Daytime Drama

Sunday is the 37th annual Daytime Emmys, live from Las Vegas. Many feminists scoff at the genre, but its popularity is undeniable: Millions are expected to tune in.

As a feminist and proud soap-watcher, I’d argue that soaps are too often wrongly dismissed as sex-filled drivel. Feminists, in particular, should support the feminine values, diverse representations of women, social issues and global community promoted by daytime television’s fantasy worlds.

Soap operas celebrate a private sphere controlled primarily by women who have agency. In it, intimacy, forgiveness, redemption, family, and community are honored. Every soap opera has a matriarch—a strong older woman primarily responsible for the family, community, or business depending on the storyline. No matter her age, the matriarch is never too old to defend who and what she cares most about.

Each soap opera also has bad girls, whom audiences empathize with because they follow their hearts, regardless of the consequences. Soap operas have always made room for these morally questionable women and other diverse woman characters. Many night-time dramas are only reluctantly starting to catch up.

Because most soaps have plots that revolve around hospitals, courtrooms, and businesses, they can address some of the most pressing social issues of the day, such as sexual assault, disease, surrogacy, murder, fraud and corruption. Class, race and sexual orientation are also woven in. TV’s first abortion aired on NBC soap opera Another World in 1964, seven years before Roe v. Wade. One Life to Live deserves credit as the first soap to 1) foreground class and ethnic difference in 1968 2) introduce the first African American character (who happened to be passing for white in 1969) and 3) create the longest and most complex storyline for a gay character to date, in 1992.

Soap operas also create community among watchers, be they friends and family members who gather to watch or strangers united by their fandom. Guinness World Records just named The Bold and The Beautiful as the Most Popular Daytime TV Soap, with 24.5 million viewers.

Unfortunately, soaps are disappearing. Guiding Light, the longest running soap, was canceled after 72 years in September 2009. After 54 years, As the World Turns is also scheduled to end in September 2010.

Here are my top two suggestions for how soap operas should save themselves and continue to make feminists proud.

–Soap operas need more diversity. Sure, they employ older women actresses as matriarchs, but where are the characters of color outside of a token family or a foster child or two? There must be more diversity behind the scenes (including more women writers) and on camera (including gays and lesbians) for the stories to sustain themselves in an increasingly diverse society.

–Soap operas got their name because their primary sponsors, such as Proctor and Gamble, sold household items targeted to women working at home, but these ads are too often gender-stereotyped. Instead, stories should merchandize, with lines like the soap opera mystery series published by The Young and the Restless’ Eileen Davidson’s or former Y&R actress Victoria Rowell’s Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva.

Despite the gratuitous sex, the constant coupling and re-coupling of characters, the wild suspension of belief and the stereotyping of soap audiences as those who have the luxury to lazily sit around and watch television in the middle of the day, soap operas should be valued. They have complex storylines that incorporate multiple subject positions–teaching viewers that multiple perspectives can be “right.” They break societal taboos about what’s appropriate on TV. And they encourage viewers to consider and reconsider the important issues of the day.

Above: Susan Trustman, whose character on Another World had an abortion in 1964, seven years before Roe v. Wade. Photo courtesy of AWHP.

Comments

  1. Thank you for telling it like it is with soaps! I often tell friends and family about the social issues that soaps tackle and have stuck by One Life To Live since 1983.

  2. Excellent analysis. Come share more of your thoughts with us at http://www.soapdom.com Where Soap Operas Rule!

  3. General Hospital in particular makes me sad these days. In the 90s they did some amazing stories around issues like rape and HIV/AIDS. Today the show revolves around violent mob-related storylines and is painfully misogynist to the point of being unwatchable. They did do a story recently about teen dating violence that had its moments, but it would have been handled much better in the good old days.

  4. Ilovehollywoodirony says:

    As much as the world would like to think white media publications are inclusive and speak to “everyone” they simply don’t. magazines like Ms.,Vogue, Cosmopolitan and other countless Conde Nast publications I can’t name right now have their demographic.

    I love reading your blogs but I don’t subscribe to or read Ms. The only reason I go to the site is to read your posts and then I leave. Outside of whatever multicultural marketing/ advertising dollars they get it’s still a “white woman’s” magazine. I get more universal feminism reading Latina mag than I ever would reading Ms. I also don’t read Essence anymore since Time Warner bought them out years ago.

    I’m not surprised that they 4 horseman’d(five heartbeats reference) your story. Their readership may or may not know you are a black professor but they sure as hell aren’t going to let you critique the white bastion of glory that is the Daytime Emmys.

