Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Volume 4 Number 2 May 1987

The Politics of Soaps: Pleasure and Feminine Empowerment

Mary Ellen Brown

Soap operas, romance novels and the woman's film of the 1930s and 1940s have all been characterized in dominant discourse by their excesses—too much talk, too much emotion, too little action, overdressed, overwrought, too much sex (or romance), too many plots, too many characters, too simple, too little sex, too little social commentary, too ordinary. However, despite the universal disdain heaped upon them, each of these genres was, or is, immensely popular with women. The soap opera however, is unique among the three genres in that it breaks with classical narrative form. It refuses closure, contains non-hierarchical and multiple plots and characters, and features a point of view balanced between unproblematic perspectives on female cultural existence—competent women, 'sensitive' men—and the traditional problems of women living within patriarchy like social rules governing sexual conduct. The combination of the excesses of soaps (the word implies excess—even more so the Australian/ British term 'soapies') and of television—a medium of almost pure excess, itself denigrated by both academic and popular critics until recently, can provide a look at the 'wild zone' (Showalter in Williams, L., 198j) of feminine discourse within popular mass produced culture.

Such discourse is classified as 'trash' in dominant discourse and 'excessive' in critical discourse—that which is 'left over,' more than a moderate amount. It is quite logical, then, that the dominant culture should characterize soaps, women's 'weepies,' romances and most television as trash. All are potentially out of control and therefore politically or sexually dangerous or both in the case of gender politics.

In this article I shall examine the generation of both pleasure and power for women by one of television's trashier forms—the daytime soap opera—and I shall point out some resistive aspects of this serialized multiple narrative form which are inherent in the construction of the text itself. Moreover, I will maintain that soaps generate a type of feminine discourse which, by articulating


feminine desire or pleasure, constitute a type of affective resistance to dominant ideology while they function as part of women's culture.

Trash on television is based on defiance of established traditions of television and cinematic realism. By insisting on its excesses in both production and content values, a trashy programme is positioned in resistance to patriarchal cultural dominance. The very naming of popular art forms like soap operas as 'trash' testifies to their cultural power while illustrating the complex linguistic and social manoeuvres required to mask that power, particularly in a patriarchal culture which shapes both desire and its representations. The structure and politics of desire in cinematic discourse has been a major concern of feminist film criticism, particularly as it relates to the assumed power of the text to construct its subject—the spectator, audience, or reader. Television criticism, particularly that which looks at daytime programmes like the soaps, has begun to look at how audiences use television to create meanings for themselves and how audiences generate their own cultural capital from programmes actually designed to create potential consumers for advertiser's products (Hobson, 1982; Brunsdon, 1984; Ang, 1985).

Feminine Discourse

I would contend that pleasure for women exists structurally outside of or marginal to the patriarchal discourse of desire. Feminine pleasure is always already in existence but often silenced or muted by patriarchal discourse, social constraints, or historical methodology.

Elaine Showalter (in Williams, L., 1985) describes a double voiced discourse implying that women are capable of participating in both dominant discourse and feminine discourse which she calls the 'wild zone.' Participation in the discourse of the wild zone is characterized by a willingness to 'cast one's lot with the unknown.' The narrative enactment of such discourse can be found in the Dutch film Question of Silence (Marlene Gorris, 1983). In it, a dress shop owner is killed by three women when he accuses one of shoplifting. The deed is done in response to the frustration of having one's discourse silenced within patriarchal social norms. The three women and the female witnesses refuse to 'talk.' They, in effect, use their silenced discourse as a weapon. A female psychologist likewise refuses to declare the group of women insane, since she also understands the unspoken feminine discourse and therefore does not consider the women crazy. In


court, all simply laugh. From this position of knowledge, they gain power over the discourses which maintain the system. This extremely simplified version of the narrative reveals a conscious awareness of the way things are (patriarchal consciousness) and the possibility of feminine excess (the wild zone).

Feminine discourse is distinguished from feminist discourse which presupposes an involvement with the politics of the Women's Movement. It evidences an awareness of the subordination of women but does not necessarily transcribe that into political action. Feminine discourse includes that 'women's talk' sometimes referred to as gossip, 'a form of unarticulated female power' (Oakley, 1972:15). Deborah Jones (1980) defines gossip in the context of women's oral culture 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 (194).

