When soaps need a villain or someone to make everyone else look good, they'll throw in a 'junkie'. It's all the rage. But it exposes double standards and stigma that aren't really very helpful.
With the UK Drug Commission’s report on de-stigmatising heroin users by avoiding perjorative words such as ‘junkie’ and ‘addict’ perhaps recent episodes of EastEnders and Emmerdale should serve as an example of how negative perceptions of drug takers are fostered in the mass media.
For those who don’t follow the popular soaps, long time alcoholic, bully and all round bad egg, Phil Mitchell has recently overcome crack addiction. Whilst in rural Yorkshire the young Holly character has been kidnapped by her family after becoming addicted to cocaine.
Both story lines typify the mainstream approach towards addiction, in that both characters descended very quickly into squalid and illegal behaviour within days of taking their first hit/snort and alienated their families and friends by their degenerate and abusive behaviour. In the world of soap all addictive behaviour must be shown in a negative light with often terrible consequences for those involved in order to avoid the all too predictable tabloid outrage should ‘wrong doers’ not seem to be punished. Hence the demands of the soap format requires characters to become addicted and ‘cured’ or killed off quickly with a tidy, redemptive or tragic arc to keep the story moving at a pace that will not bore viewers.
With Steve McFadden’s ‘Phil Mitchell’ character, a well established, largely despicable character responsible for various crimes of violence, intimidation, torture and general thuggishness, his ‘rock bottom’ comes not from his own self-pitying and irresponsible behaviour but once he takes crack and begins tearing apart settees. But that’s what happens when you get involved with ‘junkie scum’ as his child deserting, on/off girlfriend, Shirley calls the female character who lures Phil into a squalid world of extreme interior design.
But that’s what happens when you get involved with ‘junkie scum’ as his child deserting, on/off girlfriend, Shirley calls the female character who lures Phil into a squalid world of extreme interior design.
‘Junkie scum’; now there’s a phrase you don’t hear very often these days. ‘Junkie’; such a quaint old fashioned insult dating back to the 30s or 40s when all the jazz hepcats were high on ‘junk’ or ‘dope’ (dope in its original context as an opiate). Do people still use the world ‘junkie’? Smackheads, bagheads, crackheads, cokeheads, potheads, whizzheads maybe. ‘Junkie’ is a word my 72 year old dad may use and he almost certainly wouldn’t use the far too polite ‘addict.’ ‘Junkie Scum’; the two words together perhaps betray the sentiments of the scriptwriters or at least their perceived audience, many of whom will of course be ‘junkie scum’ themselves.
Obviously the script writers at EastEnders wanted to highlight the appalling consequences of crack addiction by allowing one of its most repulsive characters to become an even more tainted and loathsome creature by taking him somewhere so dark and cold he needed to wear a woolly hat all the time. Yet this storyline only follows the predictable path trod by former soap ‘junkies’. Nick Cotton of course is an even more demented character than Phil, a man who even Ian Brady would regard as a ‘wrong un.’ Nick wore a leather jacket and had a quiff (here comes trouble daddio!) and literally poisoned those he came into contact with. But Nick was a ‘junkie’ see? That’s what they’re like, junkies! Evil, thieving, murdering bastards the lot of em!
‘Cokeheads’ and ‘alcys’ meanwhile get a fairer deal from the soap scriptwriters in that there’s some hope of redemption for them. Phil himself, when just a bog standard ‘pisshead,’ had long stretches of abstinence and behaved ‘normally’ or at least as normally as any violent bullying psychopath could. ‘Chelsea’, the beautiful beautician meanwhile developed a penchant for cocaine as many young, glamorous, pretty inner city girls do. The horror that her instant addiction caused was on a par with her coming out as a child molesting cat torturer. But don’t worry, after a few bags and a stern lecture from her boozy family, Chelsea was cured and is now back to being an empty headed, permanently pouting nail technician. Hoorah!
When he does ‘pick up’ that lad’s in line for some tedious moralising from his ex-prostitute girlfriend, adulterous parents and murderous half-sister….the implication being ‘there’s nowt lower than a pisshead.’
Over in Corrie, Peter Barlow’s alcoholism has been a plot line developed over a few years and although a relatively sympathetic plot, with it’s mention of ‘support groups’ the writers have at least provided some degree of objectivity. But still, Peter is seemingly always on the point of relapse to keep an element of tension in the polluted Wetherfield air. When he does ‘pick up’ that lad’s in line for some tedious moralising from his ex-prostitute girlfriend, adulterous parents and murderous half-sister….the implication being ‘there’s nowt lower than a pisshead.’
