Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Ode to the Soap

After talking about complex narrative, I've been thinking quite a bit about soap operas lately. I found an entry on media scholar Jason Mittell's blog pertaining to the subject of complex narrative and soaps, and enjoyed reading someone else's thoughts on the matter. It just seems to me that the soap opera is the grandaddy (grandmama?) of complex narrative. Honestly, could there be anything more complex than a program like All My Children, which has been going strong since 1970 and a cast of over 50 characters? It seems that soap operas have been largely ignored (although I did find Love and Ideology in the Afternoon by Laura Stempel Mumford to be an interesting read) because of the division between "high" and "low" culture. The fact that it is "women's tv" also stigmatizes the genre and makes it superfluous and beyond recognition.

But I found soap operas absolutely fascinating in their blending of traditional and modern. I am reminded of our class discussion on Dickens' characters and the archetypes that often starred in serialized novels, characters who were caricaturized in order to jog the reader's memory. Erika Kane, the matriarch bitch supreme of All My Children, is instantly recognizable for her leopard print dresses and fierce attitude.
Erica has even sparked a transmedia cottage industry, with bands B5, Urge Overkill, and Aaliyah paying homage to her in music.

The same character may often be played by multiple actresses on a long-running soap, but the character is still recognized and subsumed into the narrative (the old Dick York/Dick Sargeant switch, if you will).
But the soap is also groundbreaking, for plot as well as media methods. Soaps have frequently discussed topics taboo in popular society, such as teen pregnancy, AIDS, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and infidelity

The bond between viewer and tv family becomes extremely personal and allows these issues that may be too hot for a prime-time program to handle. They really are "all my children," and the viewer is allowed to be the understanding, perfect mother than tunes in everyday to deal with his/her children's problems.  
What I also find striking is that soap operas deal in real time. Their daily format makes them part of the viewer's daily routine, and as the life of the viewer conforms to the program, as does the program conform to the viewer. Like the serial novels, soaps tend to be repetitive, so even if I was taking the clothes out of the dryer and missed the reveal that Katy was pregnant, I can rest assure that they will mention it again. Often. The soap's formula makes lends itself to a "real time" feel- so when my family sits around our dinner table on Thanksgiving day, so does the cast of All My Children (granted, a little more dramatically than me and mine). 

Complex narratives try to replicate this manipulation of time- I think immediately of 24, and also of Dragnet's careful attention to time.
More importantly, I think most complex narratives would kill to have fans that reach the fever pitch of soap fans. Soap Opera Digest is sold in nearly every local supermarket and viewing the program becomes a generational rite of passage. Due to the incredibly long life span of many soaps, it is not uncommon to find grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who are all fans of a particular program and follow it fairly regularly. Soaps seem to cater to tendency to enjoy repetitive pleasures, but I think it is far to easy to simply write them off as "trashy tv". Rather, they are the first programs to breed fan-girls, and seem to contain all the elements that make complex narratives enjoyable. An aunt of mine recently told me about "Soap Opera Lunches" that took place in the mid-60s. Stars from popular soaps would host a lunch at a New York hotel, and invite the public for dining and questions. My aunt remembers joining her friends on a long bus ride from Philadelphia to New York to take part with one of these events. Watching a soap is really a commitment for watchers and makes them feel like they lived that life or know that family. It is early fandom, and may have lessons to teach more high-profile programs.

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