Soap Opera Genre Essay, Research Paper
SOAP OPERA GENRE
“Before I saw Neighbours, I didn?t know there was an Australia”
(Jerry Hall, The Clive James Show, UK, 31 December, 1989)
he soap opera genre originated in American radio serials of the 1930s, and owes the name to the sponsorship of some of these programs by major soap powder companies. Proctor and Gamble and other soap companies were the most common sponsors, and soon the genre of ’soap opera’ had been labeled. Like many television genres (e.g. news and quiz shows), the soap opera is a genre originally drawn from radio rather than film.
Television soap operas are long-running serials traditionally based on the close study of personal relationships within the everyday life of its characters. Soaps are a consistent set of values based on personal relationships, on women?s responsibility for the maintenance of these relationships and the applicability of the family model to structures. In soap operas at least one story line is carried over from one episode to the next. Successful soaps may continue for many years: so new viewers have to be able to join in at any stage in the serial. In serials, the passage of time also appears to reflect ‘real time’ for the viewers: in long-running soaps the characters age as the viewers do. Christine Geraghty (1991, p. 11) notes that ‘the longer they run the more impossible it seems to imagine them ending.’ There are sometimes allusions to major topical events in the world outside the programs.
Soap operas have attempted to articulate social change through issues of race, class and sexuality. In dealing with what are often perceived to be awkward issues soap operas make good stories along the emotional lines of the characters. Christine Geraghty (1991, p. 147) ?While it seeks to accommodate change, it tries to do so on the basis of suppressing difference rather than acknowledging and welcoming what it offers.? Soap operas use the dramatisation of social issues to generate a greater sense of realism for the viewer.
Like the melodrama genre, the soap opera genre shares such features as moral polarization, strong emotions, female orientation, unlikely coincidences, and excess. Another related genre is the literary romance, with which it shares features such as simplified characters, female orientation and episodic narrative. However, soaps do not share with these forms the happy ending or the idealized characters.
Some media theorists distinguish between styles of TV programs, which are broadly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Those seen as typically masculine include action/adventure programs, police shows and westerns; those seen as more ‘feminine’ include soap operas and sitcoms. Action-adventures define men in relation to power, authority, aggression and technology. Soap operas define women in relation to a concern with the family.
For example in Neighbours the love triangle between Karl Kennedy, a married man and his secretary Sarah. Viewers knew the secret of the affair however; it was not by Susan Kennedy, or the Ramsey Street community. Therefore allowing the secret to maintain it?s status and continue to be a valid plot thread. Although Karl has attempted to institute some redressive action, by taking a holiday with his wife, the crisis still exists. As there has been no redressive action directed towards Sarah the crisis still exists in the minds of the viewer. This all to common love triangle in soap operas suggests to the viewer about what is right and wrong in a relationship. Suggesting that infidelity is wrong and that the family should come first. Bean (1982:163) writes ” by creating situations that violate the ideal order of the family” the soap opera will communicate to its audience about family life.
Recurrent themes in soap opera include love, courtship?s, secrets, marriages, divorces, deaths, scams and disappearances. Gossip is a key feature in soaps (usually absent from other genres): in part it acts as a commentary on the action. Geraghty notes that ‘more frequently than other TV genres, soaps feature women characters normally excluded by their age, appearance or status’ (1991, p. 17). These themes are reoccurring and repetitive and become the thread of each story. With each different character going through all of these themes at one stage, the different stages of social drama get repeated often.
However, the themes can also be linked to one another to create more drama for the audience. Such as in Neighbours, Joel and Sally are in the beginning stage of their romance (courtship), however he also has strong feelings for Libby (love) and Drew is the only one who knows about it (secret).
Television has become the “major socializing agent competing with family, school, peers, community and church”. (Kottak citing Comstock et al., 1996:135). It is for this reason that the above themes are so prevalent in Soap operas such as ?Neighbours? as it is competing with the interest in our every day lives. Neighbours gives us “disturbances of the normal and regular? to give us greater insight into the normal” (Turner 1974:34). Unconscious or atemporal structures of what people believe they do, ought to do, or would like to do discussed by Turner helps to explain what Neighbours portrays, and why it can compete with our every day lives (Turner citing Richards, 1974:36).
