"Before I saw Neighbors, I didn’t know there was an Australia"
(Jerry Hall, The Clive James Show, UK, 31 December, 1989) T he soap opera genre
originated in American radio serials of the 1930s, and owes the name to the
sponsorship of some of these programs by major soap powder companies. Proctor
and Gamble and other soap companies were the most common sponsors, and soon the
genre of 'soap opera' had been labeled. Like many television genres (e.g. news
and quiz shows), the soap opera is a genre originally drawn from radio rather
than film. Television soap operas are long-running serials traditionally based
on the close study of personal relationships within the everyday life of its
characters. Soaps are a consistent set of values based on personal
relationships, on women’s responsibility for the maintenance of these
relationships and the applicability of the family model to structures. In soap
operas at least one story line is carried over from one episode to the next.

Successful soaps may continue for many years: so new viewers have to be able to
join in at any stage in the serial. In serials, the passage of time also appears
to reflect 'real time' for the viewers: in long-running soaps the characters age
as the viewers do. Christine Geraghty (1991, p. 11) notes that 'the longer they
run the more impossible it seems to imagine them ending.' There are sometimes
allusions to major topical events in the world outside the programs. Soap operas
have attempted to articulate social change through issues of race, class and
sexuality. In dealing with what are often perceived to be awkward issues soap
operas make good stories along the emotional lines of the characters. Christine

Geraghty (1991, p. 147) ‘While it seeks to accommodate change, it tries to do
so on the basis of suppressing difference rather than acknowledging and
welcoming what it offers.’ Soap operas use the dramatisation of social issues
to generate a greater sense of realism for the viewer. Like the melodrama genre,
the soap opera genre shares such features as moral polarization, strong
emotions, female orientation, unlikely coincidences, and excess. Another related
genre is the literary romance, with which it shares features such as simplified
characters, female orientation and episodic narrative. However, soaps do not
share with these forms the happy ending or the idealized characters. Some media
theorists distinguish between styles of TV programs, which are broadly'masculine' or 'feminine'. Those seen as typically masculine include
action/adventure programs, police shows and westerns; those seen as more'feminine' include soap operas and sitcoms. Action-adventures define men in
relation to power, authority, aggression and technology. Soap operas define
women in relation to a concern with the family. For example in Neighbours the
love triangle between Karl Kennedy, a married man and his secretary Sarah.

Viewers knew the secret of the affair however; it was not by Susan Kennedy, or
the Ramsey Street community. Therefore allowing the secret to maintain it’s
status and continue to be a valid plot thread. Although Karl has attempted to
institute some redressive action, by taking a holiday with his wife, the crisis
still exists. As there has been no redressive action directed towards Sarah the
crisis still exists in the minds of the viewer. This all to common love triangle
in soap operas suggests to the viewer about what is right and wrong in a
relationship. Suggesting that infidelity is wrong and that the family should
come first. Bean (1982:163) writes " by creating situations that violate
the ideal order of the family" the soap opera will communicate to its
audience about family life. Recurrent themes in soap opera include love,
courtship’s, secrets, marriages, divorces, deaths, scams and disappearances.

Gossip is a key feature in soaps (usually absent from other genres): in part it
acts as a commentary on the action. Geraghty notes that 'more frequently than
other TV genres, soaps feature women characters normally excluded by their age,
appearance or status' (1991, p. 17). These themes are reoccurring and repetitive
and become the thread of each story. With each different character going through
all of these themes at one stage, the different stages of social drama get
repeated often. However, the themes can also be linked to one another to create
more drama for the audience. Such as in Neighbours, Joel and Sally are in the
beginning stage of their romance (courtship), however he also has strong
feelings for Libby (love) and Drew is the only one who knows about it (secret).

Television has become the "major socializing agent competing with family,
school, peers, community and church". (Kottak citing Comstock et al.,

1996:135). It is for this reason that the above themes are so prevalent in Soap
operas such as ‘Neighbours’ as it is competing with the interest in our
every day lives. Neighbours gives us "disturbances of the normal and
regular... to give us greater insight into the normal" (Turner 1974:34).

