Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
String of knots to orange box

by Margaret Marshment and Julia Hallam

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 40-50
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

"History is a string full of knots, the best you can do is admire it, and maybe knot it up a bit more." (Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, 1985, p. 91)[open notes and bibliography in new window]

"Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently." (Winterson, 1985, p. 166)

At a time when postmodernism and polysemy are the celebrated modes of cultural production, a realist text which aims to change people's minds about a social issue has a somewhat old-fashioned ring. Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), was not such a realist text, but the 1990 BBC2 television adaptation of it was. In her introduction to the published script of the TV version of her novel Winterson said that ORANGES

"challenges the virtues of the home, the power of the church and the supposed normality of heterosexuality." (Winterson, 1990, p. vii)

She wanted, she said, to transform her novel into a television series "that would bring viewers in off the streets," but she was determined not to "see it toned down in any way." She hoped "TV can have a moral as well as a social function." (Winterson, 1990, p. xvii)

In this paper we argue that realist strategies facilitated the success of the television version of a lesbian coming-of-age novel. Cultural production aiming to challenge the prejudices of "commonsense" has everything to gain from working with popular cultural forms. The mechanisms of closure characteristic of popular narrative can facilitate the effective communication of radical ideas.

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT tells the story of Jess, a girl brought up by a strict fundamentalist Christian mother in a small industrial town in the north of England. At sixteen she falls in love with Melanie, a girl about her own age. The evangelical community, led by its pastor and Jess' mother,[1] destroy their relationship, publicly humiliating the girls and subjecting Jess to a forcible exorcism. Following a second, less traumatic lesbian relationship, Jess refuses to renounce her sexuality and leaves church and home, eventually to go to university. This is the plot which can be extracted from the novel's more thematic organization of events, and which provides the television script's narrative structure. The television version re-orders the novel's loose chronology into a more straightforward, familiar shape of biographical narrative.

At first sight, Winterson's novel would seem an unlikely candidate to adapt as primetime TV drama. It has some brilliant characterization, but a non-linear plot, interspersed with fables and meditations. The subject matter revolves around a young lesbian's betrayal by her fanatically religious mother. As a novel, Oranges depends for its aesthetic appeal on formal and linguistic acrobatics rather than narrative and description. It acquired the status of a cult novel among women-identified women in Britain because of its funny and sensitive portrayal of a lesbian protagonist. When it won the Whitbread Prize in 1985, it achieved unusual recognition from the British literary establishment for a lesbian novel. But its lesbian theme hardly seemed calculated to endear it to the BBC at that time. The moral majority's campaigns against homosexuality had recently resulted in the British Parliament's legislating to prohibit local government funding for anything "promoting homosexuality." While this legislation only applied to local government bodies, it created a climate of paranoia around gay issues that made many other institutions over-cautious.[2]

Yet in January 1990 ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT was shown on British television to an audience of around six million. It received widespread critical acclaim in the press and was shown again later in the year. Our aim is not to explain this success but to analyze how the television adaptation was able to achieve that success while maintaining the integrity of the author's lesbian message. Feminist criticism has often been cautious about hailing the popularization of feminist works, seeing in the need to reach a larger audience a commensurate obligation to compromise the original work's feminist message The feminist critic may distrust success itself, and or she may distrust the forms and contexts of, popular culture as intrinsically hostile to the possibility of radical messages. We would dispute both these claims.

We argue that the television adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit successfully employs the strategies of popular narrative forms in order to secure a dominant reading of the text, one sympathetic to the presentation of lesbian identity as a normative sexuality. Securing such a reading involves the production of a "closed" text. Because "closure" has usually been analyzed in relation to how it functions to reproduce existing meanings and reinforce the ideological status quo, critics have privileged polysemy as the more radical, more democratic mode of representation. However, using closure is often an important and effective strategy in creating oppositional meanings. Readers of the novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit — a social minority of women-identified women and lesbians — could be relied on to respond sympathetically to its focus on women's lives and the affirmation of its protagonist's lesbian identity.

Structuring a text so as to gain that same response from a mainstream television audience is a different matter. Whatever the gains in terms of social equality and regimes of representation brought about by twenty years of feminist activism, the word "feminist" does not enjoy positive connotations in the culture at large. And what is true of popular interpretations of "feminist" is a hundred times more true of "lesbian" — when the two are not conflated. Feminist and gay politics are accompanied by corresponding sub-cultural production offering positive representations of lesbians in fiction, the visual arts, poetry and film. But very little of this has found its way into popular media like television and certainly not at prime time. The screening of ORANGES by the BBC during peak viewing hours, and in the winter season, constituted a significant feminist/ lesbian intervention in the sexual politics of popular culture.

Jeanette Winterson herself wrote the script for ORANGES, working with director Beeban Kidron, producer Philippa Giles, composer Rachel Portman, and designer Cecilia Brereton.[3] We can safely assume that this all-female team were aware of the sexual politics of their project, and sought to make their production a positive contribution to feminist/ lesbian politics. For heuristic purposes, we assume that they deliberately constructed the text to close down the potential polysemy of its subject-matter. The reason for doing so was to secure from a mainstream audience a reading of lesbian identity that would go against the grain of dominant ideological definitions of "normal" sexuality. Our aim is to identify the mechanisms of closure employed by the text to undermine the presumed homophobia in a mainstream audience, while simultaneously addressing the novel's original women-identified audience. If this was not how production decisions were made, well — its our way of telling the story.


