Robert Sugden and the Curse of the Soap Opera Baby

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

Robron in happier times. Robert (Ryan Hawley) and Aaron (Danny Miller) at their wedding. |Image: ITV

I was going to keep my mouth shut. I was going to let this pass. But, I couldn’t. And I think it’s because I continually hold ITV’s fabulous Emmerdale to a higher standard.

Maybe that “hold” should be written in the past tense.

I’ve watched a lot of soaps my day, both in the U.S. and the U.K. and, let me tell you, British soaps are leagues and leagues better than their American counterparts, but when Rebecca White recently announced she was pregnant with Robert Sugden’s child, it was as if the Emmerdale writers were suddenly possessed by the zombified spirits of those sloppy, ineffectual scribes of the lame American daytime serial Days of our Lives. And my head nearly exploded.

I was disappointed. Then I got angry.

I got angry because Emmerdale is better than this.

Emmerdale-Village-Sign


Always the most interesting village in Yorkshire. What must the denizens of Demdyke and Robblesfield feel like?

Emmerdale, in recent years, has given us amazing drama when when Jackson Walsh was paralyzed, when Zak Dingle beat Cain nearly to death, when Jai Sharma locked Charity Dingle in a shipping container, when Val Pollard contracted HIV, when the helicopter crashed into the village hall, and, most recently, the exquisite story of Ashley Thomas’s decline into dementia. And that short list doesn’t even include the mother of all edge-of-your-seat storylines: Cameron Murray’s brilliantly psychotic reign of terror.

So, no, Emmerdale writers, just because you’ve assayed some marvelous stories in the past, doesn’t mean you get a pass on this ridiculous “the baby is Robert’s” tale.

First and foremost, it’s just simply lazy storytelling. Second, you don’t get to deliberately mess with, perhaps inarguably, the most popular couple on your show because you can’t think of something less hackneyed to do with them. Third, you don’t get to mess with your own audience’s expectations without feeling the repercussions. Fourth, if you want said audience to keep tuning in, stop monkeying around with the canvas because you feel like you can.

Bottom line: this comes down to privilege. In this case, it’s straight privilege. When serial writers hit on a male couple that works with the audience, they don’t know how to continue to make them dramatic – or at least interesting – without messing with their relationship. And the quickest, easiest, most ludicrous way to do that is to introduce a baby into the dynamic.

Think I’m kidding?

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And baby makes three. Classic gay men with baby trope. Syed (Marc Elliott) and Christian (John Partridge) and sprog in EastEnders. |Image: Radio Times

Ste and (every boyfriend or husband)[Hollyoaks]: Ste has kids that are always cocking things up.

Craig and John-Paul [Hollyoaks]: An off-screen row about having a baby drove “McDean” apart and John-Paul returned to Chester to discover he was a father.

Christian and Syed [EastEnders]: Syed had a baby with an ex-wife.

Will and Sonny [Days of our Lives]: One of the most egregious uses of the baby cliché with a gay couple in the U.S.

Kyle and Oliver [One Live to Live]: Oliver has drunken sex with a woman who gets pregnant, then she dies and he fights for custody. Seriously?

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Oliver Fish (Scott Evans) and boyfriend Kyle Lewis (Brett Claywell) and Oliver’s child, Sierra Rose, on the American drama One Life to Live.

There are others, but you get the idea.

What I find particularly galling about the Robert/Rebecca tryst is that it is so typical of people who do not know how to write for a bi character. “He’s bi, he’ll sleep with anyone. I think we should get Bex up the duff!” No! Stop it! Stop it right now!

Instead of exposing your audience to realistic bisexual people and interactions, you’re just prolonging and engraining a terrible myth about bisexual folks: that they’re all promiscuous and incapable of forming a lasting relationship with anyone of any gender.

And you know this, Emmerdale. You know it – or at least someone on your writing staff knows it – because in the eloquently written scenes where Robert opens up to Aaron – just before the car crash – Robert tells him that just because a woman offers it to him, doesn’t mean he’ll take it because he loves Aaron.

Then, the first time he has the opportunity, he does just that. You have ignored the story that you set in motion, you have ignored the entire character brief, and you have ignored the legions of fans that want these two men together, all for the sake of a lazy, cheap plot point that engrains stereotypes.

And not just stereotypes about bisexual and gay people, but stereotypes about how poorly stories are told on serials.

Not. Acceptable.

Robert Sudgen is an intricate, complex, deeply flawed character. And he has been since childhood. That’s why the story of his father finding him with another boy as a teenager works so well in the realm of retcon plausibility.

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Emmerdale mainstay, the late Clive Hornby, played Jack Sugden, seen here with Karl Davies as Robert after the younger Sugden was met with the elder’s fist in an altercation. |Image: Yorkshire Television

Robert and Jack were famously always at war. Robert and Jack never understood one another and Robert’s love-hate relationship with his adoptive brother, Andy, has been well documented throughout the last two decades, especially as teens when they were jockeying for position as favorite son. It’s quite easy to infer that this bedroom incident may have been in the back of Jack’s mind when he sent Robert away from the village for good soon thereafter when the Sugden brothers and Katie Addyman were involved in the infamous “playing chicken car accident” that killed Max King.

