Happy Pride Month. At the DIVA Awards 2018, an award ceremony run by DIVA magazine celebrating LGBT+ women, Holby City won the LGBT Series or Storyline award, beating Netflix mega-hit Orange is the New Black and Canadian web-series Carmilla. The winning storyline was simple: two middle-aged women fell in love. The impact, however, has been huge for the LGBT+ community.
In February 2016, surgeons Bernie Wolfe (Jemma Redgrave) and Serena Campbell (Catherine Russell) met on screen for the first time. Although both characters were in different, heterosexual relationships at the time, #Berena – the name given to the couple by fans – quickly trended on social media whenever the two shared scenes. The popularity of the two women took the cast and crew of Holby City by surprise. The primarily sapphic fanbase ranges from young teens to women in their fifties, like Bernie and Serena, and older.
“Time after time, TV writers throw our hope back in our faces. Holby City didn’t.”
There is a reason why lesbian and bisexual viewers hoped that the actresses’ chemistry wouldn’t amount to nothing. Television writers have a habit of writing strong relationships between members of the same sex to attract the support of LGBT+ fans, only for the layers of homoerotic subtext never to actually become main-text. This trope of ‘queerbaiting’ purposefully strings LGBT+ viewers along without giving them concrete television representation. Time after time, TV writers throw our hope back in our faces. Holby City didn’t.
Bernie and Serena’s friendship blossomed into a romance; months of flirtatious banter and lingering looks over glasses of wine led to a beautifully scripted and directed kiss on the floor of an empty operating theatre. Whilst Bernie’s lesbianism had been well-established by then via an extra-marital affair with a female army colleague, Serena had only ever had relationships with men. Many fans see her as bisexual due to her attraction to men and women. Bisexual women need positive TV representation as much as lesbians, but Holby City, like many other TV shows, falls into the trap of bisexual erasure where heavily bisexual-coded characters are not clearly confirmed as bisexual. Sadly, it is often a trend of unconscious biphobia.
At the age of 51, Serena faced coming to terms with her sexuality as well coming out to her family and friends. Now, middle-aged women are already marginalised on TV, side-lined as wives and mothers past their sell by date, but middle-aged bisexual and lesbian women? Intelligent, strong and multi-faceted bisexual and lesbian women who are not defined by their relationship to a man, or their children? Up until recently, I’m not sure TV writers knew they existed.
“Older bisexual and lesbian characters on TV, especially in healthy relationships, act as role models for LGBT+ viewers”
Not only does their storyline highlight the LGBT+ proclamation that ‘love is love’, but that it is never too late to come out and live true to who you are. Older bisexual and lesbian characters on TV, especially ones in healthy relationships, act as role models for LGBT+ viewers. They act as a hopeful picture of the future for LGBT+ people, whether closeted and struggling, out and proud or in between.
“Their story is a love story. A gloriously Sapphic one”
Through portraying the experiences of bisexual and lesbian women, Bernie and Serena’s relationship has, and continues to help many women feel more comfortable about their sexuality. Holby City also defied sexist stereotypes because, although Bernie and Serena are both professional women, equal in status and ability, the writers didn’t pit the two characters as enemies. They are, first and foremost, friends. Their respect, trust, and support for each other is as undeniable as their sexual chemistry, and, ultimately, their story is a love story. A gloriously sapphic one.
It is equally important that straight viewers and the family of LGBT+ people watch these underrepresented stories. Holby City has received several complaints for it’s same-sex relationships, typically amounting to ‘I’m not homophobic, but I feel it’s unnecessary to have so many gay characters’. Even despite the merits of Holby’s storytelling, this bigotry alone rather proves why storylines like #Berena are necessary, don’t you think?