This question being, “why are you wasting your time watching (or writing about) those stupid soap operas?” The underlying premise: that the questioner is justified in passionately denigrating an activity that harms no one.
As I’ve mentioned in several of my posts, I’ve been watching soap operas since childhood. I’ve never felt the need to hide that I do, or to defend why I do – even when challenged. It seems to me that to even engage in the process is to adopt the terms of the enemy, as the Marxians used to say; I mean, doesn’t hiding and defending assume that watching soap opera is a shameful activity that must be hidden or defended? For me, of course, the question is rhetorical.
Yet, I understand all too well why many soap fans do defend and apologize for their attachment to soaps. Here’s link to a discussion on soap’s stigma on a blog for Sam Ford’s class on The American Soap Opera at MIT, and another on legitimizing soaps.
That soaps have been historically marginalized and devalued because of their association with women I’ve taken as a given. What I find more useful is to understand 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 manifests itself.
Ginia Bellafante's recent New York Times piece, Brothers and Sisters, provides a perfect example how of those who watch soaps, in this case primetime soaps, have internalized soaps’ marginalization. (In the article, she only cops to watching B&S, though given her thorough understanding of the genre, I’m guessing she’s had some experience with daytime soaps, as well.) First, there’s the hiding; “I watch “Brothers & Sisters,” like many other women I know, with the strained hope that my husband won’t pass through the room when something ridiculous is happening.”
Why? Excepting pornography (and, of course, daytime soaps), is there any form of entertainment most men, including her husband, would have internalized the need to hide or defend?
So what does she think is so ridiculous? She doesn’t say, but here’s how she describe soaps: “Soap operas are defined by a commitment to insularity — atmospheric, relational, with circular narratives. Each week “Brothers & Sisters” creates a look and mood of butterscotch claustrophobia that permits the intrusion of a larger world only to the extent that it might fuse the bloodlines at its center more tightly.” Perhaps she takes it as a given that all soap fans have come to the collective understanding that by definition, soaps are, indeed, ridiculous, but for me, what she’s describing is anything but ridiculous. It’s what I used to be able to see on daytime soaps. And that brings me to my next point.
The irony is that parts of her article show just how well Bellafante does understand how soap operas are supposed to work. And while she does not distinguish between daytime and primetime soaps, the fact that she doesn’t supports my longtime argument that if only those making daytime soaps understood the connection between the two, daytime soaps would be considerably less ridiculous. As I said in Yearning for the world as it was, “daytime would do well to understand what is working on primetime soaps, because it’s what used to be working on daytime.”
A final point: Bellafante closes with the following:
During the 1980s and ’90s a whole body of feminist scholarship emerged to defend the soap operas on the grounds that they were waging a fight against patriarchal culture that otherwise sought to marginalize womanly concerns. I can hardly stand up for “Brothers & Sisters” on the same shaky cement. The culture has been so thoroughly feminized that shows like “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers” now pass as subversion, a backlash against televised domesticity.
I have to say that just as I reject the need to defend why I watch soaps, I also reject the premise underlying the need to defend soap opera itself. However, I am currently making my way through a good chunk of that literature and there is much to be valued. In particular, Christina Gledhill’s article, Speculations on the Relationship between Soap Opera and Melodrama, which presents a far more nuanced and useful take on Bellafante’s contention regarding the feminization of television:
But for male characters to enact male dramas inside soap opera or for soap opera structures to operate inside a “male” genre, a break is required with conventions of gender representation – which dictate taciturnity and invincibility as marks of masculinity and construe talk about personal feelings as “feminizing."
And that, as Martha Stewart likes to say, is a good thing.
© 2008 Lynn Liccardo
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