When Emma Smithwick took over as producer of Hollyoaks last August, there was, she admits, just one female character who she could imagine spending time with. “There weren’t enough strong, smart and intelligent women for my liking,” she says. “At a stretch, I might have considered having a drink with Texas.”
Smithwick is touching upon what many of us have thought for some time – that Hollyoaks has a problem with women. As drama is conflict and soap is suffering, enduring adversity is par for the course for all Soapland residents. But Hollyoaks seemed to show a preference for victimising or objectifying its female characters.
For many, emblematic of Hollyoaks’ problem with women is its annual Babes calendar. Since 2001, it – in tandem with its male equivalent Hollyoaks Hunks – has purveyed various cast members in various states of undress.
In 2012’s Babes offering, for example, Gemma Merna, who plays Carmel McQueen, sits, legs spread suggestively, in both January and December, while July sees Stephanie Davis, who plays Sinead O’Connor, gazing into the camera as she slides her thumb into her skimpy knickers.
Even if Hollyoaks wasn’t aimed at a younger, more impressionable audience than other soaps, such images – all lacy lingerie, Page Three styling and airbrushing to an unreal degree – would be distasteful. But the fact that it is made for a young demographic makes such imagery all the more objectionable, presenting a standardised and artificial version of what constitutes female beauty.
Smithwick demurs when asked for a personal opinion of the calendar, but says: “I’m passionate about the portrayal of women in the media in general and specifically on television that’s aimed at a younger audience. I’m determined to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”
So, with the support of executives at Hollyoaks’ production company Lime, she plans to make some changes, starting with the programme. She has already overseen the development of strong female characters such as Tilly Evans and Lynsey Nolan to add to the likes of Jacqui McQueen (the superlative Claire Cooper, who featured in a recent rape storyline) and, although she wouldn’t be drawn on how exactly the Babes (and Hunks) calendars might change, their days, aptly, seem numbered.
So, says Smithwick, out go promos featuring the young McQueen women in suspenders and in comes something altogether more credible. “I want to redefine what sexy and glamorous is in Hollyoaks. I don’t want girls just to watch and think, ‘I want that outfit’ or ‘I like her hair’. I’d like them to see it as an emotional encyclopedia that’s relevant to the changes and issues in their lives.
“I want to look at the sophisticated social hierarchies of teenage girls, at their insecurities, at the challenges of growing up in contemporary Britain. The responsibility is enormous but the pay-off is huge.”
Smithwick’s enthusiasm to transform Hollyoaks from hangover telly beloved by teenage boys for all the wrong reasons into a soap that’s political with a small “p” is palpable, and the programme’s audience – of both sexes – should applaud her efforts. “Of all the shows, we can and should be braver and have more conviction. If I haven’t achieved that evolution in my time as producer, I won’t have done my job right.”
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 7 February 2012