There's no denying it: the exploration of same-sex attraction is soap opera's new black. All My Children, As The World Turns, and Passions have all gone there. Ratings leader The Young and the Restless is slated to launch a same-sex triangle (more about the casting/politics of this in a later blog - it's too big a story to tuck in here) involving a major character and a well-loved blast-from-the-past. And, of course, there's Otalia which, in my opinion, is the most adult and realistic portrayal of same-sex attraction and love on television to date.
The fact that Ellen Wheeler has chosen to go the "no labels" route with Otalia has been discussed and written about ad infinitum. It's not a lesbian story, or a bisexual story. It's not even a story about sexuality, which is not to say that our heroines' chemistry isn't sexually charged, or that Olivia and Natalia will never have a sexual relationship, but that, in the spirit of classic soap story-telling (which is an endangered species) , theirs is a story about love, pure and true. When I use those words I am not implying that there is anything impure oruntrue about same-sex attraction, or about a sexual relationship. What I mean by pure and true is this: Olivia and Natalia have made an organic - if unlikely - transition from being adversaries and rivals, to friends and confidantes, to lovers. Their journey is based on getting to know and understand one another, each discovering that the other has strengths that complement her own, Olivia learning that Natalia has a strong, solid inner core, and Natalia learning that, at heart, Olivia is a fragile and guarded woman who longs for simple pleasures. If they've learned to appreciate their differences, they've come to love and respect one another for that which they share: strong, protective maternal instincts. Both Natalia and Olivia would do anything to protect their children, and heaven help anyone who poses a threat to Emma, Ava or Rafe. The evolution of their relationship is pure and true because it is, quite simply, a case of two people coming together, getting to know one another, and finding love without ever having looked for it. If Otalia has its own mantra, its: "The heart wants what the heart wants." The human heart doesn't necessarily want a man or a woman, a penis or a vagina. It wants love and happiness, which can come in any variety of packages. No labels.
It's true that Otalia has been presented as a label-free story line as far as sexual identity is concerned. However, there's another area where there have been no labels, an area that has received little if any attention: ethnicity and race. For all intents and purposes, Natalia and Olivia are involved in what used to regularly be referred to as a "mixed" relationship. Lots of attention has been paid to the fact that they're both women. A fair amount of attention has been paid to the fact that there are marked differences in their social/socio-economic status: Olivia is a wealthy business woman of independent means, Natalia is a working class woman who, until recently, made her living at "unskilled" labor: waiting tables, cleaning up other people's messes. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that Olivia is a white woman, while Natalia is Hispanic.
Some viewers may be less than pleased about the lack of attention being paid to the ethnic diversity angle of the Otalia story line. Personally, I'm thrilled.
Some Background History
It wasn't all that long ago that the very idea of two people from different ethnic groups - even religions - pairing up as a couple on film or television was considered controversial or cutting edge. I'm old enough to remember the furor surrounding a harmless, little sitcom called Bridget Loves Bernie, which starred Meredith Baxter and David Birney playing an Irish-American-Catholic woman and Jewish-American man who fall in love and marry. If you're under 30 years old, you're probably waiting for the punchline, and wondering when I'll explain the reason for the controversy. Believe it or not, I already have.
In 1972, the idea of a Catholic and a Jew getting married was so over-the-top, so outrageous, so edgy that the sitcom was pulled after one season, in part because of the flood of hate mail the network received in response to their "mixed marriage"-themed show. If the viewing audience wasn't ready for this all-American-looking couple on account of how controversial their pairing up was, did a truly inter-racial couple stand a chance?
Of course, American television audiences had, by 1972, already proven that they could, in fact, accept a sitcom couple of different ethnicities. When the concept for I Love Lucy was first pitched to television executives, there were serious reservations around casting Desi Arnaz as Ricky - even though Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were real-life husband and wife. Network brass was unsure the American viewing audience would be able to accept such a controversial pairing. That obstacle was overcome via reliance on Arnaz' character to provide comic relief in the way of ethnic stereotyping. Since Lucille Ball refused to do the show without Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy became a sweeping success about a lovable redhead and her husband: a Cuban bandleader with a hot temper and a penchant for butchering the English language. Those wacky Hispanics! They're apt to break into that ridiculous little Spanish "language" of theirs at any time, they can't pronounce even the simplest of English words, and they lose their Latin tempers on a dime. They're so dumb and goofy - in Spanish, Ricky is actually short for Ricardo, which means his name is Ricardo Ricardo...silly Latinos! They're not terribly bright, are they? And the fact that they're so musical is so quaint! Just hearing the first few bars of that silly BabaLu is enough to crack me up!
