Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Fables and endless genealogies: soap opera and women's culture

Mary Ellen Brown & Linda Barwick

While there are many positive terms for men who speak or sing (bard, skald, minstrel, preacher, prophet), it is very difficult to find equivalent terms to describe women performing the same activities. The muses were inspiration for male poets; the sirens lured men to their deaths with their enchanting songs; the laugh of Medusa turned men to stone. Old wives' fables, vain jangling and babbling, idle gossip, running off at the mouth, have all formed part of patriarchal characterisation of women's talk and women's oral culture. Some of the most virulent criticism of this type has been aimed at soap operas, which have been credited with the power to lobotomise the enslaved viewers, turning them into cabbages unable to turn off the fatal switch - modern-day Medusas indeed. In this paper we will be arguing that what is so shocking about the soap opera is that it makes public the domestic and affirms the centrality of talking and intimacy as positive values in women's lives.

This affirmation is profoundly threatening to patriarchal hegemony, which operates by naturalising its symbolic order through the suppression of difference, the silencing of oppositional voices; one expression of this strategy is found in the naming of popular cultural forms aimed at women as 'trashy'. The same strategy can be seen at work in the biblical admonition:

Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith; so do.
(Timothy 1.4)

The establishment of a discourse claiming to embody the 'one true word' theorises utterance as subordinate to concept: approving only that use of language that is directed to godly purposes. Unmotivated talk, that which raises questions and explores possibilities rather than closing them off with answers, implicitly denies this theory of language at the basis of official dogma. It is therefore not surprising that the presentation of fables and endless genealogies in contemporary soap operas meets with the same disgust as has formerly been applied to the subject in women's oral traditions. Not only do soap operas deal with the subjects that have been of particular concern to women under patriarchy, i.e. domestic matters, kinship and sexuality, but they also do it in a way that does 'minister questions' and acknowledges the contradictions in women's lives. The function of talk in soap opera plots not only reflects the basis of orality that persists in TV in general, but also embodies an ethos that is characteristic of oppressed groups. Magaret Atwood expresses it thus, "From those inside or under / words gush like toothpaste"1: the metaphor evokes talk as the response of the subordinated to the physical force that ultimately maintains the dominant; talk as a source of power; talk as release; talk for talk's sake. Soap opera characters talk in cliches, they talk to themselves, they talk on the telephone, they lie, they dissemble, they encourage others to get it off their chests, to confess, to tell it like it is. Whereas the ideal woman in patriarchal discourse is silent or silenced through her construction in dominant or masculine discourse as unproblematic - the 'fulfilled' housewife, the selfless mother, the innocent virgin, the happy whore - the woman in the soaps embodies the contradictions inherent in women's lives. In the soaps no one 'truth' is ever allowed to predominate in the multiple story lines that refuse to tie things into neat, unified happy endings. "And they all lived happily ever after" is one of the basic masculine myths challenged by soap operas.

Is it possible to maintain that soap operas and what we may describe as 'women's oral culture' are part of a materially existing 'feminine discourse'? Are they connected by more than the negative epithets with which both are branded in dominant discourse? Certainly, the modes of operation of conventional history and ethnography have made this connection difficult to confirm, as public matters of men and politics have taken precedence in the use of writing.

