Why are soap operas so popular?

Helena Robson

Television researchers have established a number of reasons why soap operas appeal to such a large and diverse audience. In this essay I will be examining these reasons with reference to my own attraction to soaps, and seeing how they fit into the everyday lives of the millions who watch them. Furthermore, I will investigate the way in which the construction and conventions of a soap opera aids its appeal. I will be considering such aspects as class, race, ethnicity and gender in order to determine the pleasures of soap opera viewing and will briefly look at their international appeal. My discussion will comprise aspects of the British soaps, for example, Brookside, Coronation Street, Crossroads and Eastenders, the American super soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty and the Australian soap Home and Away.

Dorothy Hobson conduced a set of interviews between February 2nd & 7th 1987, to establish how far the soap operas fit into the working environment of women. With the help of her secretary she set about interviewing six women who worked for Birmingham City Council: Diane, Gill, Mary, Susan, Vijya and Wendy, whose ages ranged from 23 to 35. The interviews took place at a night club which opens for lunches during the day. The informal setting enabled the women to speak freely about their viewing habits and the mode of discourse was relaxed as the women were accustomed to socialising together. In consequence, talking in unison or interrupting one another were not uncommon during the interview, for example, when Gill was commenting on the characters she found annoying in Brookside, the other women added in unison "The Corkhills" (Seiter et al., 1991: 153), in support of her opinion.

Hobson asked the women why they actually like soap operas and they claimed that it was due to their undemanding natures, the interesting story lines and the ability to become emotionally involved in the programme. The women make distinctions between American and British soaps describing British soaps as 'down-to-earth' and American ones as 'fantasy'. Hobson found that they spoke more favourably about the female characters suggesting that they are more interesting to watch than the males. However, they admired J.R. in Dallas for his powerful personality and Bobby's attractive physique but the women recognised that the characters' constant scheming about Ewing oil would not be a preferred aspect of evade real life. When asked whether the glamour depicted in the American soaps appealed to them or made them envious, the women replied that it did not make them envious, rather it appealed to their fantasies. Wendy summed up the extravagance portrayed in the show by stating the following, (as if she was one of the characters), "...you're dolled up as though you're going out for an evening meal at breakfast" (Seiter et al., 1991: 157). The women were especially critical of the fantasy element centred on the female characters, for example, Vijya described Alexis (from Dynasty) as looking like a 'clown'. On the contrary, they had great regard for the portrayed strength of the women characters in British soaps, notably Eastenders.

It is important to keep in mind that the 'realism' of a soap opera can only truly be judged by those living in the area in which it is set. British soaps are often viewed as being realistic because of their emphasis on the everyday happenings of life and their depictions of the working classes who in reality, constitute the mass of the British population. This 'realist aesthetic' appeals to the masses because it allows viewers to put their knowledge of the world and knowledge of the conventions of television into play. The close-up shot characteristically used in soaps enables viewers to focus on the characters' emotions and to understand most, if not all of the actions depicted. Some viewers obtain enjoyment from being able to acknowledge the 'true' emotions of the characters when they typically hide them behind a mask, for example, Bet Lynch (from Coronation Street) is admired for putting on a brave face when times are tough at the Rovers Return (the local pub in the series). In this way, the characters are emotional representatives, inviting the audience to partake in the arising issues and conflicts, in order that they may seek temporary solutions to the problems they are experiencing in real life.

However, recent research suggests that viewers rarely watch soap operas for advice on how to solve their problems although they do reflect personal problems, especially those of women. In anticipation of what will happen next, the viewer is keenly engaged in the soap text. Modleski's research studies reveal that the soap opera reflects the woman's role in the home. This is important because soap operas are aimed at a female audience. For the most part they are shown during the day when women are attending to their daily house chores. Their undemanding nature and emphasis on talk not action, means that a busy mother can catch the gist of what is going on merely through hearing what the characters have to say. Emphasis is placed upon the family, public situations and more often than not the community. This gives viewers a sense of belonging and provides a substitute family and social life for the lonely.

