Daytime and Diversity: How Far Have We Really Come?




Daytime television has come a long way from the time when soap operas solely revolved around the lives of Midwestern WASPs. Thanks in large part to Agnes Nixon, and the racially and socially diverse landscapes she brought to the artform with her daytime dramas One Life to Live and All My Children, people of color began to carve out a niche on daytime in the late 60′s and early 70′s. Nixon was also responsible for creating signature roles for women like Robin Strasser and Suan Lucci, both of whom have been quoted as saying they had been told their look was too "ethnic" for television early in their careers.
 
In the 80′s, Nixon continued to blaze trails for diversity, by creating daytime’s premiere black supercouple, Jesse and Angie (Darnell Hubbard and Debbi Morgan) on AMC. The color boundaries Nixon broke, paved the way for writers like Sally Sussman-Morina, who created daytime’s first soap to feature a core black family from the beginning, Generations, and the late Bill Bell, like Nixon a protege of the late Irna Phillips.  On his soap opera, The Young and the Restless, Bell fleshed out the family of Mamie Johnson, the Abbott family’s beloved, black maid, by bringing on Mamie’s nieces Drucilla (Victoria Rowell) and Olivia (Tonya Lee Williams), as well as several suitors for the popular characters— most notably buppie executive Neil Winters (Kristoff St. John) and his street smart brother Malcolm (Shemar Moore), the former who is still a contract player on the soap almost two decades later.

As with telling stories about people of different skin tones, the fight to tell stories about people of varying sexual orientations has been a hard one for daytime. Before Nixon’s AMC received its first hate letter because of the friendship between Jesse and Tad’s sister Jenny (Kim Delaney) in the 80′s, or Y&R’s St. John received his first death threat after his character was paired with Victoria Newman (Heather Tom) in the 90′s, Y&R and Bell had incited the outrage of Middle America by toying with a lesbian storyline for it’s grande dame Katherine Chancellor (Jeanne Cooper) back in the 70′s. The soap backed off the story due to pressure from the network and the fear of losing sponsors.
 
Some three decades later, with gay characters and romances featured prominently on such primetime shows as Ugly Betty, Brothers and Sisters and even the teen soap Degrassi High, the writers of As The World Turns have been plagued with similar fear and loathing as it has attempted to tell a gay love story between colleg students Luke and Noah (Van Hanis and Jake Silbermann).

In early 2009, daytime has taken steps both forward and backwards in terms of same-sex storytelling. In Jauary, Luke and Noah had sex —off screen— on ATWT. In February, Bianca and Reese (Eden Riegel and Tamara Braun) got married on AMC—then had their groundbreaking union annuled the next day because one of the brides couldn’t decide if she liked kissing boys better than girls (Who says she has to pick? Life’s a buffet, right?).
 
This month, however, one soap opera, CBS’s struggling sudser Guiding Light seems to be getting it right when it comes to the care and crafting of a same-sex storyline. Olivia (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia (Jessica Leccia) are struggling with their feelings for one another in GL’s fictional Springfield in the kind of believable, heart-wrenching, humorous fashion that hasn’t been seen on daytime in regards to a gay storyline since Nixon penned Bianca’s coming out storyline on AMC.

While the daytime industry has miles to go before it sleeps in terms of actually resembling America’s vastly diversifying landscape—and you all know we here at DC spend a lot of time griping about just that—each soap that has even attempted to push through centuries of institutionalized hatred to tell these stories—good, bad or asinine—should be commended.

Recently I was approached by journalist Herndon Davis (Bet.com, AOL Black Voices) to give my thoughts about diversity in daytime. Herndon also reached out to Josie Thomas, senior vice-president for diversity at CBS and Damon Romine, director of entertainment media for GLAAD, for his comprehensive, no-holds-barred feature article about the state of diversity in daytime. I was honored to be in such company. Hopefully I didn’t put my size 13′s too far down my throat! Check out the article here.  

 

19 Responses

  1. Avatar of south
    south

    GL has truly gotten it right with Otalia. This story has been written and portrayed with such care that it deserves all the praise it receives. Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia are amazing and their chemistry is palpable. I am watching every second and everyone else should be too. Congratulations, GL!

  2. Avatar of monamis
    monamis

    Size 13 Jamey, damn! How big are your hands?

    I don’t know what will make change here. The truth is, that if soaps don’t learn to love their diverse fanbases, the tele-novelas, and cable serials will be beating them in the ratings within the next 5 years. They’ll be just like Republicans on November 4th, jaws on the floor, and still trying to figure out what happened to the center right majority.

    I try to as you say “vote with my remote” but lately I have been getting increasingly frustrated. You have GH, which kills off more blacks than the state of Texas, One Life to Live, that couldn’t give it’s most popular actress a decent contract, and Young and the Restless which prefers to keep all non passe blanc, people of color “incognegro” so to speak, in a segregated ghetto, with wack storylines.

