Why Soap Operas Should Be Taken Seriously By Gays and Straights

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Ms. Szefel is an assistant professor of modern American history at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon where she teaches classes on the 1970s, the Reagan era, and the history of capitalism.

On April 1st, 2009 CBS announced the cancellation of the soap opera Guiding Light. The 72-year old daytime show was set to go down in television lore as the longest-running scripted program in broadcasting history. But within a week of the announcement the show turned into a viral sensation. Fan groups formed around the world and hundreds of compilation videos appeared on Youtube, capturing tens, then hundreds of thousands of hits. The sensation that sparked this phenomenon is the show’s budding romance between two until-now heterosexual friends Olivia and Natalia (“Otalia”). T.V. Guide Canada named the two “2009’s Sexiest Couple Alive” but, unlike the young women of Showtime’s just-ended The L Word who frequent gay nightclubs and coffee shops in Los Angeles, Natalia and Olivia are middle-aged residents of the fictional small town of Springfield. They spend their time getting to know each other while folding laundry, cooking meals, and doing homework with Olivia’s daughter at the kitchen table. Their relationship, and the audience’s connection to them, has developed over the course of a full year, in real time. Months of exploration (second looks, lingering glances, talking with friends, praying to God) and denial (almost marrying a man, getting drunk, doing everything possible to ignore, push away, forget) was followed during the angst-ridden roller coaster week of April 13-17 by Olivia’s declaration of love.

Shot in one take, it occurred in a graveyard next to the church where Natalia was about to marry Frank. Olivia was crying and Natalia insisted on knowing why. Olivia resisted, but then the timbre of her voice splintered, her balance faltered, and she blurted out “I’m in love with you!” She placed her shaking hand over her mouth, as if trying to put the letters back in. Then she reluctantly removed her hand and whispered the words again, as if in apology. To viewers, the sense that something fundamental had just occurred, that a paradigm had just shifted, was palpable. The Otaliafan website, Big Purple Dreams exploded in kind with raw emotion. According to members not only should the scene be selected to support Crystal Chappell’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Emmys, but they insisted the Emmys should change its name to the Chappells in honor of the master class in method acting that she delivered. As self-confessed Otaliaholic “mplm455” (otherwise known as me) was moved to comment after watching the scene on Youtube: “This scene is life-altering. For women of a certain age who have been through the culture wars of the past 25 years, this storyline and the Oscar-caliber acting validates and legitimizes as never before.” Now, Guiding Light is ending its run on CBS as a cherished episode in the ongoing history of a civil rights movement as well.

There have been, to be sure, gay characters on daytime television before, but each arc lasted only a short time and all centered on sex or difference: AIDS, sperm donation, false accusations of gay teachers.

More recently and to great acclaim, All My Children rolled out in 2000 the first female gay character in a leading role. Show creator Agnes Nixon, the “Queen” of modern soap opera, cushioned her entrance by making her the daughter of the most popular character in soap opera history Erica Kane. But Bianca’s travails have been largely indistinguishable from the rest of the residents of Pine Valley. Running a lesbian character through the same gauntlet of improbable scenarios as a heterosexual protagonist surely indicates an advance, but it seemed that, in the history of representing gay individuals as they move from oppression to more fully realized lives, some steps were still missing.

Primetime soaps have also featured a handful of gay characters. ABC’s Soap (1977-1981) spoofed the entire realm of square-jawed men, crystal decanter-strewn sets, evil twins, and killed-off-characters-who-return-to-life. In this context the gay Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) stood out as comparatively normal. In the hyper-masculine Reagan Era of Rambo, Robocop, Diehard, and Lethal Weapon, films that played with sexuality offered unexpected plot twists with big payoffs. In the 1982 comedy Tootsie, a man dresses as a woman and lands a role on the soap opera Southwest General. His unmasking in the finale shocks everyone. A similar charade occurs in the 1991 spoof of daytime dramas Soapdish when it is revealed that bombshell blond Nurse Nan on The Sun Also Sets used to be Milton Morehead before undergoing a sex change operation. No revelations, other than the fact of their bizarre existence, are offered.

By the 1990s producers learned that announcing a gay subplot (or, more luridly, girl-on-girl kissing) promised free publicity and a spike in ratings. Far from delving into the life and love of a gay couple, the pairings on these shows were brief, voyeuristic, and usually concerned with bisexuals rather than gay individuals. Several shows stood out from the rest. Heralded on Oprah, 20/20, and the cover of Time, Ellen Degeneres’s self-named ABC sitcom made TV history with the “Puppy Episode” in 1997. While the baby boom generation of gay people divide time into pre- and post-AIDS, gays of Generation X divide time into pre- and post-Ellen (the most popular website for gay women is called Afterellen.com). But when the show continued to explore lesbian issues it was canceled. On Showtime, The “L” Word (2004-2009) placed small-town girl Jenny Schechter into a fast crowd of gay women in Los Angeles. Path-breaking, skillfully acted, but ultimately frustrating for the uneven pacing, unresolved plot lines, axing of popular characters, and above all, the show’s writing, which was at times (and the entire final season was one of those times) execrable, it ended with a Whodunnit?” story line that left viewers asking “Who cares?”

