Hollyoaks and Beat work together to ‘bash’ stereotypes

An established working relationship between Hollyoaks and Beat provides a real-world example of how charities and entertainment companies can work together to tackle important health issues such as eating disorders.

At the OKRE Summit 2022, Lime Pictures’ Head of Continuing Drama Lucy Allan and Beat’s Clinical Advice Coordinator Martha Williams talked about developing the relationship between a production company and a charity, how to handle the differing priorities on both sides, and why it’s important that storylines feature characters who are more than simple stereotypes.

The two teams worked together on a storyline for Hollyoaks depicting character Imran Maalik’s eating disorder. With an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK having an eating disorder, there was huge potential for things to go right – or wrong.

Lucy – who is also the Executive Producer on the show – explained that these storylines are always driven by character and “what would they do next in the world as it is today”.

She said their preferred method is to speak to charities very early in the development process to make sure the storyline will actually work. The show’s research team will then be able to “establish if it is something that we could or should be doing.”

In some cases the decision is made that the plotline would be too triggering for the audience or cause too many compliance problems. But even scenes that are potentially harmful can be brought to life if carefully managed, as Martha Williams explained.

‘We really value when soaps like Hollyoaks come to us and say “can you help us out?, we’re thinking of running this storyline on eating disorders and we want to make sure we get it right.”

‘Our number one priority is always going to be the people we support so I think that’s where the difficulties lie because you’ve got Hollyoaks coming to us with this amazing storyline that’s probably going to get a lot of attention but then we are there saying “actually, this is going to trigger a lot of viewers, you’re feeding into stereotypes here and you’re actually promoting quite harmful content.” And that’s not them doing that on purpose of course, it’s just they don’t see it in that way.’

By sharing their media guidelines and keeping lines of communication open, Beat work to ensure that shows behave responsibly, for example by adding trigger warnings or signposting viewers towards support.

And Martha said their team see a notable rise in calls to their helplines when these resources are highlighted by shows such as Hollyoaks

‘It’s amazing to be able to work in partnership,’ she said. ‘When we think about the role that the media has with eating disorders we always say that number one it’s to raise awareness, which is why it’s fantastic having such a huge soap like Hollyoaks bringing the issue to life.’

Martha Williams

‘Bashing stereotypes’

Another key factor of charities and production companies working together is to provide nuance to storylines that otherwise risk becoming oversimplified.

Martha highlights Hollyoaks’ decision to make the eating disorder part of an Asian, male character’s storyline as a great example of this.

‘We say that they have the opportunity to bash stereotypes,’ she said. ‘I think one thing we were really moved by was the decision to choose an ethnic minority character to display an eating disorder because we hear all the time the stereotype that you have to be white, middle class, British female. And that actually stops people from seeking support.

‘So to have a character like Imran coming openly saying I’ve got an eating disorder has had such a positive impact and we’ve heard so many positive things from people on the helpline saying “Wow this storyline is great.”’

Lucy said one important way to make sure that stories avoid stereotypes is by speaking to people with lived experience of the issue being depicted.

‘Often charities are very good at introducing you to people who in the right environment feel comfortable enough to share their stories so we can make sure that we aren’t creating the stereotypes that we all know about but we’re finding the nuance, and the nuances that are particular to that character,’ she said.

‘Hopefully over a period time you build up a level of trust with charities, so they come to trust you as well.’

Key takeaways

For charities:

  • Ask whether the show you’re hoping to work with have a character whose storyline would fit your subject? The characters drive the plot, so without a suitable character your issue won’t work for the production team.
  • Be prepared to compromise – production companies and charities have different priorities.
  • Be confident in the value you can bring to the collaboration by helping writers understand the nuances of an issue, or putting them in touch with someone with lived experience who can share their story.

For production companies:

  • Building trust with charities means they can help you access people who will share their lived experience with your writers, making storylines more authentic.
  • A charity can also help challenge conventional thinking about who an issue affects.
  • This approach benefits your audience. ‘We’re very mindful of how young and impacted our audience can be by the content,’ said Lucy.
OKRE’s matchmaking service helps to build collaborations between content creators, charities, people with lived experience and researchers. To find out more, join the OKRE Network.