The soaps generate gossip both inside and outside of the programmes themselves. Such gossip is a form of feminine discourse in that it acknowledges woman's position in the existing cultural system.

I use the term 'culture' as all that people do and say, the actual practice of day-to-day living (Williams, R., 1977) by which they generate meanings. It includes the social and cultural myths (Barthes, 1972) embodied in both literate and oral culture, including those generated through the dialectic between people and popular media like television, magazines, newspapers, and film. Gossip is an oral practice signified in women's culture as a type of feminine discourse. Such feminine discourse can become a powerful political tool. It functions in two ways. First, the knowledge of pleasure created by women for themselves is a denial of desire in masculine terms around which much dominant discourse is narratively constructed. Second, it is a source of independence for women around which a political feminine is constructed and can be further developed.

Feminine discourse recognizes 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. Sometimes such discourse is what Barthes (1972) calls 'inoculated' or acknowledged in order to be dismissed, but often it continues to float freely in what Fiske (1985) calls 'semiotic excess' or Blonsky (1982) calls 'wild semiosis.' As semiotic excess, it often gets put into use as subordinate groups choose to use it—to create meanings for themselves. Often this is in terms of 'simple' pleasure, but of course pleasure is not so simple.

The Soap's Text

Individuals vary as to which programmes they call soaps, since the judgement is based on the look and feel of the programme and is therefore partly subjective. In general, however, soaps are characterized by:

1. serial form which resists narrative closure;

2. multiple characters and plots;

3. use of time which parallels actual time and implies that the action continues to take place whether we watch it or not;

4. abrupt segmentation between parts;

5. emphasis on dialogue, problem solving, and intimate conversation;

6. many of the male characters portrayed as 'sensitive men';

7. female characters often professional or otherwise powerful in the world outside the home;

8. the home, or some other place which functions as a home, is the setting for the show.


These characteristics vary somewhat from country to country, but it is largely the programmed time slot, and therefore its intended audience, which determines its production conventions and con tent. This paper will deal with American soaps aimed at women, broadcast between 10 am. and 3 pm. on weekdays.

I have attempted to theorise the pleasures of soaps' audiences by becoming a fan myself within the context of a group of fans. I selected Days of Our Lives because I knew I could locate other fans to talk ~o. Days is the NBC 12 noon soap, Eastern Standard Time. I spent the three months watching soaps (particularly Days) sometimes with members of the group; talking to fans; and reading about soaps, particularly in the popular press. At the end of three months, I got the whole group together to talk about Days of Our Lives and to watch a few episodes together. I recorded and transcribed our meeting and used the transcription and the conversations I had had with group members along the way to make generalisations about the types of pleasure this group and I myself got from watching soaps. Group members ranged in age from twelve to eighty. The group consisted of six women aged seventeen to eighty and two men aged twelve and sixteen. Their occupations were student, retired nurse, interior decorator, accountant, and college teacher. Those who were students and also had a job were a laboratory technician, secretary, and horse groom. They were all friends, relatives or relatives of friends, so that frequently we got together to talk about soaps in the context of other friendly occasions. During the group meetings I made no effort to control the discussion although I asked questions freely.

Many of the daytime soaps in the United States are still produced by soap conglomerates like Proctor and Gamble and Colgate Palmolive. Soaps as a genre grew out of radio, in response to the isolation of women in the home in the 1930s and the subsequent colonisation of these women as consumers. By 1940, there were 64 soaps broadcast in the United States each day (Cantor and Pingree 1983). Radio soaps were usually fifteen minutes long and often featured a matriarch (Ma Perkins) who gave advice about problems to other characters on the show. Another favourite anchoring character was the woman alone (Helen Trent) or the woman who had married into a strange environment (Our Gal Sunday). The first character type, the matriarch acting as surrogate mother (or grandmother), often gave advice on the best laundry detergent to use while she was counselling other characters on personal problems. The early radio soaps, then, combined


the confessional form with the giving of advice, a device which fits right into the commercial sponsor's needs.

As soaps evolved into television productions in the 1950's, the need to maintain an audience for the advertisement of household products was not lost sight of and by 1973, most television soaps in the United States had adopted an hour long format to extend their hold over audiences for a longer period of time. With the hour format, multiple plots and large numbers of characters (around 40 per show) became the norm. In addition, the female characters on the soaps, began to hold high status jobs—surgeon, psychiatrist or research scientist, for example. In 1977, when General Hospital added younger characters and more adventurous plot variations, thereby attracting a teenage audience of both sexes, the other daytime soaps followed suit in response to perceived new audiences and therefore new consumers.

The daytime soaps, then, are extremely profitable for broad casters whose advertising income is based on audience size. The soaps are cheap to produce since they are, for the most part, taped in broadcast studios in real time, thereby avoiding costly location shooting and extensive editing. At the same time, they attract large audiences—20 million in 1981 among the three networks, 70% women over 18 (Cantor and Pingree, 1983). Thus it is to the broadcaster's advantage to respond to audience desires, and audiences do write to let the producers know what they think. On social issues, however, the producers would rather err on the side of conservatism, since part of the point is not to offend anyone unnecessarily. Their frank approach to sexuality is, of course. offensive to some but obviously worth the risk.


The Soaps' Audience

While recognizing the patriarchal discourse contained in soaps, soap audiences are, if they choose to be, empowered through their association with other soap viewers, usually of the same soap. Even though the watching of soaps can be a solitary experience, most often the experience is discussed with others who form a community of soap viewers of particular soaps.

Although daytime soaps are similarly constructed and similar in appearance, viewers often choose a particular soap to- watch which is usually referred to as 'my soap.' The time slots in which particular soaps are programmed is important in this choice. It often is associated with a break in the day's activities and is part of the structuring devices of a woman's day if she is working in the house.

O Well I watch them during lunch time. That's how I got to watching Loving. Loving comes on at 11.30 and by that time I'm just fooling around.

And I started watching it and I got interested in it. It's about a very wealthy family and how they are dressed to the peak, to the 9s. It's real interesting. And then I have lunch and watch Days of Our Lives.

However, once a soap is chosen, fans usually remain loyal until there is a substantial change in their soap which causes them to change loyalties. Often friends will switch to the same soap. Some fans have watched a particular soap for twenty years or more.

Women also carry their interest in soaps outside of the home and into the public sphere of the workplace. Women working outside the home sometimes tape their soap while they are at work during the day and watch it when they return home in the evenings. A missed episode is often the topic of lunch time conversation among working women. An office video monitor may be the lunch time site of soap watching for working fans during the working day. The process of being a soap fan, however, is not always just the process of watching. For long periods at a time, some fans miss watching their soap but 'keep up' with it through conversations with other fans. Because of the longevity of the viewers' associated with the characters and content of soaps, there is also the pleasure involved in familiarity and regularity. Brunsdon (1984) refers to this as 'ritual pleasure.' Over a long period of time the viewer goes through the day-to-day issues with


soap characters as well as the celebration of holidays and special events like weddings, births, and other gatherings of the soap 'family. '

As the women in the Days of Our Lives group put it:

S: I'll tell you what I like is Christmas. When they put those ornaments on the tree.

O: Each one has their own name on it. Each one that comes in the family has a Christmas ball with their own name on it. And each one puts their own name on the tree.

Characters who seem to live as long as we do but speed through generations much faster, are a part of our emotional history with a show.

S: Do you know that Tom and Alice are something like great, great grandparents?

K: I think they've got something like great, great grandchildren.

S: Let's see. Hope is a great, great grandchild.

O: No, she isn't. Mickey is their son and Hope is the daughter. So she is the grand daughter and Melissa is the granddaughter.

K: No, Julie was the grand daughter.

S: Julie was the grand daughter. Julie is Doug and Addie's daughter.

O: Oh, that's right.

Such 'endless genealogies' are a potent source of gossip.

A person who has been a fan of a particular show over a period of time does not simply stop watching and erase the show from her memory. Sometimes fans report having not seen a show for years only to catch up for the missed years by watching an episode or two. Narratively, this can be attributed to what soaps' writers call 'backstory' (Timberg, 1981) which is the verbal (or occasionally, flashback or audio memory echo) recounting of past


events and relationships so that a new viewer or a returning old one can catch up quickly. As one member of our group recounts:

K: How many years have you been watching? (to L.)

L: Seven or eight years, but only off and on. I've never had a television set. I just sort of keep up off and on.

There is a ritual pleasure involved in returning to a continuous soap very much like returning to a childhood home or neighbour hood after a long period of time.

Daughters are often raised with a particular soap and continue to watch it after they leave home and the progress of the soap is a topic of conversation when mothers and daughters get together thereafter. A particular soap then becomes a part of a family's shared history handed down in the same way that mothers and daughters share recipes, and with them, the memories of shared hours in the kitchen or near the television set.

S: In 1976, I moved to Knoxville and I went to bridge and they were talking about people just like this. Back then it was 1.30. No, it was the 2 o'clock soap opera back then. They stopped lunch, bridge. Anything. If I was going to be their friend, I had to watch it ... if I was going to carry on a conversation ... and then Kim was born I would make her sleep during that time.

K: (S's daughter) No, I would sit next to you.

S: Oh yes, later on. Not early.

Sons less often share this culture. The twelve year old boy in our group told me that after this summer he planned to stop watching Days of Our Lives because he had now outgrown the soap, an act which seems to parallel the male child's need to reject what is female by pulling away from his mother. As in Chodorow's theory (1979), while the girl child feels comfortable in the culture of women, of which soaps are a part, the boy child has to reject it. Chodorow points out that female gender identity is learned in everyday life and is 'exemplified by the person (or kind of people—women) with whom she has been most involved' (51). In terms of popular culture in patriarchal discourse, the denigrating of popular media closely associated with women can thus be seen as a part of the process of sex role differentiation on a broad cultural level.

While not maintaining that daytime soaps themselves are radical texts, I would argue that certain characteristics of the form leave the text open to oppositional meaning generation for women. The relationships between the dominant patriarchal ideology and the 'wild zone' of audience generated cultural capital in soaps, its feminine discourse, is uneasy enough to allow for immense pleasure on the part of its audience—a pleasure which can be seen as resistive because the audience has taken into its own hands the power to use soaps as a resistive form.

It is, on the whole, a communal move and involves the recasting of sexually defined social restraints in the soaps not as restraints, but as communal practices particularly in relation to gossip among soaps' viewers about the soaps. In other words, soaps which are designed to reinforce existing social practices which isolate women and encourage them to buy as a source of pleasure, instead promote a woman's community which gets pleasure from itself. Women (and on occasion, men) then, create their own discourse and their own pleasure from the text.

Soaps are a part of women's culture within which girls are socialised. Women construct pleasures and meanings for them selves through their association with soaps. Hobson (1982) in analysing the results of hours spent watching the programme 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 up' by the audience as they make their own interpretation of a programme (106).

The soaps' text then does not entirely create its subject or audience; although mechanisms around which a text is constructed both in content and form do, of course, contribute to the meanings that audiences make of a text. Part of the fascination of the daytime soaps is that they have generated textual conventions which decentre televisual realism in its conventional mode.

The Text, The Subject, and Resistance

I am suggesting that the form of the soap opera text is oppositional to the conventional 'realism' in television narratives like action dramas, which feature a single hero or heroine, one major plot and final closure. Some authors (Davies, 1984; Fiske, 1986) would argue that the serial form of soaps parallels the process of seduction. Others argue that the form of soaps typifies housework


(Modleski, 1982), while the action drama typifies work outside of the home thought to be more goal oriented. Both Modleski (1982) and Allen (1985) suggest that the soap evolved out of the literary form of the domestic novel. I would suggest that the soaps are more connected with orality than literacy, that television's serial form is derived from radio form which in some ways augmented domestic oral traditions having to do with women's culture—the handing down of recipes and lore about childbirth for example. Commercial radio, as it developed in America, built on these existing oral forms. It is characterized, among other things, by its 'flow' (Williams, R., 1974) which includes the first five of the characteristics of soaps—serial form, multiple characters and plots, time paralleling actual time, segmentation, and emphasis on dialogue. These five could easily be listed as characteristics of television itself. Rather than using classical 'realism' as a model for measuring, evaluating, or synthesising televisual content, it might be more productive to use serial form as a model. Such a move positions televisual form itself as resistive and perhaps radical and importantly (if we isolate the form) less controlled by dominant discourse—less patriarchal, though not less capitalistic.

Recent criticism has argued that realism as a televisual or filmic form is dominant ideology (MacCabe, 1981; Kaplan, 1983; Fiske, forthcoming). MacCabe emphasises realism's ability to hierarchise discourse. Even though realism may show us oppositional discourses, it tells us which one to believe.

Fiske points out the similarity of realism to Barthes' use of the term 'myth' to refer to the narrativised naturalisation of dominant ideology. Kaplan emphasises that realism is unable to change consciousness because it does not 'depart from the forms which embody the old consciousness' (131). She recommends that the cinematic, and presumably televisual, apparatus be 'used in new ways so as to challenge audiences' expectations and assumptions about life' (131). Soap opera form abandons realistic conventions, but not, as some forms of avant-garde practice do, at the expense of pleasure. It is in the form's refusal to abandon pleasure that we can also see resistive elements.

In soap operas we must look at realism more in the sense of 'real life.' Because daytime soaps are 'cheap' productions, they have a look and feel that is different from realistic television drama, but they evidence an ordinariness that evokes the every day. For example, the following quote from the soaps' discussion transcript discusses setting:


ME: Does anyone know where Salem is?

K: We've been trying to figure that out for years. They mention Chicago a lot and they mention New York a lot.

S: I think it's closer to New York City.

L: I think it's closer to Chicago.

C: I think it's in Ohio.

ME: (Laughs) Do they ever show outside scenes?

S: Yeh, occasionally. That was a highlight to show things outdoors.

ME: You mean they didn't show things outside at all?

S: When they did show things outside, it was the park bench fifteen years ago.

K: But that was a studio park bench, Mother.

S: But there were trees near the park bench.

L: There were birds twittering.

K: People would walk back and forth behind them and pretend.

S: No, Bill and Laura sat on the park bench and talked. That was the only outside scene.

K: It wasn't a park. The park was fake.

ME: So we can't figure out where that is.

K: Some of the soaps like General Hospital. You know where that is.

ME: Where is it?

S: Port Charles, New York.

ME: And where is Port Charles?


L: It's upstate New York, isn't it?

S: It's a real place.

K: They make allusions to places that you know.

C: Like it's only a couple of hours to New York

In addition, soaps practice a stylistic excess, which fans enjoy, but which is not often employed in television realism. Each soap, for example, has its own preferred colour and lighting style. Certain characters are elaborately overdressed; others have perpetually ill fitted clothes and unkempt appearance. Paradoxically, these things which defy 'realism' give the soaps a kind of ordinariness that is often called realistic. As one of Hobson's interviewees remarks, soaps are 'unassuming' (1982:199). In the words of the fans:

S: I thought it was gorgeous.

ME: You mean Hope and Bo's wedding?

K: Half the reason you watch is the clothes.

S: To see who is wearing the most gorgeous blues. I mean their colours are beautiful.

ME: Why blue? Is it the styles or is it that it's just extravagant?

L: Yes, very unrealistic. They never sweat, even when it's 90¡. Their hair is always perfect.

ME: So part of it is just the sheer pleasure of watching?

L: Without any effort.

Time on soaps, conceived of, as it is, as 'now' time, just as television itself conceives of time as immediate, contributes to the soap's sense of true-to-lifeness. On the soaps, we feel as though we were looking in on a series of lives and events that continue in our absence just as the instacam of the evening news lets us look at a piece of public life for a short while. The slow pacing of soaps denies everything we have come to expect about television editing that allows us five to eight seconds to dwell on a particular shot. Sometimes soaps allow us to linger, like the pleasure of a long conversation with an old friend, and sometimes the opposite is the case:


ME: Time goes faster?

K: They can warp it however they want. Time can go really slowly or it can go fast, you know. It just depends on what they want. They can make one evening last for three days and then a year can go by like that (snaps fingers). But it's funny the way they slip it in. Like just the other day Marlena was saying Roman's been dead all this time. They're making it sound like Roman's been dead for years, when in real time it's only been about six months.

Children grow up rapidly and mostly off screen.

O: Just like Marlena. She's had the twins and Roman died, then you don't hear a word about the twins. They're just dropped (laughter).

K: They can't find babies, I think, to get on the soap operas, so they have to like, pretend, they are out all the time.

O: Well, they just sort of faded them out suddenly rather than gradually.

S: But probably, okay, next year they are going to suddenly appear as teenagers.

O: Yes, they probably will.

ME: How come they never have real babies? Do you think that's just a technical difficulty they don't want to deal with?

O: Well, Marlena had the twins, but you don't see them carrying them.

S: Well you know Liz's baby. We've seen her. For a year it's been the same baby.

O: Yes, she's getting bigger and you're sort of seeing her grow. And Carrie, isn't that the little girl? [Roman and Anna's daughter]. You see her once in a while.

S: Like I said she's going to disappear for a year and then—just like Hope. Remember when Hope came ... We saw


Hope three or four years ago when she was a little baby and then she's all ...

K: I remember when Hope was born.

O: Yeh.

The characters are types, characterized by critics as 'flat,' and yet soap viewers seem to take the characters very seriously. Viewers write letters to the characters, and, in general, are constructed in patriarchal discourse as not able to tell the difference between the character and the actor in which she or he is embodied (Hobson, 1982), however, as the above quotation shows, fans are quite playful when they talk about characters as real. They are well aware that they are playing with the boundary between reality and fiction (Ang, 1983) which, after all, is what fantasising is all about.

Few, if any, women believe that the characters are 'real,' but most are willing to speak of them as if they were, discussing them, for example, on a first name basis, and speculating at length on future directions of the show.

When dealing with the problems presented on the soaps the viewer is aware of both the content of the show and the context of its production. As Brunsdon (1984) notes:

For the soap fan, one of the moments of pleasure is when you can say 'Oh, I knew that was going to happen! But this is not the same feeling as the attendant fascination of how it is going to happen. At the moment, I really don't think that Sheila Grant is going to have the baby she is pregnant with. My reasons are partly generic—I know that a very high proportion of soap opera pregnancies come to little more than a few month's story. They (her reasons) are partly what I experience as 'intuitive'—she is in her forties, she has already got three children, the house isn't bit enough (83),

Rather than experiencing as frustrations the constant postponement of the resolution of problems which characterises soaps, Brunsdon and the viewers I spoke with experience them in the nature of story problems—little tests of our ability to outguess the writers and production considerations inherent in the genre.

When talking about characters, fans slip easily from talking about them as characters and talking about them in terms of a


meta-discourse which takes into consideration not only the text of the soap itself, but also its production context. Fans derive plea sure in this type of gossip about the soaps which Ang (1985) refers to as 'controlled self delusion.' Both Ang (1985) and Hobson (1982) discuss how fans use gossip around the soaps to test the boundaries between fiction and life. Here is an example:

O: Weren't you surprised she took her rings off.

K: Yeh, that was sad. I didn't want her to do it.

O: I didn't want her to do that either because that's really not necessary. Do women take their rings off now when their husband dies?

Fiske (1986) suggests two ways of reading character, as a discursive strategy or a psychologistic reading. The discursive strategy is:

... structuralist in inflection and understands character as a textual construct that performs definable functions in the text. Character is a textual device for mobilising and enacting social and personal discourses within a metaphoric representation of the individual (3-4).

The psychologistic construct sees character as an analogue of a real person and the viewer 'identifies with that character in the process of self projection' (17). According to Fiske:

Reading character as a psychologistic construct rather than a textual one is a reading practice of the ideology of individualism. Such a reading is naturalized into the only possible way of understanding character in a society for whom the individual is the prime source and definer of experience (17).

Because soaps originated in radio and have many characteristics of orality, characterisation in the soaps evidences oral traits as well as literate ones. For example, in an oral culture where a story may be told differently each time it is told, there is no need for character consistency (Ong, 1982). In fact, characters change with a change in actor (storyteller). I he same is true in the soaps.


ME: Do you identify with these characters?

S: I like the men. I liked the old Bill. And I loved the first Laura. I identified with the first Laura.

ME: You mean the character? When they change the actor they are different? It's the person behind the actor?

K: Remember Mary Anderson—she really changed. They had the blond Mary Anderson who was sweet and then they had the red-head for a while, who turned into a real witch.

ME: You mean they don't keep the same characteristics when a new actress or actor comes in?

S: The first Laura would never have done anything evil, but the third Laura, you were ready for her to go.

The type of characterisation on the soaps, and the way that fans interact with the characters, suggests that the literary idea of identification and of the well-rounded character are not applicable to soaps.

Instead, multiple characters offer women multiple identification possibilities. Nancy Chodorow (1974) delineates the way that women's ego boundaries are shaped in relation to their association with other women.


... 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 femininity 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 (44).

The idea of the well-rounded character is a product of individualistic discourse which, of course, minimises class, gender, race, or age distinctions. If dominant ideology centres on the individual for whom a psychologistic reading is culturally rewarded, then the soaps, with their multiple characters and lack of specific heroine or hero, stand in opposition to that view. Since the ideology of the individual considers each person responsible (or to blame) for her or his own position in society, it denies gender politics. For women as victims, what it means is self blame. By generating multiple characters for which the relationships of the audience to character is more ambiguous than identification with a specific character, television daytime soaps are resistive to that ideology, an ideology which for most television 'realism' is the dominant stylistic device. Thus multiple characters foster for women a more discursive reading strategy involving the enactment by many characters of some of the social and personal discourses available to women.

Even though the concept of identification with specific characters is an ideological construct associated with dominant ideology, this is not to say that audiences are not intensely involved with soaps. As Davies (1984) aptly points out:

Soap opera audiences are not passive consumers of light entertainment, but active participants in negotiating complex role models and contradictory ideologies with definite, if unconscious motivation (33).

Davies (33) suggests that once 'hooked,' people vacillate between their need to know, or the pleasure of anticipation, and an implication with characters which is more complicated than identification.


An implicatory reading would imply that the audience chooses a reading position which recognizes discursive possibilities in character types—the villainess, the ingenue, the good mother—but at the same time is intensely involved with the characters. Implication as a reading strategy, then, is audience controlled and therefore active pleasure.

I would suggest that a reader does not just view a soap, but that she adopts it along with all of its characters, good and bad, and then treats that soap and its characters with a familial loyalty. The use of multiple characters refuses a single or fixed subject identification and at the same time prevents the hierarchy of discourse present when there is a privileged main character identifiable with because of her well-roundedness or depth. Likewise there is no preferred point of view, but instead issues are seen from each character's perspective sequentially.

Kaplan (1983) points out that the radical text refuses to construct a fixed spectator but instead seeks to position the viewer as one involved in the processes of the narrative instead of being captured by it. By refusing single character identification, soaps do just this.

Some critics contend that soap audiences 'are positioned as relatively powerless low-income masses' (Davies, 1984), which, in intention, I do not deny; but in viewing practices, I certainly would. Davies describes the target soap opera audience thus:

As in classic Marxist theory, they have nothing to sell but their bodies. Hence your body is your prime possession (32).

He points out that as well as being the instrument of the economy of patriarchal capitalist success (for women, getting a man and keeping him; and, for men, succeeding in becoming rich and famous with women being one of the rewards) the body is also the site of primal pleasures in soaps. It is the unseen discourse of sexuality which the audience, however constructed, thoroughly understands. However, 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, but the spoken discourse of the power of the female body to create is given crucial importance along with the rules of the attempted containment of that power.


There is no need to reiterate here the number of pregnancies, the importance attached to paternity and sometimes to maternity or the large number of sexual liaisons between characters in soap operas. However, contrary to the discourse which places the pregnant woman as powerless over natural events, often women in soaps use pregnancy as power over the father of the unborn child. The father will usually marry the mother of his child, whether or not he loves her (or whether or not the pregnancy is real), thereby achieving the female character's constructed need to be taken care of in the only way that is available to her in the dominant system, even though most women in the soaps do a good job of taking good care of themselves. Women characters use their bodies to achieve their own ends. The LŽvi-Straussian view of kinship systems (in Rubin, 1975) in which marriages are a form of gift exchange where women are the gifts, is reinforced by soaps on the level of general assumptions, particularly in their preoccupation with brother-sister incest, but contradicted narratively.

As Rubin (1975) points out, kinship systems based on the exchange of women are systems where women do not have full rights to themselves. The extension of this idea is that the social organization of sex, in order to maintain this system, rests upon gender, heterosexuality, the incest taboo, and the constraint of female sexuality. Soaps pay elaborate attention to these social organisations of sex. On the other hand, narratively, the power that female characters assert over the relationships in which they participate does not support the idea of the exchange of women as passive commodities. In fact, the presentation of male characters in soaps provides pleasure in seeing and also in hearing, since the male characters talk as much as the female characters. Comments on watching the men on soaps by the Days group describe the pleasure in hearing men discuss personal concerns and the pleasure in watching the men.

L: (Much laughter) This is not your normal man.


S: I think he's gorgeous.


S: Liz has been around. Liz was married to Tony. L: Who else was Liz married to?


O: Glen. Don. She was married to someone else too.

K: Her father was Carlton Chandler. Didn't he get the best bun award? (laughter)

Of course, the naturalised idea that characters always should and sometimes do marry 'for love' is a dominant theme. Both women and men in soaps have an emotional need for love, marriage and intense relationships. Since soaps have predominantly a female audience, it is possible to conceive of the male characters as objects of love (objects of exchange) for the female viewers in soaps. It is this 'women's man' who replaces, according to Chodorow's theory (1978), the lost mother for women. Women in Chodorow's account learn their identity in everyday life by associating with other women. When a female child leaves her mother for marriage, she replaces her mother with a man. The male child, in a sense, gets his mother back in the form of another woman who is his wife. The pleasure of being nurtured is, thus, often denied to adult women, a pleasure which is clearly supplied in the soaps. Not all women characters in the soaps nurture each other. Rather, some female and some male characters are nurturing. In addition the intimate, problem solving relationships between audience and text makes the audience member an accomplice in such a nurturing situation. Thus the body of pleasure for soaps' women audiences is the body of the missing mother as well as the genitally identified pleasure usually inscribed by the term 'desire.'

Orality and Pleasure

The soaps not only provide women with pleasure in watching, but they are also structured like gossip and provide a source of gossip for their audience. What, then is the function of gossip in women's culture? According to Gluckman (1963) 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 (313).

Thus women watching soaps may feel a privileged position as members of a group who in fact know a soap family well enough to gossip about it.

Gossip also has other features salient to the soaps. According to


Jones (1980), gossip in the home is necessarily serial, taken up and put down between work and children. Gossip, like soaps, is trivialised in dominant discourse and like any form of female solidarity, poses a threat to established codes.

Gossip, a language of female secrets, is one of women's strengths and, like all our strengths, it is both discounted and attack ed (195).

Both Oakley (1974) and Gluckman (1963) refer to a fear of the subversive power of gossip associated with witchcraft. The gossip associated with soaps has been aligned with witchcraft. Soaps' gossip magazines often advertise the paraphernalia associated with witchcraft, and some of the same methods have been used to trivialise both, among them ridicule and interruption.

The verbal exchange between women called gossip, is characterized by reciprocity and paralinguistic responses—the raised eyebrow, the sigh, the silence. The implications of such conversations, according to Jones, are contemplated, not argued, and each participant contributes her own experience to the pattern of discourse. Women are not put down, objectified, or devalued in women's gossip. Neither are they in the soaps. I would suggest that one prevailing pleasure that women find in soaps is validation of their own kind of talk.

Women, in the relationship they establish through gossip about the soaps and in the affective pleasure of communal watching practices, establish a solidarity among themselves which operates as a threat to dominant representational systems. Gossip, as well as the soaps themselves, establishes an openness which defies defined boundaries instigated 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, meaning for women. Within the serial and open structure of the soaps 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. Linda Barwick (1985) in her work on women's oral song in performance, describes a song in which the women's voice is narratively silenced:

In fact it does not matter in narrative terms whether the woman is a willing or unwilling partner in the seducer's


plans. Because of the woman's inability to express herself in straightforward terms, the plot develops the same way regard less of her intentions. Although Donna Lombarda is the central figure of the narrative, her actions are redundant, her speeches expendable, and her intentions are immaterial (247).

Here we see dominant discourse though its preferred narrative conventions effectively silencing the feminine discourse by its wilful closure of the narrative. 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.

Thus in soaps, women may be said to have 'stolen the language of the patriarchy' (Ostricker, 1985) and used it to question patriarchal myths. The serial form of the soap opera, while using patriarchal myths, structures them in such a way that audiences can use them for their own purposes. By incorporating the potential for gossip inserted in the soaps, women can use them to validate the value of a feminine culture which in masculine culture has been invalidated but not suppressed. The relegation of the soaps to the marginal world of trash in masculine discourse has not contained them, however feminine constructions of plea sure operate differently from the construction of desire in psycho analytical discourses. Women continue to understand and acknowledge the differences, while at the same time understand the masculine conception as well. This position gives them a source of power. All that remains is for them to use it.

Mary Ellen Brown teaches at the Western Australian College of Advanced Education


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New: 17 October, 1997 | Now: 26 April, 2015