Yet it is certain that women's oral culture has thrived beneath the surface; in the domestic sphere women's talk and singing and tales have formed a rich orally-transmitted culture, distinct from the orally-transmitted genres of the public domain2. The dimensions of women's oral cultural networks have been obscured by the emphasis in ethnographic studies on the 'otherness' of popular oral culture in general (as opposed to written art culture) and attempts to explain the workings of oral traditions in terms of a metaphysics of place articulated by family and village structures. Such models of social formations individualise the women's connections to the family (which are affinal, or indirect, through their relations to men in the patriarchal family) and obscure women's connections and relations to other women, which are the transmission networks for women's oral culture. Far from resulting from a mystical intuitive affinity for the feminine experience, these networks are generated and maintained by the material isolation of women as a group, usually in a domestic setting. For example, in nineteenth century Italy the coming together of sisters, daughter-in-law, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, nieces, to perform women's work such as sewing or weaving was commonplace, and usually women born in a number of neighbouring communities would be represented in such a gathering. The performance of songs, the telling of tales, the arrangement of marriages, gossip, discussion of health problems and work-related hints might all form part of women's talk on such an occasion, and yet in terms of the hierarchical model of the family as a subset of the village, and ultimately of the State, this confluence of women was hardly thinkable (as evidenced by the recourse of folklorists in attributing the variation of European ballads to the figure of the male travelling singer as the main source of innovation and change in the tradition). Furthermore, the peripherality of the concerns expressed in such women's talk to the 'important' public issues of power and war and commerce led to the characterisation of women's culture as trivial and idle, if not actually evil, in its distraction of thought from higher things.

It is possible to trace a line of evolution for soap operas that draws directly on a pre-existing domain of women's discourse. The earliest daytime radio shows aimed at women often presented their advertisements in the form of grandmotherly chat, interspersed both with hints about housekeeping and stories that have developed into the narrative form of the TV soap opera. Importantly, not only the subject matter, but the modes of relating to the audience and the organisation of the narrative drew on the apparently aimless and circular style of women's domestic conversation. Much of the subsequent development of soap operas as a narrative dramatic form has been shaped by the economies of the broadcasting media, but because of the responsiveness of the producers to the pleasure of the audience (necessary in order to keep the listeners/viewers watching through the commercial breaks) soap operas have maintained a much more direct link with the domestic sphere than have many other televisual forms. Women talk about the soap operas, too, and thereby incorporate them into their own networks of friendship with other women.

In order to consider in more depth the ways in which soap operas participate in feminine discourse and draw on women's oral traditions, the question will be addressed from three perspectives: the parallels and links between televisual and orally-transmitted narratives; soap operas as they represent and are represented in women's gossip; and the integration of soap operas in women's daily lives.

Our contention is that soap operas, like women's talk or gossip and women's ballads, are part of a women's culture that exists alongside dominant culture, and that insofar as these women's cultural forms are conscious of their otherness, they are a form of feminine discourse that engenders power for women. Foucault has pointed out that "discourse can be both an instrument and effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy"3, and that the same discourse can circulate without changing form from one strategy to another opposing strategy, and contradictory discourses can exist in the same strategy. Thus, there is no necessary contradiction between the needs of advertisers and the interests of audiences: indeed, in the case of soap operas the pleasure of the audience exists in a complex mutually dependent relationship with the aims of producers and sponsors of the shows. The fact that the characters in soap operas sometimes behave in ways that support conventional stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviour does not mean that the genre is inherently incapable of functioning in subversion of those stereotypes.

Although most men and many women are discouraged from watching soap operas by the labelling of the form as trashy, banal, insignificant, and the characterisation of the audience as besotted working-class housewives, that strategy to silence or contain feminine discourse does not work. Feminine discourse, as women's attempt to maintain their own pleasure, cannot be contained, and one of the forms in which it erupts is the soap opera. The soap opera reflects the pleasure that women get from talking: the orality of women's domestic culture.

In arriving at their description of TV as 'bardic', Fiske and Hartley refer to TV's capacity for a:

... metonymic 'contact with others' in which all Levi-Strauss' lost storytellers, priests, wisemen or elders are restored to cultural visibility and to oral primacy: often indeed in the convincing guise of highly literate specialists, from newsreaders to scientific and artistic experts. 4

These bardic experts, of course, like the oral bards themselves, are nearly always men speaking in the public domain (of night-time TV). Fiske and Hartley do not go on to explore the extension of their parallel in the relationship between women's oral lore of the domestic domain and the soap operas of daytime TV. Daytime TV is just as sealed off by the (Australian ) children's school hours of 9 to 3:30 from exposure to a 'serious' audience as the domestic kitchen might have been isolated from the important business of the market place in a primary oral culture; and, paradoxically, this time period is just as free from the constraints of formal public utterance.