The Otalia storyline on Guiding Light has been from the start qualitatively different. It depoliticizes sexuality by depicting a story about two women in love in the format of an old-fashioned romantic narrative. GL writers have not publicized the storyline or made the characters parade their feelings. The story brings to light what so many gay women have been thinking, feeling, and experiencing for decades. As “Otaliarocks” posted on the CBS website: “This is the one time when people will be able to look back and say 'That was the first time it was done correctly.’ ” The genre of daytime TV accounts for some of the distinctions; airing daily, soaps have the luxury of time, slowly constructing story arcs, easing the viewers into new characters and situations. But it is also a reflection of the attention to minute details by writer Jill Lorie Hurst. The scenes between Olivia, played by Crystal Chappell and Natalia (Jessica Leccia) acted with such subtlety, are manna to an audience that includes a contingent of individuals who have lived large chunks of their lives in hiding, monitoring every gesture, expression, and intonation, to avoid detection. The pacing and slow evolution has facilitated the core audience’s acceptance of the development. Instead of immediately kissing or declaring their love, Otalia spent days, weeks, and months waiting, watching, and wondering, and the viewers did as well.

The actual nature of their relationship must be addressed when Olivia’s eight-year old daughter Emma (who, thankfully, does not suffer from Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) delivers a school presentation called “My Two Mommies.” The teacher, along with the rest of the parents, assumes Emma is being raised by two lesbians. The episode is actually a conscious nod to two key events in American cultural history: the 1989 book Heather Has Two Mommies and the 1961 William Wyler film The Children’s Hour, which centers on the fallout from a rumor spread by a young boarding school student about the school’s two headmistresses. In the Otalia retelling, little Emma’s title is not an accusation but an affirmation of the two women, and it leads not to death but to an opening for them to start discussing the nature of their relationship.

It was in the 1980s that Guiding Light attained its highest ratings ever and I was a high-school aged devoted fan of the show, particularly the most popular character Nola Reardon. Born to a working-class family she spends large chunks of each episode daydreaming, in nineteenth-century gothic fashion, about archeologist Quentin McCord. Being gay and closeted, I identified with Nola’s dreams of romance in a safe and distant past. I could certainly imagine no present where I would be allowed to date and laugh and love. How do you live your life when you are not even allowed to imagine it?

By that time, African Americans had regularly appeared on daytime TV for twenty years. Despite this fact, soap operas have not been major bylines in reports on the black freedom struggle. In reality, whether working for abolition in antebellum America, agitating for justice during Jim Crow, or marching during the Civil Rights Movement, activists employed a range of protest tactics and discursive strategies, including soulful ballads, epic romances, and genteel poetry. In doing so, they helped to recast racist representations, reshape cultural attitudes, and redefine the boundaries of race.

In the annals of protest literature few texts have exerted more influence than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet for years critics dismissed it as a trifle because of the domestic setting and melodrama. But as scholars such as Jane Tompkins, John Stauffer, and Janice Radway have demonstrated, literature written in genres typically relegated to women—novels of sensibility, the sentimental tradition, romances—wield tremendous influence. Abe Lincoln acknowledged as much when, upon meeting Stowe, said “So this is the little lady who made this big war?”

Which is why Guiding Light’s Otalia is quietly revolutionary. It represents a new phase in the history of gays in America: the move from difference to domesticity not only in content but in style. The show does not shirk the consequences of being truthful about who moves your heart, a process that resembles jumping through a series of flaming circles; few escape unscathed and too many incur PTSD, often without even knowing it. What followed after the graveyard confession was a conscious choice by the writers to neutralize the sources of bigotry. The two key scenes that occur the day after the wedding take place in venues normally cordoned off from gays: an elementary school and a church. Hand-holding in church, with Emma sitting between them, is their first physical contact since declaring their love. Far from being merely about sex, love between gay people, the scene demonstrates, is a deep bond condoned by God, posing no threat to children.

Deeply religious, Natalia refers to Olivia and Emma as “my family.” Her favorite Biblical passage, comes from the moment when a woman chooses a new family despite the dangers that poses: “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God.” This reference is also a nod to Fried Green Tomatoes, which shares many resemblances to the Otalia storyline. Ruth, a demure, church-going woman becomes best friends with Idgie, an irreverent tomboy. Ruth worries what people think, always takes care of everyone else, is set to marry a good man, who turns out to be abusive. When Ruth sends a letter including a page torn from a Bible with the passage from the Book of Ruth, Idgie rescues her and the two women set up home and the Whistle Stop Cafe together.

When the film debuted in 1991, gay critics protested the submerging of the sexual relationship between them, a theme made explicit in the 1987 book by Fannie Flagg, on which it was based. But the director’s decision builds on the story’s narrative structure. The story of Ruth and Idgie is told through another friendship, one between a nursing home resident named Ninny and Evelyn, a middle-aged housewife. Struggling with weight and low self-esteem, Evelyn joins a feminist consciousness-raising group (it takes place in the 1970s, after all). But the calls to “reclaim our own power as women” by examining their vaginas and wrapping themselves up in cellophane for their husbands grates on her sensibilities. She is much more inspired by listening to Ninny’s homespun tales about fearless Idgie and devoted Ruth, letting the messages about courage and female connection emerge organically. The book’s message suggests that some accommodation to the sensibilities of the audience, far from selling out, is strategic.