Unconscious or atemporal structures of what people believe they do, ought to do,
or would like to do discussed by Turner helps to explain what Neighbours
portrays, and why it can compete with our every day lives (Turner citing

Richards, 1974:36). Broadcast serials have the advantage of a regular time-slot
(often more than once a week), but even if some viewers miss it, they can easily
catch up with events. Any key information that might have been missed is worked
into the plot when necessary. Nevertheless knowledge of previous events can
usefully be brought to bear by habitual viewers, and doing so is part of the
pleasure of viewing for them. Viewers also in an omniscient position, know more
than any character does. The form is unique in offering viewers the chance to
engage in informed speculation about possible turn of events. Recognising how
soap operas provide 'a continuing renewal of the familiar', interviews with and
observation of soap fans show that the sharing of information and opinion after
the program is over is as important to viewers as the actual following of the
stories. Soap operas are pleasurable because they do not surprise the audience
or try to change attitudes. Instead soap operas offer a reassurance that the
world is not changing as quickly as it seems. Soap operas deal with the victory
of old fashioned and traditional certainties over evanescent fashions that
assail them. Unlike a film or a series, there is always a wide range of
characters in a soap opera (which means that no single character is
indispensable). The large cast and the possibility of casual viewers
necessitates rapid characterization and the use of recognizable 'types'. Soaps
are frequently derided by some critics for being full of clichés and
stereotypes, for having shoddy sets, for being badly acted, trivial, predictable
and so on. Soap viewers (often assumed to be only women, and in particular
working-class housewives) are characterized unfairly as naive escapists. Given
the great popularity of the genre, such criticisms can be seen as culturally
elitist. Robert Allen (1992, p. 112) argues that ‘to emphasize what happens
when in soaps (in semiotic terms the syntagmatic dimension) is to underestimate
the equal importance of who relates this to whom (the paradigmatic
dimension).’ Some feminist theorists have argued that soap operas spring from
a feminine aesthetic, in contrast to most prime time TV. Soaps are unlike
traditional dramas (e.g. sit-coms) which have a beginning, middle and an end:
soaps have no beginning or end, no structural closure. They do not build up
towards an ending or closure of meaning. Viewers can join a soap opera at any
point. There is no single narrative line: several stories are woven together
over a number of episodes. In this sense the plots of soaps are not linear. The
structure of soaps is complex and there is no final word on any issue. A soap
involves multiple perspectives and no consensus: ambivalence and contradiction
is characteristic of the genre. There is no single 'hero' where the preferred
reading involves identification with this character), and the wide range of
characters in soaps offers viewers a great deal of choice regarding those with
which they might identify. ‘All this leaves soaps particularly open to
individual interpretations (more than television documentaries,’ suggests

David Buckingham 1987, p. 36). Tania Modleski (1982) argues that the structural
openness of soaps is an essentially 'feminine' narrative form. She argues that
pleasure in narrative focuses on closure, whilst soaps delay resolution and make
anticipation an end in itself. She also argues that masculine narratives'inscribe' in the text an implied male reader who becomes increasingly
omnipotent whilst the soap has 'the ideal mother' as inscribed reader. Narrative
interests are diffused among many characters and her power to resolve their
problems is limited. The reader is the mother as sympathetic listener to all
sides. Soaps make consequences more important than actions, involve many
complications, and avoid closure. In soaps dialogue blurs and delays. There is
no single hero in soaps, no privileged moral perspective, multiple narrative
lines and few certainties. Viewers tend to feel involved interpreting events
from the perspective of characters similar to themselves or to those they know.

For example in Neighbours Hannah Martin made a number of phone calls to a physic
line (action), which cost her father a great deal of money. However, the
consequence of this has become a plot thread for many episodes as Hannah not
only has had to get a job to pay for the bill but also must pay for all of her
local phone calls. This has also led to problems with her stepmother Ruth
monitoring this consequence. Once again focussing on the family element of a
soap opera. Not much seems to 'happen' in many soap operas because there is
little rapid action. In soaps what matters is the effect of events on the
characters, This is revealed through characters talking to each other. Charlotte

Brunsdon argues that the question guiding a soap story is not 'What will happen
next?' but 'What kind of person is this?' (In Geraghty 1991, p. 46). Such a form
invites viewers to offer their own comments. John Fiske (in Seiter et al. 1989,
p. 68) notes that minimal post-production work on 'realist' soaps (leaving in'dead' bits) may be cost-cutting, but it also suggests more 'realism' than in
heavily edited program’s, suggesting the 'now' of the events on screen.

