CHAPTER 3: SOAP OPERA: THE DIVERSIFICATION1 OF A GENRE
The pervasiveness of television culture has become an entirely naturalised feature of everyday life (Ang, 2007: 21).
In the introductory chapter it was argued that a plethora of public stories could be analysed in an effort to understand constructions of whiteness. Some of the earliest representations of whiteness and ideologies of whiteness could be traced back to popular literature and cinema. More recent forms of mass media, such as the soap opera were, furthermore, identified as contemporary narratives which could be analysed in an effort to understand constructions of whiteness.
Kellner (1996) emphasises that media texts highlight the values, social issues and trends of the context in which they are produced. These texts can therefore be considered as snapshots of a particular society at a particular time. Similarly, Enric Castelló (2010: 209) writes that links between social discourses (in this particular case the discourse on whiteness, for example) are “often forged through intertextual relationships” related to the production and consumption of media texts. Following Kellner (1996) and Castelló’s (2010) argument, the aim of this chapter is to provide an overview of soap opera’s development as a genre, the particular conventions that govern its production and the possibilities these productions hold for representations but also (re)negotiations of whiteness. The role of the genre as a form of symbolic expression is, furthermore, touched upon in order to link it to the analysis of whiteness as it manifests in popular narrative forms (Cf. Chapters 6, 8 and 9).
To this end, this chapter provides a literature review of research on soap opera2 which serves as background to the analysis of soap operas which follows (Cf.
Chapters 5 to 8), but also contributes to the fundamental theoretical background of the thesis. The first two sections deal with the history of soap opera and its inherent characteristics. Knowledge of soap history and the generic characteristics of the genre, but also the ways in which the genre developed and diversified, will facilitate the comparative analysis in the final chapters. In particular, being aware of the general characteristics of the genre emphasises the ways in which it is being indigenised, which strengthens the comparative element of the analysis. The final section of the chapter focuses on investigating how and why soap opera can be regarded as a valid subject of analysis, particularly with reference to ideologies such as whiteness
It is popularly accepted that soap opera had its origin in the USA in the 1930s, in the guise of daytime radio serials.3 These radio serials were sponsored by giant soap powder manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble, Colgate, Palmolive and Peets (Hobson, 2003: 7). According to Dorothy Hobson (2003: 7), after radio became a mass medium in the 1930S, US manufacturers embraced it as an opportunity to expand their markets. Soap opera created an ideal vehicle for advertising, but this was not only the case in the USA. Radio as mass medium, as well as the use of soap opera to attract audiences and advertise products, spread to Britain, Australia, Europe and eventually also to developing countries such as South Africa. These programmes were conceptualised to attract the attention of female listeners or housewives who were at home during the day, affording these companies an opportunity to advertise and sell their products. Their scheduling purposely reflected the times when women would sit down for a break from their housewifely duties.
Related to the genre of radio serials and its history is the telenovela. According to Marilyn Matelski (2010: 186), this Latin American genre had its roots in Cuba where, in the 1800s, tobacco production was one of Cuba’s major industries. Local cigar-maker gilds came up with the idea of hiring “lectores de tabaco” – literate employees tasked with reading novels – chapter by chapter – to their co-workers every day. The popularity of novels being read in instalments “soon went beyond the cigar factories and onto the radio waves in the 1920s”. With this, the radio novela was born, and the first radio novela was broadcast in Havana, Cuba, in 1948, followed by the first telenovela in 1952 (Matelksi, 2010:186). According to Castelló (2010: 211), these fictional narratives were later shifted to adapt from the telenovela style to the soap opera model, and also adapted to local taste.
The term “soap opera” probably originated in the entertainment press of the late 1930s. The term came from its connection to soap manufacturers although there were also other sponsors and advertisements including toothpaste, cereals, drugs, food and beverages. Soap operas were, moreover, occasionally referred to as “washboard weepers” (Allen, 1985: 8). According to Robert C. Allen (1985: 9), the “opera” in soap opera acquires meaning through its ironic and double inappropriateness. “Linked with the adjective ‘soap’, opera, the most elite of all narrative art forms, becomes a vehicle for selling the most humble of commodities” (Allen, 1985: 9).
