It is often assumed that soap opera appeals primarily to women." What are the grounds for this claim? Is it convincing? This essay aims to discover the appeal of soap opera for women, explored through looking at the text itself and various writings surrounding the subject. The positions and meanings offered to the spectator will be identified, and I will examine whether these are in any way linked to the way women's expectations are perceived in society, and their position in the social structure. Following this I will explore research concerning the extent to which these positions and meanings are actually recognised and accepted by women. The appeal (if any) of soap opera to men will also be assessed, and hopefully used as a forum to highlight any changes in the genres appeal.
The Personal Sphere...
Many of the studies which analyse the appeal of soaps for women have found a multitude of factors which could lead to a strong following from female factions towards the genre of soap opera.
In Geraghty's analysis she makes a clear distinction between the strong tendency of soaps, unlike most other television genres, to focus upon the personal sphere characterised by phenomena traditionally associated with feminine traits and lifestyle such as, "leisure...emotion...contemplation." (Geraghty, '91, p40). She highlights that these are deemed as "less effective and more passive" than the opposing features of "work...reason...action", traditionally associated with the male dominated arena of the public sphere. In our culture the public sphere and it's features are viewed as more significant, due to their perceived quality of being "essential for progress and change." Geraghty puts forward that because of this more detrimental feminine value structure upon which soaps are based, they are seen by their critics as "positively irritating and even unmanly" (Geraghty '91, p41) It is true to say that the majority of soaps still focus upon the personal sphere, however, the above view of the negative attitude towards their subject matter, is somewhat stereotypical and outdated. In particular a vast majority of younger followers of soaps in do not see them as irritating or particularly unmasculine, moreover they are simply entertaining and good fun.
Furthermore in recent times the importance of a strong and stable homelife have been accentuated in our society, and many features of British soaps such as Coronation Street and Eastenders, promote this quite conservative view of the home.
This engagement with "the personal" is seen by Geraghty as central to women's involvement with soaps, with women gaining pleasure from the way in which soaps "recognise and value the emotional work which women undertake in the personal sphere" (p43) However some critics, especially those of a marxist/feminist orientation, may interpret this as a device to reassure women that their home lives are recognised as important by society, in order to convince women to be satisfied within the home, and suffer the exploitation they may receive there.
Talk Not Action...
Unlike many of the programmes traditionally preferred by men such as the news or police series, action in soaps is seen as lacking in any physical weight, with an "emphasis on talk not action...on delayed retribution rather than instant effects." (Geraghty '91, p40) I found this emphasis on conversation as standard and central to all the soaps I studied, whereby most of the programmes appeared to centre around long drawn out discussions between women and men, both within the private sphere of the home, and in the more public spheres pubs, cafes and even at work. Geraghty perceives that the various ways in which public space is treated as private space, shows that soaps are treating this private sphere of economics and business as if it were incomprehensible to it's female audience.
"soaps are attemptting to explain the incomprehensible, through what is known and understoos by their audience - the intricate wheeling and dealing in the personal sphere...encourages them to use those competencies in judging the public as well as the private sphere." (Geraghty '91 p56) She illustrates this by explaining how women who are successful in the personal sphere, will also be seen as capable in the public sphere. I found this to be evident when studying the soaps. For example, the successful marriage of Madge and Harold Bishop in Neighbours, leads to them sharing a strong and equal business relationship in the cafe they run and own. Also Terry and ? wife in Eastenders also share and equal working relationship, with in many cases ? having the upper hand/last say as she perhaps would do in the home.
Indeed there is much evidence to support this claim of the invasion of public space by private space and relationships. Geraghty notes the "intermingling of family and business relationships", which obviously provide a large amount of scope to continue relationships outside the home and there are numerous examples of this phenomena: - Mike Baldwin and his son ?: Son has a managerial position in the factory Mike owns. (Coronation Street) - Grant (and at some point both of his wives) and Phil, in the past owning the garage together, now both have a stake in the pub. (Eastenders) - Melanie used to work in her ex-fiance Ian's shop. (Eastenders) - Pat and Roy used to run a taxi firm together. (Eastenders) - Mark and Pete Beale used to run the market stall together. (Eastenders) - Barry and his wife Natalie run a dating agency (Eastenders) - Mick and Son used to run a pizza parlour (Brookside) - Susanna and Max Farnham, used to have their own restaurant (Brookside) However this view of soaps making the public sphere understandable by filtering it through relationships typically found in the personal sphere is highly stereotypical. When we consider that 51% of the workforce are now women, they will have just as much first-hand experience of the public sphere as men. If women looked to the soaps for an explanation of the public sphere, it is quite likely that it may contradict their own experience of it and they would be less inclined to want to watch them. Therefore women are not just written into the workplace in order to make the public sphere easier for women to comprehend, moreover it is just reflecting the influx of women into the workplace, whilst maintaining the traditional style of the soap genre to focus on personal relationships.
Soap Opera and Narrative Structure...
Geraghty's views on the fabric of soap opera narratives, could be viewed as particulary appealing to women due to the oppurtunities they offer to the female audience, "to test out how...particular emotional variations can or should be handled", as a kind of trial run for their own life; "certain emotional situations...tested out through variations in age, character, social milieu and class...pleasure of the female viewer in rehearsing the decision making process without the responsibility for it's consequences." (Geraghty '91, p41,42) Key to this narrative are the personal relationships which are the "backbone of soaps", and perhaps central to the lives of many women, providing the "dramatic moments" of "marriage, birth, divorce, death" and the more day-to-day exchanges of "quarrels, alliances, and dilemmas" However, more recent storylines have placed men as the central decision maker in a variety of dilemmas concerning personal relationships. For example, a current storyline in Coronation Street has been to follow the dilemma for Martin as to whether he should leave his wife Gail, because he is having an affair with another woman. Typically, in the past we wouldn't have followed Martin's emotional journey and the focus would have been more on what the female decision maker would do when she found out about the affair.
In discussing narrative, the role of audience discussion between episodes is also viewed as important in order to both engage the viewer, and also "provide the means through which paradigms provided by the programmes can be tested." Geraghty illustrates this by highlighting how many women watch soaps with friends and family, discussing and exchanging advice as to what the characters should do. Another way of engaging this activity can be by reading many of the magazines on the the market such as "Inside Soap", whereby much of the language and the viewpoints presented can simulate a conversation with another friend, posing questions and dilemmas, guessing at further storylines and so on.
However from my own experience, I perceive that a large number of soap fans are young people and students In these situations men and women watch the soaps equally as much as each other with discussion present between both sexes. This leads me to believe that your social postition does have a bearing on whether you watch soaps or not, however gender is not necessarily the only factor determining this.
Modleski argues that soap operas address a female spectator through both their characteristic narrative patterns, placing female skills in dealing with personal crisis to the foreground, alongside the programme formats and scheduling which key into the rhythms of womens work in the home. (Modleski in Baher et al '96, p63) Scheduling...
Gray notes that "the domestic sphere is increasingly becoming defined as women's only leisure space" and Seiter et al continue to suggest that in order to resist this contradiction, "leisure activities such as watching television must be viewed as complementary to work." In a study conducted by Seiter et al into the female viewing patterns of television found that many women used "soap operas as a fixed point around which their daily tasks are organised." Soap operas in a household based on these principles of rationality and organisation, "can be more easily regarded as a reward." (E.Seiter et al, in Baher '96 p144/145) The importance and structure of this scheduling has been viewed as having certain historical significance as a reference point for exploring changes in the time organization of the domestic sphere, indirectly linked to changes in the "revolution of time in the 19th century" (E.P.Thompson in Baher et al '96) For women the home primarily represents a place of work rather than a sphere of leisure, yet this housework is seen as "natural" and "resisting the time cycles of the industrial time economy." (Seiter et al, in Baher '96, p143) However as Bock and Duden have highlighted, during the 1920's and the growth of "Taylorism and scientific management" housework became seen as irrational and unstructured, and itself became seen as a science. In the 1930's radio played a vital part in this process. Informative programmes on household management and daytime soap operas, designed for a purely female audience, dealt with the practical and emotional problems encountered by women working in the home. Perhaps more importantly to this discussion; "The schedules of radio and television were not arbitary but were designed in accordance with certain structures created by housework itself." (Seiter et al, in Baher '96 p144) This highlights that the phenomena of women organising their household activities around soaps is not just a mere development, but something which soaps were specifically designed for in the first place. This confirms that in the past the target viewer for soaps were traditionally women.
