I was recently interviewed for the Australian radio news show, Future Tense (listen here, about halfway in). The topic was soap opera as a force for social change. I had hoped the show would have room for my longstanding concerns about the ramifications when fans point to the importance attached to the "social issue/public service" aspect of soaps as a means to offset soaps’ marginalization.
Unfortunately, there wasn't time, so I’ve posted them below.
There’s always been a utilitarian aspect to soaps – indeed all forms of art. Visual art is often used therapeutically, theater as an educational tool. Both, along with film and even literature, can be exploited politically in the form of propaganda. And, ultimately of course, the utility of any sponsored form is to deliver eyeballs to the sponsor. So, while soap opera's raison d'être may be to sell soap, it does so by telling stories that reflect and illuminate the human condition, which includes social issues. What concerns me is that now in many developing coutries, soap opera is seen as a genre whose primary, perhaps even sole, function is to use storytelling as vehicle for social change.
Irna Phillips, who create the first radio soap in 1930 (and whose 110th birthday was July 1st) began her career as a teacher and believed that “there is a little of the evangelist in all of us, and I am no exception.” For Irna, the stories she told offered viewers “the chance to participate vicariously in problem solving.” But she also said the “even Scheherazade must have felt her storytelling was more than an exercise in lifesaving.”
I fear this growing focus on soaps as a force for social change may become the their lasting legacy, rather than the stories themselves. And that would be a shame.
I’ve always been of two minds regarding how the utility of the soap opera form is used to justify soaps. It’s a common phenomenon in the US, where soaps are more often than not often regarded with disdain. A perfect example is a comment made on The New York Times website in response to the recent cancellation of All My Children and One Life to Live: “Say what you want about soaps: They were a vehicle for social change, addressing gay rights, abortion and other topical issues long before they became major causes.”
All true, but another way to think about this is that when fans respond to derogatory comments about soaps by pointing to their utility, they’re actually buying into, even reinforcing, the idea that soaps somehow need to be justified. I’m not suggesting that soaps shouldn’t deal with social issues, which are a rich source for meaningful, in-depth storytelling. What I take exception to is the idea that in order to be tolerated, soaps must somehow serve a useful purpose beyond simply entertaining viewers. We don’t expect that of any other entertainment medium.
© 2011 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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