To be popular a text must he both accessible and enjoyable. We would argue that texts aiming to challenge the ideological status quo can do so more effectively if they too are accessible and enjoyable. Primetime television is obviously accessible. Unlike much late-night programming which is assumed to be geared towards "minority" tastes, programs screened during primetime viewing hours are assumed to be, almost by definition, of general interest. Screening ORANGES at primetime would therefore in itself tend to "normalize" its subject-matter. In addition, ORANGES occupied a "quality" drama slot on BBC2. With its literary pedigree, high production values and provocative subject-matter, it belonged in the traditions of this prestige niche, leading audiences to expect that its concerns should be taken seriously.[4]

Realism provides the most widespread and familiar mode of narration in our culture. Modernism challenged realism's dominance in literature and the fine arts nearly a century ago, but in popular fiction, film, and television, realism continues to be the dominant narrative form. Realism's implied claim that it simply reflects reality, transparently representing that which is in any case transparent — the "facts" — appears particularly convincing in the photographic media of film and television, which, even as fiction, seem simply to record what is "there." Cohn MacCabe has argued that in appearing to "guarantee access to truth," realism hides its own constructedness, is formally incapable of representing reality as contradictory, and is therefore inherently conservative. (MacCabe, 1981, p. 310) Cinematic realism has been the topic of long-standing and complex debate. While we do not have the space here to discuss the philosophical aspects of realism's ability "to show things as they really are" (Lovell, 1980, p. 90), we do wish to argue, on the basis of our analysis of ORANGES, that realism does provide strategies able to challenge dominant ideology.[5]

ORANGES is basically a realist text that works within the conventions of mainstream film and television fictions. Its mise-en-scene pays attention to detail in a way that makes the images seem to reconstruct a particular community convincingly in a particular time and place. Continuity editing maintains spatial and temporal coherence. Consistent characters are developed within a cause-and-effect narrative. All this, in supplying the pleasures of familiar aesthetic form, works to "normalize" ORANGES' subject-matter.

Within this conventionally realist ground, however, the text manipulates references to non-realist genres and modes in order to comment thematically upon the visible action. This is most evident in the opening credit sequences, where Jess and Small Jess are pulled apart in surrealist scenes, set in a fairground and a church. These two settings make symbolic reference to the work's themes of the pain and loss involved in the process of growing up and the nightmare of betrayal. Similarly, a sense of heightened emotion is created at climactic moments in the narrative.

For example, the use of wide-angle lens, extreme close ups and slow motion add a sense of menace to the love scene's lyricism. And when Small Jess wakes up in a luminously white hospital ward, the overwhelming whiteness of the setting gives expression to her experience of unreality. The gargoyle-like distortion of Jess' face during the exorcism symbolizes her exclusion from the church, and the tableau-like dinner at the funeral of Jess' elderly friend, Elsie, (reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's film style) calls attention to the inhumanely regimented behavior of the sect members as they file out indignantly at discovering the now-disgraced Jess serving their meal.

This last example forms part of a more general excess in characterization. Elements of caricature and the script's sharp, sometimes bizarre, comedy have a Dickensian quality of social satire seen also in writers like Naipaul and Rushdie. This satirical element prepares us for the brutal melodrama of Jess' exorcism. The narrative has a snapshot-like construction, especially in the first episode, which embodies the work's concerns with memory and representation.

These narrative tactics give the work a very distinctive feel, a sense of its difference from "ordinary TV."[6] At the same time they are well-recognized variations on the conventions of realism developed not only in prose fiction and film but also in "quality" British television drama.[7] They are features which transform the realism of popular forms without fundamentally disrupting realism's power to give pleasure through the familiarity of its mode of communication.

This power is enhanced when the realism is well executed.[8] High production values not only offer the pleasures of a well crafted work, but also demonstrate respect for the viewer, an important factor for women viewers in works apparently addressed to them and dealing with women's issues.[9] Critics do not usually define pleasure as a mechanism of "closure," but clearly a work will not convince viewers who, in the broadest sense, fail to enjoy it. High production values and the pleasures they offer may therefore be regarded as mechanisms of closure.


The structure of ORANGES as a television script breaks with s the novel's thematic organization, but it still does not quite follow a traditional realist pattern of exposition, disturbance, crisis and resolution. The script has a structure rather like a triptych, with a finely drawn portrait of Jess and her environment hinged on either side of the central plot action, Jess' relationship with Melanie and the crisis of the exorcism. The "before," which maps out the physical and moral space of Jess' childhood through a series of scenes and events in her seventh year, conforms to the structure of introductions to such biographical narratives in television fiction. The ordinariness of Jess' childhood experience characterizes this first episode, just as the ordinariness of adolescent disaffiliation, as Jess develops a sense of her own identity, characterizes the third.

The second episode contains the narrative crisis when the equilibrium of Jess' biographical trajectory from childhood through adolescence to maturity is disrupted by her relationship with Melanie and her conflict with family, church an community. This episode concludes with an uneasy resolution, in which, despite her outer repentance, Jess remains faithful to her love for Melanie, leaving the third episode to resolve the ambiguities of this compromise, with confirmation of Jess' lesbian identity through her relationship with Katy and her subsequent departure from the church. In thus framing the "crisis" of Jess' biography within a context of recognizably typical events and situations, the extraordinary is contained within the ordinary. This context of familiarity facilitates audience empathy with a protagonist whose identity and experience fall outside dominant ideological constructions of femininity.


The opposition between Jess' sexuality and the evangelical sect in which she grows up structures the narrative conflict. It represents a special case of the widespread debates around the morality of homosexuality in Christian discourse and practice. However, the "specialness" of the case in ORANGES enables the text to eschew debate in favor of a strategy designed to encourage a mainstream audience to empathize with the lesbian protagonist against the church. The text does this through the simple and time-honored device of portraying one side in the conflict positively and sympathetically and the other side negatively and unsympathetically.

