Feminist Research Into Soap Opera Audiences

Feminist Research into the field of television has made a vital contribution by studying the genre of soap opera and its audiences. The understanding of the relationship that the genre share with its audiences is important in gaining knowledge about why this genre has remained such a popular form, despite the continuous criticism that has been receiving from the television critics and journalists. Feminist researchers such as Ien Ang, Dorothy Hobson, and Lesley Henderson etc focused their research of soap operas in exploring how soap opera audiences use this genre as a medium to engage into social debates and interpret the drama in their own ways. Rather than focusing on the text alone, they have elaborated on how audiences bring their perspectives in the stories. These authors have tried to put themselves in this scenario and explored the study as ‘fans’ rather than just being critics. As Brunsdon(1995, p.50, cited in Henderson, 2007, p.8) notes, “On the one hand, there is a perceived incompatibility between feminism and soap opera, but, on the other, it is arguably feminist interest that has transformed soap opera into a very fashionable field for academic inquiry.”

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The aim of this essay is to out light on and the work of this feminists by analysing and exploring the key concepts such as active audiences, and breaking away from the allegory that soap opera audiences are passive watchers. The aim is also to understand why women have always been the dominant members of the soap operas. Do they enjoy this genre merely for entertainment? If no, then what understanding do they bring to soap operas? Another aspect that this essay touches upon is to critically understand whether soap opera writers lack creative ability, as people especially non soap opera viewers, often think that the storylines of such genre are dragged and over dramatized. Lastly, it touches on the social relevance that soap operas have, apart from just being considered as a source of melodrama and entertainment.

Talking about television is part of the everyday work culture of both men and women (p 175). Discussing storylines in the form of gossip or debate, criticizing or applauding, sympathizing with the characters and relating to incidents that unfold in ‘reel’ life with the ‘real’ lives, are some of the processes through which soap opera audiences find this genre so entertaining.

Breaking the myth of passive viewer – One of the most crucial contributions made to the media studies by feminist researchers is the understanding of the relationship between soap operas and its audiences. The answer to the question ‘why the soap opera is so popular’ lies in understanding the relationship it shares with its audiences. The effects that soap operas can possibly have on its viewers form the basis of their success or failure on television. Feminist researchers have time and again exhibited the importance of understanding the audience/text relationships. But, often soap opera audiences are stereotyped as passive viewers. As the term suggests, passive viewers are the ones who just blindly accept the information that is provided to them. There is a misconception that the members of this category do not use their own knowledge and understanding while watching the soap operas, as they are a product of fiction and fantasy. According to Hobson (2003, p.166), journalists and critics often stereotype the soap opera audiences as easily duped mass, who fall prey to the melodramatic storylines. This assumption is stated by Seiter et al too (1997, p. 162). They add that critics feel that viewers usually turn off their brain cells while watching a programme, hence losing any critical ability to judge the merits and demerits of a soap opera. They do not understand the difference between what is real and what is fictitious. In a recent episode of BBC’s Eastenders, the show tackled with the issue of ‘cot death’ and ‘baby swap’. The episode was subject of a lot of debate and criticism. Viewers termed this particular storyline as ‘awful’ ‘tragic’ and ‘sensationalism’, especially since it was aired during the New Year’s time. Joyce Epstein, director of the Foundation For The Study Of Infant Deaths (FSID) was quoted in Mailonline saying, “I just hope that people realise that this is fiction, this is not real life. I would hope people can view it as something that happens on screen and is not real life.” Apparently, the show received around 5000 complaints about how the subject was so sensitive and the events were exaggerated. This means that the viewers were in fact critical of the subject and brought their own understanding to the topic. Another analysis of this could be that maybe viewers always have had opinions about soaps, it’s just that now their opinions are more visible because more and more people are using web tools and the whole issue is sometimes blown out of proportion to gain the attention.

A viewer’s interpretation of the text could be in any form – a moral argument, a social debate, a group discussion or a part of everyday gossip. Through all these means, it can be said that audiences are bringing their own experiences and opinions to the show and also add their perspectives to the stories. “Soap operas depend on the audience following the stories and need their audience to be loyal and watch regularly (Hobson, 2003, p.161). This exemplifies that soap operas are constantly thriving on the support of its audience, and if the audiences discontinue their support, then soaps cannot run for a long time. According to Gillespie (1996, p.13), spending time on watching soap operas is a productive way to understand how viewers consume the text, images and narratives. This thought is also resonated by Slade, who supports the concept of ‘active audience’ and asserts that viewers do not just accept a producer’s perspective of a particular story, add their own meaning to it through their reactions.

This statement in a way contradicts the famous Hypodermic syringe model which subscribes that audiences are under the spell of media producers and that the audiences act and think according to what the media is trying to tell us, rather than putting your understanding to the media texts. Philip J. Hanes(2000) suggests that rather than understanding the audience/text relationships through effects model terming audience as passive viewers, it is important to focus on a new approach through Uses and Gratification model , as this model focuses on how audiences use and interpret media texts rather than focusing on what effects media has on the audiences. According to the model, audiences have specific needs and actively turn to the media to consume various texts to satisfy those needs (Hanes). Originally targeted towards women above the age of thirty, are shows like Desperate Housewives and Sex And The City. These are now widely popular amongst women in their twenties. Male viewers also enjoy these shows because of the glamour quotient; these viewers would otherwise avoid soap operas.

“Audiences are not blank sheets of paper on which media messages can be written; members of an audience will have prior attitudes and beliefs which will determine how effective media messages are” (Abercrombie 1996, 140, in Hanes April 2000).

In her research on audience reception of American Prime time show Dallas, Ien Ang (1985, p.26) found that each of the viewers watching the show shared an exclusive relationship with its characters and storyline. This experience or bond that they feel could be a product of their thinking, their social surroundings, and their background or depending on their social class and age group.

Gender studies – Why do women audience dominant this genre?

As mentioned, soap operas heavily thrive on their viewers’ attention. And a large part of this audience is dominated by women. Because this genre deals with storylines and themes that are melodramatic, emotional, fantasy based, critics would argue that that are the reasons that soap opera producers can easily attract women’s attention. But, feminists’ researchers believe that there are valid and important reasons as to why women love viewing these types of programmes. Undoubtedly, Soap operas are a means of entertainment, and provide the pleasure of viewing fictitious lives. Emotional realism, the fantasy world, melodrama are some of the reasons that evoke women to watch soap dramas but at the same time, it is important to note that female audiences’ bring a whole new meaning and knowledge to the soap opera viewing experience. One of the most exceptional qualities that women possess (as a gender) is the ability to relate and empathize with experiences. However, Ang(1985, p. 82) argues that the fact that women love watching soaps is not so much associated with their social surroundings, especially housewives per se and that they are inclined towards a melodramatic lifestyle. Rather she points out that women are accustomed to tackle any situation psychologically, filled with a lot emotions. Hence, it becomes easier for them to identify with ‘tragic structure of feeling’ inscribed in the dramas.

In her work on audience reception of Crossroads, Hobson (2003, p.168) observed that women related the content of Crossroads, with their own personal lives, by relating the stories and characters with everyday lives. The problems depicted in the programme bore resemblance with the problems that they experienced. A lot Indian audiences, (again mainly women) enjoy watching soap operas because they feel that some of the situations or events in these programs teach them how to tackle family issues, since most of the dramas revolve around family lives as the main theme while rivalry, extra marital affairs, form the sub themes.

Another important aspect that attracts women towards soap operas is fantasy world, which offers things and experiences that one cannot experience in real life. It acts a mode of escape from a daily routine in to the world full of possibilities. “Pleasure of fantasy lies in its offering the subject an opportunity to take up positions which she could not in real life.”The best example could be that contemporary soap operas such as Desperate Housewives and Sex And The City (SATC) narrate the story of women who are independent, powerful and charismatic, but at the same, they are shown to have their share of life’s struggles, and as expected they manage to work their way through domestic problems and family quarrels. For women viewers, such situations act as a means of forgetting their own personal problems by getting engrossed in such programmes. It gives them a chance to divert themselves from the pressures of their mundane life. Women form a personal bond with such characters and start imagining themselves to be like those fictitious characters. For some women, solving a domestic issue is too serious an issue, but when from a third person’s point of view, they watch a TV character going through the similar situation, it tend to imagine the issue as a minor one. Moreover, apart from emotional involvement, these shows celebrate free spirited nature of womanhood by focusing attention on female friendships. In her interaction with women via group discussions on SATC, Deborah Jermyn found out that “the programme’s realism lay predominantly in its depiction of the women’s friendships and conversation particularly within the scenes where they meet together as a group to talk.”(Akass and McCabe, 2004, p.214) Moreover, the location of the show, New York, for some women, added the escapist quality to their life.

However, Mary E. Brown makes a contrasting point here. She argues that soap operas usually portray women characters as “passive and powerless on one hand, and sexual objects for men on the other” (Brown 1990, p. 75). She gives the examples of strong and positive women characters such as Christine Cagney from Cagney and Lacey, and Maddie Hayes from Moonlighting. The former portrays the life of two strong, independent, working women living life in a modern way. Brown stresses that such positive representation of women on soaps operas act as potential role models of its female audiences. “From such a perspective, it is only logical to claim one should strive to offer positive role models by supplying positive images of women.” (Brown, 1990, p.83).

Hobson (2003, p. 178) echoes Brown views by noting that “The women characters that were seen as the most popular were those who had to struggle against the vicissitudes of life. British soap operas often are based on the topic of ’emotional realism’. They are considered to be realistic in nature. In her discussion on English soap operas, Hobson found out that women audiences felt that the female characters in the show held strong popularity because they had the ability to ‘cope’ with difficulties. Such qualities, as per Hobson are considered as “admirable” (Hobson 2003, p.178). Many of the characters in the series Coronation Street and Crossroads were women who themselves had to confront ‘problems’ in their ‘everyday’ lives, and the resolution or negotiation of these problems within the drama provided point of recognition and identification for the women viewers(167-68)

Gender studies play a vital role in understanding how different members (male or female) of audiences think about a particular soap drama. It has been mentioned above how women have the ability to relate to the fiction and bring their own meanings to the soaps. Women, especially housewives who are considered as the prime targets of this genre, generally find this medium to get away from their mundane domestic life. Hence, they switch on to soap operas and watch stories of women who either have better or worse lives than theirs. It gives them a reason to escape from their own surroundings for a while. Men, on the hand, ideally prefer entertainment. They think that soap operas are dramatized beyond belief. They believe that soaps are generally slow and even a little fictitious incident in them is dragged and hyped. Moreover, they cannot be bothered to watch every episode of the show. In short, they are not brought to think ’emotionally’ as women usually do.

This is an argument put forward by some theorists that identity of a soap opera viewer is inscribed in the soap itself. Soap operas identity is most dominant by women viewers. “The competences necessary for reading soap opera are most likely to have been acquired by those persons culturally constructed through discourses of femininity.” (Morley, 1992, p.129 cited in Chandler, 1994).

Death of creative writing?

Due to the qualities that soap operas inherit: exaggerated storylines, melodramatic imagination, tragic structure of feeling, emotional realism, escapism, it is often assumed that they tend to lack creativity and originality in terms of writing. In the recent years, there has been an increase in number of soap operas that are being produced. This might give television critics a reason to think that soap operas have nothing new to offer to its audiences, except stretched storylines and themes. This genre is originally meant to provide entertainment and the reason that it is successful in doing so, is because its audience loves it. They love being a part of writer’s fictitious world and then, also have the advantage of bringing their own endings or beginnings to these soaps. Moreover, it should be noted that the makers of such soap operas often take examples from real life events and situations and then play them out by adding drama and fiction to it.

“More importantly, the issues that formed the basis of stories were those which were important and relevant at the time when they were conceived and had a place within the planned storylines” (Hobson 2003, p. 201). Since, they cater to a vast amount of audiences, it is impossible to the soap producers to not be reflective and not tackle the everyday issues. In a recent episode of BBC’s Eastenders, the show tackled with the issue of ‘cot death’ and ‘baby swap’. The episode was subject of a lot of debate and criticism. Viewers termed this particular storyline as ‘awful’ ‘tragic’ and ‘sensationalism’, especially since it was aired during the New Year’s time. The example that is previously mentioned about Eastenders, also to a certain extent implies that soap opera storylines do take instances from real life events. Another quote by Joyce Epstein, (FSID) saying, “I would hope people can view it as something that happens on screen and is not real life.” However, she did say that, “But cot death does happen” (Thompson, 2011). This shows that scriptwriters do take instances from real life or issues that affect people and played them out on screen. Rather than saying that soap opera writers lack creativity, it should be said that they possess reflectivity, the tendency to reflect their views through dramas, while keeping in mind its relevance. As Henderson notes, “Creeber challenges the perception of a decline in ‘quality’ programming and argues that we should not lament the death of the single play but should instead celebrate the generic hybridity of television drama” (Creeber, 2004, p.15, cited in Henderson, 2007, p.15).

