Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

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.


11 Responses to “What Is a Soap Opera?”

  1. ernestalba said

    When we strictly talk about the format of soap operas, we are, of course, leaving out how viewers respond to the soap. I get the feeling that SOAPnet, when they say “soapy,” they mean that these films are meant to elicit in their viewers the same feelings that soaps elicit in their viewers. So, the believability and connectivity of the characters in the films for and with the viewers is likely paramount to the goal of the company.

  2. samford said

    That’s worthy of greater discussion, of course. Some would say, though, that it is through the format of soaps that we get to know characters so well, meaning that the viewing experience cannot have that intimate familiarity with the text throughout in a film, since we have to spend most of that time getting to know the character. Of course, others argue that “soapy” stands for common plot devices, romantic relationships, etc.

  3. Really interesting to look at Brown’s characteristics as a way to think about how soaps may have changed over the years. Many of these traits seem to be pretty much on target still, particularly those that deal with the structure of the program (such as points 1, 2, and 3). I’m less sure about those traits that deal more with representations. This may be where soaps have most changed since Brown’s writing.

    And as far as I’m concerned–as well as many other soap fans–Soapnet has totally sold us out with its turn to those movies and slavish devotion to prime time series. I think they are defining “soapy” in its most pejorative sense with this move and completely dismissing all that has historically made soap opera such a narratively compelling and socially engaged genre.

  4. samford said

    Elana, I agree completely about looking at Brown’s characteristic as a way to look at how soaps have changed. As you point out, Brown’s list serves best at understanding soap operas at a moment, and some aspects of that description both don’t fit soaps before that era nor soaps afterward. In particular, I found the last three characteristics as particularly intriguing:

    “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”

    In my latest PGP Classic Soaps piece, I share my own categorizing from my work here at MIT on immersive story worlds, which include soaps but also the world of pro wrestling and the Marvel and DC comic book universes.

    As for your points, Elana, about SOAPnet, I have seen that sentiment far and wide among longtime soaps fans, particularly when several of the classic soaps were pulled off the air. By the way, for some very thoughtful posts on soaps, see Elana’s blog here.

  5. Nick S. said

    I definitely think that points 6 and 7 are somewhat irrelevant in today’s soaps – at least, in terms of defining them. That’s not to say they’re not present in soaps, merely that I think it’s somewhat archaic (particularly when, as has been mentioned in other blog posts, the target demographic of soaps is only around 1/3rd of the audience of ATWT). I’m also not sure 4. needs to necessarily be true. That said, I also subscribe to a loose definition of ‘soap opera’ that would include various prime time weekly serials – which as you can probably guess means I’d consider soap opera to be a genre, rather than a format.

  6. samford said

    Good points, Nick. Abrupt segmentation is the standard but we certainly see plenty of exceptions to that rule, and some would say soaps depend on those moments when the segmentation is broken and storylines seep into one another. I guess one of the questions is whether soaps are format AND genre and that’s where the most confusing part comes in, in that sometimes people cross talking about soaps in one way with the other.

  7. lynn liccardo said

    i almost posted brown’s list in response to fourfourteenam’s post, experimental ground. i’m glad sam beat me to the punch and opened up this discussion.
    i want to come at this from a different angle. it seems to me that the real issue here is who’s talking about soaps as a noun and who’s talking about soaps as an adjective.

    it is a huge distinction. are soaps a format or a genre – or both, depending on the circumstances? whatever the answer (or answers), we’re talking about a noun. but soap opera is also an adjective, used pejoratively, mockingly, at the very least – soapy for short. and much as i wish that ernest’s observation,

    I get the feeling that SOAPnet, when they say “soapy,” they mean that these films are meant to elicit in their viewers the same feelings that soaps elicit in their viewers. So, the believability and connectivity of the characters in the films for and with the viewers is likely paramount to the goal of the company.

    was the case. sad to say, elana’s comment is spot on, “I think they are defining “soapy” in its most pejorative sense.” take a look at soapnet’s press release announcing the sunday night movie, snm for short. say it fast and you’ll get the not-so-subtle double entendre, which is certainly less than flattering, if not outright pejorative.

    SOAPnet is making strides to expand its ‘soapy’ programming, and movies are the next logical step. We recognize that movies can be just as soapy as daytime drama,” said Frons. “Our viewers love the drama, fantasy and anticipation ripe in traditional soaps, and we are stretching their equity to incorporate reality, primetime, daytime and now movies into our lineup.“

    of course, the very fact that soap opera are so easily used as a noun and adjective underscores the marginalization of soaps in our culture. and i wish i could say that the disconnect between soap opera as a noun and soap opera as an adjective was limited to soapnet’s programming decisions, but the problem runs much deeper. the reality is that this disconnect permeates and underlies the current sorry state of soaps today, because while we are discussing soap opera as a noun, i believe that those in charge of soaps, frons being the most egregious example, are creating soaps in the image of the adjective, “soapy.”

    if i’m right about this, what we have here is a failure to communicate, and a huge, although I hope not insurmountable obstacle to soaps’ future survival. would love to hear other’s thoughts on this.

  8. samford said

    You know many of my thoughts on this, Lynn, so I’ll clear the way for others to weigh in, but I agree with you in particular on the point that language matters a lot, not just as an indicator for what people are thinking but also in how they shape their thoughts.

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