ITV2, Sunday 10 March 2013
The Only Way is Essex, commonly known as TOWIE, has moved on from vajazzling (don't ask), love triangles, and weight loss to surrogacy. For those hoping that this subject is treated with respect and sensitivity, you'll be sorely disappointed.
The 'reality' show, in which some scenes are created for entertainment purposes, introduces us to Bobby Norris, a single, gay man wanting to have a baby via surrogacy. Despite having no job or financial security, Bobby says he is determined to be a father. His desire to have a baby hit the headlines when he said he wanted a 'gayby', leading to uproar on Twitter. Sadly, the show gets worse – it's hard to imagine, I know.
I am not making any comment on his motives. I strongly support everyone's right to a family and champion alternative families – however, it does seem slightly premature in Bobby's case.
Bobby's surrogacy storyline comes to a head when he has a meeting with the British Surrogacy Centre (BSC). Bobby, accompanied by 'BFF' Charlie, meets with Barrie Drewitt-Barlow, head of social work at the BSC.
From the viewers' perspective the entire interview is painful to watch. At several points I was tempted to shove my ballpoint pen into my eyes as it would have been less painful.
The segment starts with Barrie Drewitt-Barlow mistaking Bobby and Charlie for a couple. Barrie Drewitt-Barlow is an experienced and well-regarded social worker, but his questions don't seem to go beyond the financial implications of surrogacy and having a child. Throughout the exchange, there is no discussion of Bobby's ability to meet the emotional or welfare needs of a child. Although this could just be down to editing, the storyline does focus on how Bobby isn't financially ready to be a father.
What ensues is a weird monologue from Bobby on how he doesn't just want a fashion accessory, stating: 'It's not a chihuahua or a Louis [Vuitton] bag... I don't want this as an accessory'. This seems to be in response to the Twitter war that erupted after the previous episode's 'gayby' comment.
Barrie goes on to talk about how surrogacy is a long process, and how more vetting is needed before they can proceed. Oddly, the meeting ends with Barrie asking Bobby to fill a pot with a sperm sample, saying: 'We need to check your swimmers'. Bobby then states that he would try his best but that he might struggle to fill the whole pot. This was maybe the worst part of the entire episode, which is saying a lot. I do not advise you to watch the whole episode without some kind of pain medication.
My overarching question is why the British Surrogacy Centre agreed to take part. For those unaware, Barrie and partner Tony Drewitt-Barlow were the first same sex couple in the UK to use a surrogate mother and to be recognised on the birth certificate as 'parent one' and 'parent two' rather than the more traditional 'mother' and 'father'. The pair have had five children through US surrogates, and had their family journey filmed in a number of documentaries along the way.
What struck me is why media-savvy Barrie was involved in such a project. I can see that TOWIE has a large audience and a huge impact on the general public, but I do not think this storyline has in any way helped the public understanding of surrogacy or promoted alternative families for gay or single men. Barrie has done more than most to champion both causes and before TOWIE, had always done so in an educative, intelligent and thought-provoking manner.
The problem is TOWIE is not a documentary, nor even a reality show. It is there for apparent 'entertainment'. It was a near-impossible task for the show to actually look at the topic in any substantive manner; instead it was condensed down around love triangles, trampolines and fake tan.
As always, readers, please make up your own minds, but for me if The Only Way is Essex then it's downhill from here!