Last night’s episode of Shortland Street saw the debut of a trans character, played by a trans actor. But the show has tackled important social issues from day one.
Last night in Ferndale a boy in a hoodie shuffled around the hospital’s glass cabinetry, looking caught between an egg salad sandwich and a mince and cheese pie. A vicious, decades’ old dilemma, with implications reaching far into the afternoon, and one familiar to all New Zealanders.
In a flash, the true cause of his shiftiness was revealed. The youngster was planning a robbery – he grabbed the sarnie and ran for it. “Hey, hoodie boy”, yelled Jack from behind the counter. But hoodie boy was already gone.
It was only later in the episode that “hoodie boy” was revealed to be Blue, a transgender character, played by a transgender actor, Tash Kennedy. In typical Shortland Street style, the reveal was absurd, with Jack wrenching back Blue’s hoodie and gasping “it’s a chick”, or words to that effect, despite nothing in the character’s appearance indicating as much. He’s then gut-punched by Blue’s mother, moments after she’s accepted a job as nurse at the hospital. As you do.
It was classic Shortland Street – the plot a dumb, fun contrivance, but the underlying storyline of real social value. Yes, transgender rights had a series of huge, educative mainstream moments in 2015, but as Lexie Matheson wrote in her essay on the topic for us late last year – what changed?
That is a complex question, but the answer is likely in part because the cut-through of those moments outside of our central cities is less than we might assume. Which is where Shortland Street shows its profound worth. For all the ample helpings of derision heaped on the show by those who’ve not seen an episode this century, its function as vehicle for confronting middle New Zealand’s prejudices – and helping evolve them – is too rarely acknowledged.
The show has always had a mix of ethnicities reflective of New Zealand society, often featured women in key positions – currently the vast majority of managerial positions on the soap are held by women – and generally thought harder about representation than any soap I’ve ever seen.
So here we present five key social issues which collectively prove that this unjustly maligned nightly soap is, in fact, the most progressive show in New Zealand television history.
Shortland Street has been this way since birth. In its first week Nurse Jaki Manu pricked herself on a sharp which had been used on an HIV positive patient. The resulting arc confronted the stigma and misinformation which existed around HIV at the time, contrasting the assumptions of poor old Marj the receptionist, with the science-based medical knowledge of her colleagues.
2 Homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality
Shortland Street’s first same sex kiss occurred in 1994, less than 10 years after the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act. The kiss between Meredith Fleming and Annie Flynn generated several complaints to the BSA – none of which were upheld. As has often been the case, male homosexuality took longer to be as openly portrayed. Karl Urban’s Jamie Forrest was the first gay core cast character, in 1993, but gay kisses were implied and not seen. Despite the relative foot-dragging on gay scenes and characters, the show has regularly confronted prejudice around homosexuality and asexuality, featured a Civil Union less than a year after that law’s passage and referred to prejudice around bisexuality just last night. By comparison, Days of Our Lives waited nearly 50 years for its first gay sex scene.
3 Teen Suicide
A perennial issue for New Zealand, and one which media and academics struggle to confront, so you could forgive our nightly dramatists for keeping well clear. The most recent approach occurred in 2014, when brooding heartthrob Kane Jenkins suffered from depression and ultimately attempted suicide. Shortland Street storyliners worked with the Mental Health Foundation to ensure the storyline was handled with appropriate care, and while the plot was inevitably confronting, it was mostly applauded for its careful handling of a difficult issue.
The right-to-die movement has cycled through various parties as policy, its hopes currently resting with David Seymour and ACT. But Shortland Street has likely had more visibility on the issue than any pol. Caroline Buxton’s assisted her friend Annabel Lustwick’s suicide in the face of advanced multiple sclerosis in the late ’90s. She was eventually found guilty of murder, precisely the outcome unlikely allies like Michael Laws and Louisa Wall have unsuccessfully campaigned to avoid.
5 Medical Marijuana
In 2015 Shortland Street scriptwriters ripped a social issue from the headlines, with a teen battling cancer on the show taking marijuana for medicinal reasons. The episode aired days after Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne gave the green light for medical use of cannabis for a Kiwi teenager in a coma. Shortland Street Producer Simon Bennett told the Herald on Sunday the soap had a responsibility to address polarising social issues and that he believed there is a “conservative antipathy” towards the use of medicinal marijuana in New Zealand which did not exist towards other powerful painkillers such as opioids, which are similar to morphine. His comments show that Shortland Street‘s continual wading into these areas is no accident – instead a core part of the show’s conception of itself.