Last week, with a little help from family and friends, I attended the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in St. Louis, MO, where I presented the following paper at one of the three panels discussing the anthology, The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (slightly revised title) to be published in December by The University Press of Mississippi. The following paper integrates the essay I wrote for the book with a piece I posted last fall, cracking the code...
As was I reading though some of the questions Sam and Gail had posed throughout the editing process for "The Ironic and Convoluted Relationship between Daytime and Primetime Soap Operas," I realized that, in large part, the irony of that relationship stems from the fact that the term "soap opera" has yet to be properly defined.
Irna Phillips created the first radio soap, Painted Dreams, which she had originally called Sue and Irene, in September of 1930. So, how is it that soap opera has existed for 80 years without an agreed-upon lexicon? And, this late in the game, does the issue really need to be addressed?
The short answer to the latter is yes; taxonomy does matter, and with the genre evolving so quickly, identifying the elements that make up soap opera is more than just an intellectual exercise. I'll get back to why in a bit. As for why it's taken this long, many factors converged, the most important: lack of a critical aesthetic for the early soaps, which Robert Thompson discussed in "Architects of the Afternoon." In The Survival of Soap Opera, Denise Bielby examines the considerable challenges that soap opera critics have faced over the decades.
In my essay, I look beneath what many consider daytime soaps' greatest triumph - 1981's iconic wedding of General Hospital's Luke and Laura - to reveal many of the reasons why the genre finds itself in its current sorry state. An exchange between actor Anthony Geary, who famously told Executive Producer, Gloria Monty, "I hate soap opera," to which Monty replied, "Honey, so do I. I want you to help me change all that," captured the collective gestalt, which, in large part, drove soaps' transformation
Up until the early-1980s, soap operas were primarily about the day-to-day drama intrinsic to domestic and interpersonal relationships. Conflicts originated within families, romantic entanglements, or close friendships; plots were driven by the emotional complexity within each character, not the other way around. With Luke and Laura, daytime soaps began to vary the narrative; the conflicts the main characters faced were not domestic, but rather originated outside the couple and the community. So instead of stories that reflected Irna Phillips's conviction that "there is no more poignant drama enacted anywhere than behind the closed doors of a home" - stories about the emotional fallout from a woman falling in love with the wrong man, or a child acting out after a divorce - soaps turned to tales of omnipotent villains who threatened to wreak havoc on a global scale. That Luke and Laura prevented the Ice Princess from freezing the whole world was certainly extraordinary, but hardly everyday.
In an effort to replicate GH's success, other shows quickly jumped on what came to be known collectively as the "we're not your mother's soap opera any more" bandwagon, pushing veterans aside and focusing on younger characters. Diana Reep has noted the negative impact the super couple phenomenon, which began with Luke and Laura, has had on soaps' open-ended narrative structure - perhaps the genre's defining characteristic. And the success of primetime serials like Dallas and Dynasty created another kind of distance. For middle-and working-class viewers, soap opera characters had looked like their neighbors, or at least resembled the physicians and attorneys who lived on the rich side of town. Now, viewers found themselves watching the "backstabbing machinations" of the filthy rich oil tycoons, high-powered CEOs and European royal heirs who had inexplicably set down roots in the small, provincial towns in which soaps have always been set, and who bore little resemblance to viewers' neighbors, family or friends.
One source of this effort to turn soap opera into something else is a phenomenon noted by many, including contributor, and former Y&R writer, Sara Bibel: the deep-rooted inferiority complex among many, though certainly by no means all, of those responsible for making soaps. Self-loathing and adopting the characteristics of the dominant group are common among the marginalized: immigrants changed their names and appearance to try to fit in; women felt as though they needed to behave more like men to succeed; African-Americans became "oreos"; gays and lesbians hid in heterosexual relationships. But there were always those who rejected the premise underlying "fitting in" and fully embraced the characteristics that set them apart, and expected, indeed, demanded, that society do the same. The on-going tension and debate between these extremes, while never fully resolved, leads to change and eventual acceptance.
Now, Lord knows, soap opera is nothing if not marginalized, but soaps are not a segment of the population. So, absent an established aesthetic and critical vocabulary, not to mention informed critics, there would be no debate as soaps underwent this metamorphosis, no discussion of the possible damage these changes might create down the road. And while the mainstream media had run the occasional piece on soaps - Time had cover story in 1976 - it was nothing compared to media love fest that celebrated primetime serials and the "new-and-improved" daytime soaps. But there was no one to articulate or defend, much less celebrate the characteristics of "your mother's soap opera."
But over the years, elements of "your mother's soap" beyond seriality have been finding their way into critically-acclaimed primetime serials. Shows like American Dreams, Joan of Arcadia, Jack and Bobby, and more recently, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Men of a Certain Age and Life UneXpected captured the ethos of those early daytime soaps: an ensemble of fully developed, multi-generational, middle-class characters shown in open-ended, inter-connected, intimate stories, where the actions of one character reverberated for all.
Those are only a few of the many shows identified as primetime soaps. But what are the criteria? This is where things start to get slippery. For the popular website, We Love Soaps "soap opera is considered any continuing scripted drama," so no reality shows. But beyond seriality, many of these shows contain only the most superficial aspects of soaps, at least for me. And if "open-ended narrative structure" is indeed, soaps' defining characteristic, then how do telenovelas fit into the equation? Then there are the web-based serials springing up like mushrooms after a rain storm, many created by former soap actors. It's seems as though the term "soap opera" has become so diluted (or, when I'm wearing my critic's hat, degraded) that simply saying "I like soap opera" is like saying "I like music." What kind of music?
It's a question I posed on my blog a while back: "What is it that I currently like about One Life to Live (I wrote this back in October; things have deteriorated), and loathe about a show I used to love, As the World Turns - and why do I get a soap opera vibe from Friday Night Lights, but not, say, Glee, FlashForward or The Good Wife, even though I like all of these shows a lot (all are considered "soaps" by WLS)?" As storytelling moves into the digital age, programming will transcend the "attracting the right demographic," concept to which daytime programmers at the networks have been so slavishly and damagingly devoted, and it will become more important to understand, at the elemental, even molecular, level, what attracts viewers to a certain kind of storytelling.
The model I propose is Pandora and the Music Genome Project, a process The New York Times described as "breaking music down into its component parts...to figure out what kind of music you - not your social group, heroes or aspirational self - really like." The Project has identified almost four hundred separate attributes to describe a piece of music. I don't know if soap opera contains four hundred attributes; I do know there are more than the four most commonly cited: scripted, serial, open-ended with overlapping, interlocking stories.
Right now, this project is mostly in my head, but my idea is a collective, collaborative comprehensive effort to identify all of the different kinds of elements associated with the term "soap opera." Some of those elements are objectively observable and have been well documented in the literature. Jason Mitell's piece in the book is one example. But the emotional, more subjective, elements must be identified, as well.
In the two-plus years that have passed since I was asked to contribute to Survival of the Soap Opera, the title has taken on a new irony ; two soaps I've watched since childhood, Guiding Light, canceled a year ago yesterday, and As the World Turns, which today marks its 54th and final anniversary, are gone. Yes, One Life to Live, the last New York soap (someday someone will take a good look at the differences between the East Coast and West Coast soaps), is still on the air, but for how much longer? So, I am under no illusions about the long term future of daytime soaps. But the goal here is not so much to define soap opera, as to create a mechanism that will help connect viewers with shows that contain the elements they used to watch in the soaps no longer on the air. So, I hope you will consider this an invitation to join that discussion.
© 2010 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, 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 Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only.
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