As the Dissertations Churn Academia Has Hots for Tv's Soap Operas as Social Phenomenon

Article excerpt

AND YOU thought the only thing you could learn from soap operas was who was doing it to whom. Silly you. The wide and enduring appeal of broadcast serial drama - beginning with radio in the 1920s and then television from 1956 onward - has for a long time set smart people to thinking, and writing quite a lot.

James Thurber was among the first to take soaps seriously as a cultural phenomenon, writing in The New Yorker in 1948 - in a four-part series on radio dramas titled "Soapland" - that "if soap opera did disappear from the air (and I see no signs of it), the wailing of the housewives would be heard in the land. I doubt that it could be drowned out even by the cheers and laughter of the househusbands dancing in the streets."

In 1983, the Journal of American Culture listed more than 90 serious works on soaps published from 1943 to 1981 (including "Defoe, D., Father of the Soap Opera," examining similarities between Daniel Defoe's "Moll Flanders" and soaps).

Lately soap scholarship appears to have expanded - examples are excerpted below - in large part as a result of new feminist thinking, the trend toward popular culture studies in academe, the popularity of soaps on college campuses and other developments. As the plot thickens, the question now becomes: Are Luke and Laura headed for Splitsville or a federal research grant? But first, these words:

Tania Modelski, a University of Southern California professor, has explored soaps as a pioneering form of feminine narrative, saying their open-ended plots built around families, multiple character perspectives and relationships point toward a new feminist aesthetic. This is from "Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women" (1982, Archon Books):

"If television is considered by some to be a vast wasteland, soap operas are thought to be the least nourishing spot in the desert. The surest way to damn a film, a television program, or even a situation in real life is to invoke an analogy to soap operas.

"It is refreshing, therefore, to read Horace Newcomb's book, `TV: The Most Popular Art,' in which he suggests that far from being the nadir of art forms, as most people take them to be, soap operas represent in some ways the furthest advance of TV art. In other words, for all their stereotypical qualities, they combine to the highest degree two of the most important elements of the television aesthetic: `intimacy' and `continuity.' . . .

"Tune in tomorrow, not in order to find out the answers, but to see what further complications will defer the resolutions and introduce new questions. Thus the narrative, by placing ever more complex obstacles between desire and fulfillment, makes anticipation of an end an end in itself. Soap operas invest exquisite pleasure in the central condition of a woman's life: waiting - whether for her phone to ring, for the baby to take its nap, or for the family to be reunited shortly after the day's final soap opera has left its family struggling against dissolution. . . ."

In a collection of soap criticism titled "Staying Tuned" (1992, Bowling Green State University Popular Press), Suzanne Frentz, its editor, and Bonnie Ketter fault soaps for presenting sex "in an unrealistic light, where adults never concern themselves with contraception or disease prevention. …

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