Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Legitimizing the Soap Opera

Posted by fourfourteenam on April 11, 2008

I’ve been working on the following post for a while, trying to approach the subject in such a way that 1) wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers and 2) wouldn’t trivialize some of the readings we’ve done so far in the school year.

During class on Wednesday, I realized that a great portion of the reading in the class has been dedicated to try and rationalize soap opera watching habits.  Many reasons have been given, from “soap opera watching is completely addictive,” to soap operas are more socially advanced, to soap operas put focus on strong family structures…

This reminded me of the Rapping paper on “Daytime Utopias” where she mentions using soap operas to teach her children important moral lessons and the right way to react in certain social situations.  The example that was given was the situation where Philip in Guiding Light tried to use violence to solve his problems when he discovered that his girlfriend Lillian’s stepfather was sexually abusing her.  She says that this was a really important lesson that she wanted her children to learn.

I understand that much can be learned from this situation, however, I cannot quite understand the constant need for people who watch soap operas to try and legitimize their soap opera watching habit.  The readings have included interviews from Professors from leading universities and people from what the average person would consider a “smart” profession (doctors, lawyers, etc.) to try and rationalize watching soap operas.  While, yes, soap operas at one point in time were politically ahead of their time… and lessons can potentially be taken away from the story lines… many of these articles seem to be overcompensating.

I probably can’t speak for soap operas in the past, but from my limited experience watching ATWT, I’m having a little trouble seeing “progressiveness” of the soap opera. Sure, the Noah and Luke story line is controversial, but progressive does not equal controversial.  If I watched soap operas for the sake of “progressiveness” I would be extremely disappointed.  And controversial?  Anyone can do controversial.  Take a look at SVU that comes on 24 hours a day on USA.  Every episode has a rape and every episode has details that would make anyone’s skin crawl.  Take a look at every single crime drama.  I cannot even think of one that hasn’t used a terrorist story line.  Maybe it’s taking a lot more to be truly controversial in media today… and by controversial I mean disgusting.  I guess it takes planting fake bomb packages all over Boston or filming Two Girls One Cup to get buzz.  But I digress.

So what exactly do we learn from soap operas that we cannot possibly learn from anything else.  As we mentioned before, from watching ATWT, no character is perfect.  There isn’t a character in the show that is truly morally unquestionable or a character that is always the “good guy.”  There are certainly no Chuck Norrises or Jack Bauers in ATWT.  There are shows out there that have these morally straight and narrow characters, who always do the right thing in the most complicated and desperate of situations or family sitcoms where families endure and go through difficulties together… and I’m almost certain more morally upright lessons can be learned from those than soap operas.

Furthermore, if soap operas truly are addictive and there is a stigma that exists, then why do we put so much weight in what these writers say?  Wouldn’t it be similar to asking a drug addict to try and rationalize his addiction?  Maybe for soap opera fanatics that really and truly immerse themselves in the soap opera culture and fandom, they feel a need to justify why they are so into soap operas beyond the fact that they’re fun to watch.  For the soap opera fans that define themselves solely by the soap operas they watch or the characters they love, it is only natural for them to try and find deeper meanings in soap operas. 

I’m not saying that there is not deeper and complex themes in soap operas; I’m just suggesting that the fact that most of the authors are so focused in legitimatizing soap operas or trying to explain soap fans they disregard the most obvious fact.  Soaps are REALLY fun to watch.  They satisfy your voyeuristic desires; they make you laugh; they make you cry.  And no matter how many people try to spin it, people watch soaps because it’s entertaining… not because there are valuable lessons to be learned and not because of strong family ties or because of the progressive nature of soaps.

 I personally believe that the books I read and the television shows that I watch are a very limited aspect of who I am.  I would be hard-pressed if I had to explain my choice in television shows.  I enjoy watching roadrunner cartoons before I go to bed… I don’t think that is has anything to do with the fact that there are deep moral issues that are addressed… even if you could potentially say that you’re being taught not to eat others or else you’ll fall down a cliff.  I wouldn’t want for others to think that I have some vendetta against coyotes either.  I realize that there is a soap opera stigma out there.  I realize that most people aren’t shy about expressing their opinions about them either… but do we REALLY have to try so hard legitimize soap operas and do we really have to have all of these reasons to find soap operas enjoyable?  At what point are we overcompensating and at what point do we just say, “I don’t believe I have to legitimize or rationalize my personal preference to you.”


9 Responses to “Legitimizing the Soap Opera”

  1. jenn said

    I think that one of the reasons people feel the need to legitimize soap operas is because there is such a stigma attached to watching them. We wouldn’t need to legitimize our viewing if people did not question it. I mean, sometimes, when I’m catching up on episodes on my computer, a friend of mine will stop by, and laugh at me. She cannot believe that I am actually getting academic credit to watch and talk about soap operas. And while she is generally just teasing (and I know I’ll get her hooked…she even watched some Nuke clips with me once!) it still speaks to the stigma that is attached, and to the stigma we have seen in several readings this term.

    I actually don’t bother to legitimize my viewing to her. I usually say something like “Yes, I get credit for this. And it is awesome!”

    I will say just a few more thing:
    1. I believe that the books I read have very much helped to define me. My interests, and what I read and what I chose to read became a big part of who I am.
    2. Jack Bauer…is not morally straight 🙂 He often does very immoral things, and while we forgive him because he is Jack Bauer and it is for the greater good and he is saving “America” … I don’t really feel that you can say he has the perfect morals.
    3. When has Luke not been the “good guy”? or Jack? What has Jack done that makes him not good or morally reprehensible? I don’t think his inability to choose who to be with qualifies, especially since he isn’t trying to be with both Carly and Katie at the same time.

  2. Mark said

    I agree with you, Jenn. I once told a friend that I received an autographed photo from Cady McClain (Rosanna Cabot) and he laughed at me. He was teasing just like your friend, but that told me that being fan of a soap opera is often viewed as weird or useless.

    But I do think that there is a difference here between American soaps and Dutch soaps. Dutch soaps are, in comparison, more popular. The Dutch soap Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden (Good Times Bad Times) is often in the top 5 highest rated shows of the day (sometimes even at #2). I think that since a lot of people watch it, less people will “judge” you for watching it. At the beginning, people looked down on GTST, but things have changed. Now even established and well-known actors (from theater or film) often play a guest part on the show.

  3. samford said

    You have some great points here, Katharine. And I think you make a very good point. Let me put it a different way than you have here. I think that a lot of energy that has been spent trying to justify the study of soap operas have distracted from a more nuanced view of these shows. In other words, by trying to prove that studying these shows is important and these shows are culturally relevant, people often try to correct misconceptions of soaps by either laughing off some of the worst parts of the genre or skipping over them and lauding their progressiveness. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that soap operas are only conservative or only progressive. They aren’t these extremes at all.

    In fact, it’s the opposite. As you point out, the moral lesson of soap operas is not to have some exemplar for us all to aspire to: I think it is that everyone is flawed, that there are a lot of complicated situations in which it’s not quite so clear to identify the “good guy” and the “bad guy.” Aside from the crazies, there are so few people on this show who have been clearly “in the wrong” since we’ve been watching. Who’s the good guy, Jack or Brad? Who’s the hero, Carly or Katie? I think both are quite flawed…

    I am not saying this is progressive, but it’s intriguing, and seems somewhat counter-intuitive, since many people from outside the genre discuss soaps as if they are black and white in their portrayals of “good” and “evil.” And I think that claiming soaps are “progressive” clouds the nuance of the genre. You need to study it, warts and all, to really understand it. It seems easier for soaps scholars–and fans–to do this amongst other soap opera viewers, because they can let their guard down and not be so defensive. Then, soap fans are more likely to say little that is GOOD about their shows, because they already share a common agreement that the shows are worth watching and thus don’t need to do all the justifications.

    The only thing I’ll point out is that, while I agree with you that it’s important to realize that there is pleasure in watching soaps and that it’s not all about teaching moral lessons or learning about the world, etc., etc., it’s also a slippery slope to say that something is just entertaining. Often, people will dismiss a phenomena as not being worth studying by saying “it’s just entertainment,” “it’s just a soap opera,” etc. The reason people dedicate 260 hours a year to watching these shows demonstrate that it’s more than just a way to pass the time, so it is worth studying. But that doesn’t mean they need to be unequivocally celebrated, either.

