The Fall of Soap Operas
September 22, 2011
by Patricia Leavy, PhD
With the end of the television version of long-time serials "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" on the heels of the demise of "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" (the longest-running program in the history of television), it is time to look at what these changes signify. While the latest casualties of the soap opera bloodbath are getting a respite thanks to a groundbreaking licensing deal that allows new episodes to be broadcast on the Internet, it is clear the genre is on its last legs.
The fall of daytime soap operas has been attributed to the economic downturn (networks seeking to produce less expensive programming) and the rise of reality TV (as an alternative source of melodrama). However, the overarching reason soaps have lost their appeal is the same reason they held a fifty-year grip on daytime television: women.
I am not simply talking about women entering the labor force in greater numbers -- VCRs and TiVo can mediate the effect of women at work, not home to watch soaps during the day. The fact is that women's views have changed, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships.
Historically, daytime soaps have been marketed to women of all ages, with mothers and daughters often watching the same shows. But women are changing. The two biggest constants in these programs may no longer appeal to most women: 1. myopic portrayals of female characters, and 2. melodramatic relationships.
Female characters in these shows are overwhelmingly one-dimensional. They typically ascribe to the virgin-whore dichotomy (the maternal good girl versus the evil vixen). The one deviation to these simplistic characterizations is when characters have split personality disorders (a surprisingly common portrayal). They are caricatures.
Female characters are portrayed in the most unflattering and stereotyped ways -- as prostitutes, adulteresses, gold-diggers, murderers, liars, sluts, kidnappers, baby-killers and conniving revenge-seekers. They often fake pregnancies, swap partners and confuse their baby's paternity. When depicted sympathetically, they are systematically victimized: lied to, exploited, beaten and even raped.
Perhaps the clearest overarching trait is how needy these fictional women are in their relationships. When it comes to lust or love, these women are simply pathetic. Herein lies the overdue demise of the daytime diva.
Soaps typically revolve around convoluted romantic storylines that feature "super couples" that take on-again-off-again to extremes. When the relationships are in their predictable "off" periods, the women completely fall apart -- becoming hysterical and out of control, making statements like "I can't be without you and still be me."
Today women are better able to recognize the dynamics of negative relationships. Melodrama is a flashing neon sign of trouble, not love. This puts the mainstay of soaps -- the "super couple" -- into perspective.
A true partner helps us become the best version of ourselves, while soap's super couples are known for just the opposite. Many viewers are simply sick of rooting for dysfunction. Super couples epitomize the perils of love-attraction to men who withhold, settling for less than we really want. As fewer women are willing to settle for "low-fat love" in their own lives, so too, fewer women are willing to accept this as entertainment.
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