The Perception of Soap Operas as the Woman's Genre

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The question asks to consider the ways in which soap operas can be understood as a woman’s’ genre. I will be answering this question by analysing how popular soap opera storylines and characters appeal to women. The issues with this question surround feminism, femininity and identity. I will be referring to popular soaps such as Eastenders and Neighbours and referencing academic scholars in order to reach a conclusion. The works that I will be referencing are Christine Geraghty’s work ‘The study of soap opera’ which argues that soap operas are a women’s genre, David Gauntlett and Annette Hill’s work ‘Television, culture and everyday life’ which argues that the idea of a gendered genre is outdated, Christine Gledhill’s work ‘Genre and Gender: the case of soap operas’ which supports both arguments and finally Rebecca Feasy’s work ‘From Happy Homemaker to desperate Housewives’ which focuses on motherhood and how women are presented in soap operas. Soap operas have been referred to as a woman’s genre due to their feminine narrative’s and domestic settings, ‘the feature of soap opera that most strongly suggested a women's cultural form is its subject matter: family and community, relationships and personal life - all social arenas in which women exercise a socially mandated expertise and special concern (Gledhill, 1997, 363) Geraghty’s work highlights how the narrative in soap operas can be understood by a woman’s point of view and cites Charlotte Brunsdon who argues that soap operas pay attention to the domestic sphere which other genres have neglected therefore, offering women something to relate to. This is evident in the popular soap opera Eastenders; as the majority of scenes involving women are set in the domestic setting of the family home or launderette. Female characters are also central to the narrative of soap operas and make up most of the cast as Gledhill highlights ‘we find a greater number of female protagonists than is usual in other types of TV fiction. (Gledhill, 1997, 363) Geraghty cites Hugh O’Donnell who supports the idea that soap operas are a women’s genre as he states that ‘women appear much more competent and dynamic than men’ (O’Donnell, 1999, 223) which strengthens Geraghty’s point as it proves that soap operas represent women. However, Gauntlett and Hill disagree with this argument. They conducted a study of 450 viewers over a five-year period and found that the content of soap operas has changed and no longer focus on women’s stories, discussions surrounding these programmes are not exclusive to women and that men admit they enjoy watching soap operas consequently arguing that soap operas should not be understood as a women’s genre.

Geraghty goes on to discuss studies from theorists concerning the responses from the audience. Brunsdon’s account of ideal soap viewers showed them as competent and capable of decision making regarding what stories and characters they engaged with. Geraghty cites a study carried out by Nancy Baym which showed US soap websites as being ‘not only a place in which female language styles prevail but also a place in which there is considerable self-disclosure and support on the very types of female issues’ (Baym, 1993, 139) These studies show that soap operas are not just a women’s genre because of their narratives but because of the way they made the audience feel.

In their works on ‘Genre and Gender: the case of soap operas’ Gledhill focuses on the ways soap operas address their audience. Gledhill discusses Geraghty’s idea that the lives of soap characters are aligned with ours which she calls the ‘neighbouring world’, highlighted in the title of the Australian soap opera ‘Neighbours’. Stereotypically it is women who provide the sense of community, as the housewife relies on the neighbourhood for a social life and interaction outside of the home thus it is argued that ‘[t]he female soap opera viewer… is invited to become involved in another community, a fictional one indeed, but one which parallels her own with characters who share many recognizable problems and dilemmas’ (Gledhill, 1997, 369) This argument highlights the idea that soap operas are a women’s genre as the programme clearly addresses women by revolving the show round something very prominent in a their life. Despite this Gledhill provides an argument that soap operas are no longer a woman’s genre due to the way they are scheduled. Previously soap operas were scheduled during the day or early evening meaning women, being housewives, had the time to watch them. However, soaps have now moved to the evening slot meaning a wider audience can watch them. Gledhill then poses the question ‘how do evening soap operas attempt to appeal to different audience segments?’ (Gledhill, 1997, 377) and explains how the two main ways that soap operas have appealed to different audiences is through the growing number of male characters and male-oriented sub genres. For example, Eastenders has drawn on elements from crime dramas involving male characters such as Phil Mitchell (Steve McFadden) who was held on suspicion of Stella’s murder.

