Where did EastEnders go wrong?

Where are the Somalian faces and the realistic depictions of Multi-Cultural London English? What used to be a boundary-pushing British institution is rapidly becoming completely irrelevant.

EastEnders: it’s as recognisable a facet of our culture as awkward silences on the tube, the Royal family and fish’n’chips: the quintessentially Ing-Ger-Lish soap opera, where everybody lives in a cramped terraced house, refuses to pronounce their T’s and indulges liberally in H-dropping. EastEnders is the show by Londoners, for Londoners, a million miles away from such sanitised American counterparts as Dallas, with its lavish sets and fine furniture. One might even call it a true British institution.

In its original incarnation, EastEnders truly was the breath of fresh air that the British soap opera scene had been longing for. It had a niche; it plugged a genuine gap in the market. It was a Shakespearean drama married with a sense of gritty, cutting-edge, kitchen-sink social realism. This was the longed-for accurate representation of the inner-city working class – perhaos not quite to the level of ‘Shameless’, we might argue in 2013, with its kids riding in trolleys, bonfires in car-parks and discarded furniture, fridges and/or washing machines left to rot in the front garden - but still: alleyways had puddles of piss, litter was in the gutters, graffiti decorated the walls of dilapidated houses. To its eternal credit, the Beeb’s East London soap never shied away from exploring controversial contemporary issues:  through the years we’ve seen EastEnders deal with AIDS, teen pregnancy, racism, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and homophobia, to name only a few.

But despite these achievements, there is also something that has gone strangely backward in Britain’s most beloved soap. In fact, having done research for this article by watching innumerable clips on Youtube and iPlayer, I can tell you that at its core, the modern-day version of EastEnders is horrifically boring and disappointingly watered down. Less than halfway through my marathon, I felt with absolute certainty that I’d rather watch gears grind. The plotlines failed to grip me; the characters displayed less charisma than I’ve seen before in pavement cracks. What exactly has changed?

Over time, we have seen EastEnders transform from a gritty and boundary-pushing production with a genuine feel to a middle class writers’ portrayal of working class life. Simply put, as EastEnders becomes a plot-driven drama, the realism suffers - and I’m not talking about the mandatory rape/death/fight/incest/UFO sighting that occurs with loveable predictability every Christmas Day.

As we know, EastEnders is set in the fictional East ‘Lahndan Tahn’ of Walford, postal district E20. The programme first came to the small screen as a representation of a dying, (predominantly) white working-class in inner-city London. According to Underground History, “the fictitious station is located on the District line. The map on the wall was printed with actual train times to and from Walford East – though closer inspection of the map showed that Walford East was located between Bow Road and West Ham (thus taking the place of Bromley-by-Bow).”

If accuracy is to be considered, then, EastEnders would represent inner-city, highly multi-ethnic slums such as Bow, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Walthamstow and Mile End as opposed to highly industrialised and distinctively white working class East London suburban towns such as Barking and Dagenham. It’s surprising, then, that the racial diversity is so out of kilter. For instance, where is the Somali family who would have been so likely to move onto the EastEnders streets? Since 1993, the Somali community has continued to expand all around the UK from suburbs to inner-cities, even more so in London. The first round of Somalian immigrants were predominantly refugee and thusly placed in social housing on estates so familiar to the cast of EastEnders. Their absence in the soap is disappointing.

Such major discrepancies matter, especially when you consider the well-known words of EastEnders writer Julia Smith: "Above all, we wanted realism.” And while the writers’ commitment to such realism is echoed in their efforts to have characters continually discuss real life events such as Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory and the royal baby, some portrayals are woefully out of touch: chirpy Cockney geezers on market stall screaming, “Three for a pahnd!” where the reality is much more “one pound fish”.

This isn’t the only example of out-of-touch dialect in the soap. While EE’s FatBoy incorporates certain facets of Multi-Cultural London English in his speech, a character like Liam is still going around saying, “That’s sick, blad” with a straight face. And for all the Bens, Abbies and Laurens, where are the kids in the youth hostels? The ones that didn’t grow up in a nuclear family? The ones that took to drug-dealing and crime not because they were peer pressured by yuppies with slit eyebrows doing their best Dizzee Rascal impression, but because they actually have to make a living or else starve?

I’m willing to put aside the 2004 slang. What I can’t put aside is that this the general representation of Multi-Cultural London English in EastEnders. Those who speak it in the soap are invariably a crude personification of those imaginary characters the red-top rags label the ‘feral youth’, ‘chavs’, ‘ASBOs’. This simply reinforces the belief that MCLE is a language of the streets, a language of the uneducated, uncouth and unashamedly ignorant and unsympathetic, one to be dropped as soon as civilisation occurs. As a result of education and other modes of social mobility, people born in relative socio-economic deprivation have been able to propel themselves toward a higher level of cultural capital and up the social ladder, all the while retaining the mode of speech that they always used. But these people don’t exist on Albert Square. The people speaking MCLE on EastEnders are those feral black boys leading the poor white boy astray. It brings to mind David Starkey’s infamous insinuation that “white boys...turning black” is a major reason for social decay.

With a sensitive overhaul of its language and its racial diversity – preferably an overhaul directed by people from the communities they write about - EastEnders would have a fighting chance of returning to its former glory. But, sadly, from where I’m standing, it looks like the soap that was once a British institution is now in danger of becoming completely irrelevant.

Yacine Assoudani is a writer of Afro-Arabian descent, born and raised in Hayes, West London. Tweet him @YassinMY

EastEnders: out of touch? Image: Getty.
Yacine Assoudani is a journalist from West London. More of his work can be found at www.mediadiversity.uk. You can tweet him @YassinMY
ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times