In their prime, Y&R and B&B were the gold standard for class warfare drama, disseminating class among character delineation, plot-forwarding, and psychological motivations. But nowadays, the Bell soaps can’t be bothered with class dissonance, rendering both shows as psychologically barren as a Saturday morning cartoon.
Victor Newman’s upbringing as an orphan characterized his mythos: his controlling personality, his emotional detachment, and, significantly, his disdain for Jack Abbott, who represented everything Victor was not (moneyed, educated, family-reared). All of Victor’s actions have been an attempt to reconcile his impoverished childhood with his improbable financial success in adulthood, thereby alleviating class shame. Constantly controlling his wives and children, he attempts to mimic a family unit as strong as the Abbotts, who always had wealth, societal respect, and a name ensconced in the history of Genoa City, marking generations of blue bloods. Victor Nemwan, meanwhile, attained status the makeshift way, turning a stripper (Nikki) into a socialite and literally recreating his own name.
This is also why Victor often threw his financial weight around in an imposing manner -- with Nikki affecting class snobbery like Marie Antoinette -- in ways you never saw John Abbott or Katherine Chancellor do. For the Abbotts and the Chancellors, money and power were as comfortable and natural as the skin they were born in. For Victor and Nikki, it was a coat of armor, allowing them to battle others, but also as a defense mechanism. This is why Victor hated Jack Abbott so much; because no matter what Victor took from him – his company, his title, his sister – Jack would always retain an ineffable power defined by his legacied name, something Victor could never acquire. And conversely, this was also why Victor was attracted to Ashley Abbott. She could give him the one thing Nikki couldn’t – an affiliation with a “pure” and effortless aristocracy.
And Nikki wasn’t the only one marrying her way up. Jill Abbott’s desperation to infiltrate the well-to-do showed an impervious class struggle, and its cruelty to women. This is evidenced by the fact that Jill had to sleep with Katherine’s husband, and then John Abbott, just to get there. This cycle was perfectly mirrored years later in Nina Webster, who represented everything Jill used to be. Therefore the newly minted Jill – who once sought money, title and power to protect herself, and now used them as weapons – despised Nina, essentially still despising her old self.
Years later still, Sharon Collins reflected the Modern Woman in that predicament. She still married well, and still contended with a mother-in-law from hell (Nikki, doing to Sharon exactly what Jill did to Nina), but Sharon – emerging in 1994 -- also represented new options for women. She was a good student in college, and therefore had the luxury of choosing true love with Nick Newman, as opposed to the love/sex/financial security combination necessary for Jill and Nina’s survival. Through its daily storytelling, Y&R brilliantly showed how the world had changed for women, even as the essential class struggle remained the same.
Over on sister soap B&B, the war between Stephanie Forrester and Brooke Logan was initially a war between old values vs. new values – a conservative ethos of imbalanced gender ethics, where women committed to being good wives and mothers (Stephanie), retaining an antiquated dignity and power -- against a more sexually liberated/modern woman who aspired to have it all (the cad and the career) at a moment when younger women were entering the work force in larger numbers. Stephanie has always berated Brooke for sleeping her way to the top, but the crux of the case that netted Brooke control of Forrester Creations involved Brooke’s talents as a chemist, developing and owning a formula the company desperately needed. Yes, Brooke used sex (often) but she also enjoyed sex.
Like Sharon Collins, Brooke had the luxury of picking personal pleasure because she had other survival options. She was a working woman (something Stephanie was notably NOT, until much later in the series), and it was her work that created a situation she could then exploit to stage a Forrester Creations coup. The modern woman can work, enjoy sex, and get the guy she really loves. Yes, Brooke was enthralled with Forrester wealth and power -- desire is essential to class conflict – but she didn’t need Ridge for survival the way Nikki needed Victor, or Jill needed Phillip/John. She loved Ridge and wanted Ridge, and that distinction has eluded Stephanie for decades, because she is stuck in a time when bedding a rich woman’s husband/son was all about money, not love/sex.
None of this is featured any longer on the Bell soaps. Characters are either free from monetary restraints or vacillate, depending on the plot. Sometimes Daniel is a struggling artist. Other times, he’s Nick Newman’s stepson. Sometimes Kevin can buy a once-successful coffeehouse. Other times, he’s lower middle class. Also, far too many characters have undefined wealth. When Paul Williams offered to foot the bill for his psychotic sister's medical treatment and legal troubles, I remembered that Paul’s father -- a cop -- represented Irish-Catholic working-class patriarchs, and that was important two decades ago, because Paul was having an affair with socialite Cassandra Rawlings. Y&R has so blurred the lines that Nina’s son – a Chancellor – is presented as today’s working-class cop!
And over on B&B, the Logans are acting like they always had money and business acumen. Don’t the writers realize that Haves are always defined by Have-Nots? We need a family on the outside looking in to be our point-of-entry, to allow viewers (most of whom are not wealthy) a vicarious rooting interest. There’s nothing at stake if everyone is well-off, and there is little psychological motivation if we flatten characters’ economic backgrounds. If Victor Newman entered the canvas today he’d be… well, Tucker McCall, bland and undefined. Class struggle is an enduring human drama, and we need human drama for these shows to be viable again.
Biggie called it back when the Bell soaps knew it too: Mo Money, Mo Problems.