Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is taken from a Master’s project I completed on soap operas, online activism, and their juncture in the Save Our Soaps (SOS) movement at Colorado State University in May of 2015. In this section I prove wrong criticisms of soaps commonly trotted out by people who oppose, misunderstand, and/or denigrate them. See if you dis/agree or can add some arguments to mine.
–Editor-in-Chief, Akbi Khan
Refuting Common Criticisms of Soaps II: Soaps Do Not Reinforce Gender Stereotypes
Recently a professor of English expressed to me her concern that soaps, given their advent’s being inextricably linked to selling cleaning products to homemakers and the overall culture’s viewing them as simply a way to placate and distract bored housewives and homemakers, reinforce the belief that women belong in the home.
After the invention of the soap opera genre, the selling of products to homemakers and the prevalence of women characters who stayed at home while hubby brought home the bacon, at first slowly and then quickly over the years became obsolete. One need only turn on any soap opera to see the reality confirmed by Spence’s analysis that 95 percent of women on soaps work out of the home. Even more significantly, most manage a career outside the home and a family/household (160). Overall, soap heroines are no shrinking violets. Their characters face head-on the complicated and true-to-life relationships with people and cultural institutions, just as “real” women do.
The woman of soaps do not simply don frilly aprons and crochet, waiting for “the man of the house” to come home and give them an allowance and use their bodies for sexual gratification. Female soap characters run the gamut from CEOs to restaurant managers to con artists to violent criminals. With how much time and consideration must go into any soap character, given that they might appear on TV for several hours per week, I would argue that most if not all, are finely drawn, richly layered, and in defiance of pat definitions or judgments. I would challenge anyone to watch the four soaps currently on the air and then honestly tell me that they believe the portrayal of women in daytime supports gender stereotypes, or any one thing for that matter, what with the diversity represented by soap characters as a whole.
Daytime, perhaps because so few besides its fans take it seriously, today is a beacon of progressive thought and character portrayal. Is there another genre on TV in which writers feel free enough to have a college sophomore kiss her female teacher on the lips and for the two to express their great, romantic affection for each other? Were this to happen on, say, How to Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM) let us examine what might occur. First, the Twitter-verse would explode with outcries of how disgusting it is for the members of a potential couple to be so different in age, how a teacher is abusing her authority, how two women kissing is gross, followed by Facebook posts and shares of the same nature. Then network damage control PR squads would mobilize, apologizing and back-tracking, in statements and press releases. Finally, the writers of HTGAWM would have no choice but to change the storyline when advertisers threatened to pull financial support from the show.
Rather than a retrograde wasteland of backward values, daytime TV is alive and brimming with progressive stories and characters: gay love triangles, gay weddings and marriages, multiracial couples, the physically challenged in storylines not focused on their challenges, women who consider all their options when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, even characters who openly discuss their inclusive/expansive view of religion (the one exception, which I must mention, is the bizarre and shocking exclusion of Jews from the daytime canvas).
To return to my earlier example, only in daytime does the derision with which most people view soaps, their refusal to take them seriously, leave writers free to explore a subtle nuance in the experiences of many young people coming to terms with their sexuality: sometimes when you feel alone, realizing who you are, the only one you can turn to is someone who has already come into her own and is comfortably open (out) in her sexuality. And sometimes this leads to feelings of love for that person. This is occurring on General Hospital (GH) in the Kristina/Parker storyline, the same one mentioned above.
The concern expressed to me by the English professor may have been about more than the characters depicted on soaps, however. She may have been expressing distress that the advertisements that air during and fund soaps are still largely for cleaning products and motherly paraphernalia. I would argue that soap operas themselves cannot be blamed for this. The content of advertisements during a show result from complicated audience and demographic analysis and what they reveal, which may be flawed or supportive of stereotypes one could argue. But again, this is not due to some inherent quality of the content of soaps, but the way market research is conducted and what it reveals. And whether women are the primary buyers of cleaning products is beyond the scope of this document.
What do you think, readers? Do you agree, disagree, think something entirely different?
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan
© Akbi Khan 2015