Oh Ridge. How many summer afternoons did your wooden delivery and waffling between Brooke and Taylor on The Bold And The Beautiful entertain me? But was all this more than a guilty pleasure?
The first hint that watching soap operas was more than a way to bond with my grandparents in Israel came when I was working as a newspaper reporter in Alabama and interviewed a Palestinian gas station attendant married to a Sioux Indian. It was for a Fourth of July special — exactly five years ago — and we were supposed to ask what American values meant to people. To this interviewee, America stood for the open road and The Bold And The Beautiful. We had grown up watching the same 4pm broadcast on Israel's Channel 2, except that he'd watched it in Gaza.
Beyond some sort of lingering soft power, of course, soap operas are traditionally a women's product that some argue can be empowering or even quietly convey subversive messages. Hanna Rosin has written about how soap operas are employed in the developing world to transmit positive messages about literacy and controlling fertility.
More recently, a British soap is adding a plotline featuring a 15-year-old transgender teen, with an actual 17-year-old trans teenager consulting behind the scenes.
Says the consulting teen, who has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria but has not surgically transitioned from female to male,
"People still shout abuse at me in the street. They call me a lesbian and I always think, You could at least call me a tranny. Get it right." Seeing someone like himself in a daytime soap makes him feel proud.... "My hope is that this programme is so big, people will realise they can't hide from it any more and pretend it's not happening. I hope they realise it's not wrong and it's not something you put on or that you want to do. You're born with it."
On the Writer's Guild East blog, Shelly Altman writes about how being hired on Another World saved her as an unemployed single mom dealing with several personal crises. "I'd never even seen a soap unless I'd passed one on the dial on the way to a PBS station – a snob with no firsthand knowledge of the field," she writes, but gave it a shot and it worked out brilliantly. Beyond discovering the addictive lure of the dramas, though, Altman doesn't delve much into what these shows might mean, either as cultural works, venues for the employment of women writers, or influences on the women who watch them.
And on the Ms. blog, though, Ebony Utley gets a little deeper, offering a full-throated defense:
Feminists, in particular, should support the feminine values, diverse representations of women, social issues and global community promoted by daytime television's fantasy worlds.
Soap operas celebrate a private sphere controlled primarily by women who have agency. In it, intimacy, forgiveness, redemption, family, and community are honored.
Utley points out that most soap operas feature a matriarch who calls all the shots, and that as in the case with the British soap's transgender plotline, they can help bring to the mainstream themes that were once considered edgy or marginal — even an abortion on Another World years before Roe v. Wade.
Still, it's hard to ignore that soap operas — which are struggling to stay afloat in a changing media landscape — still carry a lot of baggage, dating back to their origins of selling products to stay-at-home wives and mothers. I don't remember Taylor or Brooke having many motivations beyond snagging Ridge (or in Brooke's case, his father). Unless you count the time she was in a plane crash in Morocco and lost her memory. Then again, there was an Arab prince to fall in love with there too.
Related: Life Lessons [The New Yorker]