Why are soap operas so popular?

Merris Griffiths

Soap opera is the most popular form of television programming in the world, being the foremost genre in Britain for thirty five years, since the very first episode of Coronation Street was screened in 1960. The phenomenon evolved from the radio soap operas of the 1930s and 40s, emerging initially in the United States, and attracting a large following of predominantly female listeners. With the increasing popularity of television, it was not long before the genre became firmly established on the screen. The term 'soap opera' can be broken down : 'Soap' alludes to the role played by the detergent manufacturers, especially Procter and Gamble, who exploited daytime serials to advertise and promote their products; 'opera' is taken to refer to the tendency of this genre to be larger-than-life and excessively melodramatic [Kilborn, 1992 : 26]. Soap opera origin in rather humble, in that it was originally intended to provide entertainment on a local level. However, it was soon realised that the genre had major export potential, resulting in international reputation for the majority of contemporary soaps, be they British, American or Australian. It seems that soaps have succeeded in capturing the global imagination.

Over the years, soaps operas have been condemned as little more than "chewing-gum for the eyes" [Kilborn, 1992 : 9]; harmful, corrupting and distracting agents in the daily lives of many thousands of people. Typically, soap viewers have been equally condemned and stereotyped for their addiction to this so-called mindless form of entertainment. Early accounts of the radio-soap listeners envisage groups of educationally backward, emotionally and socially deprived women, all eagerly tuning in to their favourite serial. The typical listener was thought to be a lower-class housewife, using soaps as a form of escapism from mundane isolation in the home and an indisputable source of advise on personal problems [Buckingham, 1987 : 5]. However, the critical stance on this issue has become more diverse over the last decade, with an increase in academic research on the subject. Critics are no longer looking to condemn, and are now seeking to explain what it is that makes this genre so very appealing. It is clear from my reading that soap operas should not be dismissed as shameful addiction, and should be regarded more constructively as the essence of cultural articulation on all aspects of living within a given society. Indeed, Jane Feuer [cited in Allen, 1992 : 140], emphasises that the originally derisive term 'soap opera', with its melodrama, may now emerge as a mode better described as "social realism".

Contemporary soaps employ a number of standard conventions, and many researchers have attempted to list some of the typical characteristics. For example, Sonia Livingstone [1990 : 54] believes the common soap opera features include :

transmission at regular, frequent times, often daily; predominantly aimed at female viewers , occupying day-time/early evening slots; use of fairly constant and large cast, over many years, and a faithful audience; cheap production costs, regarded as low prestige entertainment; concern with daily activities, centred on a small community and/or large family; simulation of real time and realistic events; interwoven narratives, with overlapping resolutions; 'cliff-hangers' to ensure committed viewing; focus on female characters and 'feminine' or domestic concerns. to give further dimension to these characteristic features, one should also consider Brown's list [cited in Fiske, 1987 : 179/80] : resists narrative closure; multiple characters and plots; abrupt segmentation between parts; emphasis on dialogue, problem solving and intimate conversation; male characters are generally 'sensitive men'; female characters who are often professional or otherwise powerful in the world outside the home; the home, or some place that functions as a home, as the setting for the show.

I propose to construct my discussion of the popularity of soaps around these points, and to reach a reasonable conclusion about the appeals of this genre.

Arguably, one should primarily consider the demands that soaps make of their viewers. It is typically assumed that the average viewer is a 'fan', whose relationship with their favourite programme is one of intense emotional identity [Buckingham, 1987 : 6]. An individual may not be wholly involved with the programme in the emotional sense, but it is reasonable to assume that the viewer does have some prior knowledge of the series before sitting down to watch an episode. What becomes most pronounced is the sheer 'openness' of the soap opera text. It is 'open' in that it offers multiple levels of interpretation. Dorothy Hobson [cited in Buckingham, 1987 : 35] argues that viewers are free to choose from the infinite variety of readings within a given soap framework, and to be emotionally involved on different levels. Not only does soap opera resist any textual closure, but it thrives on the interplay between these multiple view-points. Sarah Kozloff [cited in Allen, 1992 : 74] states that textual openness is achieved by the fact that soaps run five or six story lines simultaneously.