The first producers of a successful soap opera were Frank Hummert and his wife Anne Ashenhurst (Hobson, 2003: 8–9). They produced a soap called Betty and Bob in October 1932. In this production, some of the basic characteristics of modern soap opera were already present – starting out as a love story and specifically dealing with the problems of marriage in modern society. Other themes also established at this time included jealousy, fidelity, divorce, child-rearing/childlessness, family and romantic love (Hobson, 2003: 9).
As mentioned above, radio soaps did not remain restricted to the USA. Michele Hilmes (2006: 5) argues that, during the 1930s and 1940s, American and British radio networks kept a close eye on each other, “frequently borrowing programme ideas”, evaluating each other’s institutional practices and using each other as conceptual counterweights in policy debates. She writes that the BBC, however, “resolutely held out against the program [sic] form most notoriously associated with ‘vulgar’, commercial feminized [sic] American radio culture: soap operas”. Despite this, the first British soap opera, Front Line Family, made its debut in 1941, but only on the North American service as a propaganda vehicle. The programme, however, proved to be highly popular with British audiences. Hilmes (2006: 5) writes that Front Line Family became the precursor of other serials such as Mrs Dale’s Diary, The Archers, and eventually also contemporary soaps such as Coronation Street and EastEnders. The first long-running series in the UK was called Mrs Dale’s Diary, and it ran from January 1948 until April 1969.
During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a visible shift to more working-class characters, which reflected the changes in cultural awareness in all areas of popular entertainment as well as the arts. A shift was thus made to the so-called “kitchen-sink” dramas, which emphasised domestic realism (Hobson, 2003: 10). In 1955, for example, The Archers was featured on the opening of commercial television in Britain. It had a strong commitment to “everyday realism in a working class setting … [and] would contribute greatly to the ethos” of both Coronation Street4 and EastEnders5 (Hilmes, 2006: 24). It was thus also in the 1960s that soap opera emerged as a new type of television programme. In 1978, the BBC transmitted the first episode of the American-produced soap opera, Dallas, which attracted 24 million viewers. Ien Ang (2007: 18) writes that, looking back, we can affirm that Dallas was not just an ordinary television show. It was so popular in the Americas, as well as in Europe and around the world, that it went on for 13 seasons.6
The popularity of soap opera was thus indisputable from the start, even if it was not without criticism. For example, in April of 1937, Roy Witmer, Head of Sales for NBC, commented in an interview that, regrettably, if it is a case of giving radio listeners what they like to listen to, soap operas are at the top of the list (Hilmes, 2006: 11). The history of soap opera can certainly be traced back to America, and the spread of the genre could therefore be viewed as a kind of export or even imperialism. However, soap operas have evolved and diversified in different contexts (Liebes & Livingstone, 1998: 148). Ang (2007: 23) writes that while, in the 1980s, the dominant concern was American cultural imperialism and with it fears of colonisation of local and national television cultures by American productions, the actual situation is much more complex and contradictory. She writes that “[t]o put it simply, American popular TV became both more powerful and less hegemonic, both more influential and less popular”. While soap opera as an international genre certainly became a prominent fixture in national television schedules, the fact that it became progressively more indigenised diminished its American hegemony. The “conceptual shift from ‘cultural imperialism’ to ‘globalisation’ serves to capture this contradictory complexity” the result of which can no longer be viewed in terms of “existing center [sic]-periphery models but must be comprehended through the more fluid model of global cultural flow, in which the United States is … only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes” (Appadurai, 1996: 31-32). For example, while a soap opera like Dallas still centred on upper middle-class characters, Australian soap operas such as Neighbours, like their British counterparts, revealed the different attitudes and values of the culture they represented. Similarly, most European countries produce at least a few of their own soaps and in Latin America, the telenovela, while sharing some of the main characteristics of soap opera, differs greatly from American soap operas. These domestically produced soap operas are not simply local versions of an American format and are often some of the most popular locally produced programmes. Hilmes (2006: 25) refers to this as globalised formats with nationalised expressions.
