This post originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on April 9, 2008.
Presenting on the panel alongside me were some other academics doing interesting research. Mary Cassata and Barbara Irwin, who are chief powers in organizing the soap opera area for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national conference each year and who head up "Project Daytime," presented a project entitled "The American Soap Opera Genre at a Crossroads: An Analysis of Its Past, Present, and Future." Although, through my own lack of organizational skill, I neglected to take my copy of their essay back to my room with me even after they were nice enough to print out copies for everyone, I have reached out to Barb to get an electronic version and am expecting one shortly.
From their presentation, though, my biggest interest was in the many ways their sentiments and mine matched up, particularly that soap operas are at a critical juncture at the moment but that the genre is far from dead. Their suggestion, as with my work on the importance of transgenerational storytelling in soaps, is that many of the answers lie in the past of this rich genre.
They discussed in particular a list from Hubbell Robinson from the 1930s of what a soap opera should have: simple characterization, an understandable predicament, the centrality of female characters, and philosophical relevance, comparing changes in the genre over time and where soap opera are today, including a lot of the technical innovations made but the central importance still of good storytelling, compelling characters, and plots that resonate with viewers on an emotional level.
We had some discussion about "stunt casting," trying to get a spike in the ratings by bringing in a big name actor, and how this happens alongside ignoring longterm actors on the show. In other words, rather than giving more airtime and better stories to prominent members of the current cast, shows will often bring in new faces who were famous from another soap opera in hopes of spiking the ratings. This ties into my own interest of how soap operas can reach out to lapsed fans.
Meanwhile, Melissa Ames looked at various parodies of the soap opera form on film, from the depiction of psychological breakdown through a film like Ugly Betty, displaying the stereotypes of soap opera fans who cannot distinguish the fictional world of Pine Valley or Llanview or Salem from the "real world;" the parody of soap opera production and plot in Soap Dish; and a parody of the power of the writing team in Delirious.
Finally, in a project I unfortunately missed the original presentation for, Iva Baslarová from Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic presented "The Televisoin Genre 'Soap Opera': The Role of Mass Media in Co-Creating Gender Identifications by Storytelling." She was kind enough to send me a copy of the current draft of her paper, however, which looks at "the role of mass media in co-creating gender (and gendered) identifications through storytelling," using soap operas as a particular case study. In particular, she uses as her case study the original Czech soap opera, Surgery in the Rose Garden, which is what her dissertation work is built around.