    As passionate as I am about my soaps it has become increasingly difficult to feel right watching a genre that relegates people of color to the background.

    I’m still figuring out whether I want to continue to patronize institutions that still believe that people of color should be seen but not heard, but Jamey, I applaud you for courageously, speaking truth to power. I’ve certainly heard podcasts where nothing but crickets were heard after you made a controversial point.

    Anyway, still hoping and thinking…

  3. Avatar of daisyclover1938
    daisyclover1938

    I can’t wait to read the article!

    We’ve had a lot of really great conversations on this topic at DC…so I’m going to be lazy and just paste some things I’ve already said, lol

    I’ve always felt the lack of diversity on soaps (in terms of ethnicity, religion, appearance (not everyone is stick thin), age, sexual orientation, etc…) is truly pathetic. The “standard” or “norm” on soaps seems to be white, young, thin and ‘straight’ and that simply doesn’t reflect the majority of Americans. I honestly believe this is one reason soaps are failing right now. It makes the soaps look out-dated and out of touch with most of the population.

    I’m white and find it really disturbing to see mostly white people on my screen. It’s creepy, absurd and doesn’t reflect reality. Yeah, we watch soaps for escapism, but I have no interest in escaping to a world that has no color, no gay/lesbians, and no people with some meat on their bones. And the characters on daytime that *are* of different races (or are gay) aren’t used to their fullest potential a lot of times…

    And I’m convinced that interracial romances, especially black/white, are still considered “taboo” by the industry and I think that definitely adds to the lack of diversity. If TPTB feel that showing an interracial romance is off limits, then they are even less likely to introduce people of color onto their cast, because they’ll feel “limited” in who they can pair that character up with.

    There’s a part of me that wants to give credit to shows that are at least *attempting* to give us more diversity, but there’s a bigger part of me that feels that they’re so cowardly and in instances like Rianca, insulting. I feel like AMC wanted the press and critical acclaim for giving us the first gay wedding, but turned this groundbreaking event into a cheap gimmick. This is the 21st Century – I feel like there shouldn’t be a need to have this conversation, but clearly we do need to have it, and keep having it until TPTB wake up, grow a pair and start “giving the fans what they want”

  4. Avatar of purplebraids
    purplebraids

    Yes Jamey the writers of each show should do more with there characters of color but they don`t look at Y& R`s Neil he really has had a good storyline that`s with the hole canvse it`s like the writers are scared to Neil be in storys with the rest of the cast and could Mrs.Bell fleshout the Winters family already.And there`s One Life To Live `s Vega family that hasn`t fleshed out Chris or his brother there both seen as not very bright at all. There is still alot of work that needs to be done and the writers and the network head need to a job at writing for and creating characters of color ,AND another thing why does very character of color have be on the wrong side law the has anyone noticed that there are no rich people of color on any soap ok I maybe wrong I think that Langton`s uncle is suposed to be rich but I dont see it anywere at all.Oh don`t get me started on the very piss poor relationship of Resse and Binks it was so poorly done compared to what GL has written witth Otalia or even Nuke in somw ways but it could have been written better than it was.

  5. Avatar of miajere
    miajere

    I think as long as GL believes it’s not safe and in danger of cancellation, they will tell whatever story they need to tell to gain viewers, and the same goes for the other soaps.

    I do think these are interesting times with the daytime gloom looming overhead, and I think these shows should take turns being threatened of cancellation. It seems to have done wonders for GL, reintroduced Angie and Jesse to AMC, and kicked off a lesbian s/l for the show.

    Yes, they should be commended, but they shouldn’t be patting themselves on their back. I could go on for hours about this topic; but no, I don’t think these shows or their representation of diversity represent a move towards change. I think they are a case study of what shows are willing to do to stay on the air; and since they don’t speak the language of diversity, there needs to be another route- hit them in their pocket books.

    Concepts behind a “day without gays” could be interesting in the soap community.

  6. Avatar of Jamey Giddens
    Jamey Giddens

    I think as long as GL believes it’s not safe and in danger of cancellation, they will tell whatever story they need to tell to gain viewers, and the same goes for the other soaps.

    ***
    See, now you just HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD! Just like Gloria Monty felt she had nothing to lose when she abandoned organ music and brought more love in the afternoon to General Hospital in 1978, the peeps at GL are finally realizing they have nothing to lose either, so they are telling Otalia the RIGHT way, not worrying about religious groups (who don’t watch anyway) or sponsors.

  7. Avatar of bonobochick
    bonobochick

    While ATWT is doing alright with Noah & Luke, they’re writing for Black characters is atrocious. The only one seen more than once every two weeks is Jade and she is used as little more than a plot point for Casey & Alison. It’s awful to watch. And what was the point of making Derek her father if he’s only on-screen once every 5 weeks?

