I am interested in the representation of race, gender and sexuality in the London soap Eastenders concerning the relatively new lesbian story involving a black (or/and mixed-race) woman called Tosh (played by Fiona Mackintosh) and a white woman, Tina (played by Luisa Bradshaw-white). Tina is the younger sister of the wonderful Shirley Carter as well as, part of the ‘Carter Clan’ currently occupying ‘The Vic’ public house. Tosh has entered the programme without a family connection but we know she is a firefighter who wants to have children.
In actual fact, we were introduced to Tosh in her absence when Tina Carter arrived in Walford following her sister wearing cuts and bruises. We saw Shirley warn Tina about the violent character of Tosh to understand this was a repeated problem in their relationship. So, Tina. Though she is, to say the least, a little wayward in her behaviour, her redeeming features are in being affectious insomuch as, she is kind, a gentle soul without obvious malice. She is amusing and makes you smile even when she gets ridiculously drunk.
Thus, we have through race discourse, black as violent, controlling and white as kind, caring and carefree. Tosh is the ‘black bully’ baddy, and Tina is the ‘white innocent’ goody. Suffice it to say, there is nothing new in this tired reproduction of black as something demeaning and negative in relation to whiteness. Through the discourse of sexuality we also have Tosh as assertive, ‘the butch’ fire-fighter who boxes to keep fit and release her pent-up anger whilst Tina, is cool, preferring to socialise with her family and friends – ‘the fem’ who wants to please Tosh. We do not see sex but the clear message is that Tosh fucks Tina or at least, that Tosh as black and butch is, ‘the assertive one’.
In terms of gender, in a traditional sense, Tosh goes out to work and brings home a ‘mans wage’ from a ‘mans job’ whilst Tina stays at home with lots of love to offer. Difficult to know if Tina is domesticated though she did make breakfast the other day? In any event, Tosh seems to want a ‘housewife type’ of woman though she is not sure whether Tina can deliver on this and Tina apparently wants a ‘Tosh type’ woman although she appears to have doubts as to whether she can quite be that woman? An interesting twist is that Tosh is desperate to have a baby and to create a real family whilst Tina, although soft in character, has already had a child and apparently did not cope. Shirley has pointed out to Tina that she does not actually like babies. Is lesbianism at risk of being portrayed as ‘childish’ or ‘immature’ through Tina? That storyline is still to unravel and may offer a way in which to redeem what currently looks like a deeply racist and limited notion of black and lesbian life/ sexuality.
Tosh and Tina are problematic for me because, much like ‘Orange is the new black’ series on Netflix, black is sold in order to maintain an easier more palatable lesbian storyline. That is to say, Eastenders is primarily talking to a white, masculine audience and certainly, we have heard not one racist or homophobic comment directed at Tosh? Shirley’s dislike for Tosh is morally grounded in her right to protect her baby sister from bullies and young Dean, the son of Shirley, who also undermines this relationship, is similarly justified. Otherwise, it seems Tosh has found utopia in terms of the lack of negative comments in the square. Is this plausible?
Since Tina and Tosh have moved in to live together, Tosh has been seen to lash out causing Tina to heavily hit her head against the wall and bruise the side of her face. Cleverly, it could be seen as an accident but it was nevertheless forceful enough to be unacceptable. Tosh should have shown a lot more remorse but instead whilst Tina soaked-up the injury, Tosh later pointed out that Tina should not have provoked her. Tina agreed and apologised to Tosh as per the familiar bully/victim sickly cycle.
To contextualise, there are seven white families in Eastenders including the Beales, the Brannings, the Butchers, the Carters, the Mitchells, the Moons and the Spraggons. The Masoods are a Pakistani family and then we have three fairly regular black characters with downtrodden Denise Fox (played by Diane Parish) being a current regular who has just returned. Within these white families, no one has been assigned these narrowly negative characteristics and conduct that are now associated with this rare black lesbian role? What are her compensatory personality traits? Thus, it is difficult not to absorb the message from this programme that if there is going to be a black lesbian on the show, we do not want you, the audience to particularly like or sympathise with her.
Moreover, given in Eastenders we do not hear anything racist or homophobic from their white mainstream characters, Tosh is necessarily pathologised. Thus, if she has an ‘attitude problem’, it must be of her own black lesbian butch making. It follows that we are learning about her homophobic unsupportive mother – reinforcing black mothers as strict and uncompromising with her problems primarily rooted in her own environment as intolerant. An analogy can be made with Zainab Masood (played by Nina Wadia) the Pakistani mother of a gay son who was also portrayed as deeply homophobic and extreme – positioning all of the background white characters as highly balanced or neutral, at the time.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the white mother in Linda Carter (played by Kellie Bright) to gay son Johnny Carter (played by Sam Strike), is equally homophobic so that there is in-fact, racial fairness after all. However, I want to suggest that in the case of Linda Carter, her homophobic propensities have been balanced against other contrasting qualities. Although she struggles, we can see her as a full human being with softer edges. Family for her comes first no matter what. Because Linda Carter is more rounded in her set of characteristics, we are able to elicit sympathy or otherwise, without feeling so much compulsion. In essence, whilst she has her moments, she is portrayed as no more than a ‘normal heterosexual’ suffering a ‘normal’ parental tension in reconciling her disappointment and the hope that Johnny still might find the right girl.
In the case of Tosh, there is no question that she is going to change or be a ‘fem’ lesbian (thus far). As a black woman firefighter, she is already demonstrating she is assertive so to be a lesbian on top of this, is to transgress the boundaries a little too far. She is occupying a masculine domain on too many fronts without leaving any titillating avenues for the male heterosexual lesbian fantasy.
If Eastenders were to tell the dramatic truth, what we would witness through the white male heterosexual gaze and from the mainstream characters in particular, is a masculinity feeling under threat through Tosh. Her presence should cause that destabilisation if you accept black, lesbianism and butch are constructed as the antithesis of femininity – a femininity that is ultimately represented through white, heterosexual ‘slight’ females. Thus we ought to be hearing masculine male under-handed quirks such as, ‘I wonder what toilet she goes in?’ to metaphorically ask, ‘do you think she has a penis too?’ Or, ‘She’s not my cup of tea’; ‘she needs to smile a bit’. Or, ‘she’s a bit intense isn’t she?’ ‘She’s a bit bossy’ and so on to infer, she is not a cool, alluring lesbian that they could…..
There are, however, interesting moments such as when Dean told Tosh that he did not like her. She responded by inviting him to box out their differences in the boxing ring. Confronted with a direct challenge to his masculinity he, perhaps quite sensibly given Tina is his aunt, declined the offer though it was with a retort that he was too old-fashioned (to hit a lady), as the expression goes. Paradoxically, the reply indicates he was not thinking of his aunt so much as defending his masculinity without entering the ring. He hides behind a chivalrous response to simultaneously reposition Tosh as a weaker woman, a ‘fem’. By inference, Dean is saying Tosh would, of course, lose such a fight, before leaving somewhat sharpish. What would the consequences have been for Dean had he fought and lost? The loss in terms of masculine position would be huge and presumably, Eastenders would not wish to upset their male or white viewers in allowing such a spectacle. But that would be a story!
Notably, Alfie uncharacteristically expressed overt boredom in listening to Tosh’s problems in the Vic. Presumably, he could not risk in giving her his attention, too much legitimacy either.
In any event, the storyline is new so we will see. Sonia Fowler is waiting in the winds with the hint of a suggestion that she will seduce Tina who she has already kissed. She is likely to be the more acceptable lesbian face of assertiveness with compassion. Possibly Sonia is going to challenge Tosh the black lesbian butch bully and restore ‘natural’ order – though I would hope Eastenders could be a little bolder than that. I guess it is too unbearable to see a black lesbian on top. She is there to be knocked down and with some sense of irony, probably exists to tick an important equality box.