The popular perception of soap operas among those who are not fans is that this form of television entertainment is little better than reality TV with outrageously unbelievable storylines, B-grade acting and a genre where actors who can’t make it in prime time TV or movies go to linger. Fans of soaps know better. For the true fan, a soap opera is a family friend, and the place where forbidden topics are first introduced into the American conversation. By that standard, soaps are often a life saver for many who watch on a daily basis. By introducing controversial topics long before they have entered the mainstream, soaps have often acted as a sounding board and test case to determine what Americans think of a particular issue. Many could argue that soap writers and actors have treated the American people with much more respect than so-called main stream media and press, because the soaps trusted Americans to be able to handle controversial issues without slipping into a hysterical panic.
The soaps have never shied away from even the most controversial topic. This has always been the case, and by shedding light on issues that were real and that ordinary people were dealing with, but felt they had to keep secret, the soaps have provided an outlet for millions who felt isolated and alone, with no one to talk to or confide in. Bringing difficult issues to the fore on soaps is as old as the soaps themselves. The 1950’s are remembered through the lens of history and pop culture as an idyllic time filled with “Leave It To Beaver” families and sock hops. Popular TV shows like “Happy Days” and movies like “Grease” give the impression that everyone was happy in a time peace and prosperity before the world fell apart in the 1960’s. The truth, as always, is much more complex and behind the closed doors of the 1950’s Americans were dealing with issues like alcoholism that many men suffered through trying to erase the memories of war, infidelity that dare not be spoken of, and women who had gotten a taste of independence when they went to work during World War II only to be told to go back home to a life of cooking and cleaning once their men returned from war. The soaps were the first to fling open the doors of the 1950’s to reveal some of the real issues people were dealing with.
“Guiding Light” was one of the first soaps to bring controversial issues to the forefront. Millions of women who tuned in to the new invention of television saw the struggles between Bert and Bill Bauer and Bert’s materialistic “Keep Up With The Joneses” and Bill’s stressful job led to Bill descending into a life of alcoholism. Many viewers could identify with this scenario and for the first time, they had someone to identify with and an outlet to work through their own issues that could not be spoken of outside the home.
The 1960’s and 1970’s brought significant social change to America and the soaps, once again took the lead in discussing even the most controversial issues. No topic was more controversial in the early 1970’s than abortion, but soaps jumped right in and in the most dramatic of ways. “All My Children” Erica Kane found herself pregnant and terrified that an unplanned child would derail her budding modeling career. In one of the most shocking storylines of the day, Erica decided to terminate her pregnancy with an abortion. Although the topic of abortion was getting much press leading to the historic Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, most in the popular culture realm were loathe to wade into such a polarizing issue. Not so with the soaps. Yet again, millions of women who were not only struggling with the same issue of an unplanned pregnancy, but who were struggling with their inner moral beliefs, had a friend on the soaps who could help them sort out their own feelings and thoughts on the issue. The storyline was so controversial and touched a nerve in so many people that fans were outraged in the mid 2000’s when “All My Children” altered Erica’s history and reveled that her “aborted” son was actually alive due to the fact that the doctor delivered and kept the baby while telling Erica that he has indeed aborted it. Many fans could not forgive this betrayal of AMC history and some argue that actions like this played a significant role in the soap’s eventual demise and cancellation.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the heyday of soaps, the shows never met a topic they would not highlight. Fans were exposed to women’s struggles with sexual harassment in the workplace, blue collar and working class families were introduced to reflect reality and these families often dealt devastating effects of unemployment and spousal abuse. As America became more diverse African American super couples like Angie and Jessie on “All My Children” were introduced and proved to be extremely popular. Established female soap stars like Kim Zimmer’s Reva on “Guiding Light” dealt with postpartum depression and eventually the dreaded menopause. Perhaps the most powerful storyline of the time involved General Hospital’s revelation that Monica Quartermaine suffered from breast cancer. Through a well thought out and emotional storyline, the writers at GH took Monica through shock, denial, grief and eventually acceptance. Throughout her journey she had to face the removal of her breasts, the perceived diminution of her sexuality and the doubts about her relationship. These were all issues that millions of women faced when they dealt with breast cancer and “General Hospital” became an outlet for these women to grieve and cope.
Perhaps no issue was more controversial in the 1980’s than the advent of HIV/AIDS, and even though it would take soaps until the end of the decade to address this plague, they were still the first to do so. In real life, soap stars were witnessing many of their friends and colleagues succumbing to the disease. The entertainment industry was hit especially hard by the disease due to the fact that many gay men worked in that industry. “All My Children” became one of the first shows to deal with AIDS when the character of Cindy was revealed to be dying from the disease. The way the show introduced Cindy, revealed the struggles she faced and portrayed her platonic romance with Stuart began to help change the perception that American had of AIDS and the HIV epidemic. It was “One Life To Live” that was the first to craft and AIDS storyline around the equally controversial topic of homosexuality, and they had future movie star Ryan Philippe to help them do it. Philippe portrayed Billy Douglas, a teen from an affluent family who was just starting to deal with his homosexuality. Billy turned to his local priest and in great soap tradition, a trouble-making and love struck ingénue who had been rebuffed by the priest started a rumor that the priest was gay and preying on young Billy. This accusation created turmoil across the entire town and with many of the established families and unleashed a story line that eventually led to the church lawn where the AIDS Memorial Quilt was being displayed, at first against the wishes of many in the parish, but eventually to be accepted by all. In the process it was revealed that the priest’s brother was in fact gay and had died of AIDS. For the many young gay fans of soaps who had rarely seen people like them portrayed on television and never in a positive light, the storyline was a cathartic breakthrough.
Eventually, soaps would break this last barrier by introducing gay super couples who took their place alongside their straight counterparts, and who gathered a huge following among young American teens. “As The World Turns” was the first to go down this path when they revealed the Luke, the son and step son of super couple Lilly and Holden was in fact gay. Over two year, the show weaved a brilliant storyline that saw Luke and his family, especially macho hero Holden and feisty grandmother Lucinda deal with his homosexuality. Eventually Luke found love with Noah and the first gay super couple was born. Industry experts and soap watchers expected a harsh backlash, but to their surprise the country had changed more than anticipated and there was no outcry from fans, even in the red states. Luke and Noah paved the way for Will and Sonny who currently occupy super couple status on “Days of Our Lives.”
Soaps are struggling these days and many predict their ultimate demise, but fans will have the last word. Too many people have not only been entertained by soaps, but they have had their lives changed by their friends and family on the soaps. No doubt, soaps WILL continue to tackle every controversial topic and those who need the soaps will continue to tune in for the support that only the soaps can give.
We want to hear from you, how the soaps have been your foot print in the sand, how they help you cope with your life, are they are family to you, how the story line save your life or a friend? By leaving your comment, you will let the networks and the advertisers know what you want to see in your TV life.