There is no question that the soap opera was designed to appeal to the female sex. It centres around domesticity, family life and gossip making it both comforting and appealing to women of all ages, classes and origins. Furthermore, women's styles of viewing are very different to those of men. David Morley observed and interviewed 18 South London families to find out the different television viewing habits of different family members. His results show that there is a distinct power struggle between mothers and fathers whilst viewing soaps. He found that mothers preferred to watch as a family and talk through the events as they occurred whereas the fathers preferred to view alone in an intense manner. Kreizenbeck claimed that the family unit was where the soap derives its spiritual and emotional strength (Allen, 1992: 130). Family relations are constantly questioned and by including the occasional dramatic event, for example a wedding or a death, as well as the ordinary happenings such as family feuds, the soap opera successfully holds the interest of its viewers.

"The pleasure for women viewers of patriarchal soaps is the demonstration that male power, challenged on the one hand by moral questioning and on the other by the women's refusal to be controlled, can never be fully or unproblematically asserted" (Geraghty, 1991: 74). Soaps provide an outlet for feminine anger in acknowledging women's contradictory impulses. Men take on static positions as 'head' of the family in soaps and are deliberately deprived of the stereotypical powerful image inherent in action thrillers, etc. Women enjoy seeing them suffer and their authority undermined. With regards theories of women's inequality, soaps are a source of female strength because "they help women test the waters to see how far they can go in challenging social norms" (Brown, 1994: 12). Men play sensitive roles in soaps and this provides comfort to women whose roles are often publicly silenced. Soaps value women's lives and by including paternity plots, give the women characters the power to keep the name of the father of their child secret if they wish to do so. Furthermore, women gain reactive pleasure from the soap opera by recognising their oppression and reacting to it.

Marion Jordan identified three women types typically depicted in the soap opera, i.e. the 'married woman', the 'single woman' (who is represented as either 'mature', 'sexy' or 'spinsterly') and the 'grandmother type'. Buckman also recognises different social types, for example, the 'good woman', the 'bitch', the 'villain' and the 'decent husband' (Geraghty, 1991: 132). This variety in British soaps makes them more interesting for some viewers than American soaps whose range of characters is less diverse. The British soap Coronation Street depicts the working classes in the north of England. Its first episode in 1960 coincided with Richard Hoggart's book, The Uses of Literacy which stressed the importance and strength of women and relates to the interpersonal activity of humans on a day-to-day basis. This was at a time when Social Realism was an important mode in fiction and Coronation Street, in its warm-hearted attitude to industry and the northern working classes, adopted a Realist Victorian approach.

In his book, Coronation Street, Dyer refers to, among other things, the social types depicted in the soap. Grandmother types include Betty Turpin who is known for her no-nonsense but kindly nature. Bet Lynch is referred to as being a mature and sexy marriageable woman, who is sharp and cynical but romantic at heart and Mavis Riley (who is currently married to Derek Wilton in the series) is acknowledged as the spinsterly type. It is noteworthy here that soaps often make use of story lines used in previous episodes because it was Mavis who nearly married a Spanish immigrant in 1975 until she realised that his reason for marrying her, was to obtain a work permit. This plot recurred in a recent episode when Deidre was set to marry Samir but refused as he was also wanting a work permit. By returning to a formal plot the programme invites the viewer to look back on the 'good old days', giving him/her a sense of comfort and nostalgia. Married couples in the programme have included Stan and Hilda Ogden who have been presented with their fair share of personal and work-related troubles but whose marriage has remained a stable one. This may give hope to those experiencing troubles in real life. Episode 1823 (shown on Wednesday 5th July 1978) showed the programme's 'civil regard' and 'commitment' to the working classes, showing that like those who are economically well-off, those with less can have good times too. The following is an extract from a scene relating to Hilda's new job:

HILDA: Eh, it's a smashing feeling, though.

STAN: What is?

HILDA: Us Ogdens coming out on top for once in us lives (Dyer, 1981:92).