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Gauntlett and Hill’s study supports Gledhill’s claims that men do in fact watch soap operas. They conducted a study to determine whether soap operas should be defined as a women’s genre or not. They found that men and women both enjoy watching soap operas and provided accounts where several men stated that they enjoyed watching them:

  • ‘My favourite programmes are soap operas – 15 year old schoolboy’
  • ‘I enjoy soaps – 36 year old male carer’
  • ‘I’ve discovered home and away. It’s perfect to watch after a hard day’s work – 42 year old male taxi driver’

Gauntlett and Hill point out that these quotes show that men have ‘strong connections with their soaps’ (Gauntlett and Hill, 1999, 229) due to specific phrases such as ‘my favourite’ and ‘perfect to watch’ and therefore agree that soap operas should not be defined as a women’s genre as it is not just women who are actively engaging with them. Ultimately Geraghty disproves this and writes that ‘A British survey published in 2002 by the Broadcasting Standards Commission found that the most strongly committed viewers of primetime soap operas were predominantly younger, working class women, many of whom were at home all day looking after small children. ’ (Geraghty, 2005, 18) reinforcing the idea that soap operas are in fact a women’s genre.

Feasy takes a different approach and argues that soap operas can be understood as a women’s genre due to the representation of mothers as well as a variety of female characters. Soap Operas present a variety of women in terms of class, age and personality types and therefore the female audience are able to relate and sympathise. Feasy cites Hobson who argues ‘[t]he fact that these roles are not stereotypes, but rather, fully rounded and psychologically believable characters goes further to explain female investment in the genre. ’ (Hobson, 2003, 83-4) In prime-time television, women are often ignored. Feasy cites Allen who supports this and argues “the very fact that women are both seen and heard in the domestic drama helps us to understand the popular appeal of the soap opera for the female viewer”. (Allen 2012) However Gauntlett and Hill would disagree with the argument that soap operas are a women’s genre as they argue that there is a substantial number of male viewers who enjoy watching soap operas and ‘that identifying women with soaps is a strangely conservative approach which creates parodic images of both ‘women’ and ‘soap operas’, trapped in a world of ‘emotion’ and romanticism, and does no service to our understanding of either’. (Gauntlet and Hill, 1999, 226)

Tania Modleski argues that ‘soap operas convince women that their highest goal is to see their families united and happy’ (Modleski, 1982, 93) However, Feasys work on Eastenders suggests that although the programme portrays loving mothers it is not their highest goal to be united with their families. This is evident through the characters of Bianca and Tanya. Tanya is a working mother who spends her days trying to provide for her children in her salon job as well as making time to see her friends and maintain a social life. Feasy cites O’Riley who suggests that she has constructed ‘a life outside of motherhood’ (O’Riley, 2008, 6) and therefore is not united with her family at all times. The character Bianca also highlights how soap operas do not convey mothers who are united with their families as she ‘looks to her own mother, friends and the wider community to care for her growing brood…to fulfil her social and sexual life’ (Feasy, 2012, 24) therefore showing that her family is divided. Feasy states ‘[t]he fact that soap opera has never, and can never- due to the formal demands of the genre-depict a ‘good’ mother in line with romanticised maternal ideal should be acknowledged and applauded, and understood as one more reason why the genre appeals to the woman in the audience. ’ (Feasy, 2012, 24) this supports the idea that soap operas are a women’s genre due to the fact that they do not offer an unrealistic and overly positive view of motherhood which the female audience can find comfort in.

Feasy goes on to argue that the soap operas can be understood as a women’s genre due to the numerous storylines surrounding impending motherhood and abortions. Over the years, several female characters in ‘Eastenders’ have gone through abortions. For example Feasy lists ‘Dorothy Cotton (June Brown), Michelle Fowler (Susan Tully), Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean), Bianca Butcher (Patsy Palmer), Carol Jackson (Lindsey Coulson), Vicki Fowler (Scarlett Johnson), Zoe Slater (Michelle Ryan), Stacey Slater (Lacey Turner), Danielle Jones (Lauren Crace) and most recently Lucy Beale (Melissa Suffield). ’ (Feasy, 2012, 19) which reflects the statistics in England and Wales of 17. 5 women per 1, 000 having an abortion. The involvement of these stories appeals more towards a female audience rather than a male audience as many females may have gone through or are going through this experience and it may offer them a sense of comfort.

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