The evangelical sect in ORANGES is so dogmatic and intolerant as to constitute a picture of fanaticism. It does not debate issues. When the sect members discover the relationship between Jess and Melanie, they condemn it unreservedly as "a great sin," and accept the Pastor's explanation that "these children are full of demons." Since few British viewers would concur that lesbianism is caused by demons, the text supplies no recognizably "normal" interpretation of Jess' sexuality against which they might measure its representation from her point of view. Nor would many approve of the evangelicals' method of dealing with sexual "deviance."

They cow Melanie into submission by the public humiliation, and subject the less compliant Jess to an exorcism in which they forcibly hold her down, tie her up and gag her, in order to "pray over" her. This very painful scene, far more violent than its equivalent in the novel, which makes no mention of physical force, shows Jess dressed in school uniform, including knee-length white socks. She looks, therefore, more like a child than a sexually active adolescent. The sect members, adrenaline clearly flowing, appear morally repugnant: four adults grunting and panting as they terrorize a young girl. The participation of Jess' mother in the violence suggests the power of extremist ideologies to corrupt family relations. And the gargoyle-like distortion of Jess' face signifies the moral ugliness of the scene. There can be no doubt that this confrontation between lesbianism and religion represents the latter as a cruel and violent oppressor, with the former its pitiful victim. In other words, here Christianity, not lesbianism, represents "deviance."

As an example of the oppression of lesbian women, this scene is very powerful. Few could claim that the world treats those it defines as deviant more kindly than the faithful treat Jess. Comparison with the novel's less violent account of the same "event," however, reminds us of the scene's constructed nature. Winterson can communicate with a readership of women-identified women through irony and understatement in her novel because she can assume in them a range of knowledge and sentiment that may have already potentially sensitized them to her meanings. But the less defined audience of television drama may need more persuasion. So the more graphically physical dramatization of the violence done to Jess arises not only from the differing demands of drama and prose fiction. It arises too from the need for a rhetorical strategy to represent the oppression of a young lesbian, which aims to leave no space for the viewer to respond except with unqualified sympathy for Jess and outrage at the faithful.[10]

In the context of British culture this strategy might seem likely to succeed. The British media has a long history of hostility towards minority religions, from Moonies to Islamic fundamentalists to New Age travelers. This representation of an evangelical sect as "mad and bad" falls in line with cultural prejudices about religious "extremism." The text's strategy can be seen as one that uses one unpopular minority in order to present another unpopular minority in a favorable light.[11]


By contrast, ORANGES portrays the lesbian relationship between Jess and Melanie precisely within the culture's conventional representations of "young love." When Jess first meets Melanie, the camera positions the viewer to share Jess' point of view, traveling up Melanie's arm until it reveals her angelic face surrounded by cascading blonde curls. It is a classic instance of the "male gaze" transposed into a lesbian context. (Mulvey, 1975; Stacey, 1988) Theirs is the only relationship in the work to show evidence of that fusion of companionship, affection and sexual passion that our culture defines as "love." Neither of the two "normal" heterosexual couples portrayed in the text functions to define Jess' lesbian relationship as "deviant." The sketchily depicted relationship between Melanie and Ian serves as a signifier of Melanie's betrayal of Jess, while Mother's dominance of the impenetrably passive William could not, in our culture, serve as a model of married bliss against which to judge Jess' relationship. On the contrary, it is in contrast with Jess' relationship that the others might be found wanting.

ORANGES therefore takes for granted that which the dominant ideology would marginalize. It invests the "deviant" relationship with all the highly valued qualities that "normal" relationships supposedly possess, while denying such qualities to those "normal" relationships. It thus establishes within itself an oppositional commonsense position that claims a lesbian relationship between two adolescent girls as the moral, and therefore cultural, norm. This taken-for-granted ground allows space to make distinctions: Jess is more committed than Melanie and she loves Melanie more than she loves Katy. Far from being unique or all the same, lesbian relationships are seen to be as different from each other, and just as fraught and fragile, as commonsense already defines any adolescent passion. This makes lesbianism "normal," and because, according to the dominant ideology, the "normal" is "natural" and the "natural" is "right," the logic of the text makes lesbianism "right" too.

Phillippa Giles, the producer of ORANGES, said,

"We decided to make it obvious that the girls were having a sexual relationship, not a wishy-washy thing." (Quoted in Hinds, 1992, p. 165)

This was not how everyone understood it, however. The reviews in the British press tended to see the relationship between Jess and Melanie either as a comical comeuppance for Jess' fanatically religious mother or as "innocent" romance. (Hinds, 1992, pp. 165-7) In this vein, two scenes in the second episode have polysemic possibilities particularly worthy of closer attention. We call them "the seduction" and "the love-making."

The first, "the seduction," occurs shortly after Jess and Melanie have met, in the evangelical church where Jess preaches. Melanie is "saved" in response to Jess' appeal for converts. The congregation sing the hymn "He Touched Me" slowly and seductively while Melanie responds as if in a trance, gazing all the while into Jess' eyes. Superimposing the religious conversion and sexual seduction upon each other collapses the two emotional worlds in which Jess lives — that of her religious faith and that of her erotic love.

Jess' clear command of the situation means viewers could read the scene either as showing her exploiting Melanie's sexual feelings for religious ends, or as exploiting Melanie's religious feelings to seduce her sexually. Or they could read it as demonstrating the fusion of religion and sexual passion in Jess. Or as portraying the girls' mutual subversion of a situation which embodies the institutional (male) power of the church. While the Pastor and congregation anticipate Melanie's submission to their authority, the two girls establish their own definition of what is happening, ironically securing the community's celebration of their sexual relationship at the moment of its inception — clearly not what the congregation would want.

