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A2 Media Studies

Media and Collective Identity

SOAP OPERA – a genre which interrogates the family? Soap opera is a distinctive television narrative form. It DOES NOT ACHIEVE CLOSURE as there is no last episode. (When a soap is taken off air, attempts to achieve narrative closure are often quite staggeringly ridiculous.) Additionally, it has a MULTI-STRAND NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, with NO ULTIMATE HERO. Instead, it offers its audience MULTIPLE POINTS OF IDENTIFICATION, rather than subordinate all the other characters to a main protagonist. In addition to the distinctiveness of its NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, soap is quite distinctive as a genre in other ways. Here is a “DISTINCT” chart outlining the most important features:

Don‟t Ignore


Technical Code Iconography




- a community - meeting places public spaces containing semiprivate areas for narrative development

- more C/U than many genres as multi camera shooting - use of Z axis to convey narrative information

- multi-strand - no ultimate closure - high degree of segmentation and narrative repetition - cliffhangers - events unfold in „real time‟ eg a pregnancy will take 9 months

- Matriarchs: strong women as heads of households - weak, clownish men - gossip (performs clear narrative function to develop and interlink storylines) - villain - bigshot (often male, possibly suggesting strength of female characters is confined to domestic sphere?)

- Family lives: genre explores internal conflicts within a core ideological unit that is often seen as the cornerstone of society. - storylines can be divided into three basic types: rites of passage, issues-led, and short term dramas.

- the „iconography of real time‟ – references to events in „our‟ world



SOAPS AND REPRESENTATION The term „soap opera‟ stems from the fact that the genre was originally developed for US commercial radio as a text which would attract a female audience enabling advertisers to target them with ads for domestic products, such as soap powders. (The „opera‟ bit comes from the use of „high emotions‟ within the genre.) Thus, soap opera has familialism and the traditional domestic division of labour encoded into it. Because of this history and a number of other factors soap has traditionally been regarded as a “women‟s genre”. And because of this, a number of highly important feminist media theorists have studied the genre closely, to see if its representation of gender offers women audiences anything different from the rest of the (usually highly sexist) mainstream media. These theorists have also looked at the ways in which the soap text relates to the viewing habits, and broader lives, of the female audience.

SOAP AND FAMILY REPRESENTATIONS Soaps have been seen as a genre which interrogates the nuclear family and its internal power relationships and problems. Because of this, several important FEMINIST MEDIA THEORISTS such as Christine Geraghty argue that soap is basically a feminist genre because: -


It contains strong female characters – the families are often headed by matriarchs (think of all the women heads of family in Eastenders) Its settings are domestic, community based and local, rather than the „man‟s world‟ of business and public affairs – taking what is traditionally „the woman‟s place‟ seriously? Familial relationships are explored in depth – emotional issues etc. It has been argued that therefore the genre takes „women‟s concerns‟ seriously. „The family‟ is, as we know, an ideological building block of society, often presented as a site of harmony and security. But for women it is often a site of hard labour, emotional difficulties and even domestic violence. Thus the genre exposes the „familial ideology‟ of patriarchy that often keeps women oppressed within the home. Men often presented as weak, inadequate, the butt of jokes, clowns etc. Think again of Eastenders. Compare Barry to Natalie, Robbie to Sonia, etc. Think of examples from other soaps. It has also been argued that the multi-strand narrative structure, with no ultimate closure, allows for a range of perspectives to be explored, and that this is a rather open and „feminised‟ way of creating a narrative. In contrast, the classic Hollywood narrative structure which subjugates all perspectives to that of the hero, and which achieves firm closure, represents a more patriarchal, controlling instinct.

However, there are some counter-arguments: -

The gossip character, who serves to link and develop narratives between characters, is usually a woman. „Gossip‟ is a pejorative term, almost always used to describe female conversation, and thus this characters can be regarded as sexist. The big-shot character (Steve Owen, Mike Baldwin) is almost always male. It could be argued that the presence of this character CONFINES the strength of women to a primarily domestic sphere, the home, as the world of work is controlled by these men.

SOAP AND THE FEMALE AUDIENCE Another approach to the issue of whether it is a feminist text goes beyond looking at its representations of family and gender, to look at how the text fits in with the viewing habits of women. Perhaps there is something distinctively „female-orientated‟ about soap opera from this perspective? Arguments here have often been contradictory. Christine Geraghty, in her important book Women and Soap Opera, 1991, examines the relationship between the narratives on the screen and the women viewers who make up the traditional soap audience. She identifies the following possibilities: 1. Soap as a REFUGE from male control. Here it is argued that many women adopt a soap as „their programme‟ and so when it comes on the slot provides a refuge from male demands and domestic labour in the household. „This is my time now‟. 2. Soap as a text which FITS IN with domestic labour. On the other had some have argued that the opposite is true. Because of its highly segmented narrative and its extraordinary degree of repetition of narrative information, it has been argued that soap can be watched very easily WHILST ENGAGED IN DOMESTIC LABOUR and caring duties. Soaps are often on at mealtimes, and still in our society it is mainly women that have to perform such domestic labour. Soap opera thus integrates with the reality of many women‟s lives. 3. Soap as a text which parallels women’s skills. The multistrand narrative structure, which does not privilege one perspective above all the others (as happens in „classic

Hollywood‟ film narrative structure), may encourage a range of points of identification and parallel the female skill of „caring‟ for a range of people in her family. 4. Soap as a site of resistance to male control. The range of perspectives about emotional issues may provide a topic of conversation for women which encourages friendship and communication. In a male dominated workplace such as a factory, it may provide a source of solidarity amongst female workers. Interestingly, a lot of these points, made by Gerarghty, assume a typical nuclear family household in the audience!! So sometimes media theory itself is not immune from the ideology of familialism! THE INTERROGATION OF THE FAMILY AND GAY AUDIENCES – GENDER AS PERFORMANCE Other theorists have argued that soaps offer particular pleasures and meanings for different audience fractions, such as schoolchildren, or gays and lesbians. Gay people, are often critically aware of the difficulties of family life, for obvious reasons, and thus, it has been argued, can identify with the narratives and particularly the split between characters‟ public and private identities which characterises soap narratives. Judith Butler is a gender theorist who has been central to the development of a feminist theoretical approach called “Queer Theory”, which argues that many aspects of gender are what she has called “performative” – that is – we adopt our roles for particular purposes. The idea of “putting on a public face” and “going out there” to face the world is one which many female characters in soaps express. Think of Peggy Mitchell, after going through some harrowing experience upstairs our “out the back”, emerging into the bar with her brave smile, to serve her customers in the Queen Vic. It is almost as though she “wears” her identity as a woman, hiding behind it the internal difficulties of family life. These pictures of Lily Savage and Bet Lynch, a long-time character in Coronation Street, back up Butler‟s idea and explicitly make the connection between gay audiences and soap opera. Paul O‟Grady is known to have based Lily on Bet Lynch. Judith Butler‟s main book is called Gender Trouble.


Christine Geraghty

Judith Butler

Name/date of book

key ideas

Soap Opera and familialism