Broadcast serials have the advantage of a regular time-slot (often more than once a week), but even if some viewers miss it, they can easily catch up with events. Any key information that might have been missed is worked into the plot when necessary. Nevertheless knowledge of previous events can usefully be brought to bear by habitual viewers, and doing so is part of the pleasure of viewing for them. Viewers also in an omniscient position, know more than any character does. The form is unique in offering viewers the chance to engage in informed speculation about possible turn of events.
Recognising how soap operas provide ‘a continuing renewal of the familiar’, interviews with and observation of soap fans show that the sharing of information and opinion after the program is over is as important to viewers as the actual following of the stories.
Soap operas are pleasurable because they do not surprise the audience or try to change attitudes. Instead soap operas offer a reassurance that the world is not changing as quickly as it seems. Soap operas deal with the victory of old fashioned and traditional certainties over evanescent fashions that assail them.
Unlike a film or a series, there is always a wide range of characters in a soap opera (which means that no single character is indispensable). The large cast and the possibility of casual viewers necessitates rapid characterization and the use of recognizable ‘types’.
Soaps are frequently derided by some critics for being full of clich?s and stereotypes, for having shoddy sets, for being badly acted, trivial, predictable and so on. Soap viewers (often assumed to be only women, and in particular working-class housewives) are characterized unfairly as naive escapists. Given the great popularity of the genre, such criticisms can be seen as culturally elitist. Robert Allen (1992, p. 112) argues that ?to emphasize what happens when in soaps (in semiotic terms the syntagmatic dimension) is to underestimate the equal importance of who relates this to whom (the paradigmatic dimension).?
Some feminist theorists have argued that soap operas spring from a feminine aesthetic, in contrast to most prime time TV. Soaps are unlike traditional dramas (e.g. sit-coms) which have a beginning, middle and an end: soaps have no beginning or end, no structural closure. They do not build up towards an ending or closure of meaning. Viewers can join a soap opera at any point. There is no single narrative line: several stories are woven together over a number of episodes. In this sense the plots of soaps are not linear.
The structure of soaps is complex and there is no final word on any issue. A soap involves multiple perspectives and no consensus: ambivalence and contradiction is characteristic of the genre. There is no single ‘hero’ where the preferred reading involves identification with this character), and the wide range of characters in soaps offers viewers a great deal of choice regarding those with which they might identify. ?All this leaves soaps particularly open to individual interpretations (more than television documentaries,? suggests David Buckingham 1987, p. 36).
Tania Modleski (1982) argues that the structural openness of soaps is an essentially ‘feminine’ narrative form. She argues that pleasure in narrative focuses on closure, whilst soaps delay resolution and make anticipation an end in itself. She also argues that masculine narratives ‘inscribe’ in the text an implied male reader who becomes increasingly omnipotent whilst the soap has ‘the ideal mother’ as inscribed reader. Narrative interests are diffused among many characters and her power to resolve their problems is limited. The reader is the mother as sympathetic listener to all sides.
Soaps make consequences more important than actions, involve many complications, and avoid closure. In soaps dialogue blurs and delays. There is no single hero in soaps, no privileged moral perspective, multiple narrative lines and few certainties. Viewers tend to feel involved interpreting events from the perspective of characters similar to themselves or to those they know.
For example in Neighbours Hannah Martin made a number of phone calls to a physic line (action), which cost her father a great deal of money. However, the consequence of this has become a plot thread for many episodes as Hannah not only has had to get a job to pay for the bill but also must pay for all of her local phone calls. This has also led to problems with her stepmother Ruth monitoring this consequence. Once again focussing on the family element of a soap opera.
Not much seems to ‘happen’ in many soap operas because there is little rapid action. In soaps what matters is the effect of events on the characters, This is revealed through characters talking to each other. Charlotte Brunsdon argues that the question guiding a soap story is not ‘What will happen next?’ but ‘What kind of person is this?’ (In Geraghty 1991, p. 46). Such a form invites viewers to offer their own comments.
John Fiske (in Seiter et al. 1989, p. 68) notes that minimal post-production work on ‘realist’ soaps (leaving in ‘dead’ bits) may be cost-cutting, but it also suggests more ‘realism’ than in heavily edited program?s, suggesting the ‘now’ of the events on screen. Published stories about the characters in soaps and the actors who play them link the world of the soap with the outside world, but they also allow viewers to treat the soap as a kind of game.
