So, you occasionally watch EastEnders, you know who ‘Ballum’ are and have seen the bubbling online discourse. But what is it all about, why are the couple so popular and why is this pairing so important to the LGBTQ community (and this author)?
In many an interview, Max Bowden (Ben Mitchell) and Tony Clay (Callum Highway) have put the couple’s popularity down to them being ‘two working class boys drawn together by similarities’ (Metro, November 2021) which, to the vast majority of the Eastenders audience, may be exactly the appeal of the pair. Alternatively, it could be due to their issues-focused storylines, including PTSD, police corruption and sudden hearing loss, all of which have been relatively long-running stories, intricately woven and involving many other characters. However, for many viewers who self-define as LGBTQ+, Ballum are beloved for exactly what they are and what they represent: two young gay men finding each other, falling in love and building a life together. Is it time for Eastenders to drop the ‘working class boys’ line for mainstream approval and acknowledge and celebrate this iconic gay relationship for all its queerness?
The coming-out stories of both men were told so well, and resulted in the actors being flooded with messages of thanks and praise from viewers seeing their own lives and experiences being played out on screen – proof that representation really does matter. And given how well Eastenders portrayed these queer-themed experiences, and how they touched the hearts and lives of the LGBTQ+ viewing community, is it any wonder the story of the couple’s journey together is so important to us?
Romance between straight couples is a mainstay of most soaps and dramas, but the same for same-sex couples is rare. To see a gay couple written as being affectionate and loving is a credit to the writers and the actors who bring the relationship to life. We are surrounded with images and ideals of heterosexual relationships from an early age, in cartoons, Disney films and children’s books but attempts to tip the balance and normalise (or usualise) LGBTQ relationships and lives are few and far between. This one is special to so many in the queer community because it is so reflective of the love in real-life same-sex relationships, and seeing that level of affection and care between queer characters on screen means so much. All credit to the whole Eastenders team, but especially the writers and actors, Max Bowden and Tony Clay, for giving the LGBTQ+ community beautiful, accurate, endearing representation we can be proud of.
Why are Ballum important? Because they represent a turning of the tide towards representing LGBTQ+ relationships in the same manner as straight relationships. Why are they popular? Because they are portrayed as a loving, warm and affectionate couple, something we don’t see enough of in queer relationships on screen. We need more like Ballum on our TVs.