The soap opera genre originated in American radio serials of the 1930’s; the name owes itself to the sponsorship of these forms of programme, by major soap powder companies. Thus like many other television genres, the soap opera originated from radio rather than film. Television soap operas are long running serials concerned with everyday life and attempt to portray realism and so to reflect the viewer’s life enabling them to relate to the characters and become involved within the text. It is argued that soap operas are essentially feminine narrative forms, this essay will explore the reasons for this argument with particular reference to the British soap opera Eastenders and the American hit Dallas.
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Soap operas were originally produced to be targeted at a female audience. In the 1950’s when soap operas were first screened, women were associated within the domestic sphere and confined to the home in their role as a ‘house wife’, thus soap operas were screened during daytime viewing hours. Extensive television studies show that in the winter, the average adult watches around thirty hours of television a week with women watching predominantly more than men. There is a very noticeable difference in the viewing patterns that the genders inhabit; they reflect that women are still more likely to be at home during daytime hours. Despite the rise in unemployment which has put men into the daytime audience of television, women still view more TV than men in the daytime, therefore schedules on ITV have been constructed with a female audience in mind. (Stoessl, in boxed in 1987)
In order for soap operas to be successful, they require a large and loyal audience. Despite the statistics that prove that a substantial amount of men watch them as do a high proportion of teenagers, because of their appeal to include situations they are normally excluded from. Soap operas have been trivialised by the mainstream media and have even been labelled as a ‘form of pornography designed to keep women in their place’. (Nochimson, 1993)
Nochimson argues that the soap opera validates an essentially feminine perspective and responds to complex issues of women’s desires and power by creating strong, active female characters. She argues that the genre of the soap differs from the typical male centred narrative characterised by domineering and creates a distinctly feminine, open ended format capable of tolerating ambiguity and lack of resolution. Nochimson argues that soap operas should be considered a feminine narrative form as they stand for female power and defy women’s assigned place in male designed social structures. (Nochimson, 1993)
Many other feminist theorists have also argued that soap operas create a feminine aesthetic. The structure of soap operas is complex with no structural closure or single narrative line, within soap there are multiple perspectives and no consensus. Moledski argues that this structural openness is an essentially ‘feminine narrative form’, she sees pleasure in narrative as focusing on closure whilst ‘soaps delay resolution and make anticipation of an end an end in itself’ (Moledski, 1997. p36) She argues that this characteristic narrative form of soap opera is apparent in conjunction with women’s daily lives, which features no resolution, constant repetition and interruption.
For example waiting for the tea to cook or waiting for the children to return from school. Thus making the soap opera appealing to women. The Broadcaster’s Audience Research Board (BARB) carried out various studies on viewing habits and participation, they defined viewing as being ‘present in the room when the set is switched on’ (Morley, 1986, p109), therefore full attention to what is being shown is unnecessary. This reflects a great difference in women’s viewing as they tend to be less attentive and according to Moledski, this is due to distractions and interruptions within the home. (Moledski, 1997)
Within the soap opera genre there are various dominant themes that feature in centrality to the context. These themes are often based around family and domesticity, issues that stereotypically, women find interesting in relation to their lives. Common themes are infidelity, betrayal and adultery. Soap operas enlighten and feature those skills that are typically associated with women such as interpersonal relations, personal and domestic crises. According to Moledski soaps ‘train’ women to become ‘ideal readers’ of people as well as the text, this is achieved through the great usage of close up shots that train women to ‘read’ others and be sensitive to their unspoken feelings. (Moledski, 1982 p.99) Dyer argues that the construction of a female point of view and the ‘validation of female subject positions give the soaps their appeal and also their pleasure'(Dyer, 1987, p.13)
Soap operas feature as an important part of women’s lives as they provide a subject of discussion for people to talk about. In 1979, the Advertising Association carried out a number of British surveys that showed that television is the most popular subject among general conversation topics.(Stoessl, 1987) Dorothy Hobson interviewed female office workers in Birmingham and discovered that most of the women’s free time conversation was based upon their soap opera viewing. She argues that women typically use soaps as a way of talking indirectly about their own attitudes and behaviour. (Hobson, 1982) According to Ang soaps relieve tension through a form of ‘melodramatic identification’. (Ang, 1985)
Eastenders is a popular soap opera featured on a prime time slot in the evening on weekday television. The programme makers emphasised that it was to be about ‘everyday life’ in the inner city today, regarding it as a ‘slice of life’ (Goodwin and Whannel 1990, p124) According to statistics of Uk soap audiences in 1988, 60% of women watched eastenders as oppose to 40% of men.(Hart, 1991)