Frances Marsh | Comment Editor
Eastenders is undoubtedly a household staple in the UK. Since it began in 1985, the soap has tackled taboo and hard-hitting topics and it remains hugely popular. In 2022, the soap had multiple storylines with themes of consent and sexual assault, and these were largely praised at the time they were aired. Eastenders was making bold statements about these issues and it was welcomed by fans, yet just months later the narrative has massively shifted and the soap is now receiving criticism for its insensitive handling of the very same topic.
The predominant storyline surrounding the topic was the rape of Ben Mitchell, and was initially met with praise. Both for its highlighting of the severely under-discussed topic of male sexual assault and for the heart-wrenching performance from Max Bowden. Viewers were left devastated for the character as we watched his life fall apart – contracting an STI from the attack, losing his husband, and using drugs to cope with the trauma. However, the storyline which was initially hailed as expertly written soon came under scrutiny. After the character came clean to his onscreen husband about the attack and the pair were seen reuniting, the sexual assault appears to have been forgotten. Both Ben and his husband Callum have been swept into storylines focused on other characters, and we have never seen the attack discussed on screen since.
Many viewers are rightfully shocked that a character can endure such a horrific ordeal, one which caused him to spiral into self-destruction, and then seemingly come out of it unscathed. When Ben was finally able to find the courage to come forward and report the attack to the police it was an incredibly poignant scene, but it was arguably tainted as in the aftermath it seemed to be treated as a plot device to drive the fan-favourite couple ‘Ballum’ back together. There has been no acknowledgement of how the character has been able to move forward and deal with his trauma. Arguably the most important part of a story of this nature, the recovery, seems to have been simply forgotten.
Beyond the overt storylines surrounding the theme, the soap has also come under fire for its generally insensitive handling of consent as a whole. Male characters have been seen on screen leering over women and using outdated phrases like ‘treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen,’ often towards women who have shown them little to no interest. There was also a particularly unfortunate comment made in the recent 38th-anniversary episode about Gen Z’s attitude to consent, implying that they are perhaps too sensitive about the issue. The episode was deemed a success by viewers, but I couldn’t help but feel that the throwaway comment left a bad taste in my mouth.
The most controversial of all is perhaps the current storyline focusing on an affair between Ravi and Denise, which has proved divisive with viewers. Despite the fact that Denise has repeatedly warned Ravi off, explicitly telling him no on many occasions, he has continued to pursue her to the point that some have called it harassment. This type of ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship where one character relentlessly pursues another is one we’ve seen countless times on the square before, but this one in particular is prompting discussion amongst fans due to how explicit Denise has been when warning Ravi off. The criticism surrounding this was only heightened when the official social media platforms shared a picture of the pair with the caption “that doesn’t sound like a no Denise.” Unsurprisingly, this was poorly received but remains undeleted on the platforms.
Whilst this problem is particularly being highlighted in Eastenders at the moment, this is not an isolated incident. It is indicative of how far we still have to go as a society – even in the wake of #MeToo. As long as popular media still portrays predatory behaviour in a way which trivialises and undermines the issue, then consent is not something that women can take for granted. We remain on guard against those men whose toxic belief, that no doesn’t always mean no, is being validated in the most mainstream of platforms.