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.