I have been catching up with Call the Midwife (CtM) lately – don’t judge, I’m a sucker for a good BBC domestic drama – and in between sobbing pathetically through a box of tissues per episode (I’m a sympathy crier) and la-la-la-ing through the overt religious stuff, I do enjoy it. Yes, sometimes the sheer GOODNESS of the main characters sets my teeth a little on edge, but on the whole I get caught up in the storylines, it’s historically pretty accurate, and the writing packs an emotional punch as evidenced by the afore-mentioned tissues.
I just have one pretty hefty issue with the show that reached boiling point last week.
(Don’t read any further if you don’t want spoilers on character arcs up to episode 6.4).
Two of my favourite characters have to be Patsy Mount and Delia Busby. Patsy (played by Emerald Fennell) first appeared in Season 3 and Delia (played by Kate Lamb) started appearing in Season 4. It’s not going to come as any surprise to people that know me that my favourite characters will be 1) the attractive red-head and 2) the lesbians. Yes I have a type and yes I like me some representation I can relate to in my TV shows.
The handling of Patsy’s sexuality has, on the whole, been pretty decent, if a little light on saying the actual words “I like women”. I say “on the whole”, because a main storyline for the couple came at the end of Season 4 when they nearly killed Delia and gave her memory loss. This storyline was rescued from Bury-Your-Gays territory only by the dint of some handwaving and a hasty “We didn’t mean it! Really!” fix-it from the writing staff in the Christmas episode. Even more depressingly, the accident happened just after the Patsy and Delia moved in together. Happy Lesbians!!!! That can’t happen!!! We have to split them up!!! DRAMA!!! You can almost hear how it went in the writing room at the Beeb.
Things get better in Season 5 when Delia gets her memories back and moves back to London and even stays in Nonnatus House with the other midwives. It’s led to some sweet moments, some lingering glances, sneaking in/out of each other’s rooms, and planning of holidays. Keen observers of the show know they’re gay, the characters know they’re gay, they’ve said on screen they love each other, but you never, ever, EVER get to see a physical expression of that love.
And this makes it very, very easy to read Patsy and Delia’s relationship throughout the seasons as just good friends. Even their love declarations could be seen as Platonic love. After all, women are known for their close friendships, aren’t they?
The sheer lengths this show will go to to avoid on-screen snogging were taken to farcical heights in a recent episode (6.3) when Patsy is forced to leave England to go take care of her dying father in Hong Kong. We will leave aside the fact they are splitting up – AGAIN – this poor couple, reserving judgement till the end of the season, and focus more on the final moments Patsy and Delia have together.
They are in Patsy’s room in private – I stress here that they are shown in a PRIVATE moment where there is an expectation none of the other characters will see them. A rare glimpse into the “behind closed doors” part of their closeted relationship. – finishing off the packing, having an incredibly emotional farewell, they lean in for a kiss and… just milliseconds before lips touch, Fred bursts in to collect the bags. Patsy is then shepherded out of the house and poor Delia barely even gets a goodbye hug.
CtM will gleefully show graphic scenes of childbirth (including sound effects, I could have happily lived my whole life without knowing the squelchy sound of hand going into a c-section), heterosexual couples kissing, nuns giving up the veil and marrying doctors, factories exploding, horrific burns and disfiguring injuries, babies being born out of wedlock (gasp!), domestic violence, and many many other things which could distress people.
But two lesbians kissing is obviously a step too far.
The CtM writers have been handling really well (IMO) the thalidomide storyline. The parents with dwarfism storyline was also handled decently. We’ve had spousal abuse, alcoholism, back street abortions, interracial relationships, single parent families, poverty, mental health, and a myriad of other topics all dealt with a degree of compassion from the characters that – on occasion – stretches incredulity. In general, CtM does a pretty a good effort of showing the various sides of the given issue of the week.
But queer relationships on the show? Forget about it. The only other queer-related storyline I can bring to mind (or google) involved a closeted gay man who was caught cottaging and subsequently convicted. Very period appropriate and suitably distressing to watch. Hard to come away from that storyline, or the ongoing Pasty/Delia interactions with any other feeling than “gay = bad” and “gay = shameful”.
It’s easy for the BBC to say that CtM is set in the 1950s/early 1960s – a period when homosexuality was illegal in the UK (for men, not for women), and that they take care to be historically accurate where possible, and that the show focuses on a time when morality was different, and that the very act of showing such a time, casts a light on how far we have come.
I understand CtM is a particular brand of TV show, and it has a certain audience to appeal to, priding itself on being “no sex, no nudity”, with wholesome heartwarming storylines, that are (more or less) period appropriate. Pasty and Delia’s whole relationship must be seen through the CtM lens – a singular version of history that has it’s roots in a very particular moralistic Christian outlook – and, in the eyes of CtM, lesbian relationships, whilst they undoubtedly happen, are shameful and must happen off screen and behind closed doors.
Yes, in the 1950s/1960s lesbians were forced to live closeted lives. But this is a TV SHOW and it has already bent reality and historical accuracy for a good story, so why stick to the line here? The nuns, midwives, and most of the other recurring characters are broad-minded (and forgiving) enough to deal compassionately and period-IN-appropriately with interracial couples, disabled couples, single-mothers, alcoholics, and a host of other issues.
Why then do homosexual relationships have to be the only ones that aren’t given the warm, comforting blanket of Nonnatus’ open mindedness and acceptance?
In the CtM writers room you clearly can’t have an onscreen kiss between two women because that would legitimise the relationship and construe approval upon said relationship (unless it is swiftly followed by retribution in the shape of a bicycle accident, amnesia, or a dying relative half-way around the world). To be clear, the only other same-sex onscreen kiss in CtM that I am aware of happened in the lead-up to the gay character being arrested. The gay kiss is explicitly shown as bad.
On the one hand, affection between couples, both homo- and heterosexual, on CtM in general is very understated, reliant a lot on softened glances and meaningful hand holding. Kissing is minimal, and what little you do get tends to be chaste, but it is always natural and never mocked. Patsy/Delia fall into this pattern nicely and in that respect are treated no differently from Barbara and the Reverend.
Why then, did the writers choose to write the farewell scene the way they did?
At no other point in the six seasons of this show have two women kissed on screen, this is a fact. For good or bad, CtM has made the call that Patsy and Delia simply do not snog. Longing glances, spooning, hand holding? Yes. Lip locking? No. Why then, take them to the very brink, only to snatch fulfillment from our grasp with a comedic flourish? The pay-off is dangled above our heads, unreachable and taunting, in a move that has no other reading than to point fun at the two women daring to express affection.
Snoggus-interuptus is simply not part of the CtM vernacular, so its use here just serves to hammer home the message that lesbians kissing is 1) something shameful and not to be seen and 2) inherently funny.
Which leads me to the concept of Schrodingers Queer. If two lesbian characters never actually kiss or act in an openly gay fashion on screen, does it really mean anything? Are we so starved for representation that such lackluster and reluctant lip service (forgive the expression!) will satisfy us? If my mother has managed to miss the fact these two characters are even in a relationship – never underestimate the power of heteronormativity – can the writers really claim to have done a good job portraying them?
On a related note, and where this article ended up going more than I thought it would, surely we are beyond treating homosexual expressions of love as something to be ashamed of and titillated by. The writers can’t have it both ways – be flag waving and proud about how inclusive they are with two, count them TWO, lesbian midwives, whilst at the same time clearly ashamed by the very same characters, putting road block after road block in the way of their happiness, and bending over backwards to give plausible deniability to the “they’re just good friends” camp. Time and again it feels like CtM does everything in its power to make sure the lesbian relationship is never seen as anything other than less than a heterosexual relationship in the show.
Put another way, does representation without confirmation, and affirmation, mean anything?