Daytime Dirty – Unraveling The Modern Day Soap Opera

In a land far, far away Carly, a stunning blonde who is currently dating a reformed serial killer, just told her 4-times-over ex-husband, Sonny, (who is also the town’s mob boss) some shocking news: the man he recently killed for murdering his fiance was, in fact, innocent. The real killer is the women he just had an affair with despite the fact that she’s been dating Sonny’s son. Meanwhile, on the other side of town a drug bust just went down and so far,  the ring leader’s identity is only known by the millions of viewers who tune in Monday through Friday.


My best Soap Opera “Pouty/Crazy Eyes’ look.

This is all happening in Port Charles, a fictional New York town, which is the setting for the daytime hit General Hospital. This popular soap opera began in 1963 and is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest running American soap opera in production. General Hospital’s success can undoubtedly be attributed to its ability to deliver a constant stream of sex, drugs, lies, and people coming back from the dead. Seriously, no one ever stays dead. Ever.

Soap Opera’s began on radio in the 1930’s to cater to the millions of presumably bored housewives. Knowing exactly who their target audience was, advertisers peddled cleaning products during commercial breaks. Couple that with the dramatic story lines that unraveled each episode and the term “Soap Opera” made perfect sense.

The daytime drama concept took off after its transition to television in 1946 and by the 1950’s housewives all across the country made sure to tune into their favorite “story” each day. What set the Soap Opera apart from other types of programming was the continuous, intertwined story lines. Episodes were left open-ended with the promise of a resolution always on the horizon. Women everywhere were being drawn into the lives of these characters and their circumstances day after day and always left wanting more. By the late 1960’s it was apparent that the Soap Opera was a success and the big three networks all had their hands in the cookie jar.

While the Soap Opera was a source of entertainment it also contributed to some real change over the years. As plots evolved so did people’s opinions about controversial issues like homosexuality, sexual transmitted disease, mental disorders and a host of other topics not usually discussed aloud.

In 1962 Agnes Nixon, head writer for popular daytime drama The Guiding Light, lost a friend to cervical cancer. She decided to use her platform to gain awareness for this disease by writing it into the show. Diagnosing character, Bert Bauer with cervical cancer was quite the feat considering that, at that time, words such as “cancer”, “uterus” or “PAP smear” weren’t allowed on television. In the end, Nixon was a pioneer for publicly discussing women’s health issues and preventive care.

In 1970, All My Children debuted (also created by Nixon) and introduced several taboo topics for its time. With the Vietnam War was in full swing, the show introduced character Ruth Parker Brent Martin (played by actress Mary Fickett),  an anti-war liberal,  who publicly protested against the war. Before this, no television show had ever discussed war. Her protest speech led to an Emmy for Fickett and was the first ever given to a soap opera performer.

Three years later, Susan Lucci’s character Erica Kane had the first legal abortion aired on American television. This was especially relevant because Roe v. Wade was just decided several months earlier.  Particularly shocking was the reason for her decision, she didn’t want to gain weight and lose her modeling career. While the writers could have  pacified the audience by introducing the abortion as a resolution to a life threatening medical condition they instead showed a woman simply making the decision to not go through with a pregnancy. This sparked both outrage and debate during a time when it was desperately needed.

In the 80’s, not only did All My Children reveal that character Cindy Parker Chandler had AIDS, they also shared relevant information to the public about a very misunderstood disease. For the first time, viewers were learning about how the disease was transmitted and treated. More importantly, rumors were being addressed. Learning that you couldn’t catch AIDS through casual contact helped break down the stigma of a virtually new and scary disease.

When General Hospital’s character, Robin Scorpio found out she had AIDS in the nineties it shattered stereotypes and shook nerves. A young, white middle-class girl contracting HIV from her first love. A decade later and Robin still has a recurring role on the popular soap. Viewers have watched her become a successful wife and mother despite her diagnosis.

For decades, Soap Opera’s have stayed on the cusp of current events. The impact being that women weren’t just zoning out to watch vapid programming each day, they were being education and challenged in their thinking. Storylines were (and still are) designed as a resource for women to use in their real lives; rape, domestic abuse, mental illness – all topics that unfolded day after day to characters that viewers have developed a relationships with. Many times phone numbers and websites to the appropriate support are shared at the end of an episode.

The storyline of Terrance Frye, an African American character on All My Children, being beaten by two white men in 1992 reminded people that racism was still a very real problem. This was especially relevant as just one year before Rodney King made headlines when he was beaten by Los Angeles police. In 2011, the character Will Horton on Days of Our Lives was revealed to be a gay man. The show followed his struggle to come out to his loved one’s. Currently him and his partner are the first gay “super couple” on daytime.

Soaps have even had a hand in the rise of certain baby names. When character Brody Lovett was introduced on One Life to Live in 2008 the name spiked in popularity and has actually been in the top 100 list of boy names for the past 6 years. The name “Ashley” was a predominantly male name until Ashley Abbott became a character on The Young and The Restless in 1982.

During the late 90’s, Soap Opera viewership began to decline.  With more women working outside of the home, the genre’s target audience was no longer available to stay tuned day after day. Factor in the rise of  talk shows, game shows and the popularity of the internet and Soaps get lost in the shuffle. People had more options than ever before. By the mid 2000’s, it was undeniable that Soap Opera’s were a dying breed. In April 2011, ABC announced that they were cancelling All My Children and One LIfe To Live two shows that had been on the air for over 40 years. Today, there are only four daytime Soap Operas on television. A stark contrast to years past when Soaps dominated the airwaves.

The internet does make it possible for avid fans to stay abreast of what’s happening on their favorite daytime drama. With Hulu and network websites, viewers don’t have to be in front of their television at the same time every day. They can watch at their own convenience. In fact, when One Life To Live and All My Children were cut from ABC they were picked up by HULU to the delight of their faithful followers.

It’s understandable that some people refer to Soap Operas as their “guilty pleasure” or “dirty little secret”. After all, they are ridiculous. This is a world where  everyone is beautiful and wealthy. Working moms wear designer dresses and stilettos to bring their children to the park -never mind, that  there was just a shootout at that very park the day before. People reveal earth shattering secrets out loud to themselves in public places leaving the viewers at home shaking their heads. Only in the world of Soap Opera’s can someone hold a pregnant woman hostage in a secret panic room in hopes of stealing her child one year and be an upstanding member of society the next  (oh, how quickly people forget).

Yes, Soap Opera’s  may seem over the top is it really any more outlandish than any other show on television? Was Tony Soprano’s life any more believable?

Soap Opera’s may be an acquired taste but they are also a misunderstood taste.

If Soap Opera junkies don’t feel the need to hide their fandom-ness they are at least compelled to defend it. However, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. Soap Opera’s offer steady entertainment, a continuous story five days a week, year-round. There is no off-season. Imagine following a characters life for over 40 years. No other form of television entertainment can boast the same results.

Soap Opera Fun Facts

  • The longest running soap opera was guiding light. It debuted in January 1937 and ended in September 2009.
  • Luke and Laura’s wedding on General Hospital in 1981 was watched by 30 millions viewers making it the highest-rated hour in soap opera history.
  • Soap Opera’s were originally aired live from New York City but began moving to Los Angeles in the 60’s & 70’s to be taped because production costs were cheaper.
  • Many popular celebrities got their start on Soap Opera’s including Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, Susan Sarandon and John Stamos.
  • Days of our Lives character, Will Horton has been played by eight actors over an 18 year period.
  • Susan Lucci was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award 19 times before finally winning her first and only in 1999.


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