Ien Ang (1985, pg45) argues that watching soaps involves a kind of psychological realism for the viewer: an emotional realism, which exists at the connotative level. This offers less concrete, more ’symbolic representations of more general living experiences’ which viewers find recognizably ‘true to life’. In such a case, ‘what is recognized as real is not knowledge of the world, but a subjective experience of the world: a “structure of feeling”‘ For many viewers of soap operas this was a tragic structure of feeling: evoking the idea that happiness is precarious.
Viewers familiar with the characters and conventions of a particular soap may often judge the program largely in its own terms (or perhaps in terms of the genre) rather than with reference to some external ‘reality’. For instance, is a character’s current behaviour consistent with what we have learnt over time about that character? The soap may be accepted to some extent as a world in its own right, in which slightly different rules may sometimes apply. This is of course the basis for the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on which drama depends.
Producers sometimes remark that realistic drama offers a slice of life with the duller bits cut out, and that long-running soaps are even more realistic than other forms because less has to be excluded
Jordan (in Dyer 1981) identifies several broad stereotypes used extensively in soap operas, Grandmother figures; marriageable characters (mature, sexy, women; spinsterly types; young women; mature, sexy, men; fearful, withdrawn men; conventional young men); married couples; rogues (including ‘ne’er-do-wells’ and confidence tricksters). Buckingham refers also refers to the use of the stereotypes of ‘the gossip’, ‘the bastard’ and ‘the tart’. Anthony Easthope adds ‘the good girl’, and Peter Buckman cites ‘the decent husband’, ‘the good woman’, ‘the villain’ and ‘the bitch’ (in Geraghty 1991, p. 132). Geraghty herself adds ‘the career woman’ (ibid., p. 135ff). Suggesting that soap opera characters and stories draw on fundamental human traits
Maire Messenger Davies suggests that ‘nothing goes wrong in Neighbours for very long and that’s why children like it’ (in Hart 1991, p. 136).
Soaps in general have a predominantly female audience, although prime-time soaps such as Dallas are deliberately aimed at a wider audience. According to Ang, and hardly surprisingly, in Dallas the main interest for men was in business relations and problem and the power and wealth shown, whereas for women were more often interested in the family issues and love affairs. In the case of Dallas it is clear that the program meant something different for female viewers compared with male viewers.
In ‘realist’ soaps, female characters are portrayed as more central than in action drama, as ordinary people coping with everyday problems. Watching the characters in a soap opera deal with everyday problems allows the viewers a sense of normality and helps them to deal with their problems in comparison. Certainly soaps tend to appeal to those who value the personal and domestic world. The audience for such soaps does include men, but some theorists argue that the gender identity of the viewer is ‘inscribed’ in programs, and that typically with soaps the inscribed viewer has a traditional female gender identity. And ‘the competencies necessary for reading soap opera are most likely to have been acquired by those persons culturally constructed through discourses of femininity’ (Morley 1992, p. 129).
Dorothy Hobson interviewed women office workers in Birmingham and found that their free-time conversation was often based on their soap opera viewing. Some had begun watching simply because they had discovered how central it seemed to be in lunchtime discussions. It involved anticipating what might happen next, discussing the significance of recent events and relating them to their own experiences. Hobson argues that women typically use soaps as a way of talking indirectly about their own attitudes and behaviour (in Seiter et al. 1989: pp. 150-67). Geraghty (1991, p. 123) also notes that there is some evidence that families use soaps as a way of raising and discussing awkward situations. Most viewers seem to oscillate between involvement and distance in the ways in which they engage with soaps. For example in Home and Away, the issues of rape, teenage sex and pregnancy, single parenting, epilepsy, drug addiction, abortion, infidelity, and death are all issues in which the characters have dealt with. This allows the audience to discuss these issues without talking about themselves. This allows many controversial issues to be discussed in the family home, to educate the viewers.
The viewer is often engaged in the social drama, of knowing a breach to come or already being in a crisis before the characters of the show are. The viewer wants to be part of the community of the soap opera such as Neighbours and Home and Away, to share their knowledge of the reoccurent themes that are happening. If we all lived in Summer Bay or on Ramsey Street, we would be very attractive, doing well at school/university, have a great job, fantastic children, good at sport, happily married, and no problems for very long. This allows the viewer to feel like they could be living in the ideal world where you can do anything, and any problems that you may have will not last too long.
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