The Complex, Contradictory History of the American Soap Opera

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The Complex, Contradictory History of the American Soap Opera

Over their long history, critics have often dismissed soap operas as unserious or downright harmful to women; the very term is a joke about the genre’s supposed combination of melodrama and commercial crassness. That is, of course, yet another instance of cultural arbiters looking at something wholly associated with women and consigning it to the trash, instead of looking deeper. A new history of the form explores their intricacies and mutability to social change, arguing that they are, in fact, central to the history of television.

A fascinating study of the history of soap opera—Her Stories, by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Elana Levine—traces the form from its transition from radio to television through its peak of power and influence in the 1980s to the current era of cash-strapped struggles—even as the serialized storytelling pioneered by soaps has taken over TV entirely. Her Stories is full of wonderful details, like the fact that one frequent advertiser around 1961 was an over-the-counter sedative that promised to “soothe nerves,” and in 1981, at the height of soaps’ mainstream popularity, a Washington, D.C. bar began hosting Sunday catchup marathons of General Hospital.

More importantly, Levine makes clear that despite the widespread dismissal of soap operas, they were far from marginal to the history of television, but rather absolutely central. “The soaps of the sixties, seventies, and eighties did not merely participate in the classic network era; their profitability was a foundation for the entire enterprise,” helping fund the experiments that would birth shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example.

Image:Duke University Press

In fact, soaps are a fascinating space where you can watch pop culture grappling with the changing lives of women over the 20th century, sometimes in downright subversive ways—for instance, in the late 1960s, when a lot of women got vocally hot for a vampire named Barnabas and helped push the form toward depictions of women as sexual agents. (“I wish he’d bite me in the neck. I get so excited, I could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes just watching him,” one Dark Shadows fan wrote.) Soaps grappled with rape, abortion, divorce, and desire in ways that weren’t necessarily radical, but sometimes did indeed bring feminist conversations into living rooms across America. Levine grounds soaps in their historical circumstances, tracing the ways that shows changed in response to broader cultural currents.

Critics often assume that soaps are static and stilted, but Levine demonstrates they have varied wildly: the same franchises evolve constantly, as domestic dramas about troubled marriages in the 1950s morph into the action-adventure plots and “supercouples” of the 1980s. They shed light on the preoccupations of their era. For instance, Levine shows how the first soaps on TV responded to criticism of radio serials as unhealthy, time-wasting melodrama by playing to the therapeutically minded culture of the 1950s, focusing on characters’ mental health—though self-realization and emotional maturity were often grounded in whether one was properly inhabiting their prescribed gender role.

What’s more, she pushes back on the stereotype of the soap viewer, and explores dimensions of class and race in the soaps: “In the end, the long view Her Stories offers makes clear the fluidity of soap opera, whose borders have become less and less fixed over time and whose appeal was never as limited to the feminized, white, middle-class homemaker as both the TV industry and American culture had assumed.”

I talked to Levine about the centrality of soaps to television history, the wild changes in the form throughout its history, and the significant influence of the wildly popular and extremely kooky supernatural soap Dark Shadows.

You aren’t just writing about soaps because soaps are interesting, which of course they are. You’re making the case that soap opera history is television history. Could you talk a little bit about the centrality of the soap opera to television history—why the genre is so important?

I started out wanting to write a book about the history of soap opera, and the more that I researched it and started to pull things together, I realized that you could really understand basically all of American TV history through this lens. And of course, that had not traditionally been the way that we thought about TV history, because forms that are associated with women, and are as denigrated as soap opera has been, often don’t get that level of attention and prominence. I knew that, and lots of media scholars know that. People have studied soap operas as an important example of women’s popular culture before; I’m certainly not the first person to pay attention to that. But to think of it as actually helping us understand things about the business of American television, the production practices of American television, the storytelling practices—the cultural influence was increasingly clear to me.

Susan Lucci of “All My Children” fame in 1983 Image:AP Images

So I was really excited when I was able to make that this through-line through the book: This thing that has been ignored, has been there all along, has often been first to do things in the history of television. It’s often a good thermometer of what’s going on with television and especially broadcast television, as becomes really clear with the decline of broadcast television, with the start of cable but most prominently with the rise of the Internet and streaming TV. The trend of declining fortunes of network TV, in general, are so clearly paralleled in what happens with soap opera.

What amazed me was just how big of a part of the business soaps were. You think of the news department as being the thing, or the primetime lineup as the heart of television. But your book made me think that these are basically soap opera companies with a news division and then a primetime division on top as gravy.

