Within soap operas there is a heavy emphasis on the stereotyping of female characters. In her book Moledski analyses the stereotypical female roles featured within most soaps. She argues there is always a ‘villainess’, the character that is acceptable to hate, as it is the negative image of the spectators ideal self. She describes the role of the villainess as her who tries to ‘make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator can'(Moledski, 1997, p.40).
Within the soap opera Eastenders, there have been various characters over the years that can be described as being the ‘villainess’. The character Cindy Beal was the evil wife who committed adultery, kidnapped her children and attempted to kill her husband. More recently the current villainess in the soap is the character Janine Butcher who is forever scheming to destroy domestic happiness for personal satisfaction and gain. Viewers take much delight in despising the villainess, which argued by Moledski testifies to the enormous amount of energy involved in the spectators repression. Despite her being represented as an evil character, the villainess’s power of manipulation over men particularly is an admirable attribute for the female viewer. (Moledski, 1997)
Moledski also argues that another female stereotype is the ‘ideal mother’, a person who identifies with all her family members, has great sympathy for everyone and has no demands of her own. The good mother is her who gives advice which, although is comforting is rarely taken and she must sit by and watch helplessly as her child’s life disintegrates. As the spectator we can also form this role of an ideal mother by being sympathetic to all characters because we have the ability to view all aspects of the situation.
Therefore soap operas convince women that their highest goal is to promote family unity and happiness, whilst consoling them for their inability to bring about familial harmony. Moledski argues that soap operas ‘serve to affirm the primacy of the family not by presenting an ideal family, but by portraying a family in constant turmoil and appealing to the spectator to be understanding and tolerant of the many evils that go on within the family’.(Moledski, 1997)
Dallas, a high budget weekly prime time soap fist screened in 1976, has been broadcast in over 90 countries. One fifth of British viewers watched it with a predominantly higher proportion of those being women.(Livingstone, 1990) Some theorists distinguished the American prime time soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty from British realist soaps by referring to these US soaps as melodramatic serials.
Although they feature the stereotypical character roles of, for example the ‘villainess and the ‘ideal mother’, US soap operas tend to be placed outside a realistic frame and in a fantasy realm. In Dallas, glamour was a key feature as the locations were exotic and the costumes were often very extravagant. Most of the characters were very physically attractive and almost all of them were white. The soap opera featured many exciting and gripping storylines including kidnapping, corruption and alcoholism, as do the British soaps yet more of an emphasis was placed on business life and this is central to the text. (Ang, 1985)
Soap operas in general have a predominantly female audience, however prime time soap operas such as Dallas and also British soaps such as Eastenders are deliberately aimed at a wider audience. Ang argued that there are considerable differences as to why the different genders enjoy watching soap operas. In Dallas the main interest for men was in business relations and in the power and wealth the characters possessed. Yet for women, the attraction to Dallas was the interest in family issues and love affairs. (Ang, 1985)
In ‘realist’ soaps female characters are portrayed as more central than in action dramas, as ordinary people coping with everyday problems. This is why soaps tend to appeal to those who value the personal and domestic world. Morely argues that the gender identity of the viewer is inscribed within programmes, and within soaps the viewer has a traditional female gender identity. (Morely 1992) Brunsdon argues that the spectator addressed by a soap opera is constructed within culture, rather than representation. The spectator must possess certain cultural codes i.e. Familiarity with the genre, in order to make sense of the soap opera. The text implies and requires a feminine reader who must be skilled in the ‘rules’ of romance, marriage and family life. (Brunsdon, 1987)
Easthope argues that the masculine ego favours forms that are self contained and which have a sense of closure ‘Masculine narrative form favours action over dialogue and avoids indeterminacy to arrive at closure/resolution’ (Easthope, 1990) Men don’t tend to watch soap operas as they do not conform to the masculine narrative of being linear and goal orientated, they create consequences that are more important than actions, involve many complications and avoid closure.
Dialogue in masculine narratives is driven by plot, which it explains, clarifies and simplifies, whereas the dialogue in soaps blurs and delays the plot. Male viewers are not particularly attracted to soaps as there is never one single hero, no privileged moral perspective and contain multiple narrative lines and no consensus. Moledski argues that masculine narratives inscribe in the text an implied male reader who becomes increasingly omnipotent whilst the soap opera has the ‘ideal mother’ as the inscribed reader. (Moledski, 1997)
Soap operas attempt in their portrayal of characters and everyday lives, to be realistic, however viewers differ in the extent to which they judge soaps as reflections of reality. British viewers associate American soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty as being far from representative of typical everyday life and regard the soap operas as being more in the realm of fantasy. They see British soap operas such as Eastenders more in terms of realism. Yet, it is misleading to regard these ‘realist soaps’ as simply representing real life. British soap operas are often considered to be realistic, however it is a complex issue to define, as what is considered ‘realistic’ is variable depending on the point of view. (Ang, 1985)
The notion of realism is heavily determined by the characters and their ability to be believable in a certain role. Soap operas have a close relationship with the press, who have the power to control a soap opera’s popularity. Acting within soap often tends to assume a relationship between the character and the actor/actress. This identification is heavily exploited within the press. For example the character of Kat Slater in Eastenders is portrayed as a rebellious, outgoing, woman with daring clothes and a large mouth. This character is played by Jessie Wallace, a lady whose identity has been matched to that of ‘Kat Slater’ because she plays the character in the soap opera.
This has been reflected in the negative media coverage she has received when she was in trouble with the law for drink driving. The press try and reinforce this image of the character ‘Kat slater’, making her more realistic by showing Jessie as being like her, in real life. According to Skirro, the identification between the actor and character is very important for the production team, who at casting stage must be aware of how the actor will carry the narrative image of the programme, for example, how they will be presented in the media in newspapers and appearences on the front cover of TV magazines. (Skirro, 1987)
It has been argued by many feminist theorists that the soap opera does withhold an essentially feminine narrative form. The content, style and identifiable characters all attract the feminine gender and statistics support the notion that more women watch soap operas than men. However recent studies have shown more men are becoming increasingly interested in watching soap operas and despite higher viewing figures for women, men generally watch less television on the whole.
It has been discussed what constitutes a male narrative form, and the interpretation of soap operas differs greatly to the perceived male narrative from the storylines to the nature of the genre. Soap operas reflect feminine perspective and identity, affirm women’s power in society and represent a strong female gender, this binary opposition to the male narrative and the strong gendered features of the soap opera are the reasons as to why soap operas are considered to be ‘feminine narrative forms’.