Harsh Realities and Domestic Double Standards: Can Daytime Soaps Reclaim Their Turf From Euro-Soaps and Snooki?

Everywhere you look in popular culture these days it seems abusive people are helping to spike ratings. MTV has two hit reality shows (Jersey Shore and Teen Mom) where charm school graduates routinely pound on other human beings, and in an odd showing of Women’s Liberation, the abusers are primarily female.
A recent episode of ABC’s primetime hit Private Practice featured a storyline where a mentally-disturbed woman acted out by physically assaulting her husband. Now comes news that Irish soap opera Fair City has posted record increases in viewership do to a shocking story arc featuring a character named Suzanne beating the crap out of the husband who cheated on her. Meanwhile, another soap villain returned from the dead on ABC Daytime’s All My Children

According to Irish Central, more people tuned in to watch the Fair City abuse storyline’s climax the last week of November than watched such popular U.K sudsers as Eastenders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. This news, coupled with the violent rape storyline currently playing out on Private Practice, which also caused a noticeable spike in that show’s numbers, has me struggling to try to analyze what all this means.
Could it be that drama lovers want to see more storylines based in reality—even the violent aspects of reality—or is it simply that we’re all societal voyeurs who can’t tune out the emotional carnage these scripted and/or unscripted shows are serving up? Whatever it is, viewers certainly aren’t getting it from daytime.

I’m not saying I want to see American daytime soaps become more violent just for the sake of ratings (Simmer down, Guza), but as I collected You Tube clips for my piece on Soaps and AIDS, I was once again stricken with how far the genre has moved away from using it’s airtime to do much good in the world.

I know, I know. In the last few years daytime has been primarily concerned with its own surival, not social relevance, and even when daytime soaps have attempted to explore topical issues like race and sexuality in recent years, those stories have been the first ones blamed for viewer erosion. It’s easy to see why soap writers would be skittish to go there again, but maybe with all the pleasantly-surprising renewals taking place, soap showrunners can begin to consider thinking beyond their next Sweeps spectacle and possibly try to throw in a little social studies here and there? It could be good for business, if it doesn’t beat viewers over the head. There’s a reason why Big Mama’s in the South sprinkle a little sugar on the collard greens to get the kids to eat it, ya know!

I wonder, would American soap viewers be more accepting of a story that found Lily Winters (Christel Khalil) starting to smack Cane Ashby (Daniel Goddard) around when she learns he’s been lying to her again on The Young and the Restless, than they would one where Will (Chandler Massey) and Chad (Casey Deidrick) are caught making out by Stefano (Joseph Mascolo) on Days of Our Lives?  I suspect so, and that’s a sad statement of facts.

One thing that makes me squeamish about domestic violence and how it is portrayed and/or covered in popular culture is that women are always allowed to hit men without any consequence. How many times have we seen our favorite soap heroines slap the men they love when said men lie, cheat or steal shares from their respective companies? If it were the men doing the slapping, critics and fans would be calling for every watchdog group around to combat misogyny and sexism, and rightly so. So why is violence against men viewed as okay in romantic relationships in entertainment? I think it’s a point worth discussing, possibly on a U.S. daytime soap.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Blair Cramer (Kassie DePaiva) popping Todd Manning (Trevor St. John) a good one when he kidnaps her kid, or something equally skeevy on a fictional soap like One Life to Live, but there is clearly a double standard at play and nothing proves it more than MTV’s two most popular shows.
Chris Brown was called everything but the child of the Most High God in the press and on mainstream blogs following the reveal of those horrific pictures featuring then-girlfriend Rihanna post their brutal fight, and rightfully so. Brown deserved to be called a monster, because what he did was monstrous. While I am glad to see him working hard to complete his probation and deal with his issues, it is only right that this hang over his career, if nothing more than as a reminder to never allow himself to lose control like that again. ABC Daytime’s General Hospital bravely explored a Chrianna-like, teen dating violence storyline for young adult heroine Kristina Corinthos-Davis (Lexi Ainsworth), but these types of storylines are few and far between nowadays on daytime.

While portraits of violent men are all too common in pop culture, I don’t understand why Amber Portwood, the consistently violent young star of MTV’s megahit Teen Mom, was being profiled in celeb weeklies about her "awesome weight loss" as millions of impressionable teenage girls tuned in each week to watch her beat her boyfriend Gary Shirley like he stole something on episode after episode of the docusoap. It wasn’t until CPS and the police got involved that the story changed from what Portwood did to slim down to why this abusive girl wasn’t in handcuffs. What gives? Does a uterus come with a license to hit?