The "love-making" scene occurs shortly afterwards. The girls spend the night making love in the house of Jess' friend Elsie, an elderly church member. Their love-making is portrayed with a mixture of humor, passion and lyricism, marked by elements of ferocity and even danger. Their talk of men as beasts and the slow-motion close ups of their laughing faces are threateningly surreal while the accompanying theme music evokes the nightmarish credit sequences. The scene is intercut with shots of Elsie asleep and the Mother reading the Bible in bed. These intercut images may ironically point to how the girls have subverted adult assumptions about the universality of heterosexuality since those assumptions, far from preventing girls' sexual liaisons, actively facilitate them.

Or the Mother's wakefulness may suggest the threat that will materialize when she discovers their relationship. The release of this narrative tension is not represented as orgasm. This ellipsis may, of course, be due to self-censorship, but its effect is to leave the sense of danger hanging — a danger cathartically resolved much later in the exorcism's narrative violence. The scene ends lyrically as the two, naked, watch the dawn together. Jess says, "This can't be unnatural passion, can it?" The answer is clearly "yes" and "no" — depending on who is defining "unnatural."

The scene's explicit sexuality, much heralded in the British press, does not occur in the novel. This change suggests that the television text was designed to challenge head-on assumptions about the "innocence" or "prettiness" of both youth and femininity. The television script does not fudge the kind of sexuality involved in a lesbian relationship. It does not attempt to present lesbian love as less sexual than heterosexual love, or lesbian sex as somehow "nicer" than heterosexual sex. Nor does it deny that passion may be tense and greedy as well as gushing.


The text also controls potential responses to its portrayal of the conflict between religion and sexuality through its characterization. The most immediate source of pleasure that ORANGES offers women viewers is the opportunity to identify with a female protagonist. The novel facilitates this identification by means of a first-person narration, which ensures that the reader sees all the fictional events from the narrator's point of view. Television fictions represent first-person narration by means of voice-over, which occurs here briefly but significantly at the beginning and end of ORANGES. Otherwise, point of view is controlled by the narrative centrality of the principal character and by the cameras relation to her.

Jess is the central character of the drama, as of the novel (except that her name is no longer the same as the author's). ORANGES tells her story and keeps her constantly on screen. Such centrality in itself invites audience identification and is further encouraged by Jess strong character: intelligent, sensitive, principled, and strong enough to triumph over ill-treatment.

The performances of Emily Aston as Small Jess and Charlotte Coleman as the adolescent Jess function importantly in presenting Jess' character visually and influencing audience response to her and her sexuality.[12] In the first episode Emily Aston's portrayal of the seven-year-old Jess endears the character to viewers through the competence with which this very young actor fulfills a demanding role, while the script constructs Small Jess as a competent character. Small Jess invites both audience sympathy through her vulnerability as a child and admiration through her ability to cope with her environment. She represents a child's uncorrupted perception, puncturing the (perhaps unwitting) hypocrisy of adults. Her innocent logic, a source of a great deal of humor, both opposes her mother's religious world view and derives from it. When her mother accuses the (lesbian) women who run the sweet shop of "unnatural passions," Small Jess understands these to be chemicals in the sweets. At another moment, she shows up the triteness of the schoolteacher's remark, "Winning doesn't matter," by asking, "Why do you give prizes then?" This mix of sympathy and admiration the audience has for Small Jess informs their responses to the development of her character as the older Jess, especially important when she has to confront her community's hostility to her sexuality.

Jess' most admirable quality in this confrontation derives from her early independence of mind: her principled insistence that her sexuality does not, as the church maintains, constitute a sin. The most dramatic, and most explicit, expression of her position occurs in the second episode. She challenges the Pastor's denunciation of her relationship, declaring her love for Melanie, and quoting scripture back at him: "St. Paul says in Romans, Chapter Fourteen, 'I know and am persuaded in the Lord that nothing is unnatural in itself; it is made unnatural by those who think it is unnatural.'" Referring to her love for Melanie, she affirms that she will never "learn to hide what's good." Jess' subsequent repentance and reintegration into the church somewhat blur these explicit statements on the morality of lesbian sexuality.

Should viewers understand the clandestine nature of her meeting with Melanie and later relationship with Katy as evidence of Jess' hypocrisy, confusion or inner strength? The violence of the sect's opposition to lesbianism encourages a reading sympathetic to Jess, as do the moral comparisons between Jess and Melanie (who does renege on the relationship) and between Jess and Miss Jewsbury (a lesbian sect member who hides her sexuality as a matter of policy).


The Pastor is a character much expanded from a relatively shadowy figure in the novel. More than any other character, he embodies the authority and values with which Jess comes into conflict. It is he who publicly denounces Jess and Melanie, who takes charge of Jess' exorcism, and with whom there is no final reconciliation. He represents the power of the religious institution and its roots in patriarchy. As Jess' chief opponent, both narratively and ideologically, his characterization clearly functions to demarcate how Jess and her values can be read.

He occupies that depressingly familiar position of the only male in the group serving as its leader, a position unlikely to endear him to contemporary female audiences, especially since he so clearly revels in the power and prestige he gains. He is hull-necked, is clean-shaven to the point of looking scrubbed of hair, wears his clothes a trifle too tight and has a stentorian voice modulated to oily whispers. We are not privy to the Pastor's thoughts, so we must judge him as we see him.

What we see is a striking example of hypocrisy, not necessarily conscious, but a sublimation of physical desire into the pleasures of self-righteous power. When he rails against "unnatural passions," he carries no conviction. Jess clearly possesses a natural passion in comparison to the repressed desire that seems to ooze through his constructed asexuality. When he accuses Jess of having "taken on a man's appetites," we cannot believe him. The Pastor is the only man around with appetites, and Jess' are clearly nothing like his. His pious rage most obviously reveals patriarchy at bay. The script's construction of the Pastor as villain, together with Kenneth Cranham's convincing performance is a successful textual strategy of closure.[13] With such an opponent, Jess could only win hands down in a bid for audience sympathy.


