Several years ago, BBC’s EastEnders introduced a lesbian relationship for Sonia Fowler (Natalie Cassidy), one of its mainstay — and ostensibly straight — characters. It was the first time in over a decade that a lesbian couple had been depicted in the East London drama, lending cautious optimism to the idea that the BBC was finally integrating its traditionally heterosexual soaps. Sadly, the relationship didn’t last, but there was always hope for more lesbian content from either Sonia or her on-screen girlfriend, Naomi Julien (Petra Letang).
Although hopes for reconciliation were always bleak, Natalie Cassidy made her final appearance on EastEnders last month, departing the show along with her on-screen husband, Martin (James Alexandrou). They left the show together as one of EastEnders‘ long-lasting golden couples, much to the delight of many die-hard soap fans. Lesbian fans, meanwhile, are struggling to care at all after being led on by the show’s failed attempts at writing a decent lesbian story line.
Cassidy’s role on EastEnders began in 1993 as 8-year-old Sonia Jackson. She stayed in the background for most of her childhood, but her story lines expanded after she had a one-night stand with future husband Martin Fowler at the age of 15. This led to the birth of her daughter Rebecca, who was adopted by the other residents of Albert Square in typical soap opera style. Sonia then moved on to other men, but the story always led her back to Martin.
When Sonia was 18, Martin accidentally killed Sonia’s fiancé, leaving the writers free to create the Sonia-and-Martin pairing they had been planning all along. Despite their troubles, Martin and Sonia got married in 2004 and — given their past — many fans believe they are meant to be together.
If this seems like the most inopportune time to turn Sonia into a lesbian, well, the show’s writers did it anyway.
In 2005, EastEnders introduced Naomi, a lesbian trainee nurse who quickly became friends with fellow nurse-in-training Sonia. The two shared a close relationship — much to the chagrin of Martin — and Sonia turned to Naomi for advice when she began having marital difficulties while trying to regain custody of her daughter, Rebecca. Near the end of the year Sonia and Naomi kissed, and although Sonia initially regretted it, she soon found herself drawn to Naomi.
Several months later, Sonia gave in to her feelings and kissed Naomi in public for the first time. Although these sudden advances initially confused Naomi, the two soon professed their love for each other; shortly thereafter, Sonia divorced Martin and moved in with her new girlfriend.
Unfortunately, their relationship seemed doomed from the start. Sonia’s sudden lesbian affair was met with disapproval from all sides, and nobody — the fans, characters or even the actors — was particularly supportive of her relationship. As a result, perhaps, the writers wrote what was expected of them.
First, the audience was treated to the seemingly requisite plot point of Sonia and Naomi being caught in the act by Martin, but without the gratuitous sex scene that usually accompanies those moments. After that, there was hardly room in the script for any affection or sympathy at all; instead, their relationship was written around its impact on Martin and the other Albert Square residents.
The reaction of Rebecca’s guardian, Margaret, was especially hurtful. When the relationship became public, she immediately sought to award sole custody of Rebecca to Martin, citing Sonia’s sexual orientation as the reason she would be an unfit mother. This vitriolic response to Sonia and Naomi’s relationship could have been a pivotal moment had the program’s producers used the opportunity to prove either the quality of their relationship or to reinforce Sonia’s parenting abilities. Unfortunately, they did neither of these things.
Instead, Margaret’s reaction was surprisingly representative of the public response to their relationship. Fans of the show were upset that anyone (let alone a lesbian) had come between Sonia and Martin. Naomi came off looking especially predatory — a common trait in media representations of gay and lesbian characters — by seducing a formerly heterosexual woman and convincing her to leave her family. It’s a tired cliché we’ve seen before, from Emmerdale to The L Word.