An Ode to the Soap Opera: how the soapies have brought about social change

By Alex Howlett

Considering how prosaic soapies can seem, their influence is surprisingly widespread. Let’s start with a classic scene: vengeful ex returns and woman gets whacked over the head with a heavy object resulting in death. I was just flicking through The Gentlewoman, of all places, (bought for the interview with Zadie Smith), and came across an article about crystal ashtrays. In this, they reference when “Steve Owens bludgeoned his girlfriend Saskia to death” in Eastenders, and the impact this had on our country’s perception of ashtrays (in this case, his spontaneous weapon of choice happened to be, you got it, an ashtray). This begins to demonstrate the often surprising unfluence of these endless TV series.

Primarily, soap operas centralise the lives of ordinary people in popular culture, bringing everyday, common social issues (albeit overdramatised) into widespread consciousness. Characters like Phil Mitchell or Dot from the dry cleaners could be considered household names for many.

Our evenings were ritualistic when I was growing up. Dad would usually cook, mum would work long days, then we would collapse in a zombie-like state in front of Emmerdale. Followed by Eastenders. This was followed by Corrie – or perhaps it was the other way around. Despite the dozens of hours of my life I spent following these character’s lives, it didn’t take me long to revolt against this habit, and escape to my room as soon as dinner was over. This was around the first time that I became aware I had personal autonomy, and that I could say ‘no’ to not just Emmerdale, but the whole holy triad.

When I was around 10 and a bit of a sensationalist, there was something about looping soap operas that I believed to be dangerously mind-numbing and hypnotic – and to be fair, the average person in Britain will spend a year of their lives watching soap operas. I was convinced that if we all spent that years worth of time combining our efforts, the capitalist system might have been overthrown by now and we could be living in some kind of utopia. Instead, Roy Cropper continued to reign the screen in his various beige cardigans.

A few days ago and around a decade later, I found myself watching an episode of Emmerdale by my mum’s side once again. It wasn’t revelatory. Nothing had changed, but the mood of indifference I had been stuck in that day was subtly transformed into one of nostalgia, and – dare I say it – minor pleasure. Here were the characters, who were equally as familiar to me when I was a child as some actual, albeit distant, relatives were, still acting out the same lives. They reminded me so intensely of days gone by that I decided that the topic of soap operas was to be reconsidered. With a small amount of research, I quickly readjusted my standpoint. The background of soap operas is interesting, and, occasionally, significant.

We can discover something of their history beginning with the name: ‘Soap Opera’. When they started out in the UK, their main audience consisted of housewives who could listen to these dramas whilst performing their cleaning duties. Consequently, the adverts in between were for various soaps, according to the target market.

Over half a century later, I think it is safe to say that the same plots and dramas are being played out only with slight variations; whilst on that side of the screen things remain fairly similar, on the other side, or on sofas across the nation, I’m convinced that audiences have altered completely. From a hoard of housewives and vacuum cleaners, instead you’ll find whole families of every shape and size allowing soap operas to command a significant chunk of their lives. According to the Huffington Post, ‘almost a quarter of men said they prefer watching soap operas to spending time with their partner or their children.’ Obviously, something about these monotonously overdramatic plots has continued to rivet not only the women of our great nation, but also a high percentage of men (many of whom apparently prefer the soapies to their wives and kids).

I’ve slipped back into a tone of ridicule, however my attitude can be undermined by the evidence of soap operas bringing about social change worldwide. Whilst one BBC News article lists topics such as “Marriage for Love” (Hum Log, India), “Sexual Health” (Dhimbibba, East Africa) and “Landmine Avoidance” (New Home, New Life, Afghanistan) as examples of the positive impact of soap operas which have centralised these various subjects, another article points out the new “Social Impact Award” at the British Soap Awards. It is clear that not just in the UK and America, but internationally, the emotional attachment of whole communities to the characters of soap operas causes more than pleasure and distraction from our own lives. It can also result in shared progressiveness and social change.


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