Much more complex is Jess' relationship with her mother. Played by Geraldine McEwan, the Mother is undoubtedly the most memorable character in the work. The impact of the Mother as a character lies in her monstrous excess, which is at the same time the source of her appeal. This excess stems from the single-mindedness of her religious conviction, which informs all aspects of her life and relationships. Perhaps all mothers have a monstrous dimension in their children's eyes, merely by virtue of their omnipresence, so that audiences' empathy with Jess is one that invites memories of viewers' own childhood. Such an invitation is reinforced in the first episode by the frequency with which low-angle shots assume Small Jess' perspective. Perhaps this mother appears unusually overpowering because she holds an oppositional worldview, rendering visible her "indoctrination" of her child. For example, while her plan for Jess to become a missionary may seem peculiarly authoritarian, perhaps only the plan's explicitness distinguishes it from the hopes of most other mothers. Many of us have surely said, as Jess does,

"I'm not what she wants. I'm not what she intended. I've gone a different way."

However, the Mother's character also offers a kind of pleasure to women viewers. The strength of her conviction is the source of her power. Informed by the confidence and determination it gives her, she runs the home, brings up Jess apparently single-handedly, commits time and energy to the church, and builds a bathroom. She has great mental and physical energy. This is powerfully conveyed through McEwan's performance. Known to viewers from other TV and stage roles, McEwan clearly plays a character not her own. Audience awareness of the actor's virtuosity is both pleasurable in itself and lends distance to a character whose excesses might otherwise evoke a more narrowly hostile response.

In patriarchy women can only realize power through struggle and expending energy of a magnitude such as the Mother possesses. Notwithstanding doubts women viewers may have about the uses to which she puts her energy, the spectacle of the Mother's command of herself and situations is awesome. The logic of her convictions differs from that of society's commonsense. Her behavior often appears comically inappropriate if not downright mad.

For example, she builds a bathroom not because she needs one but because the Lord told her to. She considers Jesus an effective alternative to an airing cupboard for growing hyacinths, and she wishes "the boils of Egypt" and "the ulcers and the scurvy and the itch of which you cannot he cured" upon the next door neighbor for "fornicating" on the Sabbath. It is not comedy at her expense, however, for she is always triumphant. She builds the bathroom, the hyacinths grow without an airing cupboard, the next-door neighbor is both silenced and spotty, and she at least regards these as the proof of her convictions.

Many of her adversaries are unsympathetically portrayed: the faithful are stereotypically coded as elderly women lacking intelligence and conviction; the next-door neighbor is an unattractive youth; the schoolteacher is locked into a timid conformity. These characters do not, therefore, constitute a convincing position from which we might be encouraged either to ridicule or condemn the character of the Mother. Even the more likable characters who befriend Jess function more to demonstrate the Mother's shortcomings than to supply an alternative model.

It is by no means fanciful to compare the Mother with popular images of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. As dogmatic, powerful, middle-aged women, both invite the same mix of admiration, incredulity, disapproval and passionate hatred. But the Mother, seen in relation to Jess, has another dimension — she loves her daughter. "Be careful with her," she says when entrusting Jess to the temporary care of another woman, "She's my joy." At moments her singular vision has a genuinely critical edge, as when she dismisses the importance of a school test with, "It's how you live your life that's the test."

Jess is, as the saying goes, "her mother's daughter." Jess inherits her mother's strength of conviction, principled insistence on pursuing openly what she thinks is right, passion, logic, and combativeness. Whether or not, as she says of her mother, Jess also "likes to wrestle," Jess does wrestle. In affirming her lesbian identity, Jess becomes, as novelist Winterson said of herself, an evangelist. As a result, Jess is her mother's only equal as an adversary in a battle in which neither defeats the other. Their shared strength constitutes the bond between them, the mother's bequest to the daughter.

A theme of betrayal is strong in Winterson's novel:

"There are different sorts of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. She burnt a lot more than the letters that night in the backyard. I don't think she knew. In her head she was still queen, but not my queen any more." (Winterson, 1985, p. 110)

There is no doubting the drastic nature of the rift between mother and daughter in the television version of ORANGES. However, the more central role given to the Pastor means that the struggle between mother and daughter occurs as part of a conflict between Jess and the church. While the novel concludes by showing the rift between mother and daughter as irretrievable, its non-linear narrative facilitates an emotionally complex reading of the relationship. To have emphasized a theme of betrayal in the chronologically simpler structure of the drama would have emphasized the conflict between the two women at the expense of demonstrating the bonds that unite them.

The concluding scene of the television version depicts a reconciliation (albeit a partial one) very different in mood from the powerful sense of dissatisfaction with which the novel ends. Like the book, the drama portrays no settling of accounts between mother and daughter, but the script suggests that the Mother has recognized the rift between them and is implicitly acting to heal it. Through facial expression and body language she also distances herself from the Pastor's hostility towards Jess. The work ends, then, with a pleasurable sense of recognition, as Jess smiles at the spectacle of her mother calling up "electronic believers all over the North West" on the CB radio she has built herself. Jess has not kissed her mother, but, seeming to recognize the extent to which her mother remains indomitably the same, has accepted what reconciliation the Mother can offer. While not quite a resolution, this does provide a satisfactory closure that leaves the viewer with a sense of hope encapsulated in the gentle comedy of the scene.

"Fatherhood is a fiction" suggests Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses,[14] meaning that whereas women know which children they have borne, the biological link between father and child can only be assumed, so that fatherhood becomes a matter of choice, a spiritual rather than a genetic connection. Fatherhood is a fiction for Jess because William plays no active part in her life. Since Jess is an adopted child, for her, motherhood is also a fiction, a choice, a spiritual connection. Yet it is none the less true and powerful for that.

