Homosexuality on All My Children: Transforming the Daytime Landscape

Article excerpt

Erica Kane's daughter is gay! (Greenlee Smythe, All My Children, November 2000)

When resident villainess Greenlee Smythe uttered the above line of dialogue, ABC's All My Children entered uncharted territory for daytime television. By revealing that a core character is lesbian--Bianca is the daughter of daytime's (straight) diva nonpareil, Erica Kane--the show initiated an innovative discourse about the possibility, location, and representation of lesbian and gay characters in a television genre historically predicated on the celebration of heterosexual courtship, romance, and family life. While the past decade has witnessed a growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gendered characters in prime-time dramas and situation comedies, daytime soap operas offer unique challenges (and possibilities) regarding the inclusion and "normalization" of varied sexualities in entertainment television.

This article examines the question of whether lesbian or gay characters can be included long-term in the world of daytime drama. This question is important because, as discussed below, daytime television is typically ahead of prime-time in exploring potentially controversial social issues--with the notable exception of homosexuality. What are the challenges in including gays and lesbians on soaps? How much "risk" has All My Children taken with the Bianca narrative, especially in an era of declining daytime ratings? I address these questions through textual analysis of the Bianca storyline, and more importantly, through analysis of the conceptualization, implementation, and development of gay/lesbian narratives as discussed during in-depth interviews with daytime journalists and other industry insiders.

This article thus emphasizes two different sites in the circuit of culture: primary text and professional criticism. The circuit of culture is a dialogic model of production which holds that cultural meanings are generated at a number of different sites and are circulated through a complex set of processes and practices (du Gay Hall, Janes, Mackay & Negus, 1997). Professional critics, in particular, play an important yet understudied role in the production of meaning in popular culture. Shrum (1996) suggests that critics of high art serve as tastemakers and gatekeepers, mediating the perception of an artwork to less knowledgeable consumers and acting as key participants in defining the cultural hierarchy (p. 10). In contrast, consumers of popular culture serve as their own critics "because television, their main form of participation, is not subject to formal criticism" (Shrum, 1996, p. 198). Indeed, the role of professional critics in daytime serials has not been fully institutionalized, and critics serve mainly as advocates for the genre rather than gatekeepers (Bielby & Bielby, in press). Soap journalists describe the relationship between daytime magazines and those they write about as a "reciprocal courtesy not to offend anyone" (quoted in Harrington & Bielby, 1995, p. 78). This is not to suggest that the various experts interviewed for this project are mere "mouthpieces" for the industry; rather, the interview data offer important insights into how particular interpretations of the history and future of homosexuality on daytime television are intertextually constructed.

Industry Context: Homosexuality on Prime-Time Television

As has been well documented, the U.S. television industry has a long history of ignoring, stereotyping, and marginalizing homosexuality (e.g. Buxton 1997; Capsuto, 2000; Gross, 1989, 2001; Gross & Woods, 1999). Gay and lesbian issues or characters were virtually invisible on television in the 1950s and early 1960s, as mainstream audiences were constructed as "replications of the idealized, middleclass nuclear family, defined as monogamous heterosexual couples with children" (Buxton, 1997, p. 1477). Networks geared programming toward this image and assumed that viewers mirrored it. …