Ever since soap operas began on radio in the 1930s, they’ve have been seen as the homely stepchild of entertainment. Even when soaps were great – and make no mistake, they were once great – the public perception was that they sucked. And now, daytime soaps really do suck – an ironic, self-fulfilling prophecy come to pass. But they shouldn’t… suck, that is. Figuring out how and why this has come to pass has occupied my thoughts for some time now.
Notwithstanding, my longstanding devotion (50+ years, but who’s counting), soap opera viewership has been declining for years. The reasons most often given: cable and satellite; more women in the workplace than at home; residual effects of the OJ Simpson trial; too few younger viewers, are all are true. But, let’s talk about the storytelling. Ask soap opera fans about what’s wrong with their shows, and their collective response can be summed up in a post on the Serial Drama blog: “It’s the writing, stupid.” Lest the blogger’s clever riff on Bill Clinton’s campaign refrain obscure her true meaning, what she, along with millions of soap fans, past and present, are really saying is: “It’s the stupid writing!”
The current state of soap opera storytelling generates considerable ire from online fans, most of it directed toward The Suits, also know as TPTB (the powers that be), the politest of soap fans' many terms for the executives calling the shots; courtesy soon gave way to TIIC (the idiots in charge), and on some of the more permissive boards, TV without Pity, for example, things escalated to TAHIC (the assholes in charge), culminating in the inevitable: TMFIC (the mother fuckers in charge).
The assumption underlying this venting, vulgar and otherwise, is that The Suits are deliberately undermining the future of soaps. I don’t buy it; people running an entire industry simply do not come to work everyday trying to kill what they make, even though that’s how it may seem to those of us on the outside looking in. There’s no denying that soaps have never been in worse shape, but where’s the internal logic to suggest that The Suits are trying to make them bad on purpose? So, while the venting may help keep frustrated fans’ collective blood pressure under control, it doesn’t shed much light about why soaps are in such a sorry state.
I want to consider the situation from a different perspective: For the sake of argument, let’s assume those responsible for making soap operas today are, indeed, trying their best. Clearly, their best is not working very well; in fact, exactly the opposite. The harder The Suits try to fix soaps, the more things deteriorate. But why?
At MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium’s (C3) 2006 media studies conference, “Futures of Entertainment,” panelist Paul Levitz, president of DC Comics, cited Hill Street Blues as the first example of complex storytelling on television. In the Q&A, I pointed out that daytime soap operas were a far earlier example. Levitz agreed, suggesting that soap operas had been “ghettoized” within the entertainment landscape. The next day, a media studies graduate student from Northwestern University, a young man whose name I’ve long forgotten, asked me if I thought that soaps’ ghettoization had anything to do with the “G word,” the “G word,” in this case, being gender.
The short answer is, of course, yes; the long answer, far more complex. That soaps have been historically devalued because of their association with women I’ve always taken as a given. What’s more important, and I hope, useful, to uncover and examine is how that devaluation has been internalized by those who make soaps, those who watch soaps (and of course those who don’t), and the unexpected ways in which that internalized devaluation continues to manifest itself.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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