Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Archive for February, 2008

Why American Soaps?

Posted by samford on February 28, 2008

You may have noticed that I deliberately chose to name this class as studying specifically the American soap opera.  I don’t know if that choice–that level of specificity–seemed odd at the time the class was being announced and advertised, and for the students in the class if this seemed too narrow.

My intent, however, was to avoid making sweeping generalizations that try and make connections between the production and cultural realities of American soap operas and those continuous serial dramas in other countries.  As we read through Christine Geraghty’s “The Study of Soap Opera” for Wednesday’s class, perhaps my choice to take the “American” title seriously becomes a little bit more understandable.  From an American perspective, I always felt that a significant amount of the best early research on soaps was driven by British scholars, somewhat problematic for me as I began studying the American soap opera because I was unsure how closely you could make a connection between the cultures, considering that the production realities, cultural placement, and histories of the genre in the two countries likely had subtle or even substantial differences.

From the other side of the Atlantic, Geraghty writes about how many American writers in the mid-1980s created histories of soap operas in a way that seemed to sweep all other serial dramas–sometimes even including telenovelas and other, more short-term forms of serialized storytelling–into a history that begins in Chicago in the early 1930s in the U.S.  She has some compelling reasons as to why this generalization can be dangerous and can obfuscate many of the differences in these shows, or else how the definition of what a soap opera is tries to define all the world’s serial dramas by an Americanized definition.   She points out, quite rightly, that the connotation of the “soap opera” doesn’t even really fit the production realities and histories of these shows in many countries.

I found Geraghty’s version of an intellectual history on the study of soaps to be quite useful at this point in the semester, when you’ve had the chance to read some of the seminal pieces of research on soaps (Allen’s book, Newcomb’s essay, Modleski’s essay, Brunsdon’s work, etc.), to give greater context as to why soap opera research is important and the trajectory that work has taken over time, as a body of research that has helped shape the direction of feminist media studies, television studies, etc.

On page 313, Geraghty writes, “Therefore, it is woth bearing in mind when reading the literature that programs are treated as soap operas in some critical contexts that would not be in others and that US writers are more likely to retain the original model of the daytime, endless serial.”  Now, we’re going to be borrowing from and discussing a variety of serialized television formats this semester, but I want to make it clear that I am defining the American soap opera in comparison to each of these.  For me, there is still value in figuring out what is distinct about the American daytime soap opera as a distinct art form, partly because I don’t know other industries well enough to speak to them and also because I feel that there is something unique and still useful and powerful about the endlessness serial.

I intend, through including the adjective “American” in this title, to make those limitations explicit, so that at no point do readers feel that we’re trying to generalize here about all of soap opera.  If the term “soap opera” appears in this blog, it is most often referring to American soap operas in particular.  That’s not to say that American soaps are more important than other serial dramas but only that there are elements of those shows which are unique and worthy of exploration.

A final caveat, however: I realize that American as an adjective is problematic in and of itself, especially in defining soap operas against telenovelas, which are also from “American” culture, specifically Latin American and South American cultures such as Mexico, Brazil, and Columbia.  A more appropriate title for the course would perhaps have been U.S. Soap Opera but I hope the distinction does at least help clarify and guard against some of the problems of soap opera scholarship Geraghty was writing about.


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Actor or Reactor?

Posted by fourfourteenam on February 28, 2008

When you look at all the different soap characters, most seem like they are divided into two categories: actors and reactors. There are always the characters that engage in some activity that provokes and prompts behavior from someone else and other characters that only manage to react to the actions that other characters do. In a lot of the soap operas, many of the characters that are decidedly “good” go on and live their happy lives, until some corrupting factor or person enters their life. Then this corrupting person carries out an action that often forces the “good” people in the show to react.

For example, one of the main “actors” in “As the World Turns” would be Craig. Many of his actions are self-serving and often hurt the people around him, forcing them to pick up the pieces of their lives after he leaves. From the moment the character has been introduced on the show, he’s murdered, lied, cheated, stole, and has been constantly creating trouble to keep the plot going. Another character that constantly creates trouble for the people around her would be Emily Stewart. From falsifying pregnancy results, to fraud, to attempted murder, she is also a character whose actions seem to affect a broad range of people other than herself.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are characters like Meg who are reactors. These characters are often close to or have a relationship with the characters that are the actors, so they are placed in situations where they are forced to brave the situations that they are placed in. Another interesting trend is that often the characters that are most often react to the different situations are the ones that 1) the protagonist, 2) have the most in-depth character portrayal, and 3) usually the “helpless” character. For example, as mentioned in class today, Meg manages to find herself in relationships in men that are bad for her. She seems to be a character that just continues to try and live her life, but all sorts of interruptions manage to find a place in her life, turning it upside down. Through all of her troubles, she seems to deal and manage to keep her “good” traits, which is surprisingly seductive.

In class we addressed why soaps often address such controversial issues such as rape or violence towards women, placing them in abusive relationships and difficult situations. One possible reason is that there is a substantial character development when the audience is able to observe how each character reacts in each situation. Also, it is a romanticized view of women dealing with injustice, persecution, and their difficulties while still being innately “good.” There are many examples of this in classical literature like in Tess in “Tess of the D-Urbervilles” or Catherine in the Zola classic “Germinal.” Both characters are in positions that are easily exploited and live difficult lives that are simply outside of their control, an idea has been embraced by many soap writers. Zola and Harding meant for these characters to be the protagonists whose lives were sacrificed because of the times they lived in, just like many of the protagonists in these soaps. When people refer to some of the “sexist” writing that does take place in soaps, it is also important to realize that many of these characters aren’t characters that the stereotypical soap viewer identifies with, but comes with a whole lot of history and some of it from the most influential feminist writings of all time.

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Posted by jenn on February 28, 2008

Oh that inevitable conundrum…do you allow yourself to read “spoilers,” or bits of information about a show’s future episodes that “spoil” the enjoyment of the episode before you actually watch it? Or, do you allow your mind to remain pure and closed off from the gossip, rumors, and speculation about what is happening next?

I became quite interested in the idea of “spoilers” after reading Charlotte Brunsdon’s article Writing about Soap Opera. In it, she discusses the fact that “soap opera is news,” and the audience often knows about what is happening with the actors – such as when an actor is going to leave the show – before it actually happens in the soap opera. This leads to the audience speculating and trying to predict what is going to happen with the character, trying to figure out exactly what is going to happen and feeling a sense of accomplishment when their guesses are correct.

As a fun experiment, I decided to go look through the ATWT discussion boards, clicking on every link that had “SPOILER” in the subject line. I learned a few things, including the result of the custody battle, but that was not one of the juicy tidbits I was looking for. After searching for a bit, I found exactly what I wanted…

Revealed beyond this link…a SPOILER!

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The biggest difference from other fandoms? Wikipedia.

Posted by laura47 on February 27, 2008

So far in this course I have been focusing more on the content of the show than on the fan community, partly because my desire to avoid spoilers coupled with always being several days behind on episodes makes participation in the fanboards difficult, and partly because I tend towards wanting to know shows in obsessive detail and have been spending my time on that. That said, I have thus far found the most notable difference from my previous fan experiences to be in the style and quality of the fan produced reference material.

I think I’ve been spoiled by spending so much of my time as a fan of science fiction and other geek shows. In the 1990s, I bought a somewhat embarrassing number of official and unofficial guides to my favorite shows. I even ran a pretty comprehensive website for one short-lived show. These days, I am used to having access to comprehensive and well written wikipedia articles on every aspect of the shows I like in addition to many other high quality websites. I have not so far found this to be the case with ATWT. Some of the wikipedia articles on ATWT characters are well written, but many of them are poorly written or empty. In reading them, I found myself constantly editing them for style to conform to wikipedia guidelines for encyclopedic content. It pains me to see exclamation marks and run-on sentences on wikipedia. I am trying to force myself to read them without editing them, because it would take so long to fix all the mistakes I find!

Sam suggested http://www.soapcentral.com, so I have been trying that out. So far, it seems to be better about consistently having more information, but the style is still very casual and not what I want. Am I being too judgmental because these sites don’t sound encylopedic? Have I been brainwashed by wikipedia? Is encyclopedic style really necessary to talk about soaps? Why do I care that soapscentral.com says “No dummy, Meg knew Tonio was using her…”, “in cahoots”, “made love” and ” who should show up but” (a popular phrasing). Am I being elitist by looking down on the writing of soaps fans, knowing that the average soaps fan is probably less well trained in the scholarly arts than I am?

I leave you with two questions, gentle readers. First, do you have any suggestions for other ATWT reference materials, hopefully of higher quality? Second, what do you think? Do I have unreasonable expectations, am I being elitist or unfair?

[Edit: Looks like some of the wikipedia articles and soapscentral articles have the same text. Oops!]

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Viewer-driven Art

Posted by ernestalba on February 25, 2008

What makes public opinion of soap operas so negative? The romantic nature of the genre? The low quality of production in comparison to primetime? Low actor recognition? These things all stem from a much more insidious dynamic: the fact that romance fiction is a form of entertainment enjoyed primarily by women in a society that values the work, leisure, and entertainment of men reduces the genre to a lesser status than other genres, especially those traditionally enjoyed by men.

Popular culture texts (and all texts, I would argue) are produced within a certain shared culture and invariably reflect a specific understanding of that culture. Viewers also within the culture can have different perspectives, but these perspectives are informed by the same culture. In order to properly ascertain whether romance fiction is “worthwhile,” one has to understand that soap opera viewers have learned to navigate the formulaic plots of soaps and glean from them a deeper cultural understanding than the greatest cultural critic would be able to find. Thus, the experience of reading soap fiction for the seasoned soap opera reader is one of converting a seemingly inert form of writing into an engaging one. For this reader, there are several valuable lessons in the experience of watching soap operas.

Soaps are a more valuable fiction form than they are given credit for. Many cultural critics dismiss soaps because they place no value on the experience of romance television experiences. Yet, as Allen convincingly illustrates, the problem lies in understanding how to analyze soap opera within the context of its readership. The extent to which soap opera allows its readers to appropriate the source material for the exploration of their personal desires makes it a unique and profound literary experience. ATWT is just one example of a genre that creates an exciting forum for the exploration of fantasy.

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Should Soaps even *try* to be “real”?

Posted by Claxton on February 25, 2008

In my last blog, I gently humored that I could focus an entire blog entry on the last point I discussed: The realness and authenticity of Soap Operas  In all seriousness, I plan to do that right now.

Before I begin to analyze, I do want to address the obvious notion of Soaps being daytime television dramas.  Arguably, one could say that ANY form of television media that is a “drama” (or has aspects of drama) is in no way realistic, nor should it be considered that way.  But in the case of soaps with high ratings, is the authenticity of the ins-and-outs of its plot truly vital in the end?

If you think about it, *how* the plots are developed in soap operas are not what brings them popularity.  Most of the time (not all however) soap operas utilize dialog and character development to advance and “thicken” the plot.  Sometimes events are also used, but the most emphasis in plot development is character-based.  This is why there is minimal action or event based issues on soap operas.

Now, there are always exceptions to the rules.  Some soap plotlines are based ENTIRELY on some one traumatic event, or an accidental death, or even a high energy action sequence. (i.e. In ATWT, the recent hostage situation between Lucinda, Lily and the crazy lunatic research doctor…and his resultant death)  But the bottom line is, soaps have never been noted for, nor do they try to be, action-driven. Usually these types of plot mechanics are only used to enhance the drama, suspense, and intrigue of a soap opera.  As a plot technique, they are not often used as the basis of the plot, and do not take precedence over the characters role in plot development.

I believe this is why soaps *lack* so much in the credibility of their plot sequences.  The writers’ jobs are to produce a script that is strong in dialog while still building conflict between characters.  The writers have to build motives, thoughts, and desires within the characters so passionate and moving that the characters could stand alone without the bells, whistles, beauty and glamour we see in a lot of today’s soaps.  Back in the 40s and 50s, what ATWT lacked in effects and glamour they compensated with character development and an alluring plot.  This is what drove soaps to the popularity they have reached nowadays.

