Monday Blog: Why Soaps Are Important and Should Be Saved–PI
THE PSYCHOSOCIAL BENEFITS OF SOAP OPERA
In Spence’s interviews with soap fans, the idea of the psychological comfort provided by daytime serials to their viewers recurred frequently. As stated before, because older female relatives often introduce their progeny to soaps, fans often associate them with maternal consolation and reassurance. The long-term—very long-term, as in decades and decades—engagement with soaps by fans turns both actual shows and their characters into old, reliable friends. When fans turn on the television, computer, or whatever device they watch “their stories” on today, they know what and who they will see. Even the characters they dislike or root against come to be important parts of fans’ lives because of the regularity and reliability with which they see them. Finally, watching beloved characters triumph through “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare put it, shows and reminds fans that the trials and tribulations of their own lives are surmountable as well, that hardships can be overcome. Some may fail to understand why fictional stories and characters come to provide comfort and friendship in people’s lives. However, with this argument, I am not asking anyone who doesn’t already find comfort in soaps and soap characters to start doing so. I am simply pointing out that many do find these entities comforting and that this provides soaps with part of their value.
Another way that soaps provide psychosocial assistance is in the ways that fans participate in the meaning-making of soaps, making them in part a cherished creation of fans. To allow, hasten, or cause their death is to unnecessarily and profoundly disrespect and insult these creators, and more importantly, to do something they do not wish to happen.
Talking about soap storylines makes fans a part of them as doing so involves interpreting and labeling them, a key part of describing, creating, anything. Fans do not have control over story progression—this is up to the writers, producers, and directors of soaps. But what fans see on the screen every day, the playing out of storylines, is only the initial layer of meaning in soap opera. On the surface, this is where fan consumption of soaps ends.
But when deep fan engagement with story and characters occurs, as it does with soaps, when fans can and often do view them five-days-a-week for (usually) an hour, other layers of meaning come into coexistence. First, fans talk face-to-face with each other about the events that have happened and might/not happen on “their” soaps, in addition to discussing what they hope will happen on these shows, which Spence documented in her study and I have experienced personally. This talk defines and interprets what happens on a soap, a creative act, again. Second, fans interact with print publications geared at them, which are more limited today than at one time, but still exist. This interaction occurs in the reading of the publications, but more importantly in the writing of letters to their editors. Not only does this type of interaction define soap meaning in the interpreting and labeling sense, as mentioned above, the powers that be (known as TPTB in the soap fan argot) at the networks that carry soaps read and consider these letters as they continually construct soap storylines.
Many times, for example, characters and actors that portray them are abandoned or fired based largely on viewer response. Again, I have known this to be the case from being a soap fan for decades and it is corroborated by Ford, DeKosnik, and Harrington as well as Spence.
As an example, recently actress Jen Lilley, now a contract player popular with fans on Days of Our Lives, filled in for actress Kristen Storms who had played beloved fan favorite, Maxie Jones on General Hospital but had to take a leave of absence due to an illness. Fan dislike of Lilley’s portrayal (which was simply misplaced longing for Storms, as Lilley did an excellent job filling in for her), as expressed in letters to soap publications, Facebook posts, and Tweets reached a feverish, sometimes even mean-spirited, pitch, until finally Lilley left—even before Storms’ illness had resolved and she could return to her role. Storms has since returned. The immensely popular Andrea Evans, who played integral character Tina Lord Roberts on One Life to Live for 17 years, left the show suddenly in 1992. Three actresses replaced her, but fans could not accept any of them. Their outcry in mostly letters to soap publications and ABC daytime executives played a role in the firing of all three actresses and the writers’ moving the final Tina to the off-screen, fictional European island of Mendora, as its princess and heir to its throne. And in an example of preemptive power of fan opinion, in the 1980s, the character of Bo Brady on Days of Our Lives could not even be recast, as fans refused to even give another actor the chance to play the iconic character, as expressed through letters and calls to NBC executives.
Finally, online forums—message boards, blogs, comment sections on various soap-related websites—have become places where vibrant fan commentary along with the deconstruction and reconstruction of soap storyline take place. These spaces are the site of meaning-making similar to the above two forums, but here fans truly let loose their skills of naming and description, what makes them co-constructors of soap meaning, free as it is of the expectations of polite face-to-face conversation or the formality and restraint of letters to the editor. In online spaces, also, fans will often post or link to posts of the fan fiction they write based on their soaps. Fan fiction is the zenith of fan-made meaning. Fans actually borrow the locations and characters, sometimes even parts of the storylines on soaps, and write their own shows. There are countless online forums where one can see this in action. A fan of The Young and the Restless has even approached Tessa and me about creating fan fiction on a regular basis for LTAS.
And again, “The Powers That Be” are known to monitor and take into account what is revealed by and about fans and their hopes for ongoing storylines in these forums, with the exception of “gripe and moan” commentary (Spence 127), which they understandably often find tedious. Again, the actions of soap fans in these contemporary forums make them co-creators of soap meaning, even actual story.
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan