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More on Cultural Biases and Soaps

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This post originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 13, 2008.

As many regular C3 blog readers know, I spend quite a bit of my research time focusing on soap opera related projects. At the moment, I'm working with C3 Consulting Researchers C. Lee Harrington and Abigail Derecho on a collection looking at this pivotal moment in the history of one of U.S. television's oldest genres.

So I'm interested to keep seeing references to the soap opera popping up in the news, notably in the columns of New York Times television critic Gina Bellafante.

I first wrote last month about my frustrations with Bellafante's tone when writing about Luke and Noah from As the World Turns fame. Rather than knocking aspects of the storytelling that she felt was poor, the article indicated that aspects of the story were scripted poorly because this was a soap opera, and there's simply no way for these shows to do anything else.

Well, good friend Lynn Liccardo contacted me recently to share this, Bellafante's latest piece. On the one hand, I was elated. Here was a glowing review of the magic of Friday Night Lights, a show whose merits I've emphasized here time and time again (and see more from Xiaochang Li here). On the other, the story included this line: "The obviousness of his looks -- soap-opera hair, soap-opera smile, soap-opera skin -- is incongruous with the refined style of his performance."

Lynn writes about the quote here, including a comment from me that I sent her via e-mail, which said, "It's funny that she finds them culturally relevant enough to refer to often or even write about but yet feels the need to do so in a way that puts them down, that seems to justify their reference with a wink and a nod that of course she's aware that they are inferior cultural products..."

She suggests that one of the real problems soap face is that the industry has internalized this discussion of soap operas inferior product. See here, as well as Sara Bibel's comments on this "inferiority complex" here.

Here we have two examples of Bellafante's evoking soaps as a reference to bad storytelling, yet it extends further. See her recent review of Brothers and Sisters, in which she writes about the ABC drama as a soap opera and ends up taking a subtle shot at scholars who have defended soaps: "During the 1980s and '90s a whole body of feminist scholarship emerged to defend the soap operas on the grounds that they were waging a fight against patriarchal culture that otherwise sought to marginalize womanly concerns. I can hardly stand up for 'Brothers & Sisters' on the same shaky cement."

Now, I do agree with Bellafante that soap operas shouldn't be unproblematically valorized on these grounds, and some scholarship might have concealed warts in an effort to correct strong cultural biases against soaps. See more on this point from discussion surrounding this post by Katharine Chu from my soap opera class at MIT this spring. But I can't dismiss those arguments as "shaky cement," especially when one looks at the powerful way soap operas can tell stories that branch across a multigenerational community, when they are at their best.

I was thinking about all of this as I was looking up a review for Army Wives earlier this week. The show just came out on DVD, and my wife was looking for something to watch while I take over our usual TV viewing station to catch up on my pro wrestling. She was curious about the Lifetime show, so I looked up a review on my phone--and found this review from Variety's Brian Lowry, who calls the series "a stereotypical sudser that wants to be 'From Here to Eternity' but feels like 'All My Children: Military Edition.'" So, again, we have the conflation of U.S. soap opera style (40 cast members, daily, no off-season, etc.) with primetime drama, the idea that all soap operas fit a stereotype, and ultimately points that this new show wants to aspire to the critical heights of a film but lowers to the depths of that terrible program created by Agnes Nixon...

It's that lack of nuance that annoys me most. If they had said "but feels more like All My Children's last few years..." perhaps it would be more palatable, but to dismiss a show--and in effect the whole genre it belongs to--outright is not just indicative of a stereotype, but dare I say poor criticism.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Bellafante has reviewed Army Wives, too. And, don't worry, she had time for a quite similar dig:

The season premiere revolves around a cheaply melodramatic plot twist, perhaps best endured without foreknowledge. Yet because "Army Wives" is always driving us into the territory of "One Life to Live" and then pulling up to the property line of "Coming Home," it also effectively finds Roland trying to repair his marriage to a lieutenant colonel, who returned from Afghanistan with a debilitating guilt over a tactical decision that led to the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl.

Yet again, it's assumed that One Life to Live territory means "a cheaply melodramatic plot twist," that a show like OLTL cannot be artistic because it's a soap opera. Sure, part of the problem may be that there's no easy way to demarcate the time period in which a show is "good" from that which is bad. As with pro wrestling and comic books, there are no seasons, title changes, or other tidy ways to demarcate one run of stories from another. But if that means we should liken late-1980s Doug Marland ATWT with mid-1990s ATWT, then it simply means there's no gauge whatsoever as to what makes good soap opera storytelling. And it's easy to understand why soap writers may eventually feel defeated and internalize this blanket criticism when, for instance, the great storytelling I've been hearing about from Ron Carlivati over at OLTL is rewarded with statements like this. (See more hereand here.)

I'll end with what I wrote from my previous post on the matter:

The phrase "as preposterously as any couple on daytime television" yet again lumps the genre into a whole. Rather than being a type of storytelling capable of both mastery and shoddy storytelling, all soap operas and their storylines are "preposterous." In discussing the character Ameera Ali Aziz being the first woman in a chador on a U.S. soap, Bellafante goes on to say, "amid all the Botox and cleavage," despite the fact that I'm pretty sure ATWT pales in comparison to most primetime shows when it comes to plastic surgery and bustiness. That's where The Hills differs quite a bit from Lucinda, Barbara, Kim, Emma, Lisa, Nancy, Bob, Susan, Tom, Margo, etc., on a program with more 50+ than perhaps any other show on TV. I'm not saying that none of these actors have ever had plastic surgery, but Botox and breast implants are not what they bring to the show.

But, of course, it's presumed that, if you are writing about soap operas in a publication like The New York Times, you have to distance yourself from a text that should not be as easily praised in mainstream. Rather than criticize aspects of Luke and Noah being done wrong in a soap opera, it's preferred to criticize aspects of Luke and Noah as being done wrong BECAUSE they are a soap opera.


Sam Ford is a research affiliate with the Consortium and Director of Customer Insights with Peppercom. He also writes for PepperDigital. 

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