OTI Online
Fall 1995

As the Soap Turns
by Elaine Rapping

In a recent issue of The New York Times Sunday Week in Review section, the spot that I think of as "Inside Jokes for Eggheads" was reserved for a series of excerpts from recent scholarly works by feminists on daytime soap operas. Ho, ho, ho, the Cultural Elite was meant to think as we shook our heads in wonderment at this latest inanity of the politically correct but mentally defective academy, Now they're doing "textual analyses" of As the World Turns. What next?

Not long after that, an otherwise thoughtful and balanced editorial in The New Yorker covered Yale's rejection of a large gift from a donor who insisted upon determining what courses the money would subsidize and who would be hired to teach them. The author, Andrew Delbanco, felt obliged, even as he defended the university's right to control its own curriculum and faculty, to express dismay over certain recent trends in academia of which the elevation of "soap operas and pornography" to the ranks of "literary texts" worthy of study were, in his view, among the most ludicrous. Ho, ho, ho again, we were meant to smirk, in culturally outraged unison.

While I'm usually proud to count myself among the so-called Cultural Elite - any group feared and loathed by Dan Quayle is a group worth joining - here I must decline. For the fact is that I am one of those feminazi witches who engages in this kind of textual madness for both love and money. In fact, I have recently returned from the annual gathering of a whole coven of such academic witches - a conference held each spring called "Console-ing Passions: Television, Video, and Feminism" - at which learned papers were indeed presented on such topics as infomercials, talk shows, 1950s sitcoms, the representation of blacks on television and daytime soap operas.

What was perhaps even more shocking about this gathering of some of the most learned and serious media scholars in the world (including males) was that it was - unlike more competitive academic conferences - a lot of fun. Like the millions of women and girls who follow the soaps, the scholars at these conferences are often themselves fans. Indeed, "fandom" is itself a topic of serious discussion at these conferences. It's fascinating stuff from an anthropological point of view, and it reveals much that is heartening about what female TV audiences think and feel about their favorite shows, and why they watch them. (And it's not because they're stupid.)

Is she kidding? you are no doubt wondering, with perhaps a bit of your own cultural anxiety over the state of higher education - especially the already much media-damned women's studies curricula. Is she really saying she not only enjoys soaps, but is teaching our daughters to like them? Well, sort of. There are very good reasons for women (and women-friendly men) to take an interest in the traditionally demeaned and abhorred cultural forms that women watch and talk about among themselves. In the case of soaps, at least, when these "texts" are carefully deconstructed from a feminist angle, they reveal themselves to be repositories of women's dreams and desires for a life that is largely denied.

Look at the headlines this morning, whatever morning you happen to be reading this. Chances are you'll hear about a world in which the feminization of poverty is increasing. Women are being molested, harassed, raped, beaten, and murdered at a growing rate. Reproductive rights are seriously threatened by terrorists and politicians alike. Child care, welfare, health care - the list of necessary services and entitlements is too long to reprint here - are all being annihilated (not that they were all that available or high-quality before). And such cultural constants as the sexual double standard, the glass ceiling, and the scarcity of properly socialized men with whom to mate and raise more such models are still problematic.

On the soaps, while some (but not all!) of these problems come up, they are presented and resolved in ways that are far closer to our dreams and fantasies than the real world allows. And as time has gone by, and feminism - more and more influential to the female consumers upon whom the producers depend for ratings - has had its subtle influence on the genre, its popularity with women of all classes and races has become even more understandable.

First, let's admit to the absurdities of the genre. Of course, the social landscape of Soapville is distressingly patriarchal, even feudal in structure. The heroes are all police officers, doctors, lawyers, and - especially - heads of multinational corporations that (oddly) seem to be planted in small Midwestern towns like Pine Valley and Springfield. Nonetheless - and most preposterously - all these institutions are pure equal opportunity employers. Class and race have no pejorative inflection or consequences here. If they are really good people, everyone - even convicted felons just released from prison with not even a high school diploma - almost immediately receives a job as a corporate executive. (If they are incorrigibly bad people, of course, they are eventually disposed of.) Boardinghouse residents (in gowns and tuxes which are wafted from thin air as if they lived in the Emerald City) hobnob with CEOs, and people of color and children of bag ladies marry and prosper in the highest circles on a daily basis.

But it is this very absurd landscape that makes it possible to create story lines in which women's real problems are portrayed - often more graphically and melodramatically than even our worst nightmares - and then resolved in ways that warm our hearts and fulfill our fondest emotional and social dreams. For these feudal fiefdoms - unlike the real world of cops, lawyers, and multinationals - contain institutions and men, powerful men, whose every law and policy and feeling are meant to serve and honor women. That's why soaps are so ridiculous by the criteria of realism, so easily dismissed as junk. If they were true to life, they would never be able to pull off their feminine visions of bliss. (Nor, it's worth mentioning, would their corporate owners and sponsors be willing to present them.) On soap operas, unlike real life, male doctors and lawyers traditionally announce to one and all that they are abandoning all their other cases and clients to devote themselves entirely to the latest crisis of the women they love, "because," they say in tones that never fail to melt my heart, "I care about you so much." On soaps, when women are raped or misdiagnosed or mistreated or cheated of all their worldly goods by scam artists or humiliated and betrayed, as they always are, sooner or later the head honchos of the family or legal system or medical system or corporate structure involved see that justice is done and that the villain is duly, deliciously punished. This is a far cry from what goes on in the real world, or for that matter, in most mainstream pop culture aimed at mixed audiences. Have you seen Chicago Hope or NYPD Blue or the O.J. trial lately?

I have often seen truly heartwarming segments on soaps. In a Guiding Light story line, way back in the 1970s, for example, a girl's boyfriend ran off in horror upon learning that she had been sexually abused by her father. He later returned to apologize for being so insensitive and not seeing that she needed to be comforted and supported since she had done nothing wrong. (My son and daughter and I followed that one together when my children were in junior high.) On All My Children in the eighties I watched, for many weeks, the trial of a prominent man charged with the acquaintance rape of the (notoriously "bad") woman with whom he was having an adulterous affair. As the story grew in complexity, community members began to take sides and debate the issue, many coming to see her side of it and support her. Still, the case was going badly for her until - get this - the man himself, in a fit of conscience, confessed, apologized, and volunteered to do community service at a rape crisis center. On The Young and the Restless, just last year - as O.J. was being arraigned, as a matter of fact - an abused woman, on trial for killing her husband to protect her daughter from abuse, joined a battered women's support group, all the members of which, during the trial, marched outside the courthouse wearing T-shirts and bearing placards saying STOP THE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN. She got off, of course.

But it's not all a feminist fantasy come true. Indeed - and here the critics are right - soaps are fraught with problematic gender stereotypes and assumptions about gender and society. Family, motherhood - and the continuation of paternal bloodlines - are still the central issues, no matter how transfigured, and romance is still what makes most women's lives go round. Another generic staple - the larger than-life bitch goddess ubiquitous to every soap since radio days - is also problematic from a feminist viewpoint. These vixens, in a caricature of most of the male traits we rightly despise, run amok through their calm little villages spreading hate and mayhem. They are as materialistic, competitive, rapacious - and obnoxious - as The Donald himself in their lust for power, sex, and money. They are wont to enter rooms and spew out vicious diatribes against their enemies, sometimes even physically assaulting female rivals.

Not nice at all, this. But despite the obvious "negative role model" issue, fans love these women for reasons that are understandable, I'd say, even to feminists. After all, this is not the real world but the soap world, where such glamorous villainesses serve, perhaps, as emotional surrogates for all of us repressed Good Girls. They are symbolic demons from hell every powerful man must dread. For in this man's world - which, in truth, honors and rewards such grotesque behavior above all else while insisting that only men be allowed to engage in and prosper from it - they act out our righteous female indignation. They push and shove and demand their way through the bastions of power and money from which we have been excluded. And if they get away with it for a while and are allowed to ride high in their nasty Bad Girl splendor (they always suffer defeat in the end, only to rise and then fall again), it does the hearts of the more repressed among us a world of good.

So here's to the soaps and their woman-centered universes of inanely delicious contradiction. Until the world turns toward the real social and cultural visions of feminist activists and artists and dreamers, we are stuck with stupid daytime facsimiles in which some of our dreams - implausibly, but deliciously - do come true. My daughter grew up tough and strong and independent not despite, but with perhaps a bit of help from, these sappy stories which goofily pretend - and so allow us to imagine - that our wildest, most grandiose dreams could come true. And should yours find herself in a class taught by one of the feminazi witches who seriously analyze them, so, I expect, will she.

Elayne Rapping is professor of communications at Adelphi University and author, most recently, o/Mediations: Forays Into the Culture and Gender Wars.

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