Here is where I confess: I do love Lucy, but hearing the first few bars of Babalu has always been enough to make me want to stick knitting needles in my eardrums. Ricky Ricardo isn't like any Hispanic guy I've ever met. He's not like a real person...he's a caricature. And, yes - this is in part the way television works....characters aren't necessarily like real people. But Ricky Ricardo's two-dimensional qualities go far beyond the suspension of disbelief we make when we watch sitcoms. He's a walking, talking stereotype. He's not a Hispanic character - he's a fucking punch line. And that's how they did it, back in the day, when they wanted to have two tv characters who looked different from one another, and came from different worlds pair up as a couple: they made the differences into punchlines, magnified and exaggerated traits, and presented cartoonish, stereotypical characters.
In the 1970s, sitcom genius Norman Lear turned television on its ear by creating All In The Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons. With All in the Family, Lear presented the bigot - Archie Bunker - as the punchline. Archie Bunker was an equal opportunity bigot. He had something to say about anything and everything that was even slightly different than his own experience. He was dumb. Really dumb. We laughed at his stupidity, and took note that bigotry really is all about ignorance. Still and all, Archie was presented as a lovable bigot. Sure, he used the word "colored", he berated his son-in-law for being a "Polack", and he hated the "mixed" couple who lived down the street (An Irish woman married to an Italian man - that's some edgy shit!) But, really, Archie wasn't any worse than George Jefferson - the affluent black guy down the street who hated Whitey as much as Archie hated Blackie. When George Jefferson and family were spun off onto their own, successful sitcom, viewers were treated to an all-new "mixed" couple: Tom and Helen Willis. This time, it wasn't the minority half of a mixed couple who was the punchline, but the white guy. Tom Willis made me cringe. Oafish and a goofy. He had no rhythm. He had no sense of style. In stark contrast to the stereotype about black men and their sexual prowess, Tom seemed to be a castrato. If Ricky Ricardo's English pronounciation was funny, Tom Willis trying to dance was a laugh riot. Look at the silly white guy trying to shake his butt! Tom WIllis was a buffoon.
An admirable effort on Norman Lear's part - an effort to turn the tables and make viewers take note. But, still, not anywhere near a reflection of what real people are all about...and not a depiction of mixed marriage that normalized it in any way. In fairness to Lear, for whom I have the utmost respect, he wasn't trying to do anything but deliberately use exaggeration and stereotyping as vehicles for promoting social change. Where Ricky Ricardo was all about laughing at the ridiculous Hispanic, Tom Willis was all about flipping the tables and saying to white America: See? This is what it feels like to be stereotyped, laughed at and devalued. This is what it looks and feels like when your race or ethnicity, alone, make you the punchline.
Where does this all place Otalia in the grand scheme of things? No one seems to mention Natalia's race or ethnicity. We've heard the occasional reference to her grandmother ("Abuelita") and we know her name is Rivera. We know that, like so many Hispanics, she's staunchly Catholic. We know that she has fallen in love with a woman of (I think it's fair to assume) European origin. The fact that race and ethnicity don't enter into the discussion lets us know something else. It lets us know that race and ethnicity just don't matter.
Breathe deeply. Don't faint. It's strange, but true.
In 2009, in Springfield, where Rick and Mel enjoyed a longer marriage than most soap couples, and had a child together.....where Michelle and Danny were granted the rare happy ending as a couple.....where Buzz Cooper enjoyed a brief moment of happiness with Jenna.....and where Remy has had relationships with Tammy and Ava and Natalia....in this place, the fact that Natalia and Olivia are a "mixed" couple just doesn't matter.
The New Normal
If same-sex love is the new black on daytime, then mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity coupling is the new normal. I like that just fine. It means the days of ethnicity and race as punchlines are over - at least on Guiding Light. It reinforces the assertion that the story line between Olivia and Natalia is, above all else, a love story. It is not a lesbian story, or story about different races or ethnicities. It is a story about human beings finding one another and making a connection based on things simpler, and yet more profound than gender or race or ethnicity: chemistry, friendship, trust, humor, and desire.
Natalia and Olivia's stance on the difference in their ethnicities seems to be "so what?" It's a stance that's a world away from that which was the norm on television a mere 35 years ago. More than that, because nothing exists in a vacuum, and every action causes a reaction. The normalization of "mixed" couplings makes possible other shifts about other issues. If same-sex pairings are the new black on daytime television, the next logical step for such pairings is normalcy. If soap opera continues to exist as a genre - which is questionable - it is reasonable to expect that what has happened regarding race and ethnicity will happen regarding same-sex relationships. As I've written elsewhere, soap opera has always been a tool for social change...a vehicle by which the masses have learned to take the controversial and turn it into the normal. While the proud Puerto Rican in me is psyched that one half of Otalia is a strong, fiesty, positive Hispanic female, I'm also thrilled that Natalia's race and ethnicity are non-issues. I look forward to a future where, just as Guiding Light no longer stresses ethnic or racial differences, soap operas don't have gay characters or characters involved in same-sex relationships, but just characters. Whether or not the genre will survive to see this day is anybody's guess.
© 2009 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves