This is a bit shaming to admit but here you go: I am a Neighbours fan. Neighbours is the only soap that I choose to watch on purpose. This has not always been the case. I’m a child of the 80’s and can remember when it became “big” but I wasn’t an avid watcher then and only really began to fall for its charms a couple of years ago. I am not addicted: I could miss an episode and I wouldn’t be devastated.
To be honest, missing episodes is not going to exactly impair my understanding of the storylines or characters’ motivations. The Wire, it is not. I am fully aware that much of the plotting is ridiculous, repetitive and predictable. Some of the writing and acting is not always brilliant. But, it is fun. It can exhibit comedy genius; sometimes intentionally. The writing is often tongue in cheek and quite knowing. Frequenting the Facebook “Art of Neighbours” group can also add greatly to the amusement.
Its appeal is also due to its cosiness. It’s the TV equivalent of chicken soup (out of a can). Most of the people of Ramsey Street are “good people”. In Ramsey Street, bad people are always found out and punished before leaving. Unless they repent, reform and become “good neighbours”. The community spirit found in Neighbours and other soaps does not hold up a mirror to any reality that I have experienced. I do not spend all my spare time on my street with other people who live there. Travelling to another part of the city I live in or indeed a whole different city is not that exotic or difficult. Whilst the sense of community in soaps may seem nostalgic I don’t think people live like this 50 years ago either.
However, peel away the caring and sharing and moralising and you reveal a dark side. For a start, Nick Griffin would love living on Ramsey Street. And not because of the general store’s proximity. Ramsey Street’s not exactly multicultural. It is also heteronormative. I cannot recall any gay, bisexual or trans charaters. Please let me know if there have been (the recent brief peck on the lips between Donna and Sunny was a platonic gesture). Characters with disabilities are only featured if it is relevant to the storyline and if they are regular cast members they recover miraculously. Basically Ramsey Street welcomes all careful white, middleclass, heterosexual, able bodied, cis people. Oh, and you must have a family or show sufficient interest in starting a family.
Soaps love family and Neighbours is no different. Families are the building blocks of their funny little communities. The adult characters nearly all have children. The only biologically childless adults at present are Elle and Toadie. But Elle looks after Donna and Toadie fosters Callum, so they also are parent figures. In the past, other characters have often had previously unknown children suddenly appear or indeed long lost parents, brothers and sisters. There are currently 9 children living in Ramsey Street who are being cared for by someone other than the parent/parents they grew up with (I’ve not included Bridget Parker who is adopted). This is rather absurd for such a small cul-de-sac. Whilst the writers may need young characters and therefore parent-figures to attract young viewers, it does mean that they end up creating a world where it is decidedly abnormal to be grown-up without being a parent or carer.
Steph recently expressed the view that she did not want to have anymore children. This was considered acceptable because Steph already has one child and pregnancy would increase the risk of cancer returning. Thinking back about a year, though, when Rosie an ambitious young lawyer didn’t want children, the assumption seemed to be that she couldn’t really mean it and she was being silly and it was just her own issues and prejudices getting in the way of her making the sensible decision and not letting down her husband, Frazer. Then obviously she became pregnant, had an epiphany and changed her mind, realising that she was maternal. Phew, what a relief! And there we were worried that she just a cold, heartless, career-minded bitch! Similarly, when one of my favourite characters, garage owner and amateur boxer, Janae left the series, the reason given by the script writers was that Janae realised she wasn’t ready to be a mum to boyfriend Ned’s long-lost son Mickey. If you can’t handle being a parent then you need to get out of town., much like those other bad eggs who won’t reform into good neighbours”.
The status of characters seems to be tied in with their parenting kudos. Donna’s mother, is the only recent bad mother. She was characterised as manipulative, unpleasant, gold digging, self-centred and whorish. She was literally hounded out of Ramsey Street. Susan K. on the other hand is characterised as warm, wise, firm, kind, funny, determined and morally untainted. She is a super mum. As well as raising her own brood of Kennedy’s she has also raised Rachel and Zeke Kinski, (the children of the husband who bridged the two marriages to Karl) and considers them to be her children as much as Libby, Billy and Mal. In addition she is now effectively “mum” to Ringo and Sunny who lodge at the Kennedy residence. As if this wasn’t enough, this week she “reached out” to the Ramsey children and badgered them into moving into Ramsey Street so she could mother them too (eldest sibling Kate is giving her competition though with her own determination to be the new “parent”). A warning here to other fans- there is a spoiler coming up… So good is Susan that she is about to offer to be a surrogate mother so that Libby can have another child. Susan K’s status couldn’t be higher. She is without equal and the all conquering Queen of Ramsey Street.
Lately Neighbours has been infatuated with motherhood in particular. Current storylines include the impending motherhood of pregnant teen, Bridget Parker; Libby “not coping” with not being able to carry a baby following a miscarriage; Steph offering to be a surrogate to Libby in spite of the implications for her health and the death of single mother Jill Ramsey. Other recent plots revolved around the relationship between Donna and her “bad” mother and Bridget discovering her adoptive mother had paid off her biological mother.
The writers’ seem to aim to make the state of pregnancy as perilous as possible. Libby and Steph are willing to endanger their own health and “risk death” in order to be pregnant. Bridget and her baby’s health is put at risk by a falling theatre set. It’s as if the script writers need to wage war on all our medical advances that have made childbirth less dangerous for western women. It’s difficult not to see this as rather twisted. Whilst these “risks” are intended to add excitement they also mean that the women become more vulnerable and more martyr-like. They also have to endure more physical and emotional pain. Ultimately parenthood is seen to be worth all the pain. By increasing the pain and risk, the magnificence and importance of parenthood becomes even more pronounced. Life is not worth living if you do not have children.
Neighbours is not real or even realistic, but it does hold up a wobbly mirror to society and its views, reflecting and exaggerating underlying assumptions. I know I shouldn’t take it seriously (after all, it doesn’t) but the problem is that it feeds back to viewers that choosing not to have children is a less valid choice than choosing to be a parent. It does not state this information obviously as an opinion that we can choose to disagree with. Instead it emits it insidiously. Its world view that you “must create a family” is innate and shown as the one true right way of life. I would love Neighbours to have a wider range of characters with different ways of life, showing that their choices are not less valid. Not having or wanting children does not make you bad or reduce your worth as a person. Meanwhile I will probably continue watcing, ignoring/enjoying its silliness and wishing for the return of Janae.
* Callum, Mickey, Donna, Zeke, Ringo, Sunny, Ramsey1, Ramsey2, Ramsey3.