The following diagram delineates how soaps may be positioned in relation to literate culture as described by Fiske and Hartley and further to women's culture within an oral tradition.
Literacy: Books, newspapers, magazines, etc.
Orality: Oral TV
Masculine Bardic News/Sport
Feminine Grandmotherly
Women speaking/singing
Soap Operas

Although primary oral cultures with no knowledge of writing are rare, 'secondary orality' is still prevalent. According to Walter Ong in Orality and Literature:

It (primary orality) is primary by constrast with the 'secondary orality' of present day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print. Today primary oral culture in the strict sense hardly exists since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and subcultures, even in a high-technology ambiance, preserve much of the mind-set of primary orality. 5

Thus to say that TV is like an oral form is not to say that it is a throwback to a previous historical moment, but that it possesses some characteristics of orality which can determine not just modes of expression but thought processes as well.

Written forms of expression are derived from a literate cultural set and possess a narrative form which embodies a literate thought process. The narrative form of the novel is a good example, as is that of narrative film which derives from that same literate tradition. Fiske and Hartley equate oral modes with TV and literate modes with dominant modes in our culture. They list the following oppositions between TV and dominant forms: 6

Oral (TV) Literate (dominant)
dramatic narrative
episodic sequential
mosaic linear
dynamic static
active artifact
concrete abstract
ephemeral permanent
social individual
metaphorical metonymic
rhetorical logical
dialectical univocal/consistent

They claim for TV polysemic qualities which rest, in large part, on the characteristics of orality within the medium to be found in such conventions as direct address and segmentation. Our analysis, of course, suggests that it is too simple to invest literary discourses alone with dominant perspective, and indeed in some ways the tendency to place oral and televisual forms in opposition to a dominant literacy obscures the operation of different discursive strategies within and between those modes.

In soap opera, developed largely to provide an audience for soap ads (Many American soap operas are still produced by advertising agencies for soap companies.), we experience a narrative form which within the orally-based medium of TV embodies even more than most TV characteristics of orally based thought and expression listed by Ong. These are:

1. Additive rather than subordinate.
2. Aggregative rather than analytic.
3. Redundant or 'copious'.
4. Conservative or traditionalist.
5. Close to the human lifeworld.
6. Agonistically toned.
7. Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced.
8. Homeostatic.
9. Situational rather than abstract. 7

Ong argues that closure is characteristic of written mentality and that oral stories and songs are characterised by a relative narrative openness and redundancy.

In illustration of these parallels, one might compare Italian domestic ballads, for example, with soaps. There are similarities in plots, in the process of production, and in characterisation. Plots in these ballads, like the plots of soaps, concern family relationships (especially fidelity); they turn on information versus deception; women and women's concerns are central; there is pleasure in the recognition of familiar plots and pleasure in variation from the familiar. In terms of the process of production, domestic ballads are repeated with regularity like the repetition of plots in the soaps. The production chain in the soaps which flows from producer to head writer to dialogue writer is analogous to the process of oral composition in narrative blocks with the final performance version left to the performer. Furthermore, because both TV and ballad stories are experienced in real time, the audience's attention needs to be held from moment to moment, with a consequent emphasis on suspense and agonistic moments. Soap narratives, like ballad narratives, involve a play between what the viewer/listener knows, what the character knows and what the addressee knows. The characters in ballads, like those in soaps, are not open to a psychologistic reading that is one in which the viewer/listener "identifies with that character in the process of self projection"8. Rather the characters in soaps and ballads are 'squeezed out' by the narrative. In other words, there is no need in oral narratives for characters to be consistent because there is no way of comparing an early or a later version of a character within the serial process, in the case of oral narratives, held strictly in the memory of the listener. Centred characters are literary constructs not oral ones. In addition the narrative form of soaps is very much like gossip. Its dependence on dialogue, on people telling other people about (absent) other people, gives soaps the irresistible pull of gossip.