Now Peter is back on the orange juice in the Rovers just as Phil now sticks to orange juice in what’s left of the Queen Vic, his mum’s pub which he burned down in a crack fuelled craze. Doh! Here’s a tip, if you’re an ex-alcoholic, avoid fucking alehouses but that’d be impossible in soap land because the pub is still the central hub of the community where characters can intermingle and celebrate their traditional salt of the earth values. Most boozers these days are more like the one depicted in Early Doors, deserted ghostly places frequented by lonely old people and those on disability benefits whereas in Wetherfield and Walford business is booming.
So, Peter’s back on the wagon after his latest kerrazy drunken stunt (burning down the house, fucking up his own bar launch party etc) and is helping sexy Carla to overcome her own instant alcoholism, such a neat link to the hot potato of ‘yuppy wino syndrome,’ y’know stressed young execs coming home from a hard day in the office and downing a bottle of Blossom Hill every night (or whatever rioja’s on offer at Dev’s corner shop). Coronation Street has never really touched upon drug addiction in any meaningful or even frivolous way apart from Gail Platt’s former husband, Joe’s addiction to prescription pain killers and he ended up face down in Ullswater for his troubles, so God knows what they’d do with a heroin or crack storyline. It’s taken them 45 years to realise there are lesbians living and breathing in Salford.
Holly’s so dead eyed and wooden it’s difficult to tell if any substance known to man would bring her to life but as soon as she became a beak fiend, she was stealing from family and friends, collapsing in toilet cubicles and generally acting like a Woolpack Lindsay Lohan
The generational divide in soap appears to be best represented in Emmerdale where it seems that most of the scriptwriters are themselves children of the 70s and 80s who can at least empathise with the ‘kids of today.’ Aaron’s homosexuality storyline in particular was handled with great sensitivity, and the actor, Danny Miller’s performance gave his character’s confliction a believability and humanity sadly lacking in other soaps. Yet, somehow their big ‘drugs story’, involving the ‘pretty vacant’ young character, Holly has reverted entirely to type. Holly’s so dead eyed and wooden it’s difficult to tell if any substance known to man would bring her to life but as soon as she became a beak fiend, she was stealing from family and friends, collapsing in toilet cubicles and generally acting like a Woolpack Lindsay Lohan. It was intimated that Holly’s attractive young-ish mum had been a bit of a raver herself (without stating the obvious) and yet the whole village seems to be outraged that a girl in her late teens could be soooooo stuuuuupid and seeeeeelfish as to put that rubbish up her nose.
OK, this is the world of soap and therefore we shouldn’t really expect anything better but as these programmes are the most watched of all TV programmes with EastEnders and Coronation Street especially bringing together all classes and age groups maybe the producers, the script writers and indeed the broadcasters have a duty to be a little less judgemental and sensationalist in their approach towards addiction. The tragic demise of young hoodlum turned noble squaddie, Billy by alcohol poisoning only highlights the way in which soaps deal with substance misuse. It’s OK for the likes of Patrick and Jim to have all day whisky benders because they’re just being cheeky old rascals and it’s fine for houses to be turned into illegal shebeens because everyone likes a party at half past 10 in the morning don’t they? But give a young kid a bottle of vodka on his birthday and see what happens. Drink Responsibly kids!
using words such as ‘junkie’ and ‘addict’ only reinforces negative perceptions of drug users, stigmatises them and results in feelings of shame and worthlessness, making it harder for people to become drug free
The hypocritical puritans of the tabloid press – those ‘pissheads’ and ‘cokeheads’ and ‘expense account fraudsters’ – will always accuse broadcasters of encouraging irresponsible and/or criminal behaviour but if the lives portrayed in our most popular tv dramas don’t reflect the reality of the lives we all lead, day in day out then perhaps we need to apply pressure on broadcasters and indeed government to help shape a constructive debate, not only about addiction but other ‘contentious’ subjects as dramatised in soaps.
Colin Blakemore, one of the authors of the Drug Policy Commissioners report argues that using words such as ‘junkie’ and ‘addict’ only reinforces negative perceptions of drug users, stigmatises them and results in feelings of shame and worthlessness, making it harder for people to become drug free. Whilst this is almost certainly true and keeping in mind there are many people who don’t wish to give up drug taking, the unrealistic and moralistic tone set by soaps in their portrayal of addiction plays a far greater role in demonising those with substance misuse problems than any other single medium. So the next time a script-writer has a character calling someone ‘junkie scum’ maybe the script editor, the producer, the broadcaster or the government could have a quiet word before it’s transmitted.