by Akbi Khan
Since their inception, soaps had been targeted toward women. Beginning in the 1930’s soap producers and writers geared soap operas to women at home during the day, hence their time slots even now occur from 12:30 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. Advertisers, then, largely aimed their ads at women, many of whom cleaned their home during the day, while hubby was at work and tots attended school (many of these advertisements were for soap and other cleaning products). Storylines on soaps were geared toward woman who network executives and advertisers saw as belonging to The Cult of True Womanhood, a relic of the 19th century, which characterized women as delicate creatures who fall back on their chaise lounges, handkerchiefs waving to calm the sweat that inevitably rose to the surface of their delicate skin at the sound/sight of the melodramatic goings on of their favorite radio and then television daytime serials.
Up until “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” were unceremoniously yanked from the air a couple years back, I had no idea the true audience reach of soap operas. I basically had the same preconceived notions about who watched soaps as 1940’s advertisers had: women who stayed at home during the day, daintily perched on their living room couches in proper knee length dresses and gingham aprons, folding their laundry as they watched the trials and tribulations of soap characters on giant television consoles (but small screens) with metal knobs to turn the channel and adjust the volume.
But when the aforementioned soaps were taken off the air and various online platforms became the sites of fan protests and petitions and connections with each other in the interest of fighting ABC Disney in their shortsighted and revenue-based decision, the true nature of soap fandom was revealed. The fans were young and old, black and white and brown and yellow, straight and gay, working men and working women, non-working men and women. To be honest, I was a little shocked. I had no idea soaps touched so many lives and in such deep ways that such a variety of people would spend time and energy fighting for them. Now my shock seems odd, as I am one who touts the excellent storytelling on display in the soap world every chance I get and how it should touch everyone who lives on this crazy, mixed-up Earth.
Despite this vast diversity of soap audiences, I maintain that advertisers and the corporate executives that makes decisions about daytime television fare largely still see women (often homemakers) as the primary audience for soaps, regardless of how wrong they are. And because of this wrong-minded view, sexism (a disregard for what the powers that be see as women’s entertainment and its unimportance) and misled view of soaps viewership as only women, based on outdated stereotypes, led to the cancellation of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” Certainly, a misapprehension of audience viewing methods and patterns (the way fans recorded their soaps and watched at night, even before DVR’s when VCR’s came about, viewing soaps online) and the much cheaper production values of reality and lifestyle shows (which have been a large part of the cause the peril that soaps as part of the larger genre of scripted television find themselves in), methods and patters that certainly couldn’t have escaped network executives, who keep obsessive watch of numbers and trends related to shows’ viewership and their viewing habits, contributed to the cancellation of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”
But ultimately, it is the view that women watch soaps—and that they will put up with whatever their lot in life, in keeping with their character as established by the hopelessly simplistic and anachronistic Cult of True Womanhood—that has led to the sudden and unapologetic removal of “All My Children,” “One Life to Live,” and “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” before them, from the airwaves. Television executives, sadly, still see women as less-than, and thus what they see as women’s entertainment as less-than. You won’t see too many cop shows cancelled any time soon, and if you do, networks will keep trying out new ones every season—because men are seen as their primary viewership. And this subtly says—men are important, women are not.
This year, after years of threatening to do so, ABC Disney also axed SOAPnet, which aired soap repeats all day and night. I can scarcely imagine executives removing The Golf Channel or SyFy Network from the air, as we as a culture imagine these networks to be viewed by men, their feet up on coffee tables, arms outstretched on the backs of couches, beer in one hand—stand up guys. Just as many insurance companies will cover the cost of Viagra and Cialis but not women’s birth control methods, so network executives take a cavalier view of removing soap operas from the air. When revenues fall, do “Duck Dynasty” or “Bad Girls Club” (two other shows we as a culture see men as the primary viewers of, and with very male vibes to them) suffer? No, soap operas do. We need only look at the ads shown during soap operas, ones any soap fan will have memorized, as they play over and over and over: OxiClean, Febreze, Swiffer Wet Jet (because women are seen as the primary house cleaners), Aveeno Positively Radiant, Maybelline Great Lash, migraine medications (women suffer from migraines more than men), to name just a few.
If we care about women being taken seriously, then we must care about all aspects of their lives being taken seriously, up to their perceived forms of entertainment, soaps. When network executives save and bring back all of our soaps, it will still show us they care about women, because they still see women as the primary audience for soaps.
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