Soap Opera Genre SOAP OPERA GENRE Before I saw Neighbours, I didnt know there was an Australia (Jerry Hall, The Clive James Show, UK, 31 December, 1989) T 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 womens 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 its 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, courtships, 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 clichs 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 symp …