ORANGES uncompromisingly denies the role of nature in the mother/ daughter relationship. It dismisses biological determinism as ruthlessly and effectively as the Mother dismisses Jess' biological mother. "I'm your real mother," she says, and the text proves her right: the natural mother is never spoken of again. The dynamic of the relationship between Jess and the Mother is worked through in terms of their filial bond. The script makes no attempt to explain their difference as due to the absence of a blood tie. This offers a strong and liberating message. It claims that who we are might derive from circumstance but is not written in our genes. Human choice shapes even our most intimate relations.


Jess' relations with her mother, lovers and friends take place within a predominantly female community. To see such a world of women in itself provides pleasure for women viewers. But it is no feminist utopia. As well as friendship, support and love, it includes jealousy, prejudice and cruelty. The script does not idealize women's relations, but it does prioritize them over those of and with men.

History has made women's inheritance invisible. ORANGES portrays aspects of our history. Jess inherits generations of women's experience through her elderly friend Elsie, through Cissy, who gives her a home and a job in the funeral parlor after the break with her mother, and above all through the Mother herself. The wealth of stories that the Mother tells Jess expresses this inheritance most strongly: stories from the Bible, stories about the conversion of sinners, about her own conversion, about her own past when she "was slim." Here we see the largely oral tradition of women transmitted through the stories mothers tell their children in the course of everyday life. In this way, both novel and television program create narratives that bypass the official histories of men to dwell upon the intimate histories of women.

The narrative never offers the viewer a masculine point of view, and the camera does so only rarely in brief shot reverse shot exchanges. With the important exception of the Pastor, male characters and concerns are marginalized in ORANGES. William, Jess' father, remains silent throughout, until he says "amen" in the last scene, Graham, against whose attractions Jess is warned, serves merely as a foil for her relationship with Melanie; Ian, Melanie's fiancé, signifies Melanie's betrayal of Jess. Both young men have, in any case, very small roles. Jess and Melanie in the love scene laugh at the beastliness of men and dismiss marriage. As Melanie says, "You have to cook and clean all the time." They compare their relationship to that of David and Jonathan, who were married, but "loved each other best."

Such a dismissal of marriage, through narrative and dialogue, effects a marginalization of men in Jess' consciousness, which is explicit in the book:

"As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless." (Winterson, 1985, p. 126)

All Jess' important relations are with women and girls, and no female character is shown as having an important relationship with a man. The result is that relations between women and, most significantly, lesbian relations never appear in a context that foregrounds women's position in the heterosexual institutions of the couple or the family.


Homophobic ideology maintains that homosexual people are identifiable by how they look. In the novel, Winterson's narrator explicitly denies that her sexual preference for women means that she is "aping men." (Winterson, 1985, p. 125) In the television drama the casting and characterization embody this denial. None of the lesbian characters, or those involved in lesbian relationships, conform visually to butch stereotypes. On the contrary, the visual iconography may he seen as calculated to challenge them. Jess, both as child and adolescent, is visually coded as "normal." Whereas in the novel she says she never wears skirts (Winterson, 1985, p. 126), in the drama she wears trousers only once. Presumably the television drama calculatedly avoided any suggestion of butch. Melanie resembles a pre-Raphaelite heroine, a stereotype of femininity in direct opposition to the butch stereotype. Women-identified viewers might recognize Melanie as femme, but others might interpret her appearance as explaining why anyone, including another girl, would fall in love with her.

Katy, with whom Jess has a less intense relationship, is by contrast coded as a sixties teenager, keen on pop music, and dressed in contemporary teenage fashion. Katy's physical appearance would identify her as what the British call "Asian." This constitutes an important inclusion of Black women within the lesbian community.[15] The clear message is that, contrary to stereotypical beliefs, no identifiable "lesbian type" exists. Lesbianism is represented as common to all types of women, regardless of appearance, personality, age or ethnic origin. The television text denies viewers the possibility of identifying lesbians by any particular set of visible characteristics.

Because no other adolescent girls appear in the drama, lesbianism appears not only normal, but normative. The two boys who approach Katy and Jess in the fairground are gently and jokingly dismissed. Despite the suspicions of the faithful, Jess has no interest in Graham. Seen from Jess' point of view, Melanie's impending marriage to Ian, coded as a scruffy and arrogant youth, amounts to a betrayal not only of Jess herself but of sisterhood.

The characterization of Miss Jewsbury, the only adult lesbian in the work, raises an interesting point. Younger than the other church members, Miss Jewsbury supports Jess when the Pastor denounces her for "unnatural passions." This example of sisterhood in action does not, however, function to show lesbian networking in a positive light. While Jess accepts Miss Jewsbury's support at this point, in a later scene Jess sharply rejects her offer of friendship. Readers of the book might understand this rejection as deriving from Jess' sense of betrayal at having been seduced by Miss Jewsbury after the public denunciation. But this seduction does not occur in the television drama. Viewers might therefore find Jess' reaction to Miss Jewsbury somewhat mystifying.

We can explain it, however, by reference to the television text's calculated avoidance of anything that might confirm popular homophobic stereotypes. These would include the prejudiced assumption that homosexuals are sexually attracted to every member of their own sex, and that children are in danger of seduction by adult homosexuals. A woman-identified readership may well he able to accept that exploitative relations exist between women as between men and women, but a general audience would be less likely to read it in that neutral way. We assume that the television dramatization therefore omitted this seduction in order to prevent a reading in line with homophobic prejudices. It does, however, retain Jess' coldness towards Miss Jewsbury. As a result, the Mother's attempts to keep Jess away from her appear ironically pointless, since Miss Jewsbury clearly has no influence on Jess and offers her no role model. On the contrary, she is cast as foil to Jess' principled refusal to conceal her sexuality. Miss Jewsbury is a closet lesbian who defines her lesbianism as the "problem" of loving the "wrong people." Visually, this apologetic attitude is coded by her rather spinsterish dowdiness and stiff body language. Narratively, it is made clear that her temerity is not rewarded by acceptance by the faithful, who consider her "unholy."