This introductory overview of soap opera’s history highlights some of the inherent characteristics pervasive in my analysis. From the outset it is clear that the popularity of the genre cannot be contested. Viewing this popularity in conjunction with the fact that it was originally conceptualised to attract audiences, included characteristics of the melodrama from the outset, and clearly adapted to reflect the changes in society, highlights the ideologising function of the genre. Furthermore, the contention that the genre is not simply the product of American imperialism, but rather a complicated mix of international flows and indigenisation (Cf. page 60) is key to my analysis of such texts in specific contexts. The sections to follow provide a more detailed account of these characteristics of the genre and the contemporary development of soap operas.
Characteristics of the soap genre
Broadly, soap opera can be described as follows:
Soap opera is a radio or television drama in series form, which has a core set of characters and locations … The drama creates the illusion that life continues in the fictional world even when viewers are not watching. The narrative progresses in a linear form through peaks and troughs of action and emotion. It is a continuous form with recurring catastasis as its dominant narrative structure. It is based on fictional realism and explores and celebrates the domestic, personal and everyday in all its guises. It works because the audience has intimate familiarity with the characters and their lives. Through its characters the soap opera must connect with the experience of its audience, and its content must be stories of the ordinary (Hobson, 2003: 34).
From the review of soap opera’s history and development that precedes this section (Cf. 3.1), however, it is clear that there is no singular set of defining characteristics for soap opera. Although the soap opera may have some intrinsic characteristics, and even though it may function as a globalised format, genre boundaries are not fixed or permanent. Rather, as Christine Gledhill (2003: 357) argues, “we find … sliding conventions from one genre to another according to changes in production and audiences”.
The mention of a specific genre, nevertheless, invokes certain expectations about the kind of stories or narratives readers or consumers are likely to encounter. The aim of this section is to clarify the essential characteristics of the soap genre. As mentioned, these characteristics will form the basic framework according to which soap opera will be discussed in the remainder of the thesis. For this purpose, the views of a number of theorists are discussed.
According to Gledhill (2003: 343), relevant points when considering the form and structure of any given television programme include the following: the particular broadcast genre, the narrative structure, the organisation of shots, character types, modes of expression such as melodrama, comedy and realism, and lastly, the reception of the viewer, both at aesthetic and affective levels. Gledhill (2003: 352), furthermore, identifies the following specific features or conventions that define soap opera as a genre: format and medium, narrative pattern, subject matter, plots and character types. Gledhill’s (2003) points and conventions form the structure of the investigation of the soap genre in the subsections below
Format and medium
Soap operas generally adhere to specific conventions regarding their format and narrative pattern. These include particular narrative structures, more technical aspects of the television medium and characteristics relating to both subject matter and medium such as the choice of shots, for example.
According to Gledhill (2003: 352), soap operas usually consist of 30-minute slots, broadcast once or more a week through the mediums of either radio or television.7 Often these slots will be interrupted for the purpose of commercial breaks. Even though 30-minute slots are most common, it is not unusual for some soap operas to fill 45- to 50-minute slots.
Concerning the narrative pattern employed in these 30- to 50-minute slots, Gledhill (2003: 352) identifies the following: “Multiple interweaving storylines; we probably don’t remember or never saw the beginning; no end in sight”. This substantiates Mary Ellen Brown’s (1987: 4) characterisation of soap opera as a serial form that resists narrative closure and employs abrupt segmentation between parts. Allen (1989: 49), in turn, refers to this as “narrative seriality” and mentions (1983: 100) that the prolongation of events, rather than the compression thereof, is congenital to soap opera. In other words, soap opera time parallels actual time, or, at the very least, creates the impression that it does. The fact that events are not compressed into single episodes (as would be the case with sitcoms, for example) “implies that the action continues to take place whether we watch or not” (Brown, 1987: 4). Linked to this, Lidia Curti (1998: 72) writes about the “horizontal repetitive pace of the plot” and the fact that the format is open, which creates a lack of closure. She, furthermore, identifies the absence of a preferred point of view or “authorial markers (such as the voiceover for instance)” as some of the distinctive traits of soap narrative.