To give a more concrete example: Two weeks ago on ATWT, when Lily accidently killed the doctor at an attempt in saving her mother (Lucinda).  To be quite frank, the action sequence was very brief, not much was shown, and coming from an action fanatic, pretty pitiful. But honestly, should I have expected more? Soaps are definitely not planned out in action like your average episode of 24, nor do they try to be.  The actors playing the roles of these characters are probably not even fit or qualified to fulfill and portray a high action sequence anyway.

In addition to lack of action, many times soaps also lack in the validity of time sequence and chronological occurrences.  For example when Sophie kidnapped Gwen’s baby, she took a train from Chicago to NY and then got back on plane to go back to Illinois within 3 or 4 hours time…To say that is realistic in the LEAST would be absolutely ridiculous.  Soaps often disregard the manipulation of time and focus on the end result.  It didn’t matter how long it would take for Sophie to get from point A to point B. That part of the plot is irrelevant.  What matters was that she went to NY, the baby got sick, and was forced to return back to Illinois. Soaps are very good at masking the *how* as well as the importance of how the plot is carried out.  They want the viewer to focus on the end result and to look at the “what”

In this process however, soaps are not good at portraying a real event, or something that would not be considered “authentic” In a nutshell, soaps aren’t real, and they don’t try to be. But again this begs the question: Should they have to be?

A soap opera’s claim to fame is not believable action sequences like in Lost or 24, a huge detrimental natural disaster like in desperate housewives, or even technical medical jargon and diagnoses like in House or Grey’s Anatomy. Soap operas seek to capture their viewers attention through the intrigue, passion, conflict, desire, motives and actions of the *characters*, which these other shows do in addition to the aforementioned things. What’s the difference between the prior and the latter? Soaps use those techniques to enhance the already strong character development, and with the other shows, I believe it is the other way around.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a saying that my grandfather used to say, and for some odd reason it comes to mind as I wrap up this blog.  Soap operas are probably the farthest thing from real-life, and quite frankly, they should be.  For this reason, soaps are what they are today.

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The joy of figuring out what the heck is going on

Posted by laura47 on February 25, 2008

Hi, I’m Laura, a Comparative Media Studies student and one of the students in this class. I had never watched soaps before this class, except for one week of “Passions” at a summer program in high school, and I admit I came in with many of the standard stereotypes about soap operas. I have tried to examine those stereotypes critically and go into this experience with an open mind. I am happy to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by ATWT. The readings we did before watching the show emphasized the low production values of everything about soaps, but I found myself enjoying the show despite all the cliches, tropes, and low production values.

So far, I think my greatest enjoyment in the show has been in trying to figure out all of the relationships and relevant backstory for the characters. The main reason I come to evening showings instead of watching on my own time from cbs.com is to have Sam’s explanations of everything. I have been reading character histories online and using the episodes I have seen to sort everything out. I haven’t drawn any family trees yet, but I probably will. The complicated relationships between everyone are just as dizzyingly intertwined as I expected, but I really like it. It seems like with most plots, almost any character will have some reason to care about it. Loyalties are complicated when your half-sister is suing your wife’s brother, or whatever else. When I successfully remember the relationships between two characters, I get a thrill akin to that of solving a puzzle or solving a problem by remembering some obscure trivia.

It seems if I am ever to really understand these situations, I will have to read through each character and plot history several times. I read Gwen’s history, and the names Casey and Adam meant nothing to me, but I understood enough to understand Gwen better. Now that I have seen Casey on screen and had Sam explain Adam’s story some, I want to go re-read the Gwen stories, this time with more understanding of the other players. I knew that Lucinda had a daughter named Sierra and had skimmed through some of their history, but now that I have heard about Sierra and Craig and Lucinda, I need to investigate that more thoroughly. Would I have viewed the first week’s plot line, with Ethan Walsh and the revelations about Lucinda’s plans with regards to Craig and Worldwide/Montgomery, differently if I had known the full history of Craig and Lucinda. I still don’t know the full history, and I know Craig has left the show (for now), but I still feel the need to find out the history! People say soaps are all about the characters and their backstory, so how can I possibly understand the soap viewing experience without knowing this history? I can’t actually emulate the experience of having cared about these characters for years, but I’m going to do my best to understand what’s going on!

I’m very glad we’re focusing on just one show this term. I can’t imagine being able to get a good hold on more than one show in this time frame, or at least not as good a hold as I would like. I was briefly worried that after I finally got down who was related to/involved with/formerly involved with/whatever with everyone else that I would lose some of the joy, because there wouldn’t be a challenge, but as I have gone deeper into backstory I realize that there will always be more relevant information to seek out, at least for as long as this class lasts. We’ll see if I keep watching the show after the class ends. I expect if i do, and I ever really understand all the relevant backstories, I will care enough about the characters and their problems and paths through life that that enjoyment will have overtaken my current joy of just figuring out what on earth is going on during this crazy show.

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Who Dresses You in the Morning?

Posted by fourfourteenam on February 25, 2008

I threw an Oscar Party and during the red carpet segment, my friends and I could not help but notice the number of Ferrari red dresses sported by everyone from Heidi Klum to Miley Cyrus to Katherine Heigl.  So if each one of these celebs have stylists like Rachel Zoe to dress them, who dresses the masses?


Mothers? Your Peers?  What about the mass media?  Really, who wouldn’t want to dress up as their favorite CW star.  (And yes, I did use CW and star in the same sentence.)  I mean, the truth of the matter is that television has always been a huge influence on trends; just take a look at the advertising industry.  But now, for the first time in the history of advertising and marketing, people are actively taking action against advertisers, bringing to mind the TiVo phenomena.  This forces advertisers to find new and more innovative ways to reach the masses.  This push has caused the rise of several clothing websites detailing every ensemble worn by the stars in episodes on television.  For example, the CW site: http://cwtv.com/thecw/style


This is only the first step.  If people are making “Desperate Housewives” fragrance… (I can’t say I’ve ever been close enough to Eva Longoria to sniff her) but if you just ask Tony Parker, I’m sure he loves it.  


In all seriousness, it’s about time that soaps too follow this trend.  Soaps have always been an integral part of people’s lives, so why not exert this power and dress the masses?  The soap opera “Passions” has started it’s own fashion line designed by Delivery Agent.  It doesn’t take much digging to find the “Young and the Restless” Fashion Parade and where you could purchase each of the dresses.  Nor would you have to dig much to see a complete list of jewelry for all of your favorite soap operas.


Using the same “family next door” persona that has made soaps so popular, the characters in the soaps could easily be both your peer group and the media, shaping your tastes.  The thought makes the idea of marketing in soaps lucrative.  To me, it’s really just the next big step in marketing.

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Soap Opera as Another World

Posted by jenn on February 25, 2008

In reading through a classmate’s blog post, I was struck by the idea of what kind of world soap operas inhabit. While it is true that they portray the day-to-day lives of many “ordinary” people, I believe that soap operas are set apart in a “fantasy” world, apart from the realities of today. Robert C. Allen, in his Speaking of Soap Operas, details studies performed by researchers who cataloged the number of health-related conditions occurring in serial dramas in comparison to the “real life” population, in an effort to examine the existence of soap operas as fictional constructions versus real-life society.

Continue Reading beyond the link

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Jumping the Shark

Posted by Nick S. on February 25, 2008

Jumping (get it?) off from Sam’s post on Robert Allen’s work, I had a few thoughts that I figured were just off-topic enough to merit a new post. It’s interesting to consider the problem posed by alienating your core audience. All shows do it, albeit in different ways. We’ve all complained about our favorite program ‘going to the dogs’, but with five times the output of regular prime-time series, soaps have considerably more opportunities to do so (at least with Happy Days you could only complain about the quality once per week…).

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