What Is a Soap Opera?
Posted by samford on March 16, 2008
We’ve been talking in class for a while now about what defines the soap opera, particularly the U.S. soap opera format. No one has brought it up explicitly on the blog yet, so I wanted to go back to the piece on gendered television and femininity from John Fiske’s Television Culture that we read recently, where he gives us a succinct list from Mary Ellen Brown which outlines what she considered the eight generic characteristics of soap operas in 1987. They are:
1.) Serial form which resists narrative closure
2.) Multiple characters and plots
3.) Use of time which parallels actual time and implies that the action continues to take place whether we watch it or not
4.) Abrupt segmentation between parts
5.) Emphasis on dialogue, problem solving, and intimate conversation
6.) Male characters who are “sensitive men”
7.) Female characters who are often professional and otherwise powerful in the world outside the home
8.) The home, or some other place which functions as a home, as the setting for the show
What fascinates me about this list is that it combines both generic markers about the story and format markers, which brings back the question of whether the soap opera is a format or a genre. Of course, perhaps the answer is both, but I think combining the two is one of the many things that confuses people about how to define the soap opera, and especially how to define the soap opera against other forms. For instance, many people have lumped the soap opera together with the likes of a larger, more nebulous category called melodrama, but other scholars have pointed out the quite different category of soap opera, which points to a serialized narrative that acts in many ways different to what is often thought of as melodramatic form.
Lynn Liccardo and I have discussed how this affects SOAPnet, for instance, who says they are releasing films that are “soapy” in nature, leaving us all to wonder exactly what “soapy” means. If we are talking format, it’s impossible for a made-for-TV movie to be “soapy,” because the very nature of a film is counter to that of a soap opera…
What are readers’ thoughts on the list, and what are the defining characteristics of the U.S. soap opera? Are these shows linked more by their plot, character, setting, and mood types, or is it more about the format? Budget? Time of day they air? How does this change in an Internet era, and has it changed some since Brown put this list together? Certainly, there are aspects of Brown’s list that weren’t defining characteristics of soaps 30 years prior, when ATWT launched.