Guiding Lights: On “Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History”

October 19, 2021   •   By Annie Berke

Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History

Elana Levine

THE SUMMER I WAS 20 years old, I interned in the writing office of Guiding Light (CBS, 1952-2009). It was, at the time, America’s longest-running daytime soap opera, based out of Proctor & Gamble Productions in Manhattan. The workings of the office were not nearly as lurid and dramatic as the scripts I was reading; if anything, the day-to-day more accurately resembled a workplace sitcom. The writing and production office was only a few floors below the soundstage, so actors popped down on their breaks, in costume and out of character, looking for coffee or small talk. The villains were often the friendliest, though one season’s villain was the next season’s hero: such is the television soap.

One of my favorite responsibilities was managing the massive black binder that contained decades’ worth of script loglines and summaries. The purpose of The Binder was to keep track of which characters were related or had been married, so that future writers would only romantically pair up cousins on purpose and never by accident. My pride in maintaining this archive presaged my future as a television researcher, but I couldn’t have known that at the time. All I knew was that I preferred Binder Duty to the prospect of answering phones in the main office and talking to the fans calling in to issue their opinions on the latest plot twist. Some of them were, frankly, angry, and why should I let them chew me out? I was, at best, a temporary keeper of the show’s past, and I had no clout when it came to determining its future.

But as the daytime soap continually battles for self-definition and survival, the question remains as vital as ever: to whom does the television soap belong? Even in its heyday, the American soap opera struggled to delineate itself aesthetically, narratively, and culturally. Should it encode progressive or retrograde ideologies for its viewers? Should it follow the minutiae of the small-town housewife or pursue more melodramatic, even supernatural, avenues? And to speak for the network executive, is the soap opera a cash cow or a financial albatross?

In the most intimate ways, though, the television soap opera has always belonged to its fans, a community of viewers with a memory so encyclopedic that they do not need a tattered binder to recall past decades’ twists and turns. In May 2020, author Elana Levine did a Zoom discussion about her book, Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and U.S. Television History (Duke UP, 2020) and spoke candidly of writing a book not only for fellow historians of culture and media but for fans as well, knowing the latter camp would include her harshest, most detail-oriented, critics. Happily, Levine is both a scholar and a fan, which comes out in the joy and color of this, her latest monograph.

Her Stories resonates with Levine’s previous work on television’s contemporary claims to art-form status (Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, co-authored with Michael Newman, 2011) and its historical relationship to identity politics and sexual mores (Wallowing in Sex: The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television, 2007), as well as popular culture’s fraught relationship to the female viewer-consumer (Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Lady Porn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century, ed.). In Her Stories, as in her other work, Levine does not shy away from the high stakes of her history, forging an argument that proponents of prestige television are rarely compelled (or able) to make: that soap operas are the history of television, and television is the history of America, so, by extension, soap operas index the conflicts and character of American culture from mid-century to the present day. As Levine herself writes, “For soap opera, the past always matters, bearing upon the present and shaping the future.” And who better than soap opera’s biggest fans to safeguard the past, relish in the present, and place — angry — calls regarding the future?

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While the television soap opera in many ways grew out of the successful narrative model of earlier radio soaps, it faced the unique challenge of establishing a visual language for American daytime drama. Extant recordings of these early soaps are fuzzy reproductions at best, and, by today’s standards, everything from the set design to the actors’ blocking feels static, rough-and-ready at best. But these earliest exhibits proved fertile testing grounds for telling soapy stories using both sound and image, and some of the cinematographic flourishes from 1950s soaps remain a mainstay of today’s programs. Particularly the close-up. As soap writers Frank and Anne Hummert (Ma Perkins) were quoted as saying, “The close-up in our opinion is God’s gift to the small screen of television.” The television soap’s emphasis on picturing the inner life of the American housewife through close-ups, mirror tableaux (“Stuart, get out of here!”), and other devices was as much a product of budgetary constraints as it was a technical choice. Levine explains: “Budgetary demands and the pressures of intensive production could thereby shape storytelling, as in the killing off of central characters due to actors seeking release from binding contracts.” The Three Big Networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) all lived by the same credo — soaps should make money but cost almost nothing to make — and this expectation has persisted through to the present.

Soap viewers saw themselves in their favorite serials and sought guidance in these narratives of balancing work and family, moderating intergenerational conflicts, and pursuing egalitarian partnerships in their love lives. Given prominent place in the book is soap pioneer Irna Phillips, whose work on Guiding Light and Another World (NBC, 1964-1999), among others, gave voice to the ideological fractures of postwar femininity. Levine explores how Phillips’ scripts built on, yet ultimately refused, the growing a second-wave feminist consciousness exemplified by Betty Friedan and others. Her shows, she writes, “contradictorily exposed the trauma of the very gendered ideals of traditional marriage and family life that she sought to uphold.”

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Not only did soaps support and sustain the financial bottom line of their network homes during the classic Network era (1950s-1980s), but they were also a laboratory for an evolving television craft. Soap’s reliance on intertwining storylines and “multiple planes of staging” showed up across primetime programming, shaping everything from British miniseries (The Forsyte Saga) and action heroines of the 1970s (hello, Jiggle TV) to, no surprise, night time melodramas like Peyton Place (ABC, 1964-1969). It was during this heyday of the American television soap that genre hybridization became central to the variety and longevity of the form, including gothic and mystery soaps like Dark Shadows (ABC, 1966-1971) and The Edge of Night (CBS, ABC, 1956-1984) and screwball romantic comedy in The Doctors. Together with networks increasingly taking over creative and financial control away from what was initially a sponsor-driven production process, Levine writes, “Daytime dramas were the engine that powered the classic network era.”

