Let’s Talk About Soaps

I have a major guilty pleasure, and it’s watching soap operas. I started watching The Young and the Restless nearly 20 years ago (!) when I was a pre-teen, drawn in by the summertime teen-centered story lines that used to be a mainstay on these shows. Over the years I have started and stopped watching at various points, but I still tune in a couple times a week. Heck, I’ve even been a guest blogger at YR Critic.

Soaps, however, are an endangered species. This week, General Hospital was renewed–a victory for the show’s fans and a move that was all-but-certain from a network that canceled two beloved daytime dramas in the past year. There are only about four soaps left on broadcast TV. Networks have seemed eager to axe these expensive, scripted dailies in recent years and replace them with talk/reality shows. Soaps are expensive to produce, and audiences are declining. This is true. But can they be saved? Here are a few of my thoughts on soaps, and suggestions for the future.

  • Soaps need an updated view on gender issues if they are to survive. The Young and the Restless is particularly awful about this, but it’s not the only one. Victor Newman, the sometime-villan, often-times-hero of the show exhibits behavior towards his wives, children, and others that is clearly abusive, yet we are supposed to find that untroubling. He assaulted his wife Diane by pushing her out of an ambulance, but that was supposedly excusable because she faked a pregnancy. When his beloved Nikki was suffering from alcoholism, he was horribly abusive to her physically and emotionally. Then again, she had an affair with a bartender (who she eventually married), so that supposedly excused his behavior. He also continually meddles in the life of his eldest daughter Victoria, interfering with her relationships with at least three men who he didn’t approve of, and costing her custody of her own son when he tried to kidnap the child! In the year 2012, there’s no reason that this behavior should be acceptable and that a show should paint it as a victory when Nikki and Victor get back together or when Victor and his daughter reconcile. It’s not a feel-good story, it’s sick. Especially when so many young women are in the audience, the messaging of the show should clearly reflect that this is domestic abuse. Other shows are guilty of this, too. A recent story line on The Bold and the Beautiful (YR’s sister soap on CBS) featured the character Thomas attempting to seduce his step-sister Hope (ick)… by getting her drunk in Mexico. Hey, news flash: When you sleep with a girl after getting her so drunk she can’t say no, it’s not consentual sex. It’s rape. That this story even made it to the airwaves is inexcusable and irresponsible. Anyone need further proof that rape culture exists?
  • Soaps are not so great about race or sexuality, either. Interracial relationships have been problematic for Y&R. While Cane and Lily are an interracial couple and have a large fan following, Lily’s African-American father Neil has had a very different track record. An engagement between Neil and Victoria, who is white, was allegedly scuttled by writers several years back after viewers complained about the interracial pairing. More recently, he was engaged to Ashley, who is also white, but that was broken off as well. The generational dynamic is interesting–on Y&R, interracial romances occur among the younger characters, but happen only rarely/briefly among older characters. The minority cast is also very small. Y&R has one Latino character, who was only introduced fairly recently, and even more ridiculously The Bold and the Beautiful–which is set in freaking Los Angeles–has no regular Latino cast members. As for sexuality, having one gay character who appears mostly in party scenes does not amount to diversity. It’s surprising that with so many young characters we would not see story lines that deal realistically with characters exploring their sexuality, coming out, etc.
  • Writing can be insultingly bad. Crazy, outrageous plot lines sometimes make these shows fun, and have been a staple of soaps for years. However, in this day and age soap writers need to know that viewers expect more. We know more about the world now than viewers did 30 or 50 years ago. In the past year, Y&R has asked us to believe: 1) That a bone marrow transplant can be faked; 2) That you can get a restraining order against someone just because you don’t like them, without showing any evidence of actual harassment; 3) That you can be tried in Wisconsin for a murder that happened in Hawaii; 4) That Myanmar is totally safe and free and full of surfing Western tourists, and that you can enter and leave the country at will. No visa issues here! I could go on. It’s one thing to write in a way that is campy and outrageous and winks at the viewers; it’s another thing to just write stupidly and act as if the viewers won’t notice. I’m just saying, five minutes on Google and the writers should have figured out Myanmar was not the place to set a surf cantina. The same goes for the practice of retconning, or changing the story lines after the fact. It alienates long-time viewers especially and it should be used sparingly, if at all.
  • Production values need to improve. Soaps have obviously been struggling to cut costs in an attempt to remain relevant, but there’s a limit. Cheap sets or sets that are obviously re-used become tedious. And there’s only so many shots from rooftop gardens and outdoor cafes that are tolerable. Riddle me this–why would billionaires hang out at the local coffee shop?

It may be true that soaps are a dying genre, and as a feminist perhaps I shouldn’t be defending them. Yet, there’s something sentimental about stories and characters that have been around for generations. Soaps are a part of the pop culture and can represent a time capsule of changing fashions, social issues, views on gender and race, etc. They are also fun escapism. Likewise, the success of primetime dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, etc. shows that TV dramas do have an audience, can be somewhat progressive, and can be successful. It may be true that fewer and fewer individuals are home during the day to tune in to soaps, but nighttime rebroadcasts on cable, DVR usage, and online streaming still make it possible for these shows to have an audience. But, if daytime dramas are going to be saved, someone has to make them worth watching into the future.

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