Just when you think you know someone

Disney is fretting about whether to `out' its sitcom character Ellen as a lesbian. Meanwhile, in Brookside Close, the publicity department is preparing for a week-long `battle of the bitches'. The issue is gritty realism. But, asks Suzanne Moore, what is real in a soap opera?
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For those of us who like to stay in of an evening and watch the telly, there has been an awful lot of outing going on. Tony, the laddy drug dealer of EastEnders, has realised he would rather be with Tiffany's brother than Tiffany. "I'll pray for you Tony" says his religious nutter of a sister when he comes out to her. Nat has come out as gay in Brookside mainly to cover the fact that he is sleeping with his sister. When his parents tell Max Farnham, who has already caught the incestuous pair in bed together, he simply changes the subject. "I must say the garden's looking nice. What are they?" "Pansies" comes the deadpan answer from Nat's mother. A recent episode of the wondrous Seinfeld revolved around the idea that Seinfeld and his friend George were mistaken as gay by a student reporter. "Not that there's anything wrong with that" was the line they kept repeating over and over again.

There may not be anything wrong with it but gay characters are still considered to be somehow risky. None the less they bring a certain amount of cachet to a sitcom or comedy that is prepared to roll with them. Gayness has become the all-purpose and often rather lazy signifier of authenticity, of tackling real issues, of telling the truth. Even The Archers, that supposed hotbed of loony sexual correctness, has got an unlikely gay publican who plays cricket.

So why can't Ellen of all people come out? Ellen is a fictional character, a clueless bookshop manageress played by the comedian Ellen DeGeneres in the Channel Four series of the same name. According to her agent, DeGeneres wants "to break new ground and do something that hasn't been done on television before". She wants to present her popular character as a lesbian. Eat your heart out Anna Friel. The decision will rest with Disney executives as the programme is made by Touchstone Productions, a Disney offshoot. Disney prides itself on the promotion of family values and may be reluctant to associate itself with a programme based around a happy homosexual.

ABC describes the character as currently displaying "a confused sensibility". Closeted confusion is fine, overt declarations of sexuality may mean a boycott, a less "family-friendly" timeslot and a fall in ratings. Yet would Ellen being gay fundamentally alter the structure of the series? It certainly wouldn't alter her dress sense. Ellen is already read as gay by many of her fans. Her attempts at having boyfriends drift into endless self-depreciation. She could never have been described as highly motivated in this area anyway.

So if Ellen the character becomes legitimately lesbian will that make Ellen the programme somehow more realistic, more reflective of the way we live today? When a load of gay Coronation Street fans were taken around the sacred street itself in a programme on gay icons, they were asked if they wanted to see a gay character introduced into the series. To a man and a woman they replied no. Corrie lives in its own gorgeous bubble, peopled with women tough enough to make a drag queen feel faint; they seemed to be saying, please don't try and taint it in the dirty name of realism.

Our attitude towards gay characters is strangely earth-bound and literal in a medium which, while flirting with naturalism, is highly anti-naturalistic. If the essential truth of a person is limited to their sexuality then the only truth we can get out of a fictional character is by outing them, which has its own dramatic limitations. For we know, don't we, that we soon become tired of issues masquerading as characters standing on street corners explaining the plot to one another. This is the common complaint about Brookside, which plays manic to EastEnders' depressive. Brookie can do 'roid rage, incest, breast cancer, the problems of single parenting and turn Sinbad into the weirdest sex symbol since, well ...Ron Dixon, all in one episode and still get a laugh. EastEnders is currently in superbly miserablist form, the tracks of Ian Beale's tears threatening to overshadow the romance of Tiffany and Grant, who are obviously warming up as the new Den and Angie.

However bizarre the plotlines of our soaps become, those involved appear to take them for real. Brookside's Helen Grace, the actress who plays Georgia, sister and lover of Nat, lets us know in a press release that she "doesn't condone incest". Well, that's reassuring. I trust similar statements will be released from Pam St Clement, the actress who plays Pat Butcher, saying that she doesn't condone wearing Christmas decorations for earrings and running children over as her character does. Actually the fact that Pam St Clement is openly gay has had little effect on our perception of Pat, primarily because we understand that she is acting. When straight actors play gay, though, we have to be bombarded with evidence of their heterosexuality as though we can no longer make the distinction between character and actor.

As the soaps become more and more successful they too exploit this ambiguity between truth and fiction. Brookside, which goes out five nights the week after next with "a special focus on devastating developments in the affairs of the Farnhams" is on one level being promoted as "a battle of the bitches" scenario with Max's first and second wife fighting over him. Such a spectacle requires even more than the average suspension of belief. Yet these episodes are also being touted as somehow socially useful as they increase awareness about breast cancer - Patricia fears hers is returning. We are caught somewhere between the meta-fictional heights of the Eighties soaps like Dynasty and some earnest public health pronouncement.

Soaps which have traditionally been defined as "closed communities in crisis" are always imagined communities. It is as if what can be imagined at the moment is clearly beyond the boundary of any one community, which is why scriptwriters are straining our credulity. If you live in Ramsay Street, for instance, your chances of falling into a coma are enormously high; if you live in Brookside Close, maniacs, religious cults and Jimmy Corkhill lurk in every corner. If you live in Albert Square you are destined to spend every night of your life in the Queen Vic. None of this is likely, so why do we continue to pretend that it is? The most memorable episodes of a soap are nearly always the ones where you feel the writer chafing against the formulaic constraints of the medium. Yet we continue to invest these national narratives with a realism that they very rarely possess. TV realism, it is worth reminding ourselves, is always relative. Eastenders is realistic compared not to real life but to The X-Files. Our infatuation with soap stars therefore becomes a quest for further authentication. Some even oblige, such as Martine McCutcheon, who plays the marvellous Tiffany and who recently demanded to be flown from St Tropez to Ibiza. "I want somewhere with a decent disco". Give that girl her own show.

Inevitably this kind of blurring between character and actor that much popular television tempts its audiences with has become a subject in itself for many American writers. The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld and Roseanne are about the world of television, of celebrity - in other words about themselves. As is Ellen. So if the fictional Ellen wants to come out shall we take it that the real Ellen is also coming out? Or is this all just a sophisticated come-on - that somehow, somewhere, there's a real person in all this pretence? As if.