Let’s also remember that Robert’s biological mother died when he was only several months old. And that he has an older maternal half-sister that we’ve all forgotten about. There are plenty of rich veins still left to mine in the psyche of Robert Sugden.

I hope Emmerdale has the strength of character to right this ship. Either have the baby be Ross Barton’s after all – the most practical solution – or have Rebecca die soon after giving birth in an emergency situation somewhere stupid like the stables at Wylie’s Farm (where Katie died!). Then have Aaron Dingle show up and deliver the baby or discover dead Rebecca. Something. Anything.

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Aaron forgave Robert’s infidelities earlier this year before Rebecca revealed she did not get an abortion. It was too much for Aaron and the popular couple are now on the outs. |Image: ITV

And Emmerdale? Put RobRon back together. And figure out a way for them to have lots of drama in their lives without Robert cheating again. Danny Miller and Ryan Hawley are far too good to waste on the single notes you’ve been giving them lately.

6 thoughts on “Robert Sugden and the Curse of the Soap Opera Baby

  1. The main problem with Robert being bisexual representation is that he has always cheated. He’s cheated on his partners since he had his first girlfriend. He’s cheated on people he didn’t care about. He’s cheated on people he was in love with. It wasn’t going to matter if he never cheated again or not – he was always going to have that label, because viewers have seen it over and over again for 15 years. It doesn’t matter what Robert says or does. Viewers are always going to doubt him. That’s why a better-written story where he cheated wouldn’t have bothered me that much and why I wouldn’t necessarily see the story as sending a negative message about bisexuals. If we were worried about that, we never should have wanted Robert to be bisexual, because he already embodied every negative stereotype out there about bisexuals. But the story was very badly told, as most of his stories have been since his return, and that made everything worse. A cheating story that is logical, well-paced, helps character progression would have worked for me. Instead we got a hash of trashy writing that seems to have no real idea how it wants viewers to feel about Robert or Rebecca, yet expects us to give a care about yet another plot device soap opera pregnancy.

    The show could have done a story where Robert faced why he cheats, got therapy, and moved on, but they’ve never written that type of material for Robert, or for most characters. They just get melodrama. Even the “redemption” story of his supporting Aaron was damaged by cheap melodrama in that he doubted Aaron’s abuse after one brief conversation with Gordon, something that was promptly forgotten by the show, but something that was so crass, it permanently soured my view of their relationship and how the show treats it.

    The other problem is that in the rush to reunite Robert and Aaron last year, the show papered over the many believable, natural sources of conflict that could have led to better stories for them. Instead these things are half-heartedly, with the show always reassuring viewers not to worry, Aaron and Robert will stay together, even as they repeatedly give reasons why Aaron and Robert shouldn’t be together. The show wants it both ways – they want the fan base and support, but they also want all the trashy, cheap plots for angst and woe.

    The show rushed through Robert’s “redemption,” they rushed through why Aaron and Robert would struggle in a relationship, they rushed through the aftermath of Aaron’s abuse and Gordon’s suicide, they rushed through Liv accepting Aaron or accepting his relationship with Robert, they rushed through Paddy and Chas and the Dingles seeing Robert as anything but a menace. They chose to ignore all of this very potent material because it was easier and quicker to have Aaron and Robert with heart eyes and living together and proposals and awkward half-arguments about their differences that were mostly resolved by more melodrama (arrests, car crashes, jail, et al). So that meant all this wonderful dramatic material was gone. They have now decided to go back to the start and yet again have Aaron and Robert on the outs and yet again have most of the people in Aaron’s life hate Robert, like some kind of do-over. This could also lead to something interesting…but we’ve already heard of the inevitable reunion, so why bother caring?

    Even if the baby is Ross’s or even if the baby disappears along with Rebecca, nothing will improve with Robron until the show stops being so cowardly and starts telling real stories that address the history and complex relationships these two characters have.

    • Exactly. They had so much potential natural conflict between the two of them with their relationship history and characters, but they decided to awkwardly ignore all that and reunite them and then decided to awkwardly bring in that ditzy character for the lamest kind of conflict ever. With the baby story, this is just like any other male soap couple ever. The most tired cliche. A very offensive one too.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more! I think the Robron fandom have been pooed on from a great height with this storyline and we and they deserve better 😣

  3. I was SO on board with this assessment right up until the end.Especially about U.K. soaps just being better than US soap.

    “Have Aaron deliver the baby in a remote location” is as hackneyed and trite as any of the storylines derided above. Worse, it actually IS the storyline of justifiably hated Days of Our Lives’ Will and Sonny’s daughter’s birth.

    To say nothing of the equally lazy assertion that in order to “right this ship” Emily Head should lose her job. Gross.

  4. It’s not to bad of a story line. I do agree though, they could of made it more exciting in telling the story 👍👍 xx

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