“A T.V drama writer has the whole world of imagination to choose from,” (Henderson, 2007, p. 9). They have the gift to experiment with the storylines, introduce new characters from time to time, bring ‘mini climaxes’ and dramatize ‘cliff hanging moments’. The Eastender example manage to grab the eye balls apart from becoming a topic of debate, and both these points work in the favour of the show, because it keeps the audiences hooked and possibly also get the attention of viewers who are not regular watchers. According to Henderson, 2007 (p. 168), the production team behind the working of soap operas most often bring their own experiences to the show, hence acting as surrogate audience. Henderson’s thoughts are echoed by Hobson as well. Hobson argues that the biggest advantage soap operas have as compared to other genres is that this genre has the scope to engage the audiences by exploring the events based on daily lives. Soap opera writers stay true to their audiences by showing their high creative ability to adapt real life situations rather than manipulate them.

The repetitive nature of soaps, with its core of established characters, may also allow a level of identification and empathy which is impossible to replicate in other fictional forms. (For example, the single play) p 174 h)

Ang states a rather different view on this. She asserts that “exaggerated plots and themes function as metaphors for life’s torments.”(Ang, 1982, p.63) She adds that this should mean that there is a lack of creativity or originality in the soap operas as critics who opine this ignores the structural function that lays this genre. The repetitive nature of soaps acts as “metaphors for life’s torments in our culture, speaking directly to the imagination of the public.”(Ang, 1982, p.64).

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An exploration of the important issues in everyday life, the soap opera provides a set of representations which can be seen as vibrant reflections of reality. They work because they reflect important issues and they connect with the experiences of the audience; unless they make that connection they will not succeed. After all, shows like Eastenders have always talked issues such as teenage pregnancy, issues related to drugs, suicides and extra marital affairs.

Social relevance

Lesley Henderson’s research in the field of television fiction stresses on the argument that television fiction is not simply is a site of pleasure but it also is a site of definitional power (Henderson, 2007, p.8). She also adds that Soap opera has emerged as a format within which controversial or socially sensitive issues are played out (Henderson, 2007, p 12). As soap operas cater to a wide range of audiences across the world, it becomes important for the broadcasters to own up a moral responsibility by imparting social education to the audiences, apart from just entertainment. When producers realised that the audiences were slowly getting alienated from family dramas, they shifted their focus on socially relevant issues like Child marriage, eve teasing, female infanticide and other important issues and incorporated them into stories. Soon, the television fiction saw a huge change in the way soap operas were earlier perceived. Women, Men and children and elders, everyone started watching soap operas again and applauded the creative teams for talking about issues that were long ignored.

Television fiction has largely been studied as a site of entertainment and pleasure despite its importance in ‘relaying social meanings and cultural forms’ (Grispurd 1995, p.21, cited in Henderson, 2007, p.7). A recent T.V drama, Nivedita, talks about the issues of HIV/AIDS. Inspired from education oriented soaps operas produced in South America, this soap opera follows the route of ‘education as entertainment’, as described by its makers. It’s a 26 episode series and at the end of episode, viewers get to see a short message on HIV/AIDS awareness by celebrities. In a developing country like India, where HIV/AIDS epidemic is one of the major concerns, a soap opera like Nivedita is a good way to educate the audiences about the epidemic. Besides, in India, television and film actors are considered as ‘demi gods’, whatever they do, good or bad, audiences keenly observe them. According to marketing strategy followed by media owners, incorporating a social message as a part of storyline is an effective tools because viewers relate to them in a better way (Pain, October 2010). “The secret is to make sure that the drama remains recognisably real while subtly redefining reality in such a way as to alter perceptions of what is normal and good” (Carlin 2003 in Henderson, 2007,, 2007, p.18-19). “The fictional soap operas and the situational comedies give us an impersonal way to begin a debate about moral issues. (Slade, 2000, p. 424)

Slade(2000, p.422-423) provides an example of Mirada de Mujer, a Mexican high quality telenova. Based on the life a women character Marie- Inés’s, this soap opera dealt with controversial themes such as AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and extra marital affair. It became a topic of debate not only in domestic sphere but also in the Mexican press. The life events of this central character were a constant topic of debate among Mexican household. Thus, this telenova was successful in generating enough controversy and encouraging people as well members of the audiences in participating in social debates.

But, in order to be a success in terms of attracting the audiences, such soap operas need to thoroughly understand the audiences’ needs as well. The producers of soap operas that deal with a certain social message need to make sure that the message is clearly put across to the audience, for them to continue watching the show. (Henderson, 2007, p.19) They should avoid making the drama look like a documentary or a commentary. Contemporary soap operas audiences feel the need to be entertained with every scene. Hence, a right balance of entertainment and seriousness is a must for such a soap drama.

How is this genre different from other dramas?