Obviously not at every moment in TV history, but definitely in the moment where the networks have their biggest power and profitability, that network era of the ’60s through the mid-80s or so, it’s kind of amazing, even just the numbers, how incredibly central they were to the whole business practice. In some ways they were just this little engine that was humming along, doing its thing, doing all the work—which is, a little bit of a side note, so standard for women’s work and things associated with women in our culture, that it’s going along and doing all of this work and really holding up the whole enterprise. [Soaps were] the financial bedrock of the system in those decades, but also introducing ideas like telling continuing stories that prime time was able to pick up, and now, of course, it’s the center of so much of television.

I knew that what soap opera was doing was in some ways the basis of what television as a whole does. The whole notion of continuing stories and continuing characters is so central to what television has been, and soap opera was doing that long before in radio. There’s other forms to do that—comic books are continuing stories and there were serialized feature films and things like that before even radio came along. But that is really central to the storytelling mode of television, and soap opera does that in this intensified way because literally for decades, a single narrative world continues. And there’s so much content. When you get to hour-long episodes in the ’70s, you’ve got, you know, literally five hours a week.

Now, it’s not that other realms of television and the network business weren’t important. The news division is really important. Sports is an incredibly lucrative part of network television. But I think the revelation is really that primetime was not so much the economic engine, even though it’s the highest-profile, and it’s the other things that were really pushing the medium to its heights. Those are some of the most fascinating parts of the story of soap opera—how foundational it is, in multiple ways, to what we know is television as a whole.

General Hospital, 2010 Image:Getty

You stress that soaps are often stereotyped or even interpreted as a static thing, when in fact they are very mutable in terms of what’s going on in this broader cultural context. Could you talk a little bit about some of the ways that soap opera has shown itself to be mutable to these broader cultural concerns over its history?

One of my favorite examples of this is if you look at a very conventional, traditional soap opera, like Guiding Light, which was also literally one of the oldest, because it had transitioned to TV from radio. Guiding Light in the ’80s starts getting into the action-adventure and suspense plots that were popular across the form, and there is a storyline where the bad guy has kidnapped the character, Holly. Ed Bauer, who was her husband at one point and I think may not be at the point that this happened, but he still cares about her, he and his brother go off to the jungles of Santo Domingo, a made-up place, to try and rescue her. And they’re running through the jungle, their shirts are all sprayed sweaty. They’re these ’80-style forty-something guys, not buff. One of them is a lawyer and one is a doctor. They have these very conventional middle-class soap opera professions, and they’re running around a jungle with guns!

What’s so amazing is their parents were Bertha and Bill Bauer, who were the foundational couple at the center of Guiding Light for much of its history. They were a major couple in the ’40s on radio, and then they were the major family on TV in the ’50s. Exactly the very conventional soap opera couple who had a troubled marriage and all kinds of very mundane troubles. They have these two sons and you see these characters grow up—much more quickly than normal aging, as soap operas are wont to do—but then, in the ’80s, they’re running around a jungle. Is this the same show that was about their parents and their grandfather sitting around talking about their problems while they drink coffee thirty years ago? In fact, it’s the same family, literally, doing this. And yet it’s so different. The ’80s are probably the most dramatic moment of that, because of how fantastical the storytelling got in that period. But at the same time, it’s sort of amazing that this is not only the same show but literally the same characters at different stages of their lives. That’s one of the most overt examples that I really love.


But there’s so many ways that you see these changes over time. You also see it in really interesting ways, like, do the women characters work outside the home? In the early years of the form, they’re housewives. And you can see in the ’60s the moment when that shifts. Literal shifts like having a program set in a workplace instead of just in a home or in a community or around a single family is what starts to happen in the ’60s, when you get hospital soaps. Which we just take for granted: That’s just what soaps are like. But they were not always like that. You have a setting that is the hospital, which meant that your women characters, at least some of them had to work to be part of the story. Something as subtle as the setting changes, and that does so much to change the kinds of stories that can be told, the kind of characters we see, the kinds of possibilities for who we are, who we can be. It’s not that there were no working women in soaps before that point, but the focus changing to being a workplace as opposed to being a domestic space is a drastic shift.

There’s other examples around production styles and formats and even the expansion in length from the 15 minutes of radio and early TV, to 30 minutes shows, to hour-long shows, and how much that changes the scope of the community. How many people the story is about and how intertwined their lives are; production modes around live broadcasting and live-to-tape and then the more edited production modes of recent decades. Those are also pretty drastic shifts over time. So there’s so many that, you know, even though there is something consistent, sometimes it’s literally the same program over all of these decades, you can also see all of these fascinating ways that they change in ways that make clear that the form itself is not static. But of course, television as well changes quite significantly over those decades.