    ATWT is doing a good job showcasing their gay couple, which is great and I am a Noah/Luke fan but TPTB are taking a crap on the lone Black character they bother to have on-screen. It actually bothers me how TPTB write Jade because she often seems stuck in a negative stereotype often associated with Black females.

  8. Avatar of Jamey Giddens
    Jamey Giddens

    Y’all know I agree with everything you are saying, but Herdon said it better than I could in his article, so I just wanted to summarize it a bit. Y’all really need to check it out. He told the truth and shamed the network executives!

  9. Avatar of Visan
    Visan

    One of the biggest shocks to my (soap opera viewer) system was on B&B, a show that’s been notoriously, ah, pale, gave Donna a black (or technically, bi-racial) son. Good! It’s good to see soaps start to reflect how the world really looks in its diversity, whether it’s bringing in characters of color or LGBT. I’ve a theory why that may be on the increase, but this is not the proper venue….

  10. Avatar of Jamey Giddens
    Jamey Giddens

    Otalia represents diverse minorities. Natalia is Latina and Olivia is from san cristobel, that´s a minority, right?

    ***
    Olivia wasn’t from San Cristobel, she was from that other island near it, but I believe both islands were some sort of fictious British territories, since both Richard and Edmund spoke with British accents.

  11. Avatar of miajere
    miajere

    Y’all know I agree with everything you are saying, but Herdon said it better than I could in his article, so I just wanted to summarize it a bit. Y’all really need to check it out. He told the truth and shamed the network executives!

    ////

    I really enjoyed the article, but I do feel the network’s stance on this is “if they don’t have to, they don’t want to.” They don’t want to deal with issues that come from portraying diversity and have strayed away. I would even go as far as saying, I think they purposely lean towards weak casting to keep viewers from not being interested. Neil/Tyra/Karen s/l springs to mind, whereby critics and viewers alike have no interest and presented with enough s/l to believe they don’t care. Same goes for the Vegas on OLTL.

    I’m only saying this because I don’t think they are “shamed” in the least. They believe they’ve done their part in branching out at some time or another, and are willing to put that in the stack of to-do’s after they finish fixing their show. It’s tokenism at its best, and a bad s/l at its worst.

    They have numbers of viewers who accept this and don’t care. Unfortunately, it’s a portion of those viewers that are complaining when similar ideas in the form ageism put their favorite vets on recurring and back-burner actresses like Erika Slezak. AS a soap audience, our mentality should be, when one group falls behind we all do.

  12. Avatar of season1217
    season1217

    I don’t know why you’d expect the Bell soaps to have gays. There’s no gays in the make-up industry and finding one in the fashion industry is like finding a needle in a gaystack. Sorry, had to do it!

  13. Avatar of soapster
    soapster

    It’s not good enough to just be invited to the party but POC’s need to be able to join in on the fun also. As a female of both African American and Hispanic descent the soaps are failing me and to be completely honest the lack of poc leaves a nasty taste in my mouth and makes my enjoyment less.

    As far as gay/lesbian storylines they are the new black. I don’t understand way more than one diverse agenda can’t be featured a show. It is either this or that blacks or hispanics, same sex storylines or racially diverse characters.

    Miajere, I can’t agree with you enough. When the majority of the viewing audience feels that everything is just okey dokey and that poc’s are represented as long as they appear on scene regardless of storyline or screen time yet get into an uproar when an actor is treated the same way due to age it is a glaring reminder of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

  14. Avatar of Carol2
    Carol2

    From the article:

    “the sudsy landscape creating
    a pink-triangle emblazoned gay renaissance filled with social statements and PSAs.”

    I don’t really see most of this in daytime. AMC had one social issue story for Bianca, her coming out story. Since then, most of her stories were about being raped, killing her rapist, and being reunited with the child she believed dead. She had an extremely brief “social” story with a man who wanted to become transgender, and then what? A relationship with a lesbian who falls for a man? Not exactly a great PSA for anything unless you’re interested in ex-gay propaganda.

    ATWT only had a social statement and PSA for Luke when he came out. The rest of his story has been a lot of the typical histrionic romantic drama of straight couples, minus the sex. The only social story in recent time was Brian’s coming out, which lasted about a week.

    They list GH as an example of a soap with gay characters, but those characters were Jon Hanley, who died over 10 years ago, and Lucas Jones, who, only a few months after coming out, vanished, never to be seen again.

    I also don’t think that GL needs to explain why two women who have been with men and have children are now (possibly) in love. I think the lack of explanation, and the slow build towards telling a love story instead of endlessly expositing one, is one of the reasons why the story works.

    I do agree with a lot of what they say about racial representation.

    I think daytime as a whole took a big step backwards starting in the mid 90s. They have become more and more afraid of any type of controversy, and now cling to a 1950s mindset as much as they can. If you compare the amount of blacks in daytime in 1994 to now, it’s astonishing. And some of the shows back then, like GL, AMC, Y&R…they were so much more racially diverse, it’s almost astonishing.

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