Unlike some of the other genres such as crime, the format of soap opera is not meant to be full of suspense, where the audiences are supposed to tune in everyday to see the suspense unfold, rather this genre is a product of a long, slow, and complex fiction which becomes successful in engaging the audiences, as they are tempted to know more about the storyline and characters. According to Ang (1982, p.57), even as the theme is recurring and repetitive, it works in the favour of the audience, as they start viewing the show not as an outsider but as one of members of that show. aUnlike a talk show, where audiences are just made sit and watch two people converse, in soap operas, the main theme is constructed in a way that it seems never ending. Life in a soap opera is full of troubles – crime, rape, burglary, extra marital affairs.

The French semiologist Violette Morin points out, for example, that the popularity of the television serial could derive from the fact that the life depicted in it seems to proceed more slowly than real life. (Morin cited in Ang, 1982, p.81) This could mean that in today’s contemporary society, where people have to just rush through moment, due to time constraints, they till crave for a life in slow motion. A small incident in a soap drama stretches for minutes, sometimes days, hence bringing a melodramatic meaning to audiences’ life, which they normally do not experience. “The longer they run the more impossible it seems to imagine them ending.”(Geraghty, 1991, p. 11, cited in Chandler, 2004)

Conclusion: Undoubtedly, as Charlotte Brunsdon put it, soap operas today have become a subject of many syllabuses, rather than being considered merely an object of ridicule. While it has been mentioned that audience engage and contribute their understanding in the viewing of soap operas, it should also be kept in mind the judgment of this knowledge and comprehensive study largely depends on a viewer’s own awareness of culture and experiences, meaning that a particular story or a scene in a soap, could possibly have different meanings. It can also be concluded that soap operas take the process of communication beyond the experience of television viewing itself, in the form of social debates, imitating the fictional characters and their lives. Through the analysis of Ang’s work, it can be said that soap opera audiences relate to the metaphors that storylines often depict and this is study is relatable to contemporary soap opera audiences as well. The pleasure of watching a soap lies in its exaggerated plots, emotional sufferings and cliff hanging plots. The experience of watching a soap drama is very personal too, because everything is told from a ‘personal’ viewpoint.

Another assumption that can be disrupted from the research on ‘Active audience’ is that contemporary soap opera audiences have become smart and aware of that content they are watching. They can no longer be fooled by the programme markers. That means, even programme makers have to deal with certain challenged to keep the viewers engaged. So, it is a possibility that in an effort to keep the audiences glued to the drama, producers today resort to techniques such as over dramatizing the events, sensational stories, spreading true or false link up stories of their TV actors in media, because today since news spread really quickly, owing to the internet and hence, such means help the producers in ‘grabbing eyeballs.’ After all, any publicity is considered to be good for such shows.

Lastly, it is important to understand that soap operas were originally meant to offer a company to housewives, who fitted their daily routine work around soaps. A domestic life of any person is filled with all kinds of emotions. These are used as metaphors to depict situations and events in soaps. While it is a valid argument that emotions are portrayed in extreme ways of melodrama, it cannot be denied that these metaphors are sourced from real life events, more or less. Apart from providing entertainment to their audience, a soap opera producer also holds the responsibility to regular be reminded of their social responsibility as a broadcaster. Critics, who view soap operas as merely a source of repetitive pleasure, need to understand that socially relevant themes can also act as means of pleasure for the audiences. After all, bringing up socially relevant issues too form a source of moral debate in the contemporary society.

But when what has happened in the last thirty years or so is, a strange restructuring of presenting women on screen. This point is most valid with context to contemporary shows such as SATC and Desperate Housewives. While it has been pointed out that such shows celebrate the true spirit of women, but at the same time, shows trivialises the female condition by making them into money hungry, male craving pieces of physicality. A valid query could be ‘do they want anything else’? is the changing the attitude of the people or are people forcing their opinions onto shows? Similarly, another stereotypical notion arises when one views Indian TV soaps, where the ‘traditional’ housewife is shown as the positive role model while the ‘sexy modern thinking’ woman is the vamp. The strange aspect of this is that these stereotypes are still prevalent; somehow these facts are overlooked by audiences because of the popularity this genre holds.

Lastly, the reason that audiences keep coming back to their favourite soap operas each and every day lies in the fact that they not only do they relate to the storylines and characters but it is the personal experiences and memories that these soaps show which intensifies their relationship with this genre, because they feel that they have been through such situations at some point of time.

As Hobson (2003, p.202) puts it, “The future of soap opera of intricately interwoven with the power and desire of the audience.”



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