EastEnders is 30, which gives Hilary Wardle the perfect excuse to celebrate the bold, brave and brilliant women keeping Albert Square’s heart beating.
Illustration by Louise Boulter
It’s almost impossible to imagine an era when prime time viewing wasn’t dominated by the phrase ‘BUT WE’RE FAAAAHMILY!’ and close-up shots of people being beaten to death with bottles of champagne. Yet the most notable thing that EastEnders brought to our screens isn’t the phrase “what am I, some kind of pilchard?”: it’s women. Amazing women.
Walford has been home to a continuous stream of bold, brave female characters over the years: women who have been forced to endure terrible events such as business failures, bad relationships and having to live on the same street as Ian Beale. However, despite these harrowing setbacks, the women of EastEnders share an inspiring ability to pull themselves up by their bootlaces, paint on a smile, grit their teeth and (occasionally) hit people round the head with an iron.
To celebrate three decades of fantastic female characters, we’ve taken six key Albert Square matriarchs and examined the crucial life lessons they’ve taught us in an attempt to decide – once and for all – which character deserves to be crowned Walford’s Strongest Woman. Let battle commence!
1. Peggy Mitchell
It’s a wonder the Mitchell clan made any money at all when their mum was running the Vic. She shouted, ‘get ahhhta my pub!’ so often that the takings were as watered down as the spirits. Peg didn’t care though: she’d been through far too much to take any nonsense from anyone. After surviving breast cancer (and a marriage to Frank Butcher), she was so tough you could have dropped a house on her and she’d have come up smiling.
What we learned from Peggy: Put your faaahmily before profits.
2. Kat Moon/Slater/Moon/Slater
If you think you’re having a bad day, spare a thought for poor Kat. Over the last 15 years, she’s had to deal with telling her sister that she’s actually her mum, breaking up with Alfie approximately 300 times, being imprisoned for prostitution, having her baby stolen by Ronnie, being accidentally set on fire by her husband and – worst of all – sleeping with Derek Branning. But despite all of these terrible setbacks, she’s come out of it as proud, confident, gutsy and stylish as ever.
What we’ve learned from Kat: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Also, it really is possible to pair a panther-face sweater dress with leopard print leggings.
3. Pat Butcher
What would EastEnders have been without Pat Butcher? The sartorially challenged barmaid brightened our screens for more than 25 years. Her regular saucy flings – not to mention her on again, off again relationship with her husband Frank – proved once and for all that there’s life (and plenty of sex) after 50. She also starred in the best EastEnders fisticuffs scene of all time when she took on Shirley Carter outside the Vic in 2007 – and won.
What we learned from Pat: Romance isn’t just for teenagers, and earrings can never be too big.
4. Dot Branning
For years Dot let her dysfunctional relationship with her poundshop gangster son cloud her judgement, but on Friday she finally booted Nick out of her life once and for all… by letting him die of an overdose instead of calling an ambulance. However, it was her relationship with husband Jim that really demonstrated how strong the chain-smoking Dowager Countess of Walford really is. The 2008 monologue episode where she records a message for a hospitalised Jim (actor John Bardon had suffered a stroke in 2007) was more tear-jerking than a gin-fuelled Watership Down marathon.
What we learned from Dot: You can be strong without being infallible.
5. Denise Fox
Despite her ill-advised fling with Fatboy and an even iller-advised romance with Ian Beale (why, Denise? WHY?) Denise Fox has established herself as one of the most grounded, business savvy and determined women on the Square. After accidentally marrying a murderer who faked her death and kept her prisoner in the house next door (as you do), Denise rebuilt her life and went on to run the Minute Mart with her sister Kim, the loudest woman in the known universe. Denise recently suffered a breakdown but it’s hardly her fault: sleeping with Ian would take a heavy toll on any woman.
What we learned from Denise: Sisters are better than misters, especially if that mister is a) a murderer or b) Ian Beale.
6. Shirley Carter
The Sharon-Phil-Shirley love triangle came to a dramatic head last year when Shirl pulled a gun on the world’s shiniest womaniser and shot him in the chest. It just goes to show that the only person capable of taking on the Square’s bolshiest female resident is Pat Butcher. However, Shirl does have a softer side: her friendship with sidekick Heather Trott was the best Easties sismance since Dot and Ethel, and her relentless attempt to track down Hev’s killer made for compelling viewing. It just goes to show that female friendships – not relationships – are the real driving force on the Square.
What we learned from Shirley: if life gives you lemons, shoot them.
And the winner is: All of them.
Every single one of these female characters taught us something different. They’re collectively tougher than a Queen Vic steak and aren’t afraid to tackle problems head on. Happy birthday EastEnders: thanks for all the great roles for women… and the doof doofs.
Hilary Wardle is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh. She writes for BuzzFeed, Daily Record, Metro, MSN and has contributed to the Guardian and the Independent in the past.