  4. samford said

    By the way, great points, Mark. And I have to say in response to you, Jenn, that I agree that Luke or Jack are pretty good guys, but they are certainly not perfect. Jack jerks Carly around regularly, seems to always believe he is right and justified, etc., etc., and Luke certainly has made his mistakes along the way, although his problems are far from morally reprehensible…it’s more his passiveness and general “being-a-doormat” that is usually the problem. I agree that our media choices do say quite a bit about us. While I don’t think any one thing can define us, as Katharine points out, I also don’t think that what we choose to watch doesn’t have any implications at all.

    In short, I don’t buy into media effects. I don’t think that watching cartoons or watching soaps make us a different person. But I think what we choose to watch and especially what we choose to identify ourselves as “fans” of, etc., does help define us, by choice rather than by being the “victim of an addiction,” etc. I know Lynn will agree with me, and others, that the “addiction” language can be quite problematic, because it takes choice out of the hands of the fan, and it also seems to imply something underhanded or wrong about investing in a media text.

  5. lynn liccardo said

    Katharine –

    The issues you’ve raised are absolutely crucial. Before I get to the substance of your post, I want to touch briefly on couple of points.

    It’s not so much that the soap opera themes are deeper and more complex than those in other forms, but the structure, and sheer volume – 250+plus shows a year versus 25, tops for a primetime serial – offers soaps the opportunity to explore the themes in greater detail. Of course, the sad reality is that now daytime soaps squander that opportunity, have been for long time – a major factor in soaps’ declining ratings.

    Regarding the addictive qualities of soaps: I know “addict” has creepted into the vernacular to describe activities other than substance abuse (I think “soap addict” may be the first example, but don’t quote me), but I’ve always taken exception to the phenomenon. First, it trivializes the very real problem of addiction. A useful definition (albeit from Wikipedia): “a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite harmful consequences to the individual’s health, mental state or social life;” not to say that there aren’t fans out there who meet the criteria, but it is certainly not the case for the vast majority of soap fans.

    But what really disturbs me about the phrase, “soap addict,” is how it demeans viewers’ desire – need, even – to know what is going to happen, which is why we all “turn in tomorrow.” Has it ever been suggested that staying up until 3am to finish a novel you can’t put down is addictive behavior? Same impulse; different medium.

    Now, on to your main points: You said that many of the articles seem to be overcompensating. Soap opera scholarship is inextricably linked with the development of women’s studies as an academic discipline. And when marginalized groups fight (and they do fight) there was into the academy, what seems like overcompensation (and, often is overcompensation) is inevitable. The Rapping paper you cite is a perfect example. The same in the Christine Gedhill paper, “Speculations on the Relationship between Soap Opera and Melodrama.” I don’t know if Sam made this available for the class, but when she start discussing soap opera and men’s culture, she make a valid, and valuable, argument, but undercuts her credibility by overreaching – framing the movement of seriality into primetime in the late 1970s as “an invaluable cultural resource in the late 70s when the international economic and political crises throw the gender roles and patriarchal values underlying capitalist production into question.”

    This is an example of one of my main themes: how the marginalization of soaps has been internalized, in the cases you’ve raised, by those who study soaps. But it’s also been the case with those who make soaps. In an video interview with Connie Passaquala, who writes under the nom de plume Marlena de la Croix, Agnes Nixon talks about a story line she wrote for Guiding Light probably in the late 50 or early 60s, in which matriarch Bert Bauer develops, and survives, uterine cancer. I can’t remember her exact words (here’s the link interview. It’s in several parts, and I don’t remember which one contains this particular quote), but the gist is “Maybe now they’ll take us seriously” – that’s just writing a good story that entertains isn’t enough – there has to be some larger social good. There was also a bit of this tone in the talk Kay Alden gave at CMS last year. We don’t expect other genres or art forms to justify their existence; why should soaps?

  6. samford said

    All great points, Lynn. Perhaps we’ll listen to Kay’s podcast talk as a class before our session is over, but I think you are right both about how language frames our perceptions in discussing a subject such as soap opera viewership, and also in your point about the internalization you’ve talked about so often in the industry leaking into the study of soap operas as well. Thanks for weighing in, Lynn. Hope you’ll be able to join us again before the semester ends.

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