In soap operas, the predilection for talk, be it “conversation, gossip, dissection of personal and moral issues, and at crisis points, rows” (Gledhill, 2003: 370), serves to substantiate the argument about the open-ended nature of soap opera. John Fiske (1995) also presents this argument. According to him (1995: 343), soap opera’s “extended middle” causes disruption and deferment of the soap opera narrative. The open-ended nature of soap opera also has implications for the way in which meaning is created in these texts. Allen (1983: 98), for example, enquires how to deal with a form “in which audience satisfaction cannot possibly be derived from the telos at the end of the work (since there is none), a form in which the operation of the hermeneutic code is perpetually retarded”. Tania Modleski (1982: 101) posits that in soap opera, “revelations, confrontations, and reunions are constantly being interrupted and postponed by telephone calls, unexpected visitors, counter revelations, catastrophes, and switches from one plot to another”. For her, these interruptions are both annoying and pleasurable.
Linked to the narrative patterns of soap operas are the aesthetic devices used to achieve these patterns or structures. Allen (1983: 100) claims, for instance, that in soap operas “facial expressions are just as important as dialogue”. This predilection for talk, and the consequent focus on facial expressions, also dictate the genre’s characteristic use of camera shots. Since the focus is mostly on one or more characters engaging in dialogue, soap opera most commonly makes use of medium close-up, close-up and extreme close-up shots of talking heads, creating a more intimate conversational context which encourages viewer involvement.
Related to the above, but also to the shots and format inherent in the genre, is the fact that the home, or some other place that functions as “home”, usually serves as the setting for the show (Brown, 1987: 4). Gledhill (2003: 352) validates Allen’s (1983: 100) referral to the “construction of a world that is for the most part an interior one”, when she lists the following as settings or locations for soap opera: “Home interiors and public places where lots of people can meet, e.g. pubs, launderettes, corner shops, offices, street corners, hospitals, sometimes the workplace”. In the case of Anglo-American soap operas, an example of this would be Forresters, the large fashion house in the The Bold and the Beautiful.
Subject matter, plots and characterisation
Soap opera’s unique format, narrative structure and settings are closely intertwined with the subject matter and plots employed in this genre. In this subsection, the focus falls on the characteristic topics, but also character types, plots and modes of expression inherent in soap opera.
Charlotte Brunsdon (1983: 78) writes that soap opera is constituted primarily through representations of “romances, families and attendant rituals [such as] births, engagements, marriages, divorces [and] deaths”. This is corroborated by Hobson’s (2003: 8–9) comment mentioned in 3.1. Gledhill (2003: 352), in turn, characterises the subject matter of soap opera as the “[u]ps and downs of family or community life and personal relationships”. She identifies the following congenital plots: “[f]allings out between family and community members; jealousies, infidelities, dirty dealings, hidden secrets and their exposure, social problems, e.g.
illegitimacy, abortion, sometimes work problems, e.g. redundancy” (Gledhill, 2003:352). Allen (1989: 49) articulates the prominent subject matter of soap opera as a “dramatic concern with heterosexual romance, kinship, and family …”. Modleski (1982: 68) similarly identifies some of the frequent themes of soap operas as follows:
the evil woman, the great sacrifice, the winning back of an estranged lover/spouse, marrying her for money, respectability, etc, the unwed mother, deceptions about the paternity of children, career vs. housewife, the alcoholic woman (and occasionally man).