Interest and complexity are achieved in that these storylines can all be combined, paralleled or contrasted. For example: EastEnders is currently running a complex dual-plot on the subject of adultery. Cindy Beale is having an affair with David Wicks, while her best friend, Gita, is contemplating having an affair with a new contact she has established through business. The situation is made all the more complex in that Cindy has already cheated on her husband in the past, by having an affair and child with David's half-brother, Simon. Gita, on the other hand, remembers how her husband, Sanjay, has very recently had an affair with her own sister, Mina; a remembrance that could sway her actions in this newly evolved situation. It is within such a multi-faceted and layered situation, that certain demands are made of the viewer. Buckingham [1987 : 50] discusses the ways in which soaps demand mental gymnastics of their followers, referring to retention, protension and lateral reference.

'Retention', is the process whereby viewers are given cues, inviting them to recall past events in the series, and can be sub-divided to refer to 'inter-diegetic events' - incidents shown in previous episodes - and 'extra-diegetic events' - incidents not show previously, but reconstructed on the basis of character accounts. 'Protension' refers to the process whereby viewers are invited to look into the future and speculate about coming events, while 'lateral reference' is made possible through the multiple-plot strands. These devices serve to further emphasise the openness of the textual narrative, and lead neatly on to one of the most significant soap opera 'gratifications'. In the time between episodes, viewers speculate about the directions that the plot will take, to produce their own theories that can only be tested by watching the text unfold. Viewers find pleasure in the unfinished, provisional nature of the genre.

Dorothy Hobson [cited in Allen, 1992 : 110] has researched the importance of gossip in the viewing of soaps. She interviewed a number of office workers who all claimed that talking about what they had watched the previous evening was as pleasurable as actually watching the programme. Talk consisted of future anticipation, debate regarding the significance of certain events, analysis of character behaviour and motives, and relation of this fictional world to real life. Christina Geraghty refers to gossip as the 'social cement' that binds the narrative strands of soap opera together, uniting the television text with its fans. Gossip is now being regarded as active participation in the meaning-making that constitutes our very culture. Something incredible seems to occur amongst people who watch the same soap, as they become united in the spirit of common interest ! Indeed, watching a soap that one is not familiar with can be a profoundly alienating experience. The incentive to watch lies in the fact that it will become increasingly more meaningful, with pleasure being derived from a certain degree of expertise at the end of an individual's efforts.

Regular soap viewers begin to regard themselves as people with a degree of mastery in their subject; positively empowered when pitted against someone less knowledgeable than themselves. Viewers enjoy to share the soap secrets that only few like-minded people have access to; being in a position to pass moral judgement on the behaviour they witness. It seems rather ironic that all the potential power that viewers gain regarding the content of a soap they watch regularly, is simply undermined by the fact that they are powerless to influence the action they see on screen ! Perhaps, therefore, the popularity of soaps lies in the escapist fantasy that the viewer, traditionally believed to be a submissive female, can enact a sense of control over what she sees, but, as feminists would argue, being rather powerless in a predominantly male society [I will discuss this issue later].

The thirst that viewers possess for any information about their favourite soaps has certainly led to a number of cultural spin-offs. Publicity is a lucrative market, as criticism and comment is provided by gossip columns, magazines and newspapers. One's sense of reality is confused as the lives of the actors become comparable with the characters they play, and they are judged accordingly. Viewers even write letters to advise their favourite characters, and adopt their styles of dress, speech and behaviour as an expression of their admiration. One should never underestimate the power of this genre and the over which it has a hold.

What is equally frightening is the presumptive nature of soap operas, in having a seemingly indefinite life-span. There is an unavoidable notion of immortality, as the audience is poised in anticipation over a plot that seems to have no beginning, no end and no distinctive direction, in which there is interrelation, overlap, divergence and fragmentation. Narrative closure is seldom seen within a single episode. The complicated example from EastEnders , previously mentioned, has been simmering for over two months now, but viewers cannot be sure what will become of Cindy's adulterous behaviour. Yet regular suspension of the story only increases the viewers desire to rejoin the lives of the characters in the next episode. To guarantee that audiences will indeed tune in to see 'what happens next ?', a phrase coined by the radio-soap announcers of the 1930's, the 'cliff-hanger ending' is often employed. Here, a dramatic incident or other moment of high drama is cut short. One is encouraged to indulge in a game with the destiny of the characters. For example : Cindy and David are interrupted in a passionate clinch by Cindy's husband, Ian; an incident swiftly followed by the title sequence marking the end of the episode. Such devices only serve to heighten the need to watch the follow-up episode.

The ways in which soaps are fundamentally constructed also hold great appeal for the viewer. If one is to consider three of the most significant British soaps - Coronation Street , EastEnders and Brookside - it is plain that the focus is placed upon the inter-relationship of a group of characters in a typically working-class setting. Indeed, soap opera story lines are based largely on the problems encountered within personal relations and family life; the content is essentially humanised. A mundane quality is evoked, as the lifestyles of the characters on screen are not so vastly different from our own. Many claims have been made by the producers of these soaps, in that they are ultimately designed to represent the realities of working class life and confront social problems. Viewers do profess to gain pleasure from this social realism. Yet, at the same time, soaps do not claim to offer single solutions to the problems they portray, but explore all the relevant possibilities. There are no objective truths, no answers, no permanent securities, no uncompromised actions and no absolutes [Livingstone, 1990 : 53]. I would argue that these features only serve to further emphasise that this genre really is reflective of a real life that holds few certainties for anyone.

The creation of convincing, strong characters is essential to the appeal of any soap. Who can deny that characters such as Bet Gilroy in Coronation Street , or the infamous Dirty Den in EastEnders , have left a lasting imprint on their consciousnes ? Most strikingly, soap operas contain a very large number of characters, and this in turn provides the audience with diverse points of view with which to identify. Furthermore, it is impossible to identify one single hero/ine within the bounds of a particular soap, so the viewer feels rather more a part of the actual community than an observer who is being lectured to on social, moral and personal issues. Interest is distributed throughout an entire community of characters, and this actually serves to make any character dispensable. It is more than possible for characters known to viewers for many years to disappear off the screen, and this has often caused uproar amongst dedicated followers. For example : The strange demise of both Dirty Den and Pete Beale, and the imminent departure of the entire Fowler family [bar Mark] in EastEnders ; the departure of the Queen of the Rovers Return, as Bet waved farewell to The Street; the unexplained vanishing of Barry in Brookside , and so on. While anything may happen to individual characters, it should also be emphasised that this does not effect the community as a whole. There is an insistence that life must go on under any circumstances and at all costs.

Stereotypes often lie beneath the surface of given characters, and viewers often find this satisfying in that they have something to identify with. Often, it is possible to argue, these characters are mere token gestures that the soap must include, so as to present a seemingly accurate picture of diverse, contemporary society. For example : Gita and Sanjay are the token minority, Asian family in EastEnders ; Mark Fowler is the token HIV victim; Pauline Fowler is the token family pillar, while Arthur is the classic hen-pecked husband; Grant Mitchell is the token 'animal', while Nigel Bates is the token 'prat'; Tiffany and Bianca are the token young 'tarty temptresses', while Cindy is the token 'slag'. Coronation Street follows a similar character stock : Vera Duckworth as the stock gossip; the Websters as the token young family in financial difficulty; Raquel Wollstoneholme as the token 'bimbo'; Des Barnes as the token 'cad'; Alf Roberts as the token pillar of the community, and so on. These stereotypes become real people to the average viewer; an extension of their personal and social networks, and aspects of their daily lives; these are people with whom we are already well-acquainted.

The concepts of a character formed by the viewer, are assembled using a variety of cues and indicators dispersed throughout the text. As in daily life, these indicators will include the way in which these characters talk and behave, their physical appearance, what others say about them, what they say about themselves, and so on. In this typically humanistic way, the viewer will be in a position to develop a consistent and basically accurate notion of a character's attributes. As Buckingham explains, [1987 : 51], this body of knowledge will then form the background against which the scene in the foreground is played. It is arguable that soap watchers are more interested in the interaction of characters than any single character in isolation. It is not the outcome, but the way in which resolutions are achieved that is most important. Brunsdon [1984] argues [as cited in Fiske, 1987: 182], that the pleasure of soap opera lies in the way that events occur rather than the events themselves.

The sense of realism is further enhanced by the relatively slow pace at which the narrative is allowed to proceed, since it seems that the narrative unfolds in real-time. It further eludes to the possibility that a given character is still leading an 'unrecorded existence' during the time that s/he is off screen [Dyer, as cited in Kilborn, 1992: 38]. The characters are seen to act typically at Bank Holidays, in birthday parties, at the supermarket, with other people, on their own, and in every other conceivable predicament. They are comfortable and familiar to be with, and afford the viewer the pleasure of security and companionship. Indeed, soaps are often watched for their compensatory function, so individuals can combat feelings of loneliness by escaping into the realistic world of their familiar acquaintances. Viewers identify and grow old with these characters, and the indulgence of tuning in regularly is harmlessly therapeutic for many.

The presence of strong female characters can be largely accounted for by the fact that soap operas have traditionally been regarded as a women's genre. Modleski [1982] argues that, as a devalued genre, soap opera has somehow evolved outside the critical 'masculine gaze', and is structured according to the 'rhythms of reception' of its predominantly female, home-based viewers. Tulloch and Moran [1986] [as cited in Fiske, 1987 : 76] have noted that men tend to denigrate women's tastes in television programmes. So it can be argued that the pleasure women gain from watching soaps is partly as a result of their active defiance of masculine power. The two main schools of thought regarding women within and without soaps, see the female position as being either reinforced or demolished.

Female characters play a more positive role in soaps than in many other types of dramatic fiction. They are often both strong and resourceful, and command the respect of those around them. Perhaps the now deceased Lou Beale, in EastEnders , is the most effective example of this commanding type of woman, since her personality was most forceful. A similar figure is the matriarch, who is often in a position to resolve conflict and dissent in the family ranks. She is often strong-willed, independent and ruthless, and can be seen to act as a confidante or advisor. Such figures, as Kilborn [1992 : 47] suggests, may include Bet Gilroy or Rita Sullivan in Coronation Street. Mimi White [cited in Allen, 1992 : 191] takes a more feminist stance in suggesting that the classic villainess transforms feminine weakness into a source of power and strength, offering other women the personification of vengeance against patriarchal restraint. Perhaps the most striking example of such a figure is the super- bitch Alexis, in the American super-soap, Dynasty ; a character immortalised by Joan Collins !

However, from my reading, I find that the traditional role of the female is predominantly reinforced in soaps. The notion that 'the genre reflects the gender' is crucial here. Soaps consist of an 'endless middle' [Livingstone, 1990 : 53]. In this structure of different narrative strands, it is reflective of the interruptable and fragmented life of the housewife and her daily domestic routine. Wiebel [1977] and Modleski [1982] [as cited in Fiske, 1987 : 53], list a number of parallel characteristics of soap plots and women's lives : The multiplicity of characters and plot is akin to the multiplicity of simultaneous household tasks; frequent interruption in the soap's text is equivalent to the constant interruption in the daily life of the housewife; lack of narrative closure is indicative of the endless nature of household chores. It is this lifestyle that dictates viewing mode, in that women generally perform other activities whilst watching the programme, being unable to devote time to concentration. This explains the relatively undemanding nature of soaps, since they are designed to be followed with the greatest of ease.