Soaps typically represent the mother as 'all powerful'; the family source of strength. Pauline Fowler in Eastenders provides the emotional and financial support needed to keep her family 'afloat'. With emphasis in soaps being placed upon the family, it is no surprise for the viewer to see lodgers, for example, Curly Watts (from Coronation Street); and foster families such as Pippa Ross's family in Home and Away. In addition, British soaps portray 'inside' and 'outside' types, for example the 'gossip' and the 'tart'. The gossip is perhaps the most important of all the characters to the viewer who looks to 'her' for knowledge of the recent events and developments in the characters' relationships. Gendered Audience Theory recognises that watching soaps is a social process. It validates the woman's role in the home as 'housewife' and 'mother'. Furthermore, the oral culture it promotes allows women to "play with dialogue ... for pleasure" (Brown, 1994: 16).

Brown suggested that soaps were designed to be talked about because the audience must fill the gaps in between episodes. Fiske (1987) used the term 'tertiary text' to describe the conversations people have about the programmes they have watched. Research has shown that this occurs for some time after having watched a soap, often taking place outside the home, for example, between friends at school or at the workplace. This discourse often includes events from the viewers' own personal lives, frequently relating to the lives of the characters and their relationships. Soap opera conventions, for example, when a character leaves to go on holiday (when in real life he/she is temporarily ill in hospital); are also mentioned. Brown suggested that women's oral culture thrives on gossip because it gives them the freedom to express their opinions in an unpressured environment. Similarly, Geraghty recognises that part of the soap opera's attraction lies in predicting, rehearsing and telling others about the current events and plots. Hobson found that the women she interviewed debated in this way about the soap operas they had seen. Discussion about the grenre prompted some women to begin watching soaps because of the emphasis current viewers placed on its social orality.

Soaps provide a discussion point for awkward situations that may not be possible if the event occurred in real life. They enable viewers to indulge their fantasies in the deliberately made-up worlds they create. This is particularly true with regards to American soaps which characteristically promote extravagance and wealth. They may give viewers something to aspire to, envy or adorn. Some American viewers have described the super-soaps, for example, Dallas and Dynasty, as reaching areas of their fantasy lives that other fictions do not. They regard them as "out of this world" (Kilborn, 1992:79). Some British viewers also hold similar opinions about their favourite soaps, for example, Sir John Betjeman said of Coronation Street, "Mondays and Wednesdays, I live for them. Thank God, half past seven tonight and I shall be in paradise" (Nown, 1985: 7 in Kilborn, 1992: 12). Soaps embody the idea of 'utopia' in which viewers pleasurably ponder about notions of 'true love' and 'the ideal relationship'. Viewers are thus offered a sense of peace and security, and they derive pleasure from the genre's strong contrast to real life.

Ethnographic audience research suggests that watching soaps is an active pleasure whereby one's identity is confirmed. This of course, depends on the individual viewer. Caughey argues that people become attached to soap characters because they seem real to them. Cultural cues embedded in the genre help the viewer to identify different social roles, situations, etc. and the variety of character types displayed enable, him/her to identify with a number of them. These will include characters they like as well as those they do not. Furthermore, he argues that people sometimes live their lives through their 'hero' and can be emotionally involved with him/her when the television set is switched off (Evra, 1990: 103). This is especially true when viewers, for example, mull over a favourite character's decision to do something, after having seen them in action. Multiple character identification helps sustain viewers' interest in the soap as they become engrossed in what they see.

Brown commented on the ways in which women 'engage' with soaps claiming that they "pick favourites and take pleasure in knowing as much as possible about each character" (Brown, 1994: 18). They gain a reactive pleasure in seeing other women express their feelings and are free to gossip about the characters because they know there is no harm in doing so. Caughey's research on television viewers suggests that they interact both physically and mentally with the set, for example, by talking to it or hurling things at it. They are emotionally 'engaged' in the programme but at the same time remain physically 'distant' so that they are free to enjoy it. Moreover, the formal conventions of life can be viewed from a safe distance. Peter Collett (an Oxford University scholar) conducted an experiment whereby a number of British families were filmed watching television. His aim was to establish to what degree they were engaged in the programme on at that particular time. His results show that watching television is an undemanding process allowing viewers to engage in other activities simultaneously, for example, reading. As previously note, this is true of the soap opera which centres on talk, not action. "Soap opera audiences are ... active participants in negotiating complex models and contradictory ideologies with definite, if unconscious motivation" (Davies, 1984: 33 in Brown, 1994:54).

