Soaps Nov 2008

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    Soap Opera Studies

    It is my aim here to comment on the main aspects taken into account by

    some prominent works on what is perhaps the most popular form of

    fictional consumption in the contemporary world (Gledhill, 1997: 340).

    The actual phrase soap opera is the starting point for this review, for all

    the meanings the term has acquired since it was coined in the United

    States back in the late 1930s. According to Robert Allen,

    The soap in soap opera derives from the sponsorship of daytime

    serials by manufacturers of household cleaning products []. Opera

    acquires meaning only through its ironic, double inappropriateness. Linkedwith the adjective soap, opera, the most elite of all narrative art forms,

    becomes a vehicle for selling the most humble of commodities.

    (Allen, 1985:8)

    Most people in contact with the medium of television will say that they

    know what a soap opera is. However, when it comes to giving a clear

    definition, the picture is not so clear. In fact, discussion about this

    narrative genre takes place directly or indirectly amongst a wide range of

    different groups with different interests at heart: producers and

    broadcasters, advertisers, viewers, critics, and of course, academics. How

    can it be so difficult to agree upon a definition of something most people

    believe to be able to define? Different points of view would be the obvious

    answer. Certain texts which seem to be different from each other for

    some, whether in terms of their content or in terms of their form, are all

    considered to be soap operas by others, and vice-versa. This becomes

    considerably complex when one realises that the question of soap opera

    as a genre is in fact a socio-semiotic/linguistic-pragmatic issue. In Social

    Semiotics, Hodge and Kress define genres of texts as typical forms of

    texts which link kinds of producer, consumer, topic, medium, manner and

    occasion (1988: 7) and point out that genres of text control the

    behaviour of producers of such texts, and the expectations of potential

    consumers (1988: 7). Altman, emphasising the dynamicity of such

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    process, adds that each genre is simultaneously defined by multiple

    codes, corresponding to the multiple groups who, by helping to define the

    genre, may be said to speak the genre (1999: 208). Altman does not

    mention Hodge and Kress and appears to be more concerned withdemonstrating the shortcomings of the view of genre from the perspective

    of reception studies such as Hall (1980) and De Certeau (1984) due to the

    fact that they do not address the broader problems covered by

    pragmatic analysis (1999: 211). Nevertheless, it seems to me that both

    Altman (1999) and Hodge and Kress (1988) share similar views when

    Altman indirectly acknowledges the necessary, and in fact pragmatic,

    control that Hodge and Kress refer to above:

    If every meaning depends on an indeterminate number of conflicting

    users, then no stable communication can take place; so society artificially

    restricts the range of acceptable uses, thus controlling the potential

    dispersion and infinite regression of the meaning-making series. If every

    meaning had to be deferred, then communication would literally be

    impossible; society far prefers to restrict communication (which is thus

    always slight miscommunication) rather than risk full freedom, which

    might destroy communication altogether.

    (Altman, 1999: 210)

    Genre, as Allen asserts describes not so much a group of texts or textual

    features as it does a dynamic relationship between texts and

    interpretative communities (1989: 45). On this basis, he suggests that

    soap opera as a text is appropriated within several discursive systems

    and that these will also vary from one culture to another and,furthermore, the term soap opera, or its translation is also applied to

    distinct ranges of texts across different countries/cultures. In order to

    elucidate this idea he metaphorises:

    It is a bit like ornithologists, taxidermists, and bird watchers from a dozen

    different countries all talking about birds, but in one country there are only

    eagles; in another pigeons and chickens, but no eagles; in another

    macaws and pigeons, but no eagles or chickens; and so on.

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    (Allen, 1989: 45)

    In the light of what Allen terms contemporary criticism, that is, a family

    of critical approaches growing out of, being strongly influenced by, or

    developed in reaction to the insights into language and culture providedby structuralist linguistics and semiotics (1992:5), the following

    commentators not only have defined, discussed and analysed soap operas

    in their own particular ways, but have also unintentionally demonstrated

    that it is within this pragmatic gap of indeterminacy that lies the

    disagreement upon the definitions of soap opera.

    A US perspective with a theoretical and methodological lens

    Robert Allen has published work of his own and others on soap operas

    from all continents (1985, 1992, 1995, 2004). As Hobson puts it, his work

    has traced the global nature of the genre and discussed its importance in

    many academic disciplines (). He has studied the form and traced it as a

    genre through its narrative development and relationship with audiences

    (2003: 24). For Allen, what makes a soap opera a soap opera is its

    distinctive narrational structure: its segmentation interrupts the readingprocess (1995: 1), that is, the narrative is segmented into various

    episodes sequentially broadcast a number of times per week for a certain

    period of time, which depending on the case lasts from months to years or

    even decades, while its story goes on. It could be said that, for Allen,

    what defines the genre is its syntax and not its semantics, for the latter

    varies considerably more than the former from one culture to another. In

    Speaking of Soap Operas (1985), Allen discusses US daytime radio and TVsoaps, mainly criticising the way they have been studied, arguing that the

    meaning of soap opera across discourses, and within academic discourse

    particularly, have been conditioned by the supervisory discourses of

    criticism (aesthetic discourse) and sociological research. By examining

    historically the manner by which the US daytime soap opera was taken up

    by these discourses, without forgetting to acknowledge the importance of

    the discourse of commercial broadcasting, he successfully exposes someof the layers of encrusted meaning that we confront today whenever we

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    approach the soap opera as an object of inquiry (1985: 10). Although

    Allen acknowledges the body of research generated by empiricist mass

    communication researchers and the importance of the issues addressed,

    he points out that it would be shortsighted, however, to acceptunquestioningly the results of these studies as knowledge of the

    phenomena they claim to explain (1985: 43). Thus he calls for a

    reconceptualisation of soap opera as an object of study which accepts

    rather than combats its complexity and which acknowledges the

    limitations in grasping such complexity (1985: 44). In other words, what

    Allen is trying to say is that there is a lot more to be taken into account if

    one wants to thoroughly investigate soaps. To begin with, he states:

    If the elaboration of the soap opera as textual system is to be more than a

    mere formalist exercise or rhetorical counter to the antitextualism of

    empiricism, however, it must be tempered by a concern for both the

    functions the soap opera is designed to serve by the institution that

    produces it and the manner by which it is engaged by its readers.

    (Allen, 1985:62)

    Attempting to achieve such balance, Allen provides the reader with a rich

    account of the institutional history of soap operas in the United States,

    demonstrating that the primary generative mechanisms responsible for

    the soap opera form () can be located in the institutional requirements

    of American commercial broadcasting (1985: 128), and that indeed the

    idea of presenting continuing stories focusing upon domestic concerns on

    daytime radio was the result of the conjunction of corporate desire to

    reach a particular audience () and broadcasters need to fill daytime

    hours with revenue generating programming (1985: 129), and concluding

    that

    The adversarial relationship we traditionally assume to exist between

    artistic and economic interests under capitalism simply does not obtain in

    the case of soap operas (nor, I would venture, in many other cases of

    contemporary cultural production).

    (Allen, 1985: 129)

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    As for the manner by which a soap opera is engaged by its readers, it

    could be said that Allen is one of the first names in the United States to

    foreground the active role of the viewer in making meanings. What Allen

    proposes in Speaking of Soap Operas is, above all, an understanding ofthe history of soap opera reception which would entail

    1. grounding of the overall inquiry in the functions served by soap

    operas within the institutions that have produced them;

    2. consideration of the strategies employed within the textual system

    of the soap opera that mark out a position for