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By Phil Thornton
With the recent 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 become addicted to crack cocaine whilst in rural Yorkshire the young Holly character has become addicted to cocaine. Both storylines typify the mainstream approach towards addiction in that both characters descend very quickly into squalid and illegal behaviour within days of taking their first hit/snort and alienate 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' 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 crack addiction and extreme interior design redecoration. '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 scritpwriters or atleast their perceived audience many of whom will 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 loathesome creature by taking him somewhere so dark and cold he needs to wear a wooly hat all the time. Yet this storyline only follows the predictable path trod by former soap 'junkies.' Nick Cotton ofcourse is an even more demented character than Phil, a man who even Charles Manson 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 atleast 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, permanantly pouting nail technician. Hoorah! Over in Corry, Peter Barlow's alcoholism has been a plotline developed over a few years and although a relatively sympathetic plot, with it's mention of 'support groups' has atleast provided some degree of objectivity but still, Peter's is seemingly always on the point of relapse to keep an element of tension in the polluted Wetherfeild 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.' 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.
The generational divide surrounding drug taking and addiction 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 atleast emphathise 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 regularly attracting over 10 million viewers, maybe the producers, the script writers and indeed the broadcasters have a duty to be a little less judgmental and sensationalist in their approach towards addiction. The hypocritical puritans of the tabloid press 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 feeliings 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.
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