Elsie, on the other hand, is both confidante and friend. Coded as a stereotypically batty but kind and wise old lady, Elsie is a woman-identified woman. She has been a suffragette, militant enough to have been imprisoned. She colludes in trying to protect Jess and Melanie from the wrath of the faithful, and she makes derogatory remarks about men (doctors are "men of knives"), including in a gentle way God himself. She is presumably a widow although a married past forms no part of her characterization. That she might also identify as a lesbian is a possible inference, but it is sufficient to see her as firmly located within what Adrienne Rich called the "lesbian continuum." (Rich, 1983, p. 192)

As a result, if all close friendships in the text are between women, this does not mean that all women are portrayed as automatically friends. More pointedly, it claims that not all lesbians are automatically friends, let alone lovers, and do not even necessarily relate to each other as fellow-lesbians. This effectively demonstrates a "lesbian continuum" among all women, but it evades any sense of the specificity of a shared lesbian identity. It does not represent a lesbian community, nor any of the choices lesbians may make in relation to appearance, body language or lifestyle. Presumably this evasion was deliberate, designed to convey the message that lesbianism and lesbians are "ordinary." However, the biographical form of ORANGES' fictional narrative, with its locus on the coming of age or an individual, might also emphasize an individualized perspective rather than that of a lesbian collectivity.


The single most important claim that the text makes in relation to lesbianism is that it is ordinary, a normal way for people to relate to each other. In short, the text "naturalizes" lesbianism. By this we do not mean that the text intervenes in the nature/ nurture debate. It does not discuss Jess' sexuality nor try to explain or justify it in terms of hormones, biography, or sexual politics. It does not, indeed, ever use the terms "lesbian" or "homosexual." This fictional narrative does not employ the strategy of a liberal text, which would engage in debate with the dominant ideology, taking its commonsense for granted, but seeking to modify or question it, explaining its absences and contradictions, while defending alternatives. In relation to lesbianism, the film LIANA exemplifies such a strategy: The friends of the woman who leaves her husband for a relationship with a woman come to terms with her sexuality as "other," accepting her despite her lesbianism.

ORANGES does not work like this. Instead, it presents Jess' lesbianism as something that from her point of view, and therefore also from the viewer's, just is. What is considered natural in our culture is that which "just is" — that which is obviously the case, which needs no explaining or arguing for. A work of fiction never feels the need to explain, or argue for heterosexual relations. Where fiction shows conflict in relation to a heterosexual relationship it does not question why or whether men and women should fall in love with each other. Similarly, ORANGES does not discuss why Jess is in love with Melanie or whether she should be: Jess just is in love with Melanie. In this sense, Jess' lesbianism is naturalized just as heterosexuality is naturalized in most other texts.

The narrative conflict springs from the religious sect's hostility to Jess' sexuality. Central to the portrayal of this conflict between fundamentalism and lesbianism is the contrasting representation of each in terms of "normality." Both depart from what the dominant ideological formations of British culture define as "normal" sexuality and "normal" religion. Yet while Jess' lesbianism is portrayed as a moral norm for intimate relationships, the portrayal of the evangelical sect calls into question fundamentalism's values and practices. The narrative implicitly judges these against a morality assumed to he more humane and intelligent. Portraying the sect's persecution of Jess as unacceptable amounts to a rhetorical device. The text's problematic becomes not lesbianism, but fundamentalism, which is found wanting by the moral norms embodied in the character of Jess. This aims to persuade viewers that any persecution of homosexuality is not only morally unacceptable, but "abnormal."

This naturalization of lesbianism depends on its representation through realist conventions. Such conventions are more usually the medium for transmitting ideological norms. The text uses, if you like, an "illiberal" strategy, constructing the narrative conflict, characters and events in a way that would encourage a particular reading and exclude (or at least discourage) alternative readings. This is not a question of documentary truth, of transgressing against probability. We can assume that historical reality is always capable of excesses greater than those of fiction. Nor is it a question of "bias": All representation involves selectivity and perspective and therefore closure, including documentaries and nonrealist, "open" texts. As Winterson says of her script,

"I am lying to you, but I am also telling you the truth." (Winterson, 1990, p. viii)

Nor are the conventions of realism committed to what social conditions they represent as the "real." In its formal transformations, realism has a long history as the medium of radicalism, of challenges to dominant versions of reality. From Emile Zola to Robert Tressell, from Richard Wright to Alice Walker, from Bessie Head to Chinua Achebe, realism has been the novelistic medium for challenging capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism. And from CATHY COME HOME to BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, British television drama has employed varieties of realism to challenge the status quo and establish a different worldview, a different morality, as the basis of commonsense. ORANGES works in this tradition to establish a lesbian identity as the basis of its commonsense. In the context of contemporary Britain, this is a powerful claim to make.

We would maintain that, far from militating against the possibility of challenging dominant ideological positions, realism remains the dominant medium in our culture through which such challenge can be effective. The avant-garde in all its forms can outrage commonsense, can mock it, question it or turn it upside down. What it cannot do is establish a new commonsense. Only realism can do that. This is what the television version of ORANGES achieves in relation to lesbianism, and as realist television drama it functions as a more radical text, formally and socially, than the modernist novel from which it was adapted.