    I know the debate rages on that we women/womyn all have 1 voice and there shouldn’t be a difference between (white)feminism and womanist but…it’s a wide gap. It would be like having a white female professor critique the BET awards for Essence or Honey magazine. Everyone would be up in arms and not as receptive.

    I don’t like that lily white pic they chose either but it represents the Daytime Emmy perfectly. White privileged women who can afford to be at home during the times those shows are on and subsequently drive daytime ads and Nielsen ratings.

  5. Bob Lamm says:

    Sorry, but it defies credibility to be saying in 2010 that daytime soap operas should be more diverse. As you’ve pointed out, these shows began experimenting with diversity as far back as the late 1960s. Four decades have passed. Outside critics and industry insiders have called again and again for more diversity. And those who run soap operas have done a lousy job in decade after decade. Especially flagrant has been the portrayal of African Americans on daytime soaps, which ranges from secondary to token to nonexistent–even though African American viewers are perhaps 1/4 of the daytime audience!

    Daytime soaps have occasionally done some extremely valuable storylines on social issues. But, on the whole, the record of soaps in terms of diversity and in terms of their storylines has been awful. I’m sorry that the soaps are dying, especially those based in New York, because many fine actors (and many lousy ones) will lose their jobs. But there is little here worth defending.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I think your analysis of the value of soaps is right on. Granted I work for the union representing soap writers (among other TV and film writers) but I really see some fantastic women working in that industry and steering narratives.

  7. Speaking of diversity, the L.A. Times recently ran a story on a minority Iraq war veteran who was disfigured in a landmine accident and is now a regular cast member for a similar storyline on All My Children. See
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-martinez-20100627,0,2060521,full.story

  8. Brandon says:

    Dr. Utley, You have caused me to remember my Grandmamma, which is an important thing. She loved her stories and I often wondered why she, a Black woman from the country, cared so much about All the other People’s Children or those white folk at General Hospital. I asked her in all my wisdom at 10 years old, “Grandmama, why do you watch those shows?” I was bold enough to ask because I thought Jesus would NEVER approve of all that kissing and arguing on TV. She was patient with me and said in a slow but authoritative voice, “Because they deal with real life.” Now, on the surface that answer made no sense to my 10 year old logic, yet I felt her answer. I did not ask any more because I had a sense of what she meant. Like you have said Dr. U, the Soaps were willing to talk about things that we likely should’ve addressed in church or in our family living but would not. My sense is that my grandma liked watching the matriarchs of these TV families solve problems much the same way she did for my family. They also gave her an opportunity to grow in a world that some times as she said, “moved too fast.” Her stories were there every Monday thru Friday and always had something new. Thanks for reconnecting me with my Grandmamma. Great job Dr. Utley.

  9. And a British soap will feature a female to male transgendered teenager soon. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jul/01/hollyoaks-transgender-teenagers

  10. RaymondKevin says:

    Soaps have been disappearing from American daytime television for well over a decade, quietly at first — the death of long-running GL last year and ATWT this year brought long-need attention. The reasons are complex — changing audiences, ad-markets, etc. It’s interesting that the format thrives in other time periods (prime-time, cable) and in other countries.

    As a long-term soap viewer, for me it’s all about good story-telling. When the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on most soaps are way more interesting than what’s on-camera, something’s amiss. Nothing was more shocking, unexpected or dramatic than how Eric Braeden’s contract negotiations on Y&R played out publicly.

    On ATWT, when an affair between two cast members led to the destruction of two marriages and a reported cast meltdown — it inadvertently led to a great story that addressed the need to isolate people and an Emmy for one of the actors (and now the actors are reportedly a couple).

    If soaps are to survive in the future, they must get back to original story-telling with compelling (and intelligent) characters. The revolving roulette wheel of hack EPs and head writers must stop.
    With seven, soon to be six soaps left on-air — there’s very little room for mediocrity.

  11. Lindsey Brylow says:

    @Bob you seem to be refuting the possibility of adding more diversity amongst the various soap operas because essentially they have a low African American viewer ship anyways. 1/4 of the viewers are African Americans, where did you get that figure? Did you stop to think that perhaps an increase in diversity amongst the soaps could lead to higher viewer ship amongst the African American population?

    I personally have no interest in daytime soaps, but I see the appeal and I applaud them for introducing controversial social issues. I was not aware that abortion had even been talked about, much less shown in television as 1964. I was shocked when I caught a glimpse of "Teen Mom" on MTV and one of the mothers was expressing her regrets about a recent abortion she had performed.

    Thank you for the ever so informative an eloquently written article Dr. Utley.

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