EastEnders diabetes joke – an ex-comedian responds

Olly-Double-150x150Although I’ve gone through periods of watching soaps, I don’t watch any of them now. It’s not a point of principle and it’s not me being a cultural snob. It’s just that I reached a stage in my life where I thought to myself, ‘Life is finite but soaps go on forever. They’re not good enough for me to spend my time on.’

However, EastEnders has wormed its way into my consciousness via social media recently, thanks to something said by one of its characters. She’s called Kim Fox, and apparently she’s famous for coming out with ‘outrageous’ comments. On this occasion, they were preparing for a kids’ party, and another character asked whether they really needed all the sugary stuff they putting out. That was the point that Kim piped up with, ‘Absolutely! If the kids don’t give themselves diabetes, it’s not a good party, is it?’

Now this has been reported as a joke, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as one. It’s not just that I don’t find it remotely funny. It’s also that none of the other characters in the scene laughs when she says it, and the way the actor delivers the line doesn’t particularly suggest that even the Kim Fox character thinks it’s funny.

Judging by reactions on Facebook and Twitter, there are lots of people out there whose lives are affected by diabetes who really, really don’t find it funny. The Independent reported that there have been 39 complaints to Ofcom. Diabetes UK and the JDRF have been in touch with the EastEnders production team to try and encourage them to improve their treatment of the issue. Parents of children with Type 1 have posted heartfelt statements about just how devastatingly unfunny and insensitive they found this incident.

As somebody who used to make money from telling jokes, and as the parent of two kids with Type 1, I have to confess that my reaction seems to be a bit different from the rest. I didn’t feel particularly shocked or angry about this ‘joke’, and I worry that some of the response might come across to those unaffected by the condition as being a bit, well, humourless.

Now I must remind you that I found this joke so utterly devoid of humour that I question whether it even is one. I don’t think anybody’s response has actually been humourless, I just think it might come across as such to people who don’t understand diabetes. I also agree with the general view that EastEnders really shouldn’t have included the line in the way that they did.

But as I say, it doesn’t shock me. Why? Because I’ve heard it so very many times before. Ordinary people who don’t have any knowledge or experience of diabetes say this kind of thing all the time. I’ve heard stand-up comedians say it by way of giving a slightly-but-not-very controversial edge to a joke. I’ve heard Matthew Wright make a similar comment on his brainless morning talk show The Wright Stuff.

Of course context makes a difference, and probably the worst time I can think of when somebody said something like that was not long after my younger son Tom was first diagnosed. It was a rough time for our family, because little Tom – then less than two years old – had been in a coma and we had been faced with the prospect that we might lose him. Not long after that, Jacqui was telling one of the other mums at pre-school that Tom had diabetes, and the mum turned to her and said, ‘Well my kids won’t get diabetes, because I don’t let them have sweets or sugary drinks.’ Even thinking back to that all these years later, I find the sheer insensitivity jaw-dropping.

If soaps have any useful role at all, surely it’s to reflect certain trends that are going on in society right now as a way of getting us to think about them? Of course, they’re not an accurate reflection of life, or there’d be a lot more characters in Walford who smoke and swear and make casually racist comments. However, from its inception EastEnders has had storylines which try to address social issues. Given that, it seems to me perfectly legitimate to have a character make a comment like this.

But the only thing that would justify it would be if that led into an examination of the attitudes that lie behind such ignorance. The first and most obvious point is, why is it so difficult to get across to people that there’s a crucial difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes? The vast majority of children who become diabetic have Type 1, so the idea that they ‘give themselves diabetes’ is simply wrong. It’s not just that it’s scientifically ignorant, it’s that it fundamentally lacks compassion. Believing that children have somehow brought this horrible condition on themselves through their own greed, or that their parents have brought it on by their negligence, suggests that somehow they deserve the wonky blood sugars, the constant need to pierce their skin to put insulin in or take blood out, and the lurking, nagging fear of long-term complications.

Most people reading this blog know that Type 1 has nothing to do with unhealthy lifestyles. However, I’d go further with this line of thought. Type 2 diabetes can often be connected with being overweight and the risk of developing it can be reduced by improving diet and increasing exercise. However, does that really mean that anybody who gets it actually deserves it? Clearly they don’t, not least because – as NHS Choices points out – ‘Genetics is one of the main risk factors for Type 2 diabetes’ and ‘People of south Asian, Chinese, African-Caribbean and black African are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes’. So if you suggest that people with Type 2 deserve to have got it, you could actually be saying something implicitly racist.

What is this need we have to blame people for their own misfortune? Why is it that so many people seem to want to short circuit their own natural empathy by choosing to believe that those with a chronic health condition must have brought it on themselves? Why can’t we grow up a bit and perhaps show some compassion to people who have the crappy luck to have diabetes, whether it’s Type 1 or Type 2?

It seems to me that an intelligent EastEnders scriptwriter could use a comment like the one Kim Fox made to really delve into this kind of thing – to get inside our heads and shed light on what makes us so mean-spirited. Maybe one of her kids could start feeling unwell at the children’s party they were preparing for when she said it, and shortly after she could take him or her to the doctor and we could see her dealing with the devastating diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. We could see her struggling to treat her child’s hypo on Albert Square and another character could sidle up to her and say, ‘Well my kids won’t get diabetes, because I don’t let them have sweets or sugary drinks.’ We could have her raging about it to one of the family members we saw in the party scene, and they could talk about what makes people so empathy-resistant. Then the family member could gently remind Kim what she had said herself.

By the way, I realise this might not work as an idea, because I don’t know whether the Kim Fox character has kids or not. More than that, I don’t actually care. Life is finite, remember?

The big question is, assuming that the EastEnders team aren’t planning a storyline like the one I suggest, what are they playing at by including Kim Fox’s comment in their programme? What is that line actually there for? My only conclusion is that they thought it might be amusing for us to hear this outrageous character saying something outrageously outrageous like that. Clearly, they thought wrong.

And that’s why I don’t watch soaps. Because they’re not good enough.

What is diabetes?

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