Editor’s Note: The following is taken from a Master’s thesis I completed at Colorado State University this past spring. It was on the Save Our Soaps (SOS) movement, and for it I researched soaps in general and online activism (because the two come together in the Save Our Soaps movement). In talking about soaps, one of my chapters dealt with the reasons soaps matter and are worthy of saving. One reason I gave is their bringing together of people and how they are a forum for discussing important social issues.
Another value of soaps is how they bring people together, as I have previously mentioned in my discussion of the multigenerational aspect of soap watching. Grandmothers and mothers pass down their viewing to those younger than them by watching them together with those people. Friends often share in the watching and love of a soap. Even when fans are not actually sitting in front of a television watching a soap, discussing and appreciating them can be a way they are drawn into healthy, long-lasting relationships with fellow soap fans. Few people would argue that those cultural institutions that increase positive social connection and support should not be lauded and safeguarded.
One Life to Live’s mid-1990s storyline of a young gay man struggling with both self-acceptance and acceptance by his family and others points to another of soaps important roles: that of bringing to the fore cultural issues of import. Soaps address these issues long-term and with attention to nuances and complicating factors. The way soaps do so would not be possible in shows that aired less often or for less overall time.
As an example of a very timely social issue story, in the 1970s AMC’s Erica Kane had television’s first and one of its only abortions. Soaps frequently feature characters with alcoholism and drug addiction, ongoing social issues, calling attention for understanding of and care given to those afflicted with these ailments, devastating in their power and reach.
Just yesterday, at the time of this writing, after weeks of suspense-building on the show and discussion among fans about a character named Maya’s “big secret,” she opened up to another character. She revealed she is transgendered and has undergone hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.
Maya’s story will air multiple times a week and will continue indefinitely. Because of both of these reasons, it will be the instance of a trans character on television most likely to affect its audience because of how her history, current life, struggles, successes, both her good qualities of character and her foibles will be dramatized and analyzed long-term. Those who may never have met a trans person in real life will do so by proxy through Maya’s story. Activists point out that personally knowing an LGBTQQIA person is the most likely way to assure his acceptance and that of said community writ large. Long-term engagement with soap characters comes as close to personal acquaintance in a face-to-face relationship as any fictional “entertainment” medium can come. Soaps can do great work for our culture in raising awareness of and seeing to the intimate relating to people and situations their fans might never have encountered but should encounter in our thankfully ever-expanding pursuit of social justice for more and more people.
There have been and are transgendered characters on non-soap shows in the recent years, notably on “Ugly Betty,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” and “Orange Is the New Black.” The first two of these shows were hybrid ones, their storylines told serially and using other soap opera narrative innovations. But both shows aired once a week and are gone now, their trans characters gone even before the shows were. “Orange,” recently got green-lighted for a third-season, but airs on Netflix, and while many Netflix shows are excellently written, produced, directed, acted, and creatively and critically received, I have discussed why they, their characters, and their stories, will not in their current iterations enter the lives—the hearts—of fans the way soaps and their characters do.
Soaps serve as one of, if not the only, forum for addressing social issues of great cultural weight in popular media consumed by millions of people every day. First, they air daily and for several years, allowing the social issues they address to be treated with nuance and care. Second, the characters involved in issue storylines talk, converse, even gossip about these issues, which ultimately amount to analyzing them from various angles and viewpoints. Third, the strong bonds fans form with characters bring the issues home to them in a way second only to if the fans experienced the issues in their own “real” lives.
Television and soap opera analysts credit Agnes Nixon with ushering in “the era of relevance” (Matelski 8) in the sixties. This era continues on today. Nixon began including in the many soaps she created or wrote for, such as Loving, All My Children, and One Life to Live, plots about interracial romances, homosexuality, alcohol and drug addiction, and HIV and AIDS, among other topics. All soaps began to follow suit, featuring characters dealing with socially germane topics in their lives, slowly, in relatively long story arcs. This continues in the four remaining soap operas on the air at the time of this writing, not to mention in many nighttime dramas and other shows that borrow from the soap format. For example, a gay couple was just married on Days of Our Lives.
Soap characters’ deal with major cultural issues in a way inimitable by any other television genre. Because soaps center on characters and their interactions with each other, the cultural issues addressed in soap storylines are analyzed and addressed through one of the defining soap characteristics, “talking things out,” conversation, and the positive way characters “gossip,” which again Spence has reimagined as a constructive rather than destructive activity. For example, in the 19070s, when Erica Kane had an abortion on All My Children, she weighed the pros and cons of doing so and received counsel in the form of interacting with other characters about whether it was a wise or unwise path to take. In the mid-1990s when a gay youth came to terms with his sexuality on One Life to Live, he approached Reverend Andrew Carver for advice, coming out after extensive interlocution with him. And similarly, Maya, the current transgender character on The Bold and the Beautiful comes out to close friends and shares her gender identity journey through heart-to-hearts with other characters on the show. Soaps are even sometimes ahead of the rest of society in addressing social issues, or at least in a co-vanguard position with other societal structures, as in all three of the above cases, as evidenced by the time periods in which the above stories aired.
Soaps deserve to be cherished and preserved for the many sanguine and salutary roles they have served in individual lives and the life of our nation through the coming and going of several presidents, during several military actions, in the face of epidemics like AIDS and Ebola, the swinging back and forth of the economic pendulum in a capitalist economy from boom to bust, and the tumult and anxiety that has been the result of the increase in frequency and intensity of acts of terror in the name of religious ideology. Why put an end to a cultural institution like the soap opera that, that even those who are not fans must acknowledge, clearly accomplishes necessary work in individual lives and the life of cultures the world over?
by Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan