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Neighbors Essay, Research Paper

"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 clich?s 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.

Geraghty, Christine (1991) Sex, Race, and Class : The pressures for Change In

Women and Soap opera: A study of prime time soaps Polity Press UK Allen, Robert

C. (1992): Channels of Discourse, Reassembled (2nd edn.). London: Routledge Ang,

Ien (1985): Dallas and the ideology of mass culture In Watching Dallas: Soap

Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. Routledge, NY, London: Methuen Crofts,

Stephen (1994) Global Neighbours in Tommorrow Never Knows: Soap on Australian

Television Edited by Bowles, Kate nad Turnbull, Sue Australian Film Commission

Bean, Susan S (1982) Soap Operas: sagas of American kinship in J.B. Cole (ed.)

Anthropology for the eighties: introductory readings The Free Press New York

Kottak, Conrad Phillip (1996) The Media, Development and Social Change In Emilio

F. Moran (ed.) Transforming Societies, Transforming Anthropology University of

Michigan Press: Ann Arbor Buckingham, David (1987): Public Secrets: Eastenders

and its Audience. London: British Film Institute Curran, James & Michael

Gurevitch (eds.) (1991): Mass Media and Society. London: Edward Arnold Dyer,

Richard (ed.) (1981): Coronation Street. London: British Film Institute Turner,

V (1974) Social Dramas and ritual metaphors In V.Turner, Dramas, fields and

metaphors: symbolic action in human society Cornell University Press: Ithaca

Hobson, Dorothy (1982): Crossroads – The Drama of a Soap. London: Methuen

Modleski, Tania (1982): Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for

Women. Hamden, CT: Archon Morley, David (1992): Television Audiences and

Cultural Studies. London: Routledge Coward, Rosalind (1987) Women?s Programmes:

Why not? In Boxed in :Women and Television Edited by Baehr, Helen, and Dyer,

Gillian Pandora Press Tulloch, John and Moron, Allen ?Women Like Gossip?:

The family audience in A Country Practice: ?Quality Soap?

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My Neighbors
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