What’s the relationship of the form to the changes of the ’60s and the ’70s and specifically the women’s movement? The form is so associated with that the stereotype of the housewife in the 1950s and ’60s. What’s the relationship of these shows to those social upheavals? How does it play out?

There’s really a range of engagements with those questions, and that’s partly why I think soap opera is such a fascinating space to look to understand how popular culture in general and television, in particular, speaks to and about social change, because you can see even across this one form of television a pretty wide array of ways of dealing with it. Some ignored it, continuing telling the same kinds of stories as always—which is happening in some shows, at least initially—to some of the more subtle interventions, like having female characters who have full-time jobs and it’s not an issue as to whether they’re “really women,” or that they’re fulfilled, or that it interferes with their ability to be a mother or things like that. Those subtle things, to characters who overtly say that they’re involved with the women’s liberation movement and they make arguments for usually pretty mainstream liberal feminist ideas, not anything especially radical, but those kinds of things.

And then, engagement with specific social issues. The most typical deal with sex and reproduction issues. Abortion and rape are probably the two big ones. Those are issues that fit well with the longstanding interest of soap opera in women’s lives, in what I call reproductive drama, where things are related to the way that women’s bodies can reproduce. But what happens, particularly in the ’70s, is that those become explicitly addressed as issues and even some of their political dimensions get addressed. Again, always in a relatively liberal centrist way. I mean, this is American broadcast network television. It’s never gonna be truly radical, and it’s always gonna be working toward the center. But you can also see an engagement with some of these questions in subtle and in some ways, maybe, perhaps even more persuasive than more radical stances might be, ways of advocating for what had become pretty mainstream feminist issues like abortion rights or the anti-rape movement.

As far as I’m aware, nobody on soap operas is literally making radical feminist argument that rape is an expression of the ways that all men control all women. It’s not that extreme. But there is a kind of recognition that there’s an injustice in the way that we think about rape, in the way that the justice system deals with rape, in the ways that men get excused for rape. At a certain moment! There’s other moments in soap history where it’s passed over and not treated as the disturbing act of violence that it is. Things like that also illustrate really well the change over time. We see shifting attitudes towards particular experiences. It goes from almost ignoring it to suddenly, when the show Another World started in the mid ’60s, the way in which one of the matriarch characters was imagined was as, she’s housewife, she’s been a housewife her whole life, she’s very traditional, but she’s read The Feminine Mystique and she’s thinking for the first time, what should she do? Now, how much that gets filtered into the show itself is not entirely clear, in part because you can’t see those episodes. But you see the way the character was conceived in the writing, that even that glimmer of “hm, maybe things are changing,” made its way in some form. And then you get the more extreme, you know, a character prosecuting her rapist, or a character insisting on her right to an abortion. You get a pretty wide array of engagements with these things that were pretty sweeping changes for the society as a whole.

What were the conditions that combined to create the big soap boom of the ’80s and the golden age of the super couple? What’s going on with that? Because I think that’s sort of the moment that is cemented in the popular consciousness as: This is soap opera. What’s that moment about?

There are so many things that are converging that make it just a perfect storm to have such a massive impact in that moment. One is just that the network TV business is at the peak of its power. It’s still the only game in town. If you watch TV, you watch one of these three broadcast networks. That is part of it—they have the attention and the cultural centrality to be able to have an impact. Of course, they had it before, but it’s working at peak in the early 80s. It really changes by the end of that decade.

It’s not about one element—these things build over time. And you can see how across the ’70s even you get young people starting to watch soaps more and more, and that really peaks in the early ’80s. And that’s partly demographic, right? You have the baby boomers who are aging into the teen and then young adult demographic at that moment and so are starting to pay attention. But also, there’s younger people, people like me, Generation Xers who are growing up and start to hear about this, in part because older kids or adults were talking about it.

Michelle Phillips wearing a $3,000 dress for an appearance on the soap opera “Search for Tomorrow,” 1983, when the soaps were flush. Image:AP

Then there’s ways that social changes that we were just talking about, particularly around gender and women’s roles, that build across the ’70s peak in terms of people’s awareness and interest and acceptance of lots of forms of social change, but also, people get a little bit burned out on all of the upheaval. And so, when General Hospital starts it and has this very lighthearted, fantastical storytelling turn that puts romance at the center and makes it very exciting and fun, that just clicks. I don’t think it’s anti-feminist, really. It quite embraces the idea of men and women being equals. But it doesn’t burden it with the difficult things about that, or the ways that it gets into people’s lives and introduces new kinds of struggles. It just makes it fun. And that’s appealing!

