By Debbie Bray
Recently, ITV premiered a powerful new drama called Butterfly in their coveted 9pm Sunday slot. The series revolves around the life of a transgender girl called Maxine as she struggles to deal with coming out, bullying at school and the difficulties of getting treatment. Campaigners have named the show a ‘game-changer’ for mainstream representations of trans people, who have been thrust into the media spotlight in recent years.
This landmark drama is the first of its kind in the UK to depict a transgender child as the protagonist and the makers of the show have said they want the show to promote understanding and acceptance of trans issues.
This isn’t the first time TV drama has tackled challenging social issues, though. In fact, the drama genre has been producing important cultural conversations for decades. Whether it be a soap or a gripping thriller, TV dramas have always questioned societal norms and pushed the boundaries on a range of topics.
Queer as Folk, for example, was a groundbreaking drama that portrayed unapologetic gay men living their lives in and around Manchester’s famed Canal Street. The show explored themes of sex, drugs and grief. It caused massive controversy when it aired in 1999 due to the unashamed self-determination of the characters.
Contemporary Politics Meets TV Drama
But now it is not only landmark dramas that are handling controversial themes.
In recent times, social justice has come to the fore in contemporary society along with the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and political movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. And as these have developed, a more progressive vision has seeped into the mainstream.
Now, shows like Doctor Who – which have traditionally made political statements either through subtle narrative framing or not at all – are addressing issues of gender and race more openly. Jodie Whittaker recently made her debut as the first female Doctor – and one episode in the new series centres around US civil rights activist Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger in 1955 Alabama, which attracted lots of commentary online.
Another example of TV drama displaying socially aware content is soap operas. Lately, Eastenders has begun displaying a more realistic and relevant critique of modern British society in its storylines. Earlier this year, the show included a storyline about knife crime and stabbings in London, which was very apt considering the current wave of violence across the capital.
Tapping Into Viewers’ Realities
So what can this tell us about the role of socially conscious drama in viewers’ lives?
Drama has the power to steer the national conversation in a way factual content often cannot. This ability to prompt discussion comes from viewers’ close relationship with the relatable characters in major dramas. Families and friends might disagree politically or morally over news stories, but the intimate connection people form with characters in TV dramas can elicit even more emotional reactions than those provoked by recent news developments.
Socially conscious drama arguably combines traditional drama with factual content by considering real-life issues within a broader narrative of suspense and plot twists. This in turn provides viewers with a startling reality that many have a personal attachment to. In Ackley Bridge, a Channel 4 drama which portrays the unfolding events after two schools in an ethnically divided West Yorkshire town are merged into one academy, racial tensions are exposed. The show has been praised for dealing with themes of racism, mental health and coming out sensitively and without being overly serious.
So evidently this form of drama can serve multiple functions: partly to educate but also to entertain and to make people think and talk about important issues. And in times of increasing political polarisation and division in society, TV still plays a massive role in bringing people together – both at home and at work for those water cooler moments.
It’s clear now that drama can be more complex and hard-hitting than ever previously thought. Representing diverse audiences on TV is gradually becoming the norm. Producers and commissioners are slowly coming to terms with the fact that TV need not be limited to period drama and stereotypical representations of marginalised groups, although there is still a way to go.
Today, socially conscious drama is not limited to a few cult classic TV boxsets that caused a stir when released. Whilst these shows still ruffle feathers, they are often accepted as necessary cultural conversations for people to be having.
What Does the Future Hold for Drama?
As social awareness becomes a central theme in TV drama, we can expect to hear (and see) an increasing number of untold stories and, as always, debates taking place up and down the country across generations and social groups.
Drama is one of the mainstays of televised content and, by the looks of it, this won’t change anytime soon. But if it wants to survive and continue competing among the growing crowd of media rivals vying for people’s time, socially conscious drama will be a core asset in remaining relevant to viewers’ lives.
By Debbie Bray, Co-Founder, Hook Research
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