A version of this article, "From String of Knots to Orange Box: Lesbianism on Prime Time' by Margaret Marshment and Julia Hallam, will be published in The Good, the Bad and the Gorgeous. Popular Culture's Romance with Lesbianism, edited by Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge. London: Pandora, forthcoming Fall 1994.

1.. While the pastor and Jess' mother do have names in the television version, they are almost never used. The published script identifies them as "Pastor" and "Mother" respectively. When referring to them as characters, we have adopted the capitalization but added the definite article to prevent a suggestion of mythicization. We do not capitalize when referring to their roles rather than to them as characters. The script identifies the seven-year-old Jess of the first episode as "Small Jess," We have followed this usage in order to distinguish the younger character from the "Jess" of the second and third episodes.

2. The Local Government Act, 1989, included the notorious Clause 28, which prohibited local councils in Britain from funding organizations and/or projects deemed to be "promoting homosexuality." Despite widespread protest from the gay community, this created a climate of fear concerning any activity which might possibly he covered by the Act. This did not include broadcasting, which is funded either by advertising or, as in the case of the BBC, by license fee. The quasi-governmental nature of the BBC, however, might have exposed it to criticism in this climate of fear.

3. While the production team for ORANGES did not consist entirely of women, the proportion of women in key decision-making roles was exceptionally high. That writer, director and producer were very conscious of the sexual politics of the venture is clear from interviews they have given. See, for example, MOVING PICTURES, BBC2, 1993.

4. Until relatively recently, "quality" drama has been the only television drama form to attract serious critical attention in Britain. Originally single plays by known dramatists, in the sixties and seventies series such as ARMCHAIR THEATER and PLAY FOR TODAY presented serious and provocative subject-matter that was often formally innovative. In recent years the term has more typically been used to describe a serial adaptation of a work of "literary" stature, characterized by "high production values." See, for example, the discussion by Brunsdon, 1990.

5. A summary of these debates is to be found in Terry Lovell's Pictures of Reality, 1980, especially Chapter 5. See also Raymond Tallis' In Defense of Realism, 1989, especially Chapters 2 and 4. Both Lovell and Tallis are skeptical of anti-realist arguments.

6. In tandem with our analysis of ORANGES, we conducted a series of close viewings of the text with a small sample of women. These viewers' responses to ORANGES inform many of our observations on the text's mechanisms of closure. That ORANGES was unlike "ordinary TV" was a frequently expressed opinion. Details of this research and our findings will he published in Screen 36, no. 2 (Spring 1955).

7. Alan Bleasdale's series BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF (BBC2 1982) perhaps most closely resembles ORANGES in its incorporation of occasional non-realist elements within a realist base. Fay Weldon's THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE DEVIL (not, however, scripted by Weldon) departs further from its realist base, while Dennis Potter's THE SINGING DETECTIVE was more clearly identifiable as a modernist (or even postmodernist) text.

8. Tallis, p. 172, suggests that realism is only properly defined as such when it is well executed.

9. The women we viewed ORANGES with all expressed considerable pleasure both in what they themselves called its "high production values" and in its evident address to a female audience.

10. The women viewing ORANGES with its reacted with horror to the exorcism.

11. A point also made by Hinds, 1992, p. 164.

12. Responses to Small Jess by the women we viewed ORANGES with appeared to collapse actor and character. They found her both endearing and competent, and did appear to perceive the older Jess as the same person rather than as a separate performance.

13. All the women we viewed ORANGES with expressed very strong dislike of the Pastor, to the extent of appearing to forget that the character was the product of a performance.

14. "Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may he the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?" James Joyce, 1971, p. 207.

15. The characterization of Katy makes no reference to any cultural aspects of her ethnic identity. This led more than one of the women we viewed ORANGES with to identify her as a "token Black" character.


Brunsdon, C. (1990) "Problems with Quality," Screen 31, no. 1, Spring.

Hallam. J. & Marshment, M. (1994) "Framing Experience: Case Studies in the Reception of ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT," in Screen 36, no. 2 (Spring 1955).

Hinds, H. (1992) "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: Reaching Audiences Other Lesbian Texts Cannot Reach, in S. Mont (cd), New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore.

Joyce, J. (1971) Ulysses, Penguin, Harmondsworth

Lovell, T. (1980) Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics and Pleasure, BFI, London.

MacCabe, C. (1981) "Days of Hope: A Response to Cohn McArthur," in T. Bennett, S. Boyd-Bowman, C. Mercer & J. Woollacott (eds.), Popular Television and Film, BFI, London.

Mulvey, L. (1975) "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16, no. 3, Autumn.

Rich, A. (1983) "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in A. Snitow, C. Stansell & S. Thompson (eds.), Powers of Desire, Monthly Review Press, New York.

Stacey, J. (1988) "Desperately Seeking Difference," in L. Gamman & M. Marshment (eds.), The Female Gaze, The Women's Press, London.

Tallis, R. (1988) In Defense of Realism, Edward Arnold, London, Baltimore, Melbourne, Auckland.

Winterson, J. (1990) Oranges are not the Only Fruit: The Script, Pandora, London.

Winterson, J. (1985) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Pandora, London.


BBC2. January 1990-Producer: Phillipa Giles.

Director: Beehan Kidron.

Script: Jeanette Winterson.

Designer: Cecilia Brereton. Music: Rachel Portman.

Costume Designer: Les Lansdown.

Cast: Geraldine McEwan (Mother), Charlotte Coleman (Jess), Emily Aston (Small Jess), Margery Withers (Elsie), Kenneth Cranham (Pastor), Celia Ionic (Miss Jewsbury), Cathryn Bradshaw (Melanie), Barbara Hicks (Cissy), Tania Rodrigues (Katy), Elizabeth Spriggs (May), Preda Dow (Mrs. Green), Pam Ferris (Mrs. Arkwright), Peter Gordon (William).