Recent work by cognitive scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and literary scholars likewise contends that moral judgments have as much to do with aesthetic sensibility as logical reasoning. Resetting the default images conjured with the words “gay” and “homosexual” from scenes of swinging bars, angry marches, and ugliness, to kitchens, parenting, and beauty, can promote empathy, a first step to understanding and acceptance.

Black activists understood that language structures conception. Over the course of the Civil Rights Movement African Americans changed their moniker several times as they worked to retool perceptions at the level of language as well as legislation. Henry Louis Gates’s application essay to Yale in 1972 recognized this. He wrote, “My grandfather was coloured, my father was Negro, and I am black.” In the 1980s gay activists resisted efforts to make homosexuals invisible by chanting in defiance, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” But the cost was defining same sex attraction as an essential identity, linking private behavior to public protest, and tying disdain for heteronormative values with authenticity. In a recent interview, actor Rupert Everett, who came out in 1989, embraced this outsider status, saying “Marriage? Babies? Please. I want to be illegal. I want to live outside the mainstream.” While applauding his courage and integrity, I never wanted to live outside the mainstream. I love children, Oprah, four-hour women-in-peril films on the Lifetime Movie Network, and am convinced that cinema reached its peak with the trifecta of Terms of Endearment (1983), Beaches (1988), and Steel Magnolias (1989). My taste runs not to Epistemology of the Closet but to Chicken Soup for the Gay Soul.

The runaway success of Otalia demonstrates how much progress has been made on all fronts. Brian Cahill, managing director of P& G Productions, TeleNext Media, called Chappell and Leccia to convey the importance of the story. In interviews, the two actresses have embraced their LGBT fans. Chappell has said that, far from hurting her career, the storyline has “enriched” her life. If identifying as a straight person does not require performance of a sex act, or speaking about such matters in public, why should gay individuals be forced to do so? As work by queer theorists Lauren Berlant, Gayle Rubin, and Michael Warner attests, sexual practices do not have to require a political identity. Why insist on labeling Natalia and Oliva gay or demanding that they “come out of the closet” when all they are doing is falling in love?

If the Otalia storyline were around in the 1980s I have no doubt that my life would have been dramatically different. Instead of the sense that my sexuality condemned me to live a tragic life filled with scorn, disgust, and shame, I could have entertained the possibility that light-heartedness and romantic comedy might be my lot. I might have been unafraid to live in a small town like Springfield. I might have even imagined that I could have a family of my own, that gay people could be gorgeous, and that I could be allowed to dream big purple dreams and that they might one day come true.

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Craig Michael Loftin - 6/29/2009

This article is part of the unfolding story of the inclusion of gay and lesbian into the mainstream of American society, which is part of a broader story (and some would argue central story) of the efforts of ostracized groups (religious, ethnic and racial, and now sexual) to achieve rights and equality in a society that views them in a hostile manner. You may approve or disapprove of gay and lesbian people, but you cannot deny that the transformation in social attitudes towards gay and lesbian people in the past 50 years has been utterly remarkable. Just because it's recent history does not mean it is not history. Perhaps you object because it is a soap opera, but soap operas are a part of the pop culture landscape, and popular culture has a profound impact on how masses of people think about the world around them. The history of pop culture (movies, tv, radio, popular music, and now the internet) has a long tradition of portraying stereotypes of stigmatized groups, and scholars have convincingly argued for a long time that these stereotypes shape how people view other people as well as themselves (just think about Stepin Fetchit and all of the pre-WWII servant roles played by African-Americans, which reinforced the notion to millions of Americans that black people only exist to serve white people.) Gay people have their own tortured history with media stereotypes--to educate yourself, I would strongly recommend reading The Celluloid Closet or seeing the documentary film of the same name. Gay people, until recently were consistently portrayed as psychopathic, murderous, pathetic, diseased, tragic. Until recently almost all gay characters died by the end of the movie. For gay people, this sort of portrayal and exclusion had genocidal implications. And let us not forget, John, that gay people were slaughtered in the holocaust along with Jewish people and others. These images matter greatly, and this article captures a fascinating moment in this ongoing struggle for inclusion and basic fundamental rights. After all, such a scene would have been unimaginable even a decade or two earlier.
Please educate yourself further on these issues before posting such snarky comments.

John D. Beatty - 6/29/2009

What does this have to do with history?

Claire Gough - 6/27/2009

Thank you so much for that article. It expressed so well how I feel about this wonderful, seminal storyline.

I'd never considered the way in which they have placed Olivia and Natalia in situations normally reserved for male/female couples, such the school and church. It feels so important that this storyline exists and I know we'll feel the loss of it greatly after September. Will any other show ever go to such lengths and cover such vast ground?

On one hand it has reminded me of how lucky I am to have found love but on also that we still have a way to go in terms of acceptance.

Thanks again, beautifully put.