Music is really important, the way that popular music gets woven into daytime storytelling. It was still a time where these relatively low budget productions could afford to get the Bonnie Tyler “I Need a Hero” song. That was so recognizable to an audience, and it communicates that feeling in a distinctive way. Also, the VCR is really important. It gave more people access in a way that they wouldn’t have had before that point because this moment hits, just as VCR starts to be a more widespread consumer product, and soaps are amongst the most time-shifted programs. It’s a lot that comes together at once. Most people, if you talk to them about soaps, they’ll say, oh yeah, I watched X in the ’80s. It depends on their age—some people talk about the ’90s stuff and Passions, younger people.

You have a picture of the Luke and Laura wedding in the book, and it wasn’t until I looked at it that I was like, oh, yeah, this is what I think of as being soap opera: big, showpiece weddings. That’s the conception of it that’s frozen in my brain despite anything else I know about soaps. I picture that specific floral arrangement.

Yeah! But it’s very specific, right? Soaps did not have weddings like that before, like, 1980, and they don’t have them anymore, because they can’t afford them. They can’t even have 30 cast members in the scene anymore. They can’t afford it. But yes, for many of us, that’s this quintessential moment. But it lasted for maybe 20 years, tops.

One thing I wanted to ask about is where the supernatural soap Dark Shadows fits into all of this. Because I am obsessed with Dark Shadows, and I’m fascinated by it, and I don’t think it gets enough credit as the explanation for America’s whole sexy vampire thing. Could you talk about how influential Dark Shadows is as a soap opera? Because it looks like an anomaly—a vampire show.

I actually think it’s incredibly important to soap writers and producers starting to be willing to push the boundaries of realism (laughs). Because Dark Shadows not only got away with it, but was incredibly popular. The very idea that you could bring characters back from the dead was something that—I haven’t seen a lot of writers actually saying, “I realized I could do this because of Dark Shadows,” but it seems very clear to me that that kind of thing did not happen in soaps before Dark Shadows, and it did happen and continues to happen after Dark Shadows. Like, death is not permanent! And not in a vampire way, necessarily, but that wasn’t just the vampires in Dark Shadows, because they would do these resets and the actors would play different characters in different settings or alternate universes or times. That idea that the audience will go with you. They will let you do this. Also, the more Gothic stuff, the time travel kind of things, the sci fi things, the fantasy. All of that is in part because Dark Shadows and after that people thought, oh, well, maybe we can do this, too, and then it started to happen more broadly. I do think that there’s a direct connection there.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, there were attempts to revivify that form, like Port Charles, which was a spinoff of General Hospital, which did eventually turn to having supernatural and vampire stories, and Passions doing supernatural stuff is central to its premise. That’s more of a throwback association with Dark Shadows that is in part out of desperation as ratings are falling. People are like, let’s try it, let’s see what happens! And of course there’s all the other vampire stuff that starts to happen in the ’90s and 2000s, too. Part of the legacy of Dark Shadows is just that permission to push the boundaries of what the form could do.

The other thing that is very resonant is the sexualization of male characters, which you don’t have before that point. I mean, you have the occasional somewhat playboy-like character. But the fact that it made so clear that audiences were feeling intense attraction and lust for male characters I think really gave the soaps as a whole permission to treat male characters that way. Again, in concert with things like romance novels. They’re not alone in this. And the popularity of people like Burt Reynolds in the ’70s—it’s all part of the same moment. But there’s that, like, “Ooooh.” Even with Barnabus, who is not a conventionally sexy leading man. I couldn’t believe it when I went to watch Dark Shadows. I get with [late addition werewolf] Quentin. He’s conventionally attractive, he seems like a leading man type. You can see how people were going insane for him. But Barnabas? I think no one was prepared for that.

It’s so weird! I can talk myself into it but even after being primed for him by a lifetime of reading vampire romance novels, I’m also a little bit like: “Really?”

so can Barnabas get it or what? Image:Getty

I kind of don’t get it. The best way I try to explain is that he’s just emotionally tortured, that male vulnerability thing, which, again, exists in romance and a lot of other spheres. That is now clearly something that works. And not just for women. There’s lots of male audiences who are invested in that, too. And that is the best I can explain it, that tortured emotional vulnerability thing, but then also a little bit dangerous. Not just a disempowered, tortured man, but one who’s also has a kind of edge to him. That’s the best I can understand the Barnabas moment. But clearly, it spoke to a fantasy that exists beyond that space, that then the soaps, in general, were able to really call upon.

Dark Shadows is not very overtly sexual—there’s not sex scenes that there would be in the rest of soaps not that long after. That’s another one of my favorite examples of the change over time—people think of soaps as being like all sex scenes and there’s almost no sex scenes before the ’70s and even then that was sort of shocking. There were no sex scenes! There were barely kissing scenes before that.

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