Why Soaps are Important and Should Be Saved–PII
Because fans are so deeply a part of the meaning-making of soap opera, when a soap opera dies, or when we stand by and allow a soap to die, so too does that part of the soul of each soap fan who loved it and cared enough about it to share in its construal. A poem by Robert Frost that I had considered putting on thistimeitsforever.org’s (TTIF’s) home page to inspire in fans the will to fight reads: “And when to heart of man/Was it ever less than a treason/To bow and accept the end of a love/Or of a season.” These heartbreaking and beautifully-put words tell us, yes, it hurts to say goodbye, but goodbye is as natural to the human experience as the passage of seasons.
But one of the glorious aspects of soaps had always been, and should continue to be, particularly in the face of the flux of all other aspects of life, that they were (and will be again) worlds without end, as the aforementioned title of the book on soap history goes. Also, there is nothing natural about television, so why should it play by the same rules as the natural world? And so TTIF features, instead of the lovely Frost quote, an equally lovely, but opposite in meaning, Dylan Thomas quote: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Critics of soap opera have labeled them escapist, likening them to visual benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax, “Mommy’s Little Helpers” as they were once called, because they were often prescribed to placate and keep pliable those housewives and homemakers who were bored and dissatisfied in the 1950s and 60s. The escapist label need not be a bad one, however. Soap fans often lose themselves in soap story knowing know that useful awareness of self and others comes from talking about feelings and emotional experiences, and soaps give them a locus to do so (Williams 86). Also, because soaps are fictional, this locus is a separate and safe arena to explore thoughts and feelings that may be volatile or unwanted, but ones that still need to be addressed.
Seeing it from still different angle, Spence boldly owns, instead of shrinking from and attempting to sidestep out of shame, the gossip-like nature of what actually happens on soaps and the labeling of soap-related talk among fans as gossip. Spence says fans need not experience the “gossip” label as pejorative (194). Especially when no one can be harmed by talking about fictional people or events, I would argue, doing so can initiate and maintain friendships, lead to healthy personal revelation among friends, and help fans understand the “characters” and “storylines” of their own lives.
Despite Spence’s reframing of gossip as positive and healthy, most people still associate it with negative denotations and connotations. I would prefer, then, to call the focus of soaps “conversation,” in the form of dialogue, to achieve their narrative work (at times, Spence does this too ). This stems partly from their birth on the radio but also because what happens on soaps is about analyzing, understanding, and coming-to-terms with (and often recapping for viewers’ benefit) the events that happen on them. An event in “real life” and on a soap can come and go in a few minutes, but talking about and sorting out what it means to the characters on soaps and their lives goes on in daytime serial for much longer.
The will to analyze and understand life events that occurs on soaps is one that should be hailed and buoyed in contemporary times. When people who feel misunderstood again and again visit upon their perceived enemies school and workplace shootings, when militants of various varieties assume misled and untrue things about those they see themselves in opposition to and then commit brutal acts of terrorism in response, and when we must ensure that the danger of the Internet to give rise to and further social isolation does not overshadow its beneficial potential to increase human connection, then conversation, “talking things out,” takes on an intensified importance. Soaps, as they encourage and demonstrate this, then too take on a heightened importance, and should therefore be saved.
We must not stand by as network executives cancel both scripted television in general and soaps in particular, especially when what these executives offer viewers in place of primetime scripted television are reality shows, now widely known to be more orchestrated—scripted!—than spontaneous, as their producers would have us believe. These primetime reality fare offerings are also often crass scenes of finger-pointing, hair-pulling conflicts and drunken brawls, ones often unethically goaded by producers in their tiresome quest for ratings.
Daytime serials in particular are often replaced with the brightly lit, colorfully decorated sets and perky attitudes of the hosts of “lifestyle” shows. Despite their attempts at being helpful to viewers though, these shows are ultimately bland, formulaic, and vapid. They address important topics, for sure, but they do so in such small increments, they simply scratch the surface of these topics. The continued production of “lifestyle” shows about weight loss, cooking, health issues, and the like, also points to a knowledge on the part of network executives that the same demographic who looks for the positive and affirmative content of soaps is still out there. This is advice is often framed in a dramatic way using the elements of fiction (for example “the ugly duckling turned swan” on weight loss-themed episodes of lifestyle shows). One might say that self-actualization on lifestyle shows amounts to a form of soap operatic drama.
But instead of cancelling soaps, then, networks should find ways to cut or offset the cost of soaps and keep them on the air. If they feel something is worth their effort, these financial behemoths, networks, can and have been known to do many things they might otherwise have claimed they couldn’t for a host of fabricated reasons.
Other than “lifestyle” shows, daytime executives litter their lineups with cancelled talk show after cancelled talk show. Even the talented and intelligent Katie Couric could not make her recent talk show last—perhaps because All My Children and One Life To Live fans organized boycotts of it to show networks they have power and can make or break a show. The other daytime offering is often legal shows, like Judge Judy. Again, what viewers respond to on these shows is the human drama and resolution of conflict, which soaps do much better. Ultimately, I would not so actively argue for the departure from the cultural landscape of any of these shows if they didn’t interfere with the life of soap operas. Also, diverse offerings, soaps operas along with but not instead of, talk shows, lifestyle shows, and legal shows might draw in the most viewers, which network executives of course want most from their programming lineups.
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan