May 21, 2008
Culture Wars and Cultural Hierarchies: New York Times on ATWT's Nuke

Lynn Liccardo suggested to Lee Harrington, Gail Derecho, and me that one of us should respond to the recent article in The New York Times by Gina Bellafante about the soap opera and specifically the popularity of the Luke and Noah couple on As the World Turns, because of the work we are doing on putting together a contemporary anthology of work on U.S. soap operas. Unfortunately, the article had to run right as I was moving into a new apartment, just the worst time to try to organize my thoughts, especially in a way that limited them to 150 words.

Instead, now that most of my furniture is in order and most of the boxes are unpacked, I wanted to return to Bellafante's article last week. First of all, as is no surprise, the article is beautifully written and a great bit of publicity for soap operas, which remain culturally ignored by most mainstream arts and entertainment publications. Scholars I know, including myself, would argue that there's a combination of cultural biases, geographic and economic stereotypes, and gender discrepancies that would explain why soap operas aren't covered as "entertainment" by publications that cover most else, just as one of my other areas of interest--pro wrestling--is ignored by Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker alike. Rather, both get relegated to their own ghettoized press, separate and certainly not equal.

In reading Bellafante's piece, I'm reminded of Victoria Johnson's work on Friday Night Lights, in which she pointed out how critics had to justify and qualify why they liked the show and distance themselves from the stereotypes inherent with being a viewer or, God forbid, a fan. Johnson's best example came from a New Yorker review, I believe it was, in which the author had to explain that she started watching the show when an artist in Manhattan at a museum told her she should watch FNL, overcoding almost to extremes the situation in which she decided to watch the show and playing off the cultural stereotypes of what a show about football in a small West Texas town would be like.

See also this piece from yesterday about my lunch in which a fellow professional seemed somewhat taken aback about my enthusiasm about the creativity and potential for artistry in pro wrestling and soaps.

Returning to Bellafante's piece, we'll start with the lead:

If you are between the ages of 13 and 87, the last time you met anyone who described herself as a loyal viewer of daytime soap operas you were probably still hoarding quarters for pay phones and maintaining a casual position on sunscreen. Soaps have been shedding audiences for years now. The young, especially, have found their absurdities elsewhere; there is almost nothing put forth by the writers of "All My Children" that could, in a stupidity contest, outrank a single moment of "The Hills."

Now, already built into this example--despite a quite broad listed age range--is an expectation that the reader falls into a much narrower demographic category, aged by references to yesteryear, before some of those 13-year-olds would be even old enough to remember. There's not much nuance to her reasoning as to why soaps have been shedding audience. It's accepted that the reason people tune into soaps is to see their "absurdities;" therefore, reality television or a hybrid show like The Hills can just be a replacement for soaps, despite the fact that there are so many generic differences.

I see the connections between primetime and daytime as well. I actually agree that The Hills is satisfying some of the pleasures that All My Children used to be relied on for. But this isn't even the primary explanation as to why audiences fall off, and part of it comes from the fact that the article gives little credence to any deep pleasure fans receive that are unique to the generic trappings of soaps, nor any chance for artistry in the daytime serial drama, to the point that there's not discussion of good soap opera storytelling vs. bad soap opera storytelling. It's presumed at the outset that "soap opera storytelling" automatically means bad storytelling; therefore, what's the difference?

Take, for example, this sentence: "In almost every way, however, Luke and Noah have been treated as preposterously as any couple on daytime television, with all the requisite obstacles keeping them from happiness." A judgment word like "preposterous" shows a lack of distinction of what soap opera realism is, that it is an accepted rule of the genre that, often, almost macabre pain and suffering awaits any couple, keeping the characters always striving for happiness but never able to retain it. Instead of working within the realism that these shows develop, Bellafante strives to apply a realism from the outside onto the genre, thus finding the story depicted "as preposterously as any couple on daytime television." This falls into the same trap I've written about before and that Lynn Liccardo has talked about of defining the genre based on plot, and based on some of its least conventionally realistic attributes, rather than looking at what longtime fans are most attracted to: relationships and character development.

Further, the phrase "as preposterously as any couple on daytime television" yet again lumps the genre into a whole. Rather than being a type of storytelling capable of both mastery and shoddy storytelling, all soap operas and their storylines are "preposterous." In discussing the character Ameera Ali Aziz being the first woman in a chador on a U.S. soap, Bellafante goes on to say, "amid all the Botox and cleavage," despite the fact that I'm pretty sure ATWT pales in comparison to most primetime shows when it comes to plastic surgery and bustiness. That's where The Hills differs quite a bit from Lucinda, Barbara, Kim, Emma, Lisa, Nancy, Bob, Susan, Tom, Margo, etc., on a program with more 50+ than perhaps any other show on TV. I'm not saying that none of these actors have ever had plastic surgery, but Botox and breast implants are not what they bring to the show.

But, of course, it's presumed that, if you are writing about soap operas in a publication like The New York Times, you have to distance yourself from a text that should not be as easily praised in mainstream. Rather than criticize aspects of Luke and Noah being done wrong in a soap opera, it's preferred to criticize aspects of Luke and Noah as being done wrong BECAUSE they are a soap opera.

She concludes by saying that the soap opera, rather than doing anything roundbreaking, "has merely discovered the currency of the culture wars." It seems, then, that an otherwise well-thought-out article about an interesting cultural trend on one of television's oldest shows gets hampered by the language from a cultural taste war of its own.

Further, the perspective seems to indicate that commercialism capitalizing on the culture wars is incompatible with being groundbreaking storytelling, further emphasizing the denigration of soap operas for having their profit-driven model implicit in the very title the genre was given in the 1930s, when virtually all the shows were produced by soap companies.

For more on this subject from the past, look here.