If the scheduling of a programme is meant to reflect the living habits of it's audience, then the scheduling of soaps could be regarded as compatible with the lifestyles of the women who are presumed to be watching them. For example, in the late afternoon or early evening, soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away which are targeted at a younger audience, may be used by mothers to pre-occupy their children whilst they prepare dinner and finish many of the household chores. In the evening when these chores are completed, the soaps which are normally associated with female viewers, such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, or Eastenders, perhaps signal the end of the day for these women and are consequently watched by them as a positive target for when they will be able to stop and rest.
Target Audience of Soaps? Another way soaps can be seen as targeting a female viewer is through Geraghty's notion of the "competent viewer." (Geraghty '91, p46) the skills of the competent viewer are regarded as laying in three areas, (i) generic knowledge (familiarity with soap opera as a genre) (ii) serial-specific knowledge (knowledge of narratives and character) and (iii) cultural knowledgeof the way in which ones personal life should be constructed.
The first two of these skills I believe could feasibly be aquired by a man or a woman, as long as they are avid watchers of the particular soap, however, the last category of cultural knowledge I believe would be more difficult for a man to aquire. For him to instinctively know why a woman should and shouldn't do something and may be likely to disagree with the preferred meaning directed at women entirely. For example if a woman wears what other women deem as a "tarty" outfit, males may be inclined to approve to her wearing it, or at least look at it in a much more light hearted manner.
However, accounts such of those of Modleski and other views on gender and spectatorship, have been criticised due to the extent to which they try and universalise their views and apply them to all women or at least all women who watch soaps.
Brunsdon highlights that we need to distinguish between who the soap may be aiming at, and the actual audience who are really watching the programmes. In her words this is the distinction "between the subject position that a text constructs, and the social subject who may or may not take these positions up" (Brunsdon in Geraghty, '91, p39) Even if soaps are primarily aimed at women we cannot look at this as a homogenous social group and we must make ourselves aware of the different lifestyles and histories of the various sub-groups within this broad group, especially on counts of ethnicity, class, age, region. Just because we label this as a women's genre, we shouldn't assume all women watch them in the first place and if they do it also doesn't necessarily follow that the assumed method of interpretation will be adopted by all women. Perhaps it is necessary to examine why some women do and some don't.
"In assuming an audience in which women predominate neither programme-maker nor critic can assume that women are a consistent or unchanging category." (Geraghty, '91, p40) It is clear then that there is scope for a whole variety of interpretation of soaps by women and the context in which they are received.
"Morley found in interviewing women in South London who saw themselves as different from other women as they didn't like or watch soaps. Even those who accept the invitation to watch may do so for different reasons...refusing it's emotional demands. Enjoyment will be affected by the way the in which the women viewer is positioned within the home as mother/wife/daughter." (Geraghty,'91, p40) The notion of the culturally competent viewer can differ not only according to gender, but also in relation to other factors such as class and race. Unless the female viewer has the right knowledge for the specific programme she may find it difficult to relate to and understand the programme. Seiter et al (in Baher et al '96) have highlighted this difficulty, with the majority of their interviewees disliking the prime-time soaps of ther day such as Dallas as they were "too glittery and expensive-looking...they don't deal with the normalcy of people...prime-time variety not as hooky." (E.Seiter et al '89 in Baher et al '96, p146) She adds that it is this realism or "versimilitude" (Branston & Stafford '96, p44) which adds to the appeal of the program for viewers leading to the greater popularity of programmes like Eastenders deemed as more realistic than highly elaborate soaps such as Sunset Beach.
One point which would perhaps deter a large scale male audience is pointed out by Modleski in the way that soap operas contrast sharply with other popular forms aimed at masculine visual pleasure, which is often centred on the fragmentation and fetisihization of the female body: "soap operas appear to be the one visual art which activates the gaze of the mother...provoking anxiety for the welfare of others...one of the primary functions of the women in the home." (Modleski '83 in Baher '96 p106) However the portrayal of fatherhood and motherhood in soaps is being to change as it is in society. In the past the father role was not really focused on that of a carer, but recent examples such as Grant, Bepe and Ian in Eastenders, highlight this shift.
Both the subject and the spectator of soap operas are viewed by Modleski as "a sort of ideal mother..who possesses a greater wisdom than all her children...no demands or claims of her own." (Modleski '83 in Baher '96 p147) However the mothers portrayed in soaps are perhaps less than ideal, and this is probably in order to reassure female viewers that most women have faults, especially in the day and age where they are trying to manage more than just the home, but a job, marriage and children.
The spectator position of the ideal mother was strongly rejected by most of the women that Seiter et al interviewed, especially by working class women. The reasons given for this rejection was that they refused to give the sympathy and understanding they should have given if they were indeed coming from the ideal mother spectator position. Instead they felt no sympathy when comparing the "comfortable professional lives of the television characters and the difficult financial situations in which many of our informants find themselves in." (Seiter '89 in Baher '96, p148) "Strongly held preferences for individual characters and dislikes for others, prevented the ideal mother position as Modleski describes it, from ever being fully taken up." (Seiter et al in Baher '96 p148) The Appeal of Soap Opera to Men...
Due to the increase in general standards of living, men are now more inclined to stay in and watch television with their partners and studies such as Goldthorpe's affluent worker study have provided evidence of this occuring.
Recent storylines have perhaps reflected this recognition of a male audience. An example of this can be found in Eastenders, with the murder of Saskia by Steve Owen and the trial of Matthew. Although there has been quite a strong focus on the emotional relationship between these two men, many episodes have been accompanied by physical action, which wouldn't characteristiacally appeal to women. For example murder, violence, a criminal trial, all point more to features of a police series than a soap.
However this does point more to the fact that it is perhaps when soaps contain more action based storylines that they will begin to appeal to men, and not that they are becoming attracted to the generic features that women find so satisfying about them. For example, I recently noticed that the youth soap Hollyoaks, began to receive more of a positive response from my male friends when it contained special episodes which were filled with action and crime, centred around a dominant male character.
There is also some evidence to show that Gay men are inclined to watch soaps, although they may derive different satisfactions from watching them, to those of women. For example, In the 80's American soap Dallas, many men related to the masculine nature of the female character Alexis, and regarded her as a gay icon and role model.
(Abercrombie '96 p67) In Conclusion...
From both research and my own observations of soap opera's appeal to women, I believe the tendency to target a certain type of traditional female housewife and mother is still very prominent. However I would also question the extent to which the actual audience is a homogenous group consisting mainly of individuals with this spectator position.
Moreover it is more likely that there are various sub-groups of both male and female spectators. These audiences may reject any "preferred meanings" which may confound their expectations and competencies, alternatively acheiving gratification through interpreting the soap from their own perspective and experience. This highlights the importance of the social position of the viewer, who may not conform to the stereotypical classification of viewer, yet may still derive satisfaction from the genre, although just not in the way it is traditionally assumed.
References: - Abercrombie, (1996) Television & Society, (Cambridge: Polity Press.) - Ang, I. Living (1996) Room Wars, (London, Routledge.) - Bock, G. and Duden, B. Arbeit aus Liebe - Liebe aus Arbeit. Zur Entstehung der Haursarbeit im Kapitalismus," in their Frauen und Wissenschaft. Beitrage zur Berliner Sommeruniversitat der Frauen.
- Branston, G and Stafford, R. (1996) The Media Students Book, (London: Routledge.) - Geraghty, (1991) Women and Soap Opera: A study of Prime Time Soaps, (London: Polity Press.) - H.Baher, A.Gray, (1996) Turning It On, (New York: Arnold.)