Seiter et al. carried out an ethnographic study which they called the 'Tubingen Soap Opera Project', between July 21st and August 16th, 1986. They were investigating a feminist approach to the soap opera genre, its place in the home and how viewers read it as a text. They conducted a series of 26 interviews in western Oregon (America), interviewing 64 participants of whom only 15 were male. They found that the majority of the viewers involved had a sound knowledge of the programme's text and were aware of the generic and poetic conventions of the soap opera. In addition, the participants were conscious of the soap's 'constructedness', deriving most pleasure from their own competence in 'reading' the soap 'text'. They preferred to view the soap in an intense manner without interruption (described by Charlotte Brunsdon as a male mode of viewing) claiming that it was a source of catharsis, i.e. therapeutically beneficial. Furthermore, the majority of female interviewees enjoyed the element of suspense inherent in soaps and gained great pleasure in successfully predicting plot developments.

"It is part of the fun for the audience to see how the programme can get out of the narrative web it has woven for itself and the viewer" (Geraghty, 1991: 20). Soap operas characteristically have 3 or 4 story lines running parallel to one another at any one time. One will be the "meat" of the programme and the others will be the "fillers" (34-year-old research participant, in Seiter et al., 1989: 234). Viewers enjoy actively controlling what they watch and have the freedom to skip over parts they find uninteresting. They consider soaps to be more pleasurable when they are familiar with the setting and characters. The setting is important for the viewer as it raises clues as to what will happen next. Viewers can be part of past events relating them to the current plot. John Tulloch's analysis of the characteristics of elderly television audiences, shows that elderly people find the distinction between past and present events in soaps appealing. Yorkshire Television launched Hollywood Sports in 1989; an interactive soap in which the audience had a chance to vote for possible story lines. The evidence gleaned from this experiment reveals that the viewers gained pleasure from matching their own knowledge and skills to that of the producers (Kilborn, 1992: 15-16).

The knowledge that viewers draw upon when watching television, is that of their 'direct' and 'indirect' knowledge of the world, and their awareness of the formal conventions of television. Viewers are able to follow a structure pattern recognising conventions such as the regular inclusion of new characters, typical of the soap genre. "Structurally, the soap opera genre uses time, segmentation, and lack of closure to give its audience a sense of continuous pleasure" (Brown, 1994: 88). Soaps are 'open' texts offering a multitude of perspectives on different characters and events, for example, after having been a hopeless alcoholic, Sue Ellen (from Dallas) became a successful business executive. Breaks in conventions like these, serve to heighten the viewer's interest and engagement in the programme, making it appealing and enjoyable.

Viewers often find it pleasurable to see a character acting contrary to their expectations, as the usually submissive Mavis Riley does when she defends her rights in Coronation Street. The melodramatic aesthetic of the soap opera catches and temporarily holds the attention of viewers. Occasionally soaps will devote an episode to one scene, usually at the height of drama, for example, a recent episode of Eastenders devoted half an hour to a scene in which Tiffany and Grant discussed the future of her relationship with Tony.

Many soap stories are never finally resolved and conflicts between characters may run throughout the programme's history, for example, the undying hatred between Ken Barlow and Mike Baldwin in Coronation Street. Many viewers welcome the sense of stability this offers although the element of change offers as much enjoyment for viewers.

The representation of change is a challenge to soaps, since the whole soap audience does not necessarily seek or get identical pleasures centred on stability and reassurance; the way in which new issues are handled may in itself be a source of pleasure to particular groups in the audience (Geraghty, 1991: 134).

'Time' is the foundation upon which the soap is organised, i.e. it passes in parallel to real life time and viewers can see such things as snow on the ground in a winter episode of Eastenders. This is appealing to viewers as it allows them to imagine the stories continuing between episodes. They are shown regularly, daily in the case of some of the American soaps, forming part of a routine for many housewives and mothers. Omnibus episodes at the weekends enable those who are busy during the week to "make good that loss" (Kilborn, 1992: 76).

In addition to watching soaps at different times, people watch them for different reasons. Hobson interviewed a group of soap viewers about Crossraods' representation of life in Birmingham. She found that it does not glamorise life like the American soaps but depicts a down-to-earth view of the English city and concluded that people's reasons for watching them are varied, for example, aspects such as age and personal preference will determine who watches what. Eastenders has a relatively young audience compared with Coronation Street whose viewers tend to be slightly older. Younger viewers are attracted to Eastenders because it has a significant number of young characters and in our ever increasing mutlicultural environment, viewers welcome the broad range of ethnic groups depicted. The show "benefited from having a larger than usual number of black characters in a variety of positions in the community and coming from a range of ethnic traditions" (Geraghty, 1991: 144). Soaps find appeal on an international level because of their readiness to incorporate aspects of other cultures, and it is interesting for viewers in foreign countries to witness say, the British way of living. They gain an insight, although a fairly distorted one, into the lives of British people.

Soap operas deal with contemporary issues and offer regional identity to viewers, for example, those living in the East End of London may have a close affinity with Albert Square where Eastenders is set. Some soaps have proven to be popular in the classroom, for example, Eastenders. Julia Smith and Tony Holland found that certain teachers used the soap to communicate with their students on a social level. Buckingham argued that soaps give children an insight into adult life. They find soaps like Eastenders appealing because they are presented with aspects of adulthood which they are normally protected from and children being naturally curious, will welcome this information (Geraghty, 1991: 178). The show is 'realistic' for such viewers but can be a source of amusement for those who are more familiar with its real-life circumstances. Vijya, an Asian woman in Hobson's study of working women in Birmingham, found the representation of her culture to be distorted and unrealistic. Nevertheless, she clearly enjoyed talking about what she had seen with her colleagues.

Academic research on soap opera has existed for over forty years. However, little work has been done to establish the social and demographic constitution of audiences for the various types of serial drama in America, Britain and Europe. The office of Social Research at the NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation) revealed that for most forms of prime-time programming, the audience is predominantly female. It claimed that Dallas and Dynasty have a female audience of more than 50% and showed that a considerably higher number of the female population watch the daytime serials. It is difficult to accurately gauge the sum of male soap viewers as most are reluctant to admit watching them. However, on Broadcast Audience Research Bureau Study (from November 1985) showed that 69% of a sample of male viewers of Eastenders deliberately chose to watch it. Only 15% were watching on the basis of someone else's choice and just 7% because they claimed there was nothing else worth watching (Broadcast Audience Research Bureau Audience Reaction Service, "Report on Eastenders", November 26th, 1985, Booklet Part B: 4 In Seiter et al.: 52-53). This affirms that the appeal of the soap opera genre, which is fundamentally dominated by females, does extend to the male audience. They too can sit down and soak in this popular culture enjoying its multifaceted plots and conventions.

Soap opera has at least three different discursive communities, i.e. 'critical', 'industrial', and 'viewer' making it a problematical area of study. Its 'transnational' and 'transcultural' nature mean that interpretation will differ immensely across the globe. However, it is a great source of entertainment and relaxation for the mass who tune in. Viewers can escape the 'grey' of everyday life and become immersed in a world of make believe over which they have full control. My personal experience of watching soaps and hearing family members talking about them has made me critical of the stereotypes that exist in them and how these are to a certain extent reflected in the society in which we live. Nevertheless, I find the genre very entertaining. I recently heard a young boy of about seven years talking to his mother about Eastenders, in Marks and Spencers in Liverpool. He made a very interesting comment about Peggy Mitchell one of the characters in the show, relating it to one of his personal experiences of life: "Mummy why does Peggy wear a mop on her head? Auntie Gena should show her where to buy the wigs".