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Opinion: Soaps Need to Raise the Stakes on Social Issues


As fans of soap operas, you are well aware of the ups and downs of daily life in a somewhat small town. Family, love, romance, intrigue, and even death are a big part of what keeps viewers coming back for more. For some viewers it’s enough, but the real draw is the deep-down human struggle. Fans are drawn to characters for many reasons, but none so much as something that is relatable.

Soaps are in the unique position to tell long range stories that affect a person’s life for years. The magic happens when a writer can combine a beloved character with a dreaded problem. For better or worse, these social issues have been the heart of soap operas since they were first put on the airwaves.

Of course, social issues have changed over the years, much like society itself. Addiction, homosexuality, mental health, and disease have seen vast changes in research, treatment, attitudes, and even acceptance. As in real life, these changes are reflected in storytelling.

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The Young and the Restless and General Hospital are diving into Alzheimer’s disease. Dina (Marla Adams) spent several decades in Paris after leaving her family behind. Now her children have to deal with her illness and their emotions attached to her abandonment. Fan reaction has been mixed. Despite Dina's heartbreaking moments, it’s been hard to watch her commit arson, kidnapping, and assault because it comes across as unrealistic. Now that Dina is back, I hope Y&R will leave the over-the-top behavior behind and focus on the internal drama within the family. So far, this week has been better, especially when the ever-crusty Victor (Eric Braeden) softened up and escorted Dina to her imaginary dance.

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Meanwhile in Port Charles, Sonny (Maurice Benard) and Carly (Laura Wright) are trying to figure out how to best help his father Mike (Max Gail). Mike’s story has taken a different path. He was abandoned by his girlfriend Rita and has no place to go. Sonny and Carly have differing opinions on how to help him. GH has given Mike amazing moments with different characters like Elizabeth (Rebecca Herbst) and Michael (Chad Duell). He struggles with his memory more than Dina. During the recent earthquake, he forgot to get help for Franco (Roger Howarth) who was trapped under the rubble. It’s impossible to tell which way these two stories will go, but as a soap fan, there should always be tissue-worthy moments to savor.

Although soap operas have dealt with many issues like heart disease, cancer, and AIDS with a range of success, they fall short on others. In real life, mental illness has come out of the shadows in recent years, highlighted by suicides of well-known people. Yet on soaps, mental illness gives a character extreme traits with little education or public service. (I’ll leave out the characters who are criminally insane.) Sharon (Sharon Case, Y&R), Pam (Alley Mills, The Bold and the Beautiful), Sonny (GH), and Morgan (Bryan Craig, GH) were diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Sonny and Morgan’s struggles have been more realistic than Sharon’s, but as a soap viewer, which story do you believe to be most accurate? Which one gives us the better understanding?

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Abigail (Marci Miller, Days of Our Lives) had a mental break when she was kidnapped and held hostage by Ben Weston (Robert Scott Wilson). Now it appears she has dissociative identity disorder (DID), but that hasn’t been made clear and has yet to play out. For me, DID is a hard sell given the history of her character. In addition, Abigail’s (apparent) DID operates in a vacuum with no real purpose or connection to a specific event. Both she and Katie Logan (Heather Tom, B&B) have depression, but we never see or even hear about the treatment process or the daily struggle. And it is a daily struggle. Unfortunately in 2018, mental illness is still played out as drama for drama’s sake.

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More relevant social issues that deal with sexuality, gender, or race are touched on, but not deeply explored. Previous regimes were willing to dive in to controversy despite the backlash. DAYS puts their gay men right out front, which is great, but not entirely realistic since there has been little pushback from people they know. The level of acceptance among family and friends is amazingly high, especially for viewers who have been bullied, or who have lost their own family and friends. It’s great to see gay characters written with the same problems as straight characters, but it’s really not that simple. These stories are vastly different for men and women of color, and are sorely underrepresented.

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Maya (Karla Mosley, B&B) is the worst example of a transgender person’s venture through day-to-day life. Maya’s true identity had a kick-ass reveal, but quickly fizzled out into nothing. The wasted opportunities are infinite. Los Angeles is full of diversity, yet B&B doesn’t capitalize on it. GH took an even easier out with entire lives playing out off-screen or with people we don't know.

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Racial issues are completely missing altogether. Yes, there are African-American and Latinx characters, but they’re stories are not fleshed out in the least, and there are too few of them. Is it too controversial to have a racially biased character? DAYS’ Julie (Susan Seaforth Hayes) recently spouted a racially-charged tirade at Gabi (Camila Banus), but it didn’t go far enough. Neither Gabi nor Eli (Lamon Archey) ever called her out on her harsh words. The same could be said for JJ (Casey Moss) shooting Theo (Kyler Pettis). As a white male, I should feel uncomfortable with these encounters. Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand the issue.

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I’m not sure what’s changed from the past to the present, except maybe how soaps are written and watched. Stories are sped up and beats are missed, making it hard to care. It also seems like public pressure is more important to the networks than telling a compelling and relevant story. I always have hope though. One example lies with Hilary (Mishael Morgan, Y&R). She wants to highlight the problems of women prisoners and the problems they face after they are released. What a great idea! Empowering women is what soaps should be about, especially since it's their target audience.

All four soaps have characters who are ripe for floundering and recovery, so they should take advantage while they still can. After all if no one’s watching, who will they write for?