Published stories about the characters in soaps and the actors who play them
link the world of the soap with the outside world, but they also allow viewers
to treat the soap as a kind of game. Ien Ang (1985, pg45) argues that watching
soaps involves a kind of psychological realism for the viewer: an emotional
realism, which exists at the connotative level. This offers less concrete, more'symbolic representations of more general living experiences' which viewers find
recognizably 'true to life'. In such a case, 'what is recognized as real is not
knowledge of the world, but a subjective experience of the world: a
"structure of feeling"' For many viewers of soap operas this was a
tragic structure of feeling: evoking the idea that happiness is precarious.

Viewers familiar with the characters and conventions of a particular soap may
often judge the program largely in its own terms (or perhaps in terms of the
genre) rather than with reference to some external 'reality'. For instance, is a
character's current behaviour consistent with what we have learnt over time
about that character? The soap may be accepted to some extent as a world in its
own right, in which slightly different rules may sometimes apply. This is of
course the basis for the 'willing suspension of disbelief' on which drama
depends. Producers sometimes remark that realistic drama offers a slice of life
with the duller bits cut out, and that long-running soaps are even more
realistic than other forms because less has to be excluded Jordan (in Dyer 1981)
identifies several broad stereotypes used extensively in soap operas,

Grandmother figures; marriageable characters (mature, sexy, women; spinsterly
types; young women; mature, sexy, men; fearful, withdrawn men; conventional
young men); married couples; rogues (including 'ne'er-do-wells' and confidence
tricksters). Buckingham refers also refers to the use of the stereotypes of 'the
gossip', 'the bastard' and 'the tart'. Anthony Easthope adds 'the good girl',
and Peter Buckman cites 'the decent husband', 'the good woman', 'the villain'
and 'the bitch' (in Geraghty 1991, p. 132). Geraghty herself adds 'the career
woman' (ibid., p. 135ff). Suggesting that soap opera characters and stories draw
on fundamental human traits Maire Messenger Davies suggests that 'nothing goes
wrong in Neighbours for very long and that's why children like it' (in Hart

1991, p. 136). Soaps in general have a predominantly female audience, although
prime-time soaps such as Dallas are deliberately aimed at a wider audience.

According to Ang, and hardly surprisingly, in Dallas the main interest for men
was in business relations and problem and the power and wealth shown, whereas
for women were more often interested in the family issues and love affairs. In
the case of Dallas it is clear that the program meant something different for
female viewers compared with male viewers. In 'realist' soaps, female characters
are portrayed as more central than in action drama, as ordinary people coping
with everyday problems. Watching the characters in a soap opera deal with
everyday problems allows the viewers a sense of normality and helps them to deal
with their problems in comparison. Certainly soaps tend to appeal to those who
value the personal and domestic world. The audience for such soaps does include
men, but some theorists argue that the gender identity of the viewer is'inscribed' in programs, and that typically with soaps the inscribed viewer has
a traditional female gender identity. And 'the competencies necessary for
reading soap opera are most likely to have been acquired by those persons
culturally constructed through discourses of femininity' (Morley 1992, p. 129).

Dorothy Hobson interviewed women office workers in Birmingham and found that
their free-time conversation was often based on their soap opera viewing. Some
had begun watching simply because they had discovered how central it seemed to
be in lunchtime discussions. It involved anticipating what might happen next,
discussing the significance of recent events and relating them to their own
experiences. Hobson argues that women typically use soaps as a way of talking
indirectly about their own attitudes and behaviour (in Seiter et al. 1989: pp.

150-67). Geraghty (1991, p. 123) also notes that there is some evidence that
families use soaps as a way of raising and discussing awkward situations. Most
viewers seem to oscillate between involvement and distance in the ways in which
they engage with soaps. For example in Home and Away, the issues of rape,
teenage sex and pregnancy, single parenting, epilepsy, drug addiction, abortion,
infidelity, and death are all issues in which the characters have dealt with.

This allows the audience to discuss these issues without talking about
themselves. This allows many controversial issues to be discussed in the family
home, to educate the viewers. The viewer is often engaged in the social drama,
of knowing a breach to come or already being in a crisis before the characters
of the show are. The viewer wants to be part of the community of the soap opera
such as Neighbours and Home and Away, to share their knowledge of the reoccurent
themes that are happening. If we all lived in Summer Bay or on Ramsey Street, we
would be very attractive, doing well at school/university, have a great job,
fantastic children, good at sport, happily married, and no problems for very
long. This allows the viewer to feel like they could be living in the ideal
world where you can do anything, and any problems that you may have will not
last too long.


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