Levine further analyzes the political and ideological incoherence of these programs’ “social issue storytelling.” Showrunners like Agnes Nixon (All My Children, One Life to Live) veered away from activist plots in favor of promoting “cautious, tolerant liberalism,” turning global conflicts like the Vietnam War into interpersonal dramas of mothers and sons, husbands and wives: “The program may have punished characters who strayed from conventional values, but audience engagement did not always align with those principles.” Soaps tilted right during these years, but their viewers did not follow in lockstep.

Queer and feminist audiences, for instance, might read these conservative stories against the grain by seizing on liberating moments of camp and identifying with fabulous villainesses. Most famously, Erica Kane’s (Susan Lucci) 1971 abortion in All My Children “allowed Erica to be deceptive and selfish while also being sympathetic and even admirable in her unwavering resolve.” Lucci and other performers were beloved by fans, and “like the heroines they portrayed, soap actresses of the 1970s were invested in both their professional and personal lives.” Masculinity on the soap opera was nearly as varied and complex as femininity: there were tough guys and bad boys but also sensitive, tortured male heroes who looked more like 19th century gothic dreamboats than the stable, professional men of the postwar soap.

Unfortunately, the peak of soap opera cross-over appeal in the 1980s was a signal of its impending decline, their “ultimately short-lived dominance reveal[ing] the tenuousness of the appealing fantasy” of post-feminism. The supercouple, epitomized by General Hospital’s Luke and Laura, was a ratings bonanza, but it also signified soap’s move away from social relevance and toward female desire for its own (apolitical) sake. While the bad boy and the princess usually came from different worlds, their triumph over their differences signaled that systemic inequality could be solved through passionate banter, gender equity achieved through some good, good loving.

It is hard to locate a mustache-twirling villain in all this, but the industry’s persistent misunderstanding of who was watching soaps and why played a pretty toxic part. With the advent of home VCRs, new audiences were coming to soap operas, those who wanted “hip and legitimated kind of trash,” and networks sought to appeal to high-paying advertisers by attracting wealthier working women who were not typically home during the day. They added location shooting and popular music montages, all the while sidelining the working-class, Black, and gay audiences that had secured soap’s significance in the first place.

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Between the years of 2003-2012, six out of the ten soap operas were cancelled, suggesting, indeed, that the daytime drama’s peak had passed. (This included, unfortunately for my colleagues that summer, Guiding Light, which went off the air in 2009.) With the debuts of time-shifted viewing and television “outside the box,” networks balked at how to measure audience behaviors, and advertisers presumed the worst, such “assumptions about women… keeping with a long history of imagining soap audiences by referencing their practical and psychological needs.”

But, as Levine explains, ratings do not television art make. There was a great deal of exciting experimentation happening despite — and, in many ways, because of — these institutional strains and identity crises for the television soap, evidenced by the premiere of the oddball Gen-X/Millennial darling Passions (NBC, the 101, 1999-2008) and a notoriously campy possession plotline on Days of Our Lives (NBC, 1965-). This turn to the supernatural and the bizarre may have looked like “not your mother’s soap,” but, as historians and rabid fans would know, this genre hybridization was in fact your mother’s soap — your grandmother’s, even.

The contemporary soap in upheaval was not one distanced from the past, then, but one highly engaged with it, as shows like General Hospital and All My Children revisited old characters and plotlines from new vantage points. In the former case, GH explored the origins of its 1970s/80s blockbuster Supercouple, Luke and Laura, which began with his raping her; the 1998 storyline focuses on Luke’s reckoning with his own culpability and Laura articulating the trauma she has kept buried for so long. Meanwhile, the “un-abortion” plotline in All My Children reversed the cultural work of Erica Kane’s unapologetic reproductive decision; rather than terminate the pregnancy, it turned out that Erica’s doctor had stolen the embryo and implanted it in his wife, so the two could raise the child as their own. These two very different rewritings of soap opera yore signaled how much shows wanted to look back at their heydays, in order to capture the magic for a new viewer they did not fully understand.

With the advent of internet or “indie soaps” eligible for daytime awards — despite being able to stream them at any time of day or night — the future of the television soap remains indeterminate. Still, as a commercial art form, it soldiers on like a true soap diva: hair done, nails sharpened, memory long and vindictive as ever. And soaps’ continued impact on television form and narrative is unchanging, Levine writes that “the ‘docusoaps’ of reality television, the magazines and blogs of celebrity gossip, and even the self-fashioned appeal of the interpersonal drama and serialized storytelling… are legacies of soap opera and the ‘feminine competencies’ for which it has long trained and rewarded its viewers.”

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The other day, I turned on General Hospital, which I’d never seen but which Levine calls her personal favorite. What struck me most was not the number of teary-eyed close-ups or how often people eavesdropped on other people at doorways (the answer to both being: a lot). It was, instead, the show’s opening credits. It is a slideshow of faces, each woman’s face dropping down in front of a glowing background, like a pile of actress headshots tossed into a Keynote presentation. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Guiding Light intern from the casting department. She raved about how much she was learning and how now she could tell, at a glance, “who looks daytime.”

I have wondered this often through the years: How do you look daytime? Do I look daytime? (Do I want to?) So many actors, from Mark Consuelos to Justin Hartley, Julianne Moore to Anne Heche, got their start on soaps, so it can’t be the contouring make-up or the impeccable spray-tan that makes someone a soap star. Maybe the answer can be found in that black binder from my Guiding Light days, or even farther — as far back as Irna Phillips’ initial efforts to find a visual language for the radio soap. What did fans want to look at when they saw their “stories” committed to the small screen? I suspect they wanted to gaze into the faces of these men and women and see what they had imagined from the radio broadcasts: their neighbors, their families, and themselves — usually, but not always, under great duress. All in a day’s work.