The soap's commitment to the two-year storyline, and consistent attention to Linda and Roxy’s responses, ensured that the narrative felt like more than mere sensationalism. The show afforded the characters space to explore the complex range of emotions that can follow an attack and gave them time to communicate to viewers that feelings do not just disappear after experiencing trauma – they stay with you, and do not just vanish into yesterday’s storyline land. Moreover, the plot busted a number of dangerous, yet pervasive, rape myths. Dean Wicks was a charming, good-looking man who did not ‘need’ to rape women to have sex but was a misogynist and a rapist nonetheless. Both men and women disbelieved Linda and found it easier to assume that she was guilty rather than her male attacker. The police were sympathetic yet ultimately unable to bring Dean to trial through lack of evidence in Linda’s case. And in Roxy’s, Dean’s barrister used her past relationships and perceived promiscuity as evidence against her to secure his freedom.
From beginning to end (or at least, as far as we have journeyed through the story so far), EastEnders has provided a lesson for viewers in the politics and injustices surrounding rape. The episode that aired on Friday, 19 August 2016 was a particularly important one in that it gave a number of women characters in the show the chance to speak out and make their voices heard. Watching the show, I had shivers as Linda, Roxy, Ronnie and Kathy discussed their experiences. In a culture that frequently ignores or suppresses women’s accounts of rape, in which only 15% of people who experience rape report it to the police, and in which only 5.7% of reports result in conviction, this was a victory for survivors. Each of those women’s voices helped break down barriers, and, who knows? Perhaps they will inspire actual survivors to share their stories or report rape. As the Albert Square women sat waiting for the call to come through from the police giving the jury’s decision in Dean's attempted-rape trial, Linda assured viewers that: ‘We did the only thing we could. We spoke out. And no verdict of guilty or not guilty is going to change that, is it?’ So far, so empowering.
But… and this is a big BUT. But, the only rape survivors represented as having voices in this episode were white women. Blonde, white women. Cis, straight, able-bodied, blonde, white women. Which is a big problem. Not only because it completely ignores the experiences of women of colour, men, trans, and non-binary people, but also because it perpetuates the myth that white women’s bodies, and blonde ones in particular, are somehow more innocent and more worthy of protection and redemption than others. That is not to suggest that the four women in question are generally depicted as more morally upstanding than other characters in the show (although it should be noted that the only rape represented onscreen was Linda's, and she alone of the four had not been convicted of a crime, had multiple sexual partners, or been seen to engage in illegal behaviour). Ronnie was convicted for swapping babies when her own died of sudden infant death syndrome, and is known to have killed a man who attempted to rape her. Roxy both took and dealt cocaine. Cathy faked her own death and was convicted for perjury. That these women could have casual sex, be imperfect, or even have criminal records, and yet also be rape survivors is a positive thing in demythologising notions about who can, and cannot, be raped.
However, while their characterisation is perhaps progressive, their whiteness and blondeness entrenches tropes about Western women’s bodies that are ultimately damaging. As Jennifer Loubriel writes for Everyday Feminism, ‘while all women are objectified under patriarchy, the concept of white womanhood has a very different connotation than Black womanhood does.’ Essentially, in patriarchal Western cultures white women’s bodies are deemed purer (and, by extension, worthy of defence against rape) than those of women of colour. Additionally, as Tessa Perkins argues, blondeness, while signifying a range of meanings in Western cultures, is ‘the ultimate sign of whiteness, being racially unambiguous. Hence blondes often embody Western cultural associations of whiteness and purity, as against blackness and evil’ (1990, 47). Thus the whiteness and Aryan blondeness of the four women characters sharing their stories has a disturbing racial and political dimension.
Interestingly, the four women survivors featured in the August 19 episode were not the only characters in the show to have been raped. Where was dark-haired Whitney, who was abused by her stepfather and later raped and forced into prostitution by a boyfriend (and who was downstairs in the pub where the episode largely took place)? And how about dark-haired Stacey (possibly a character who would identify as disabled owing to her bi-polar disorder) who was raped by Ronnie’s father? Expanding the scope of women’s experiences as survivors, wouldn’t Denise— a black woman who helped to bring up Dean—have added something to the conversation having experienced violence and kidnap at the hands of a violent ex-husband? The absence of these women’s stories was palpable, especially given each of the excluded characters had a connection either to Dean or to Linda. It left a bad taste in the mouth; for all the suggestion that any woman can be raped and survive, the message was clear that only the stories of blonde, white cis women matter.
The charity Rape Crisis reports that in cases where race was recorded, 27% of attendees at their centres in 2014-2015 identified as BAME. The most recent government figures (2011) show that 14% of the UK’s population identify as BAME, suggesting that people of colour are actually more likely to experience, or at least report, rape than white people. Another startling statistic from Rape Crisis is that 23% of attendees at the charity's centres identify as disabled – countering the myth of the able-bodied and physically ‘perfect’ women featured on EastEnders. Of course, even in the fictional world of soap-land it is impossible to want any character to be raped. That would be perverse. But somehow until survivors are cast as anything other than the innocent blonde-white-straight-cis-woman stereotype, the representation of rape survivors in EastEnders will continue to ring hollow.