During the aftermath of Chrianna-gate, many urban celebrity blogs ran reports of Brown and Rihanna having reportedly both been violent with one another in the past and allegedly on the night in question (not that this would excuse Brown’s actions, even if true, because he could have walked away), but those reports never made it to the mainstream.

Does the fact that men are generally physically stronger than women and are more likely to commit violent acts make it easier for women like Portwood and Jersey Shore’s J-Woww—who beat on The Situation during an unseemly episode from season one of that televised trainwreck, while MTV cameras rolled— to get a pass?
I’m sure some daytime purests are by now getting frustrated with this essay due to my penchant for going back and forth from a discussion about daytime scripted soaps to their primetime scripted and unscripted counterparts, but tough mammory glands. Face it, these shows all share much of the same demographics, and primetime, cable and foreign series are currently managing to beat American daytime dramas at the game the genre invented. This has to change for the continued viability of the soaps we love. 

When Gloria Monty saved General Hospital she looked to what was working in primetime and film. I’m not saying I want Y&R execs to pull an Ellen Wheeler and go docu-style, but there is something to be said for daytime  trying to understand why shows like Teen Mom and European soaps are thriving. I firmly believe realism, whether it be good, bad or violent, is a major factor. Who cares about watching David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) return from the dead on All My Children when someone is dealing with something we can all relate to, or know of someone who can, on MTV or E!? 

We certainly won’t decide the Battle of the Sexes here on this blog, but I do believe daytime soaps could work to make themselves more relatable and inticing if they went back to exploring such complicated themes and others like it from time to time in their episodes. It certainly hasn’t hurt our peeps across the pond at Fair City,  or MTV for that matter.
Agnes Nixon and Doug Marland proved long ago you could mix romantic fantasy with realism to great success in the daypart of television. Save for Brad Bell on The Bold and the Beautiful with his cancer/homelessness storyline paralleling the latest, potentially scandalous liaison of one Brooke Logan (Katherine Kelly Lang), it seems soap scribes have either forgotten how to do that, or they’ve simply grown weary of fighting the focus group data-wielding suits.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I get it. With the fallout from Kish on OLTL and Adam’s non-kiss of Rafe on Y&R, it’s easy to see why soap scribes might want to keep their heads low and stick to evil twins and returns from the dead that surprise no one, but now that the genre has a bit of  breathing room, could it be possible for daytime soaps to get back to doing what they once did best, entertain and entrall, while also affecting a modicum of social change? Watch a clip from Fair City below then share your thoughts on the "harsh realities" facing soaps in the comments.

11 Responses

  1. Profile photo of Llanview76

    Soaps for some time, or maybe it’s execs who oversee the soaps on their respective networks, don’t seem to feel they need to educate as well as entertain. That was Agnes Nixon’s intent when she created One Life to Live and All My Children. Nixon’s AMC use to be the most socially responsible one of it’s day. They did several stories during the 80’s and early 90’s that got tons of critical acclaim…Cindy Chandler’s AIDS, Mark Dalton’s drug addiction, to name a few. The characters in Pine Valley nowadays are not at all socially responsible…in fact, most of them are socially retarded. My other soap town, Llanview, actually makes more social commentary and it does seem that it’s aware of what’s going on in the world. Either way, neither show is acting as a responsible vehicle, and we live in a world today that has soooo many sensative, important issues that could be explored objectively. If anymore shows introduce another long lost child or parent, or returns another character from the dead, soaps are going to tank in my opinion. It’s not a shocking new device, it’s been done ad nauseum. Did anybody who watched AMC last weel really feel all that bad for Kendall over the fact that Zach died? Ya know he’s just going to come back from the dead like David. I kept saying to her “baby save up all your tears, you might need them some day…” like when Kendall falls for Griffin and feels embarrased given the fact Zach was alive.

  2. Profile photo of east.west

    They could, but like you mention the focus groups and the statistic having suits are the ones most or all the shows answer to unfortunately. Here’s hoping that these shows use the various positives that has been happening of late for the greater good of their shows and the genre.

    Now as for that clip um… I applaud everything those soaps do, but that clip (and yeah it is from different episodes) was atrocious in terms of both the acting and the staging of the scene. Maybe those soaps are more alike than different from the American soaps.

  3. Profile photo of Smitty

    Interesting piece Jamey!

    I think that is definitely one of the problems with soaps is that so much of it is unrealistic now days. You all have said several times that soaps have lost their way because you don’t really even have a difference in class now. Every character is rich or in the upper middle class. There aren’t any characters like Nina Webster who started out from the wrong side of the tracks with no money. We rarely see any of this. I throughly enjoyed Kristina abuse story on GH. It was something that isn’t talked about a lot and it was a breathe of fresh air. Like you so wonderfully put in your article soaps definitely need some new plots. There are only a hand full of characters we want to see return from the dead. Let’s stop the old shenanigans and be creative and come up with some new stuff.

  4. Profile photo of Chocolate-Mama

    The problem with soaps are the writers. My definition of a soap opera, is where writers take something that could actually happen to anyone, and then tweak it a/o take it one iota too far. Meaning something eventually happens that would never, or most likely never occur in the scenario.

    These shows now begin with storylines that would never happen to anyone and then pile on more garbage. It’s interesting that Jamey is comparing reality shows to soaps, because that is what is appealing to people. Real people and messed up situations.

    Soaps used to have messed up situations and real actors that could play them out. I can’t imagine where they get some of these so-called actors from anymore.

    These remaining daytime serials that are on, know by now what they need to do to fix themselves. They just don’t want to.

  5. Profile photo of alstonboy4315

    Soaps can survive and prosper, but they ALL need to get their ISH together……………

    I just hope that they do it sooner rather than later!!

    Even the soaps that are good right now are NOWHERE NEAR as good as soaps were 15 or 20 years ago, when soaps were TRULY must-see TV!! The kind that made you want to skip school and work to stay home and watch!! Cliffhangers that had you truly sitting on the edge of your seat with anticipation!!!

    If those days can TRULY return for good, then soaps can rebound and avoid extinction. But change needs to happen NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Profile photo of caitlinp

    [quote=curacaoman]People just want to see innovative stories, rather than the same rehashed crap dished out by ridiculous “writers”.[/quote]


    Wow, Jamey, you had a lot on your mind. I won’t touch the way that domestic violence is covered in real life, but I will say that the only way that it should be covered on soaps is if we get writers who can tell both sides of the story, and don’t make the abuser look like a hero, which is what OLTL has done with Todd. I’ve never been a fan of that show, but I stopped watching after a scene, years ago, where Todd slapped Tea, and she didn’t do anything about it. There wasn’t even any follow up to the slap, it was like viewers were supposed to think it was normal. Recently, someone said that most of the 2.3-2.5 million people who tune in to OLTL are doing so because of Todd, and that he is the biggest draw, but he’s also the reason why the ratings aren’t going to go any higher than that. The person said, that it’s going to be hard for potential new female viewers to understand why Tea and Blaire put up with Todd, or why someone who is essentially abusive, is written as if he is the hero of the show. I think most soaps today, especially the ones on ABC, all of which treat women like they are idiots, have this problem. What intelligent woman, who is better educated than the women who watched soaps 40 years ago, is going to be loyal to shows that talk down to her, or make it seem like women are second class citizens.

    The answer isn’t to write women as the abusers, or men like they are idiots. The answer is to write both as if they are three dimensional and human. Show all sides of the story, and put everyone, regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation on equal ground. Don’t start a story about rape, and then don’t show us the story from the victim’s point of view (All My Children).

    This is way too long. I’ll just repeat the thing about telling better stories.

  7. Profile photo of jetty

    Relevant stories don’t seem to interest the networks and show producers/writers nowadays. The lack of any lower middle class or poor characters is puzzling. Even if a character starts off mildly poor, they’ll end up rich in a year. Look at B&B, Agnes (I can’t stand them calling her Aggie, that sounds awful; her names is Agnes, call her that!) started off so poor it was ridiculous (Really? Her address is on Hardscrabble Lane?), now she’s marching around Jackie M. like she’s been in fashion her whole life, with nary of a trace of the frightened, emotionally-scarred woman she was back then. And this from a show that is apparently trying to do something (although it’s back burner now) about the homeless. They should involve Agnes in that story, since she was only a step above homelessness herself a couple of years ago.

  8. Profile photo of SJD88

    The first time that I remember watching a man hit a woman that wasn’t apart of a domestic violence story was EastEnders the episode was in 1986 or 1987. Pete Beale punched his ex wife (Pat Wicks) in the face. Pat was being terrible on a bunch of fronts and Pete had a short fuse in general. But the writers never made it about gender. I think a few episodes later she got him back with a well placed slap.

    But the one thing I’ve noticed about EastEnders in particular and British soaps in general is, when two equally matched characters are battling gender doesn’t matter as much. They have done domestic violence stories but you can tell the characters aren’t matched in the same way. I could totally see

    Phyllis take a hit from Adam if it was written right.

  9. Profile photo of thecourt99

    Great article Jamey. I agree with you that soaps contributions to society have gone to a straight zero. I recall how stories like Devon and the adoption, and Devon and the cochlear implant were lauded for their information…including how the supporting family dealt with the issues.

    That said, I agree that things like abuse are unfairly glossed over. Someone on a past podcast mentioned how on Real World, you are kicked out if you fight, but Jersey Shore’s most popular episodes include them fighting…like all of a sudden it is okay. I cringed when Amber beat her boyfriend on Teen Mom…i thought he was a douche, but I still cringed. I also saw those few reports about Rihanna also hitting Chris Brown – and the responses that the victim was being blamed. On soaps, Stephanie (B&B) should have the slap award for 2010…and nothing happens. I recall the many instances of men having sex with a woman while she is unaware of her surroundings…and the show never calls it rape. I recall Brooke (B&B) being raped and after a week, it was never mentioned again. When Hope was almost raped it was forgotten 2 days later.

    In the past, shows used to touch on these subjects so they could explore how these events impact the lives of the victim and those surrounding them. Now, shows touch on these subjects for the sensationalism of doing it…then its on to the next story.

  10. Profile photo of Johnathon

    Jamey, I think you hit the nail on the head with this piece. Soaps do need social realisim if they wish to survive. Fair city is a true testament to that fact. (Now just a sidebar here, the Irish Central report put a little ‘spin’ on the numbers to make Fair City seem like it beat out the likes of the U.K. soaps, but that was just in Irish re-airings, in the official UK airings Fair City only beat out the UK’s transmition of the creatively challenged Australian soap Home and Away.)

    Social realism is the reason why soaps like EastEnders got 9.8 MILLION viewers tuning in to see Stacy Slater return to Albert Square and confront Lauren. It is social realism that leaves me constantly wanting more Emmerdale and scared for what the new regime will do now that Executive Producer Gavin Blyth has passed away.

    I believe that realistic storylines accompanied by realistic / witty dialog is why these soaps are doing so well.

    With that said I really wonder if US soap fans could adjust to that in our current soaps. I think the best soap that could have run with an experiment like this would have been Guiding Light, I remember saying in some blog post on here that Guiding Light really needed to use the new production model to mirror itself after the likes of EastEnders and forget the foolishness that eventually lead to its cancellation. Today however, I just look at the landscape and I don’t think viewers would take to some of the storylines that are being told or have recently been told on U.K. television screens.

    Some examples of US vs. UK-

    Starr & Schylar (OLTL)- The MINUTE that this pairing was even hinted at everyone and their mother started raising their pitchforks and saying that this is wrong and it cannot happen and its icky. Thus the storyline was killed and Sky proceeded to go crazy and get written out of the show (LOL Okay I know a lot happened in-between there, but just trying to build a case here).

    Now at the same time in the ‘real world’ we had all these scandals going around with teachers and students, so let’s see what soaps around the world did shall we?

    Rachel Kinski (Teenage Girl) & Angus Henderson (Neighbours)-
    *GASP* Same story, but actually told all the way through and with shocking reprocussions! 

    Justin Burton (Teenage boy) & Becca Hayton-Dean (Hollyoaks) -

    These time the boy gets the girl teacher, but only knocks her up, and breaks up her marriage and eventually tosses her in jail for forcing herself onto him… so wait social realism in storylines? *Gasp*

    If we are going to even touch upon domestic violence you have got to talk about EastEnders Little Mo and Trevor storyline which gripped the nation to its core as Trevor abused Lil Mo until she finally got the guts to get her revenge.

    Oh and Same-sex couplings…well while As The World Turns was busy keeping Luke and Noah from ‘doing it’, Hollyoaks had John Paul-Mcqueen and Craig Dean hitting the sheets between Sarah’s back (Though Craig was "NOT GAY!"…. LOL I know every McDean fan was totally sick of that line by the end of that storyline). But even more recently as World Turns ran over Reid with a train, so did Emmerdale run its fan-favorite Jackson over with a train…only ED didn’t kill the boy only paralyzed him and made for a brilliant storyline that is continuing to play out on our screens.

    Anyways this comment is going on way way way to long, but I don’t think that social realism is going to work with the current soaps, I think a new soap based in social realism would work, but for a soap to truly go social realistic it would have to be a slow transition that would have to take time and treat its viewers with kid gloves until they were ready for a big storyline such as Suzanne and Damien’s.

    Anyways good post Jamey! 

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