As a case in point, Ang (2007: 18–19) outlines the narrative of Dallas as follows:
The story centres on the weal and woe of the extended Ewing family, who live in a sprawling ranch just out of Dallas, Texas … The multiple storylines revolve around the complicated mutual relations between the characters, and focus on emotive states of affairs and incidents that are quintessential to soap operas: the struggles between love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, greed and compassion, hope and despair. While the Ewings were larger than life in terms of their opulent lifestyle, and were the constant subject of grandiose narrative plots including murder attempts, kidnappings, dubious billion dollar business deals, political machinations, mistaken identities, and so on, the hub of the story – and the key anchor for the intense audience involvement – were the “ordinary” human dimensions of personal and family relationships, marked by age-old rituals such as births, marriages and deaths, the intimacies, disappointments and petty jealousies of romance and friendship, and the moral dilemmas brought about by conflicting interests and values.
These recurring themes can be directly linked to characters found in soap operas. Soap opera characters are generally multiple and diverse, and span the social spectrum; with many female roles, including older women, widows and divorcees (Gledhill, 2003: 352). Despite the large variety of characters, however, soap operas are often criticised for stereotypical or archetypal representations that perpetuate the established beliefs about the nature of the masculine, the feminine and the dominant ideologies in society. Even when soap operas include characters who fall outside of the heterosexual spectrum, these characters often manifest as homonormative, in some way still perpetuating Allen’s (1989) claim that the focus falls on heterosexual romance milton (1996: 71), for instance, identifies the following archetypal or stereotypical characters inherent in soap opera: the romantic hero, the romantic heroine, the antagonist or anti-hero, the patriarch or matriarch, the female opposition (professional woman) or super bitch, the professional man, the loving mother, the gossipmonger, Cinderella and the reformed rake. In relation to this (and substantiating earlier arguments about the flow of the genre), Antonio C. La Pastina and Joe Straubhaar (2005: 278) identify the following four stereotypes which he identified in Japanese soap operas: the universal archetype of the “self-seeking individuation” or “self-determination, endurance and strength”; the archetype of the “disobedient female” (a woman who defies oppressive social constraints); the archetype of the “heroic struggle” against which the hero/heroine ultimately succeeds; and the archetype of upward “mobility by the individual or family from poverty or material success”
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT OF THE STUDY
1.1 Contextualising and rationalising the origin of the study
1.2 “If we could have a soap, we would have a nation”: a closer look at soap opera
1.3 Research questions
1.3.1 Main research question
1.3.2 Formulation of subquestions
1.5 Structure of the thesis: chapter outline
CHAPTER 2: CRITICAL WHITENESS STUDIES (CWS): A THEORETICAL FOUNDATION
2.1 Whiteness and CWS
2.2 Manifestations of whiteness
CHAPTER 3: SOAP OPERA: THE DIVERSIFICATION OF A GENRE
3.1 Soap history
3.2 Characteristics of the soap genre
3.3 Why soap opera? Soap opera as a site for struggle and negotiation
CHAPTER 4: METHODOLOGY
4.1 A qualitative paradigm: designing the research approach
4.3 Research methods and strategies of analysis
4.4 Trustworthiness and authenticity
4.5 Role of the researcher
CHAPTER 5: THE SOUTH AFRICAN CASE
5.1 Constructing the “rainbow nation”: the South African historical, national and cultural context
5.2 The South African mass media, PSB landscape and the representation of the nation
CHAPTER 6: 7de Laan: SOAP FOR THE NATION
6.2 7de Laan as a community soap opera
CHAPTER 7: THE FLEMISH CONTEXT AND MEDIA LANDSCAPE
7.1 Constructing the Flemish nation: the Flemish historical, national and cultural context 1
7.2 The Flemish PSB landscape and the representation of the nation
CHAPTER 8: THUIS
8.2 Thuis as a community soap opera
CHAPTER 9: COMPARISON OF 7de LAAN AND THUIS: A CWS APPROACH
9.1 Contextual comparison: nationalism, diversity and PSB
9.2 Beyond the national framework: whiteness in 7de Laan and Thuis
9.3 The case of 7de Laan and the “hot potato”
CHAPTER 10: CONCLUSION
10.1 Summary of chapters: structure and synthesis
10.2 Conclusions and implications
10.3 Limitations of the study
10.4 Suggestions for further research
10.5 Contributions of the study
LIST OF SOURCES CONSULTED
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT