Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Days of their lives?
Popular culture, feminity and education

Sandra Taylor


This paper will explore aspects of the place of popular culture in the lives of teenage girls and young women, and the relevance of media in the social construction of femininity in contemporary Australia. As Rosalind Coward has written:

As feminists we have to be constantly alerted to what reality is being constructed, and how representations are achieving this construction (1985, p227) 1

These are also crucial issues for educators. There is a need for an understanding of the cultural framework within which teenage girls make sense of themselves if work with this group is to be effective. Without an approach which takes account of the complexities of the cultural context of education, programs which aim to 'widen options', particularly of working class girls, are probably doomed to failure.

The particular focus in this paper will be TV soap operas - the most popular TV programs with teenage girls. 2 The paper draws on a series of group interviews conducted with 14-16 year old girls concerning the place of soap opera viewing in their lives and their views about a particularly popular soap opera: Days Of Our Lives. These interviews will be used to explore some theoretical ideas about media and the construction of teenage femininity which have implications for education.

A cultural studies approach

The approach taken in this paper attempts to locate the analysis of media within the context of the broader social relations of society. An interdisciplinary approach is used - drawing on feminist theory and sociology as well as media studies. Central in this approach are the concepts of 'consciousness' and 'subjectivity' and, in this context, the definitions of cultural studies outlined by Richard Johnson (1986) are particularly useful:

.... Cultural studies is about the historical forms of consciousness or subjectivity, or the subjective forms by which we live or the subjective side of social relations (p.280).3

In Johnson's view, forms of consciousness are linked to broad power relations, such as gender relations, and have a material basis in everyday actions and 'experience' . Subjectivity is seen as being conceptually distinct from consciousness - subjectivities can 'move' us without being consciously identified - and it is crucial that they are seen as produced and not merely as 'given'. This approach to cultural studies moves the actual objective embodiments of culture, cultural texts, from centre stage. Texts become more a means of cultural analysis than ends in themselves, and they are seen as ' ...the forms that people live by' (p.297). Thus Johnson advocates the development of analyses which link studies of cultural texts to studies of production and reading. In this context he sees studies which have explored romance, and more recently epic, as being particularly significant. For example, 'romance' is central in the construction of subjectivity as well as being a story form. As Johnson writes: 'Clearly epic and romance are not merely literary categories: they are among the most powerful and, in our society, ubiquitous of subjective forms. Men and women live, love, grieve, fight and die by them' (p.296).

A further important aspect of the framework within which the study is approached is that media are seen as intertextual: 'reading' a cultural text is a dialogue between the text and a socially situated reader, and 'any one text is necessarily read in relationship to others and .... a range of textual knowledges is brought to bear on it'. 4 Soap opera viewing is explored as an aspect of the lives of a group of teenage girls, and soap operas are explored as one of a range of cultural texts with which the girls are involved. Although some attention will be given to the texts themselves, that is to the content of a series such as Days Of Our Lives, the main emphasis will be on the relationship between the programs and the perspectives of the girls, the relevance for broader gender relations, and the associated educational implications.

Media and femininity

Current gender ideologies have developed in a society which is both capitalist and patriarchal. Masculinity and femininity are historically and culturally specific, with particular forms being found in a given society at a particular point in time. What is of interest is how these ideologies are implicated in the construction of gender identity, particularly in the construction of a feminine subjectivity, and the role of media and popular culture in these processes.

Pringle's attempt to theorise the links between sexuality and consumption in post war Australia is particularly relevant to a discussion of the role of media in the construction of femininity. 5 Pringle traces the increasing sexualisation of women's bodies in the media from the 1920s, a trend which became more direct and all encompassing in the post war period. Accompanying the movement of women from the paid workforce back to the home, advertisers began to associate products with love and romance, and women were increasingly encouraged to consume to become attractive to men. Pringle suggests that sexuality was restructured in relation to consumption which '....assumed emotional, and later sexual, connotations as the arena of personal fulfilment and individual meaning' (p.90). Thus consumption came to be seen as a way of completing the ideal feminine identity. For older women that identity centres on the domestic sphere and on being the perfect wife and mother. For young women, however, the focus is on appearance and looks and on being the perfect sex object. Young women are encouraged to consume to be attractive to men: the message of advertising being that 'to be able to buy is the same thing as being sexually desirable'. 6 As Pringle points out, certain products, such as cosmetics, are seen as being essential to femininity. This is in contrast with male products, which are seen as compatible with but never essential to masculinity.

A further important aspect of the construction of sexuality under consumer capitalism is that femininity has come to be associated with passive sexuality, with being touched and being looked at; while masculinity is defined more actively, involving touching and looking. 7 In a much quoted passage John Berger refers to the way in which these aspects are reflected in the social construction of femininity:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself ... From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life (1972, p46). 8

Berger goes on to make the important point that the surveyor of woman in herself is male. 'Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight' (p.47).

This focus on appearance and sexuality has particular relevance for the construction of femininity in young women and girls and helps to explain why the body tends to be taken on as a project . 'Being fashionable' is also necessary to keep up with current sexual ideals. In her essays in Female Desire, Rosalind Coward (1984) writes that the sexual ideal for women connotes powerlessness and that the adolescent sexuality is a responsive sexuality. She contends that the camera in contemporary media has been put to use as a extension of the male gaze on women with the result that the development of female identity is fraught with anxiety and enmeshed with judgements about desirability. Thus: the emphasis on women's looks becomes a crucial way in which society exercises control over women's sexuality'. 9

The emphasis on women's looks is most apparent in women's magazines, advertising and on television where visual images of women are central. However, it is worth pointing out that even in other cultural texts where there are no actual visual images, such as popular fiction or a popular music recording, the importance of good looks and sexual attractiveness for women is likely to be among the discourses in the text. In relation to girls and young women the overall message in the media is that sexuality confers power - though in relation to the social and economic context this power, derived from appearance and attractiveness, is extremely limited. Research on teenage girls' cultural perspectives 10 is relevant here in that it shows that such pressures towards being sexually attractive cause conflicts as well as anxiety. Thus, while being sexually attractive is seen as appropriate to the ideal feminine identity, overt expressions of sexuality are not and bring with them the label of 'slut' . Such codes channel female sexuality towards love, romance and 'going steady' - and ultimately towards domesticity - and thereby maintain the patriarchal gender order. It is significant that these powerful pressures are experienced at a critical stage when thinking and planning for the future is important. Consequently, for girls and young women there is often a conflict between their central preoccupation with issues relating to gender identity and educational concerns.

Despite this overall emphasis on appearance and sexuality in the representation of women in the media, it needs to be emphasised that the role which media play in the construction of femininity is complex - there is no simple transmission of a single coherent 'patriarchal ideology'. Although dominant ideologies may be pervasive, media texts reflect a range of contradictory and conflicting ideologies - some of which may be oppositional. In addition, we need to be cautious about too readily assuming 'effects' from readings of texts. Media need to be considered, as has been previously emphasised, in the context of the everyday lives of people and in relation to their cultural perspectives and social relations.

Background to the study

The focus in the research discussed in this paper was on soap opera viewing, and there was an attempt to explore the place, the appeal and influence of soap operas in the girls' lives. The study attempted to extend Patricia Palmer's research on the role of television in the lives of thirty Sydney schoolgirls. Palmer found the girls expressed a strong preference for programs, such as soap operas, with which they became emotionally involved. The girls also expressed a preference for programs which dealt with problems and everyday concerns of people of their own age - some drawing on characters in the programs in thinking about themselves and their futures. The girls talked about television with their friends, and in fact there was some evidence that particular friendship groups influenced program 'favourites'. Palmer suggested also that in the case of some girls, certain programs seem to take on an added significance and become what she refers to as 'Primers: texts for living'. 11

The interviews attempted an exploration in depth of aspects of soap opera viewing and broader questions covered in Palmer's research were not replicated . I particularly wanted to follow up the suggestion that some programs may act as 'primers' - to what extent can soap operas be described in this way for some girls, and in what ways are they related to the construction of femininity? Additionally, I was interested in exploring some of the issues which have emerged from research with adult soap opera viewers, for example, work by len Ang [12] and Mary Ellen Brown. I was particularly interested in two aspects highlighted by their work: the relationship between 'reality' and fantasy, and the relationship between pleasure and ideology.

Group interviews were conducted with students in two state schools one situated in a new working class area to the south of Brisbane (Southlands) and the other in a middle class suburb in Brisbane (Hillview). At Southlands the interview group consisted of sixteen 16-17 year old students - twelve girls and four boys - and at Hillview eight girls (14-15 years) were interviewed. None were Aboriginal or from a migrant background.

Although my major interest was in the girls, the boys at Southlands were also interviewed for comparative purposes. The taped interviews were semi-structured and were conducted informally with small friendship groups, and lasted for about an hour. Questions ranged over program likes and dislikes, particularly in relation to opinions about soap operas. Students were also asked about the extent to which soap opera viewing was shared with family and friends, and at the end of the interviews they were asked about other leisure interests and their perceptions about the future. The interviews were tape recorded and were transcribed in full for analysis. Only the interviews with the girls are reported in this paper. The interviews, while conducted in considerable depth, are based on a limited samples and therefore need to be seen as preliminary. Further work needs to be done with other groups of girls, taking account of class and ethnic differences more systematically.

It is probably relevant to initially discuss some general aspects about the girls' lives which emerged during the interviews. The isolation of the girls at Southlands and the lack of leisure and community facilities for young people in the area was seen by them as a problem. For example, going to the movies entails a trip into Brisbane - usually by train as bus services are infrequent - which adds substantially to the costs involved in going out. Several of them mentioned that there was 'nothing to do' in the local area. Furthermore, although several of them had part time jobs in local retail stores, cafes and fast-food establishments (with two girls having two part-time jobs), others had not been able to find jobs. This was partly due to lack of employment opportunities in the area, but also due to transport problems which prevented them from going farther afield. Their employment opportunities were more restricted than those of girls living closer to Brisbane, but they are likely to be representative of large numbers of working class girls in similar new outer suburban developments where unemployment levels are high and many families are experiencing economic difficulties. At Hillview on the other hand girls were able to go out to movies and other entertainment in the city more easily. Those who were old enough had part time jobs - either in the city or the local area.

The interview material will be discussed under the following general headings: the girls' present lives and future plans, their views about soap operas, and context of their soap opera viewing. (The two schools will only be mentioned where there are differences in the responses of the girls to report.)

The girls' present lives and future plans

Most of the girls mentioned reading as an enjoyable spare time activity, with most of them reading both novels and magazines. There were no significant differences in reading patterns between the girls from the two schools. Fantasies, mysteries, adventures, and supernatural books were the most popular, although one girl said that she loved reading the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series romances. The most popular magazines were Dolly, Countdown and Smash Hits, though most girls also read Woman's Weekly and other women's magazines bought by other members of their families. One girl (Southlands) read only magazines and one said that she rarely read books, while one said that the only reading she did was 'the comics in the newspaper'.

As most of their families owned videos, video watching was a common leisure time activity in both groups of girls. Videos also allowed girls to record and watch their favourite programs when they were unable to watch them at the scheduled time. In some cases recording of programs which they would otherwise have missed was done on a regular basis. Three girls mentioned listening to the radio and taped music as a spare-time activity. For Southlands girls 'going out' often took the form of going to visit friends, 'sleeping over' at friends' houses and going to the shopping centre (for those for whom this was possible). They also went out with their families, and one girl commented that it was the only way she was able to go out at all. The only other spare-time interest mentioned - by two - was horse-riding, while others mentioned previous interests like ballet and skating which they no longer pursued. The Hillview girls were more involved with hobbies and sports, for example jazz ballet. This difference is probably a reflection of their middle class backgrounds, availability of activities in the suburb (again related to class) and also the younger age of the Hillview group.

Most of the girls seemed to have no clear plans about future jobs or careers, and none of the older group at Southlands appeared to be thinking of doing any higher education courses. The firmest plans came from two friends in one friendship group (Southlands) who were planning to go into nursing. Others mentioned travel and tourism, commercial art and becoming a florist. When asked what they expected to be doing in ten years time, they acknowledged that they were likely to be married with a family but all but one said that getting a career sorted out first was a priority. Some responses, showing this distinctly unromantic tendency, were:

- I'll probably be married - probably have kids - but I want my career sorted out first.

- Somewhere I'd like to have a family - I'd like kids but its not a major consideration - I don't know if I could handle the pressure - when I see what my Mum goes through.

- Hopefully get a career is the first thing - have a family later on - a lot further on.

- I wouldn't actually like to be married. I'd like a good steady job. I'd like to have kids but not be married.

- Working - travelling around - I'm not having kids.

In reflecting an awareness of their likely futures both in the workforce and as mothers, these responses are consistent with recent Australian studies which have focussed on working class teenage girls (for example, Wilson and Wyn 1987, Taylor 1986, Taylor 1987). While such responses apparently conflict with the preoccupation with issues relating to sexuality and romance discussed above, they illustrate the complexities involved in the construction of femininity. Although at one level girls may appear to be preoccupied with romance and personal relationships, that does not mean that they are not intellectually aware of trends in society and their likely futures.

Views about soap operas

All the girls interviewed enjoyed watching television and all named soap operas among their favourite programs, the most popular being Home and Away, Neighbours and Days of our Lives (in that order). Most also enjoyed 'family shows' and 'comedy shows', while two mentioned that their dislike of news and current affairs programs. In general they watched television for enjoyment and relaxation, and one commented that it 'took them away from everyday life'. One said that watching television was:

Something else to do. I don't really get really wrapped up in shows, but some of them you can really relate to.

When asked why they particularly liked to watch soap operas, some replies were:

- They take you away from reality - they don't exactly - but they make it like everything's happy and perfect with the world.

- You know it's not real, but it's fun watching. It gives you a break from life.

- The characters are like real life.

- I like the characters - they feel like friends.

One girl replied:

I like Home and Away the best of all the programs I watch because it is an easily related program, and it deals with everyday problems like Ros getting pregnant.

Another said that she liked the same program:

...because it has a lot of action, comedy and a little bit of romance. Also the people playing the parts are teenagers, and it shows life isn't meant to be easy, especially when you 're a teenager.

In relation to their ability to 'relate' to the programs, most of the girls felt that the characters and events in soap operas were reasonably like characters and events in 'real life', despite feeling that they are 'exaggerated' (this word was used frequently). For example, it was mentioned that characters get up out of bed without a hair out of place in soap operas, although Home and Away and Neighbours were felt to be more 'realistic' . They all expressed the contradiction between feeling the programs to be 'realistic', while at the same time knowing that they are 'not real':

- I think the characters are fairly believable ... but I still feel they're not real. You know they're not real.

- I can see the people as real people - they're slightly exaggerated but I still think it's pretty realistic.

- They're basic problems like real life though they may be exaggerated to keep the audience entertained. But basically the problems are ones you would come across. Like Neighbours it's like real life but it's not really the same problems they have ... they're sort of exaggerated - the way they bring things out.

It is at this level, with the reactions and feelings associated with relationships, that the girls seem to be involved. One girl said:

- Sometimes, if you've got a problem and that problem's on TV sometimes it helps you to get over it. You can sit and watch them and how they deal with it, and you think about it and it helps you get over yours ... You don't exactly learn from it, but it helps you to think about it. - It helps you make decisions.

The view that soap operas can sometimes help with personal problems was expressed by several of the girls, and another commented that the reactions of people were 'pretty normal' and 'close to home'. She continued:

You feel it's actually happening to you. You know what you'd do if you were in that position.

Another replied:

They sort of tackle everyday situations and you can see how it affects the other members of the family.

Some of the girls felt that they could also learn about social issues, for example, drugs and AIDS, from soap operas like A Country Practice. One girl (Southlands), when asked about her favourite program, talked about it in class terms. She described the class conflict which emerged between two of the main characters in Home and Away, and continued:

Bobby - the lower class girl - she doesn't get on with society - just about everybody's against her and there's quite a lot of friction built up there.

Although the girls said that they sometimes 'feel for' the characters, there was no evidence that the girls were identifying with particular characters, and only two said that they had a favourite character. Furthermore, where a favourite character was named, there was no indication that she might be acting as a role model for the viewer, although one girl referred to the problems experienced when a favourite character left a program:

When Molly died on A Country Practice I finished with soapies altogether ... I think I got turned off. I'd got attached to her - and I thought it's probably going to happen in other programs too - so I didn't watch soapies for a while.

In general, however, there was evidence that allegiances to characters change, probably due to the multiple plots and the focus on a number of main characters. In fact the allegiances of the girls seemed to lie with the program as a whole rather than with individual characters. A further relevant point is that when the girls mentioned particular soap opera characters the discussion always focussed on their personalities rather than on appearance or looks .

Of the twelve girls at Southlands six were fans of Days of Our Lives and six disliked the program, while at Hillview five out of the eight were fans. All the girls readily distinguished between Days of Our Lives and the evening soap operas which they watched. They saw Home and Away and Neighbours as being 'more realistic' and more relevant to them as these programs are Australian and about younger people. Despite this, the fans of Days.... had become involved with the characters and story. They had all originally become involved when the show was screened at 3.00pm and they were able to watch it when they got home from school. With the change of time to 12.30pm, some were then only able to watch in the holidays, but in four cases (all at Southlands) the show was taped by the girls' mothers allowing them to watch the day's episode on getting home from school. No girls from Hillview watched on a regular basis in this way.

As has been mentioned, Days... was seen as less like real life than the prime time soap operas, and it is significant that all the group shared this view regardless of whether or not they were fans. Some comments they made about Days... were:

- It's more like the glamorous life - the clothes and things they wear just round the house - it's something you wouldn't really do.

- The characters and that - it's different from real life - exaggerated - I really enjoy it.

- I don't really think that's like real life at all - more something you'd wish for.

- They just go over the top. It's ridiculous.

Several made the point that the characters are in general older than them, and lead a wealthy lifestyle:

- It's about young couples relating to each other - their feelings and things that they do - their problems and marriage problems.

- They spend their lives going places - seeing things - at work and after work - meeting each other.

Despite the view that the people were 'rich', when they were asked what kinds of men and women were in the show they said that they were 'ordinary' and 'just normal'. In relation to feelings and reactions of characters in the program they once again saw them as 'fairly realistic with an exaggerated tone'. Some of the girls seemed to be more interested in the relationships and said that 'you could learn about relationships from watching Days... '

Others, when describing the program, spoke first of the storyline rather than the characters and their relationships:

- There's always something exciting happening.

- It's mainly about drug busts, drug deals, murders, people fighting and it carries on from episode to episode.

- It's a bit far fetched - every episode is something to do with drugs/ murders/rapes. Because it's so far fetched it makes it more interesting ... Sometimes when you watch it you think how you'd react in a situation.

However, other girls who were not fans said that it was 'too slow' and that they found it boring:

- It's really slow - I like something happening - some action. Like in The Bold and the Beautiful they'll take a whole show to get engaged. It's boring - you've got to have a bit of action.

- It turns you off a bit when it just drags on and you want something new to happen - Days of Our Lives keeps going and going.

The most important theme in the girls' discussions about soap operas in general is the fun and enjoyment which they get from watching them. This is consistent with Palmer's research, as also is the involvement at an emotional level with the programs. The girls described the events and characters in the programs as 'exaggerated' but were still able to relate to them and identify with the characters' feelings and reactions. This also seemed to be the case with the daytime soap opera Days. . ., even though the girls found this more removed from 'real life' experiences. There seems to be evidence of the double relationship of viewer with text identified by Ang in her research on watching Dallas and which Fiske describes as 'implication/extrication'. The girls are involved with the text emotionally, yet simultaneously distant from it. The viewers are well aware that the stories are not like real life and yet are able to identify with the characters and their anxieties, in much the same way as teenage girls may read romances for relaxation and to escape daily problems, but also use them to learn how to behave on dates. 14 Although the girls in this study were using soap operas to learn about relationships, there does not seem to be any evidence that the programs were acting as a 'primer' for any of these girls. As has been mentioned, the girls did not seem to have favourite characters who were acting as role models, and their relationship with the programs seems more subtle, complex and contradictory than this.

When the girls were asked whether they thought that soap operas could be a bad influence, they were quite dismissive of the suggestion, and three responses were:

- I wouldn't agree - They can't really do much harm - as long as you don't become really addicted - as long as you realise it's not actual reality.

- Some people become addicted - I think they're afraid that we're going to become more involved with the show than with our own lives.

- My mum doesn't worry about it - she realises I'm not going to be influenced by a TV show that's made up - they should realise that kids aren't going to be that stupid to be like that.

The context of viewing

Most soap opera viewing was done with other family members, particularly the girls' mothers, and it emerged that in most cases the viewing of Days.. . began because the mothers were fans. One girl, explaining why she liked the program, said:

I don't know - I'm addicted to Days of Our Lives - I can't miss an episode. I used to come home from school and Mum would be watching and you'd sit down and watch the show, and then I got interested and then they changed the time. We complained - we wrote to the TV Weekly. It didn't work though!

In the cases of the Southland students where the girls' mothers taped the program for them on a regular basis, they watched as soon as they got in from school - often with their mothers. One girl said that she watched The Young and the Restless with her mother and then Days... on the tape. One girl, who had said that she was particularly involved with the relationships in the program, was selective in the way she viewed the tape:

The ones I don't like - I just fast forward it - it doesn't matter because you've got so many different stories - you just fast forward until you get to a good conversation part.

Several of the girls said that they didn't like watching with other members of her family because of their tendency to 'make comments' all the time. It appeared that fathers and brothers were the main offenders with respect to soap operas:

- My Dad says, 'What's this stupid program?' and then sits and watches it.

- My Dad's just the same - thinks most of the shows we watch are really silly - and then he sits down and watches them!

One had a twenty year old brother who used to get their mother to tape Days... every day for him. Another commented:

Most guys say, 'I wouldn't watch that sissy show'. And then you find out they do!

Most of the girls did their homework while watching television but always stopped to watch their favourite programs:

Everything stops at 6.30 to watch Home and Away. If I've got homework to do in any other program I won't stop.

In general it seemed to be common for the girls to watch television and do their homework in the advertisements, while one girl said:

I often do my homework listening - looking up from time to time.

One mentioned that she didn't always get her homework done! One difference which emerged between the girls from the two schools was that at Hillview four of the girls were not allowed to watch television and do their homework at the same time, whereas none of the Southland girls experienced such parental control.

Talk about their favourite programs featured prominently among the school friendship groups, and one girl became a Days.. fan when she first watched the program at a friend's house. At the time when the interviews were carried out The Comedy Company was very popular and being talked about, and apparently all the girls were 'going around talking like Kylie Mole'. (A nice irony here given that the character was apparently developed by listening to fourteen year old girls talking.) There were, however, differences in likes and dislikes within the friendship groups, and viewing preferences did not seem to be a factor in the shaping of the groups.

With respect to the viewing patterns which emerged in the study, the girls are already showing some distinctly feminine relationships to television in terms of their preferences and viewing style. 15 In doing their homework while watching television they are already adopting a typically feminine style of viewing, although a greater control over the girls' television viewing was seen in the Hillview girls. The use of videos to ensure that favourite soap operas could be watched has been an interesting finding in this study. It seems that the home video has enabled families to exert a good deal of control over their television viewing, although not without some conflicts within the politics of the family.

Discussion of findings

'Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.' This epigraph and the accompanying visual in the introduction to Days... is illustrative of much about the soap opera genre. Soap operas are open ended, on-going and with a perpetual sense of irresolution. They parallel 'real' time and explicitly make links with generalised everyday life and experiences. This is seen in their titles, for example, Days of Our Lives, Neighbours, EastEnders.

For the working class and middle class girls in this study, television viewing was an important spare-time activity, and soap opera viewing occupied an important place in their everyday lives. The focus in this paper has been on the ways that soap opera viewing, as an aspect of popular culture, connects with the experiences of the teenage girls. As Angela McRobbie has pointed out, the texts of popular culture are just as 'lived' as 'lived experience', l6 and constitute the private moments of everyday experience. It appears that, in soap opera viewing, the girls' real life and fantasy worlds merge and allow them to rehearse conflicts and problems which they experience in their lives. As has been mentioned, there are strong similarities with the ways in which teen romances are used by teenage girls. However, while romance is the major theme in these stories, it is less important in soap operas, being one of a number of themes. As has been mentioned, it certainly did not emerge particularly strongly in the discussions by the girls. In previous work on romance reading the girls interviewed said that they would like more books which centred on other relationships - within the family and with friends. l7 Perhaps this is part of the appeal of soap operas for this group? Family relationships and problems are usually central in soap operas, and the girls referred to them frequently in the interviews. This may be partially related to the contradictory social position between childhood and adult status which they occupy within their own families. In other words, age relations may be helping to structure their perspectives.

Although there are some similarities with romance reading, in other ways television is a very different popular cultural form. As Fiske has pointed out, television narratives are open to negotiation due to their polysemic nature, and this is particularly the case with feminine genres such as soap operas. There is a plurality of meanings and articulations with other cultural texts, resulting in different readings depending on the social situation of the viewers. Class and gender together structure cultural perspectives, but in this study there were very few differences in the responses of the working class and middle class girls. In terms of their views about soap operas gender seemed to be a unifying factor, with some class differences emerging in relation to the context of viewing and in certain aspects of spare-time activities.

In relation to the appeal and place of soap opera viewing in the lives of these teenage girls, there were many similarities with the studies on adult soap opera viewing. In their preferences and viewing patterns they were already showing well established feminine patterns in the use of television in their lives, and some seemed to be becoming initiated into the ritual pleasures which are part of a culture of femininity. At this stage this culture was to some extent collective, although for many adult women soap opera viewing may become a solitary and guilty pleasure. l8

Fiske has pointed out that for a text to be popular among subordinate groups it must contain 'contradictions, gaps, and traces of counter ideologies' l9 which express the interests of such groups. For feminine genres, such as soap operas, to become popular they must be open enough to allow a variety of oppositional readings. The serial form and multiple characters and plots are characteristics which make this possible, and specific characteristics of soap operas identified by Mary Ellen Brown are also relevant: there is an 'emphasis on dialogue, problem solving and intimate conversation; many of the male characters [are] portrayed as sensitive men; female characters [are] often professional or otherwise powerful in the world outside the home'. 20

It is difficult to ascertain precisely what readings were being made at an ideological level by the girls in this study - a different kind of research focus would be needed. However, it is possible to make some tentative suggestions on the basis of the interviews. Certainly the whole focus on feelings and relationships in soap operas helps to legitimate and maintain girls' interests in these aspects of feminine culture, and in particular their preoccupation with romance. However, as I have argued, interest in the romantic aspects of the relationships did not emerge strongly in the interviews.

Earlier in this paper I have argued that gender identity for young women is centred on appearance and sexuality and that media are central in the construction of this identity. Although soap operas are targeted towards women as consumers, in fact there is less emphasis on appearance and looks than in many other media representations of femininity. Brown has noted in relation to soap opera that:

...the discourse of sexual power is not constructed around the male gaze. In the daytime soaps closeups of faces predominate almost to the exclusion of body shots. Facial closeups always include the whole face rather than segments of it. There are no unmotivated fragmented body shots. Thus the image of the body of women as sexual currency is absent...

In contrast to this kind of representation, Brown argues that the power of the female body to create (that is biologically, through pregnancy) is central in soap operas, along with the social rules which operate to contain that power. While soap operas may use patriarchal myths, they are structured and played with in such a way as to allow them to be questioned by their audiences. For example, the 'equilibrium of a happy, stable family is constantly there in the background, but is never achieved'. 21 Thus, as well as legitimating and affirming feminine values, soap operas can also be seen at another level as challenging dominant patriarchal ideologies, and providing an alternative to the pervasive images of woman-as-sex-object which were discussed earlier in this paper. The potential for such oppositional or resistive readings is important, though it is possible that teenage girls' limited life experiences would make them less likely to make oppositional readings than older women viewers.

One further aspect relates to the pleasure and enjoyment which the girls derived from watching soap operas. Feminist work on the education of girls has focussed on ideology and 'messages' relating to femininity, and has taken little account of fantasy. Research with adult soap opera viewers shows that it is possible for viewers to 'bracket' reality for a while and be involved at an emotional level with the program - as a kind of 'time out' from the 'real world'. Ang argues that this does not preclude a feminist consciousness, and as we have seen, there was evidence in the case of these girls of the double relationship of viewer with text. As has been found in studies of adult soap opera viewers, the girls were able to be simultaneously involved with the programs emotionally and yet also critical and distant. Ang has suggested that viewers may experience pleasure from the fantasy world of soap operas at a quite different level from the ideological content of the programs. In her view:

Fantasy is therefore a fictional area which is relatively cut off and independent. It does not function in place of, but beside, other dimensions of life.... It is a dimension of subjectivity which is a source of pleasure because it puts ' reality' in parentheses, because it constructs imaginary solutions for real contradictions which in their fictional simplicity and their simple fictionality step outside the tedious complexity of the existing social relations of dominance and subordination. 22

Are we to conclude, then, that the ideological content of soap operas is irrelevant, given that the programs appear to be a source of pleasure at the level of fantasy and given that their open form allows oppositional readings to be made? While on the one hand it is clear that viewers do not necessarily uncritically take on board the ideological messages in soap operas, such popular cultural texts, along with 'real-life' experiences, nevertheless become part of a repertoire of ways of thinking about and talking about 'being female'. Consequently, it is this range of available discourses which is drawn on in the construction of femininity and which is crucial in providing the framework within which this takes place. The discourses of soap operas may be relatively progressive in that they play with the myths of patriarchy. But that does not mean that alternative discourses, extending the current limitations, could not be more empowering - particularly for teenage girls and young women.

Educational Implications

What then are the implications of this research for the classroom? What can we learn about more effective ways of working with teenage girls from the study? In particular, what lessons can we learn about using popular culture in the classroom? The suggestions which follow are tentative. They develop from a concern to help teenage girls and young women to reflect critically on their lives and their futures, in ways which will be empowering. While critical awareness is only a first step toward empowerment, and must be accompanied by structural change, it is an essential first step towards more radical change.

The appeal of soap opera for these girls lies in their ability to 'relate' to the characters and situations dealt with. This serves as a reminder once again that it is crucial in any educational programs, that we take account of young people's own experiences - and here it is important to recognise that these will vary with class and ethnic differences as well as along gender lines. This means listening to what teenage girls have to say, and taking their concerns seriously. We need to work with girls and young women and help them to reflect critically on their lives - rather than impose our own ideas upon them. As Judith Williamson has argued, we cannot teach ideologies - or even teach about ideologies. 23 We can only try to bring students to an understanding from their own experiences, of the way that we are all caught up in ideological processes in our everyday lives. Unless they can make sense of the issues in terms of their own lives and experiences they are likely to become alienated or resistant, and educational programs will be counter productive.

One useful way to explore teenage girls' experience is by using popular cultural texts in the classroom. But it is most important that this is done appropriately: students will be alienated if teachers put down their interests, or if they turn something which is enjoyable into 'work'. I am aware too of possible resentment felt by students if it is felt that something belonging to them is being appropriated. But I do not think that this is a problem if students understand that their own experience is valued and taken seriously, and that it is not being devalued. Some of the approaches which have been undertaken in Britain as part of the Cockpit Cultural Studies Project offer some useful insights for effective ways of working with young people. 24 One important aspect of this work is that it has moved beyond analysis of texts into the realm of cultural production. For example, photography was used as a means of representing and reconstructing everyday experiences, and through these activities, critically reflecting on them. Similarly, work can successfully done with soap operas in the classroom - initially by helping students understand the characteristics of the genre and of a successful soap opera, which would include researching aspects of production and marketing. Students can then use their understandings of the genre in planning and producing their own soap operas. In this way they are able to become involved in constructing alternative discourses which articulate their interests and experiences.

Finally, teachers have a crucial role in extending the range of discourses from which girls and young women are able to draw in the construction of a feminine identity. Classroom use of a wide range of alternative and oppositional texts will help to extend the 'gender repertoire' of the students, and will make it easier for them to construct their own alternative texts. Popular cultural texts can used in this way to help girls and young women's understandings about the construction of femininity. Although such critical awareness may not lead to radical change, it is a necessary first step towards challenging the patriarchal power relations in their own lives.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at OZMEDIA '88 Conference, Australian

Teachers of Media, Brisbane, September 1988.

1. Coward, Rosalind (1985) 'Are women's novels feminist novels?', in Showalter, E. (ed.) The New Feminist Criticism. Essays on Women, Literature and theory (London: Virago, 1985) p. 227.

2. Palmer, Patricia, Girls and Television (Sydney: Social Policy Unit, NSW Ministry of Education, 1986).

3. Johnson, Richard, 'The story 90 far: and further transformations?', in Punter, D. (Ed.), Introduction to Contemporary Cultural Studies (London: Longman, 1986) p.230.

Fiske, John, Television Culture. (London: Methuen, 1987).

Pringle, Rosemary, 'Women and consumer capitalism', in Baldock, C.V. and Cass, B. (eds), Women, Social Welfare and the State (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1983) pp.85-103.

6. Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC/Penguin, 1972).

7. Game, Ann and Pringle, Rosemary, 'Sexuality and the suburban dream', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 15,2, (1979) p. 11.

8. Berger, p.64.

9. Coward, Rosalind, Female Desire. (London: Paladin Books, 1984).

10. Taylor, Sandra, 'Empowering girls and young women: the challenge of the gender inclusive curriculum', SAANZ Conference, Sydney, July 1987.

11. Palmer, pp.56-58.

12. Ang, Ien, Watching Dallas. Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. (London: Methuen, 1985).

13. Brown, Mary Ellen, 'The politics of soaps: pleasure and feminine empowerment', Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, 4: 2, (1987) pp. 1-25.

14. Willinsky, J. & Hunniford, M. R 'Reading the romance younger. The mirrors and fears of a preparatory literature', Reading-Canada-Lecture, 4:1 (1986) pp. 16-31.

15. Morley, David, Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure (London: Comedia 1986).

16. McRobbie, Angela, 'Dance and social fantasy', in A. McRobbie and M. Nava (eds), Gender and Generation (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1984).

17. Taylor, op.cit.

18. Morley, op. cit.

19. Fiske, p.321.

20. Brown, p.4.

21. Fiske, p.180.

22. Ang, p. 135.

23. Williamson, Judith, "How does girl number twenty understand ideology?", Screen Education, 40, Autumn-Winter, (1981/2) pp. 80-87.

24. Dewdney, Andrew and Lister, Martin, 'Photography, school and youth: the Cockpit Arts Project', In S. Bezencenet and P. Corrigan (eds) Photographic Practices: Towards a Different Image. (London: Comedia, 1986) pp. 2-52; also their Youth, Culture and Photography (London: Macmlllan 1988).

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