As in gossip the pursuit of knowledge for the soaps audience is a central concern. It is this pursuit of knowledge that motivates the deceptions that are such an integral part of soaps plots. The possession of different pieces of knowledge by different characters enables the revelation of knowledge to take place in the form of gossip. Instead of advancing the plot, discussion of knowledge of characters retards the plot: like gossip, new information constantly takes the plot backwards and reworks it.9 Often in soaps a character is kept in the dark while the audience knows the secret. The position of knowing, here based on an understanding of gossip, places the audience in a privileged position. The search for knowledge then is as much a part of the soap opera as it is a part of closed narratives, but serial form, with its lack of discursive hierarchies and lack of closure, or lack of final judgement as to whose truth is 'really' true, is, like gossip, always open to further development. Furthermore, the source of any one statement in a gossip chain is frequently lost, so that the gossip becomes a collective discourse composed of nuances and additional speculation added on the way by one speaker or another. Gossip, as a form of speculation often having to do with the rules of social behaviour for women, can be classified as a type of feminine discourse.

Feminine discourse, as we are using the term, recognises and relates to dominant patriarchal discourse, but while dominant discourse seeks to construct reality and structures of feeling for women in ways that suit the dominant view of reality, feminine discourse constructs reality for women in terms of her perceptions of the social order in which she is subordinate.10 Gossip is one form of such discourse. Women enjoy gossip in part because talk as opposed to silence is an empowering activity. In addition gossip provides a sense of belonging and helps to define one's position in society by telling us how others, particularly other women, live. As Chodorow points out:

... in any given society, feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does (In psychoanalytic terms, women are less individuated than men; they have more flexible ego boundaries). Moreover, issues of dependency are handled and experienced differently by men and women. For boys and men, both individuation and dependency issues become tied up with the sense of masculinity, or masculine identity. For girls and women, by contrast, issues of feminity or feminine identity, are not problematic in the same way. The structural situation of child rearing, reinforced by female and male role training, produces those differences, which are replicated and reproduced in the sexual sociology of adult life. 11

Thus women care about relationships and connnections with other people and about talking to other women. The soaps, as well as relying on gossip structures within their narratives can form the basis for gossip among their listeners/viewers.

The soaps then not only provide women pleasure in watching and listening but they also provide a source of gossip. What, then is the function of gossip in woman's culture? According to Gluckman the important thing about gossip is that it signifies membership in a group:

The right to gossip about certain people is a privilege which is only extended to a person when he or she is accepted as a member of a group or set. It is a hallmark of membership. Hence rights to gossip serve to mark off a particular group. 12

Thus women watching soaps may feel in a privileged position as members of a group who in fact know a soap family well enough to gossip about it. Participation in gossip about soaps can differentiate those who belong and those who do not, and belonging is a source of pleasure for soaps fans.

Jones defines gossip as:

... a way of talking between women in their roles as women, intimate in style, personal and domestic in topic and setting, a female cultural event which springs from and perpetuates the restrictions of the female role, but also gives the comfort of validation. 13

Continuing her analysis of the elements of gossip in women's oral culture, Jones discusses the settings of gossip. They are the contained environments one also sees on the soaps:

The private, the personal domain - this is the cultural setting. In concrete terms, the setting is the house, the hairdressers, the supermarket: locales associated with the female role. 14

According to Jones gossip is also necessarily serial, taken up and put down between work and children. Gossip like soaps is also trivialised in dominant discourse because it, like any form of female solidarity, poses a threat to established codes. As Jones puts it:

Gossip, a language of female secrets, is one of women's strengths and, like all our strengths, it is both discounted and attacked. 15

Both Oakley 16 and Gluckman 17 refer to a fear of the subversive power of gossip associated with witchcraft. Some of the same methods have been used to trivialise both, among them ridicule and derision in much the same manner as can be seen in dominant discourse on the soaps. Littlewood 18 has made a convincing argument that female networks centred around magic function as units of social solidarity among women in modern day Italy similar to the way that we are contending that gossip about daytime soap opera functions in Australia and the United States.

The exchange of gossip between women is also characterised by paralinguistic responses - the raised eyebrow, the sigh, the silence. The implications of the conversationn, according to Jones19 are contemplated, not argued, and each participant contributes her own experience to the pattern of discourse. Similar observations could be made about the development of conversations in soap operas. Women are not put down, objectified, or devalued in this type of gossip or in the soaps. We would suggest that one prevailing pleasure that women find in soaps is validation for their own kind of talk.

Although critics have sometimes posited that the audiences of soaps are working class or housewives,20 it is clear to us that soap opera viewers are not defined by class or occupation: many women from all walks of life watch or otherwise come in contact with soaps. Dominant culture would have women deny their attraction to soaps because only certain 'kinds' of women are attracted to them (hence their 'trashy' reputation), but the pleasure of watching overcomes guilt on this score. Many of us watch them in order to get the 'dirt' on particular characters - to gossip about them, to share our perceptions and predictions about our soaps family with our own women's networks.

Daughters are often raised with a particular soap, which they watch with family members, and they may continue to watch that soap long after they leave home. The progress of the soap is a topic of conversation when mothers and daughters get together over the years, so that a particular soap becomes a part of the family's shared history. In the culture of the home, girls and women accept soaps as a part of growing up, whereas boys feel daytime soap watching is one of the feminine activities they must reject in order to establish a gender identity. The denigrating of popular media closely associated with women can be seen as a part of the boys' process of sex role differentiation.21

In the age of the home video recorder women carry their interest in soaps outside of the home and into the public sphere of the workplace. Women working outside the home can tape their soap while they are at work during the day and watch it when they return home in the evenings, often in company with other fans in the family. A missed episode may be the topic of lunch time conversation among working women or an office video monitor may be the site of soap watching for working fans during the working day. Since the process of being a soap fan is not always just the process of watching, some fans may miss watching their soap for long periods at a time but 'keep up' with it simply through conversations with other fans.22 A person who has been a fan of a particular soap over a period of time does not necessarily stop being a fan if she or he stops watching, and on resuming viewing, may catch up with the story through what soaps writers call 'backstory'23 which is the verbal (or, occasionally, flashback or audio memory echo) recounting of past events and relationships. There is a kind of pleasure involved in returning to a continuous soap very much like returning to a childhood home or neighbourhood after a long period of time and musing over past events and memories associated with both the physical, mental and chronological space.

Because of the day-to-day nature of the viewers' association with the characters and content of soaps, there is also the pleasure involved in familiarity and regularity. Brunsdon refers to this as 'ritual pleasure'.24 Over a long period of time the viewer goes through the daily issues of various kinds with soap characters as well as the celebration of the holidays and special events like weddings, births, and other gatherings of the soap family. Soap opera characters seem to live as long as we do, although they speed through generations much faster. Ordinary time in soaps, however, is more or less concurrent with our time, so that on the soaps, characters experience holidays with the same regularity and at the same time as the audience25 and, importantly, in the same place or places that we have become familiar with over time. The day-to-day characters and conversations on the soaps parallels women's conversations which often juxtapose the day-to-day with an intense interest in other people and relationships; hence gossip about the soaps meshes with women's gossip in general.

Soaps then are a part of women's culture. Women construct pleasures and meanings for themselves through their association with soaps. Hobson in analysing the results of hours spent watching and talking with fans of the British soap Crossroads, concludes that: "The message is not solely in the 'text' but can be changed or 'worked on' by the audience as they make their own interpretation of a programme."26

Hobson contends that women use soaps to explore the boundaries of social possibility. We would add that women do so from an awareness of their subcultural positioning in that society, and that in the relationships they establish through gossip about the soaps, a solidarity is established that operates as a threat to dominant representational systems because the knowledge of pleasure created by women for themselves is a denial of pleasure in masculine terms around which much dominant discourse is constructed, and gossip and networking are a source of solidarity and group unity for women around which a political feminine can be constructed and further developed.

Hence gossip, as well as the soaps themselves, establishes an openness which defies boundaries defined within patriarchal representational systems. Gossip is open ended like the soaps, and such openness challenges the cultural dominance of other representational systems which close off, limit, and contain meanings for women. Within the serial and open structure of the soaps and the gossip that surrounds them, lies the possibility of female resistance and even subversion of the dominant classical narrative form, a form which by its construction and use to define masculine ego boundaries almost always subverts women's expression. In the soaps as well as in women's gossip about the soaps, there lies the openness to possibility which, in relation to the closed system of the masculine narrative, becomes subversive so long as women continue to use both gossip and the soaps for their own purposes.

In this paper we have attempted to analyse soaps in terms of their position in our own, that is women's culture. Our conclusion is that soaps are an important source of pleasure, and indeed solidarity, among women because they are closely integrated with women's oral culture which values talk itself as a source of pleasure and power. The silencing and discounting of feminine voices and feminine discourse as we have described it is not a new idea, nor is the fact that there are fissures in many types of popular culture enjoyed by women where feminine discourse continues to emerge. Our purpose here is, like soaps, to make public the domestic and thereby to politicise and affirm the centrality of talking in women's lives.


1 M. Attwood, Power Politics (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

2 L. Barwick, Critical perspectives on Oral Song in Performance: the Case of Donna Lombarda (dissertation, Adelaide: Flinders University of South Australia, 1985).

3 M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp.101-2.

4 J. Fiske and J. Hartley, Reading Television (London: Methuen, 1978), pp.126-6.

5 W. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), p.11.

6 Fiske and Hartley, op.cit., p.17.

7 Ong, pp.37-49.

8 J. Fiske, "Cagney and Lacey: Reading Character Structurally and Politically", Communication, v.13, n.4, pp.399-426.

9 R. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

10 M.E. Brown, "The Politics of Soaps: Pleasure and Feminine Empowerment", Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, v.4, n.2, pp.1-25.

11 N. Chodorow, "Family Structure and Feminine Personality", in M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds. Women, Culture and Society, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974).

12 M. Gluckman, "Gossip and Scandal", Current Anthropology, n.3, pp.307-16.

13 D. Jones, "Gossip: Notes on Women's Oral Culture", Women's Studies International Quarterly, n.3 pp.193-8.

14 Ibid.

15 Jones, op.cit, p.195.

16 A. Oakley, Sex Gender and Society (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1972).

17 Gluckman, op.cit.

18 Littlewood, B., "Women, Words and Power: A Study of the Magic of Southern Italy", Cultural Studies, v.1, n.2 , pp.230-43.

19 Jones, op cit.

20 J. Davies, "Soap and Other Operas," Metro, n.65, pp.31-3.

21 Brown, op.cit.

22 Ibid.

23 B. Timberg, "The Rhetoric of the Camera in Television Soap Operas" in H. Newcomb, ed. Television: The Critical View, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp.164-78.

24 C. Brunsdon, "Writing about Soap Opera" in Television Mythologies, L. Masterman, ed. (London: Comedia, 1984), pp.82-7.

25 This is the case in the United States although it differs in Australia where the American daytime shows, for various reasons, are not in sync with national holidays.

26 D. Hobson, "Crossroads": The Drama of a Soap Opera (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 106.

New: 31 January, 1996 | Now: 9 March, 2015