They Call Them “Soaps” Because They’re Dirty

Soap operas give us something to bond over, help us feel better about our own lives, and reaffirm the boundaries of deviance. Stephanie Medley-Rath explores the sociological value of soap operas and wonders what will fill the void left after their cancellation.

Old Fashion TV

I grew up watching All My Children. My mom watched All My Children from the beginning and even when she re-entered the workforce as a school teacher, she would set the VCR to record some of the episodes. We watched every day during summer vacation. My dad even watched with us sometimes.

I haven’t watched the show with any regularity since moving out of my parent’s house. Eventually, I stopped watching completely and so did my mom. When I heard that the show was to be cancelled, I decided to watch one last summer as the show is to end this month. I set my DVR, but gave up watching about half-way through the first recording.

I recognized some of the characters, but there were new characters and new people playing old characters. I’m sad that the show has become somewhat unrecognizable to me despite watching for years. But what makes me sadder is the loss of something that women across generations bonded over, similar to how men across generations bond over sports.

Soap operas and sports are two things that people can bond over across generational lines and even across political, class, religious or other lines.

Viewers of soap operas can usually agree that they would love to live a life where money does really seem to grow on trees, while at the same time expressing shock at the deviant behaviors in which our favorite characters are engaging. Kidnapping, murder, false identities, adultery, and child abandonment are only a few of the not only deviant, but criminal behaviors that have happened to the residents of Pine Valley. Soap operas, and All My Children, in particular pushed the boundaries of our social norms since its beginning. Erica Kane, portrayed by Susan Lucci, had the first legal abortion aired on television in a 1973 episode and her daughter, Bianca, was the first openly gay lead character on daytime television. Challenging the boundaries of social norms has been a key feature of the show, and the character, Erica Kane, in particular. The deviance of the residents of Pine Valley serves to unite me with fellow soap opera fans, just as sports fans might bond over the deviance of favorite athletes, such as Tiger Woods’ infidelity, Michael Phelps’ marijuana use, or Brett Favre’s sexting. By focusing on their deviance, we reaffirm our knowledge about how the world works and our collective consciousness remains intact.

All My Children has been famous for taking controversial subjects and making them part of the storyline, but even then the writers take creative license with these stories. For instance, Erica Kane’s abortion has been rewritten as an experiment where the doctor actually removed the fetus and transplanted it into another woman with Erica’s biological son becoming part of the storyline in the mid-2000s. A storyline that challenged the social norms—abortion—has been rewritten to be in line with a more normative abortion storyline, yet remains deviant, in line with a soap opera storyline.

Dig Deeper:

  1. In what ways do viewers of soap operas bond with one another?
  2. How is keeping up with sports similar to keeping up with soap operas?
  3. How do you use soap operas or sports viewing in your life?
  4. View this scene from All My Children. In what ways is deviance portrayed in this clip?