Cantor and Pingree [1983] [as cited in Livingstone, 1990 : 57] show that the soap opera genre actually reinforces the status quo regarding the position of women in society. Consider, for example, the way in which Pippa Ross, in Australia's Home and Away , is portrayed as a 'super-mum'; dedicated to all her foster-children rather than to any high-flying career. This is rather a worrying reinforcement, in that Home and Away attracts an audience comprised mainly of young people; teenage girls who watch the programme after coming home from school. The figure of the mother is made a positive and desirable, that an education for the future is not wholly necessary. There is no concrete evidence as to the degree that young girls are effected by this kind of characterisation, but they may subconsciously feel that a life of motherhood is most desirable than a life of professionalism.

Indeed, this notion is continued when one considers the negative images that arise if a female characters takes the initiative to be educated and career orientated. For example: Michelle Fowler in EastEnders , returned to education after falling pregnant at the age of sixteen. Upon gaining herself a well-paid job, and then accepting a post in America, she is seen to be 'punished' by a second, unwanted pregnancy. In this way, soaps always demonstrate the way in which women converse and are trapped within the family, and that men converse as professionals; further enforced by the lack of self-expression men possess about their home lives. Women fall into the two stereotypical images of the 'good woman' and the 'bad woman'; the former being family orientated and non-sexual, and the latter being openly seductive and using sex as a weapon.

Soaps do not offer a great deal of escapism from the drudgery of daily life, and seem rather patronising to their female audience, as Terry Lovell illustrates [cited in Buckingham, 1987: 108]. Lovell argues that there is an ambiguous relationship between women and the patriarchal society in which they live. He believes that soaps provide a context in which women can express 'both good-humoured acceptance of their oppression and recognition of that oppression, and some equally good-humoured protest against it'. It seems that women are essentially passive to their predicament, and this model does not provide particularly revolutionary ideology for the female viewers. What, indeed, can we do when this conservative genre offers a 'validation and celebration' of women's interests and concerns? We seem to simply be swept along on this tide of semi-resentment, semi-resignation; powerless to act constructively. Feminist politics do become marginalised, so that any protest is weak, and relegated to interpersonal relationships with men. For example : Sharon Mitchell, in EastEnders , did stand up to her bullying husband, Grant, but the situation remained wholly negative in that her own life was left in ruins. The prospect of having to build an existence from scratch does not motivate women to take a stand.

The popularity of soaps does not appear to lie in any single, specific aspect of the genre, but is rather explained by combining the multiple reasons viewers have provided for watching their favourite programmes. Soaps are unique in that watching them seems to have become a skilled activity, that demands general knowledge of soap conventions, and the ability to mobilise memory stores that constitute the history of a specific scene. With regard to the notion of cultural competence, Brunsdon [1981] [as cited in Fiske, 1987: 19] believes that women are highly 'competent' readers of soap opera text, and that their skills improve with practice. The more one watches soaps, the more reason one has to tune in on a daily basis.

There may also be a chance that soap popularity is all part of a conspiracy on the part of television producers and directors. They are aware that soaps will guarantee a large and regular audience if they are scheduled at the appropriate time. This is why soaps are predominantly screened during the day, or early in the evening, as the family are sitting down to a meal or when home-based mother is doing the ironing. Regular viewing becomes part of the domestic routine, and perhaps become little more than 'habit'. Soaps are principally sources of entertainment, providing pleasure and enjoyment for many, though they also provide considerable food for thought, at which viewers mull over problems in every spectrum of life. Whatever the reason for watching them, soap operas possess an incredible magnetic pull, and a power that must never be underestimated. 15 November, 1995

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