The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
Lecture: What is Conservative/ Respectable/ High Status Dress?
Lecture: The Media as Dominant Ideology
Lecture: Postmodernism
Lecture: Can Ads Ever Be Radical?
Lecture: Types of Media Analysis
Lecture: Is Xena a Feminist Heroine?
Lecture: Radway's approach to Romance Novels
Lecture: Popular Media as Patriarchal Ideology
Lecture: The Debate About Madonna
Lecture: Soap Operas and Feminism
Lecture: Walkerdine on Rocky
Lecture: Feminist Arguments Against Pornography
Lecture: Soap Operas and Feminism

Article by Mary Ellen Brown

The article is based mostly in the ethnographic approach in so far as she uses interview data to back up her points about how women relate to soap operas. On the other hand, some aspects of the article fit the semiotic approach in so far as she relates various formal features of soap opera texts to what she takes to be their cultural meaning

Her main point is that soap operas relate to a "materially existing feminine discourse".

What she means by "materially existing" is that these are actual practices of women.

"Discourse" here means literally discussions or conversation. Note that this is not the way the term "discourse" is used in poststructuralism.

So "feminine discourse" is the actual way that women speak to each other and includes what they talk about - for example she says that women talk about domestic issues, kinship and sexuality and she says that women talk in a way that is open ended.

Another phrase she uses is "women’s oral culture". This is used to mean exactly the same as the above.

The Two Key Arguments of the Article

    • Her basic argument is that soap operas are in some ways modelled on feminine discourse and also get taken up and used within that discourse.
    • What the article also implies is that there is something feminist and not just feminine about soap operas and the way women use them.

Narrative Form - Open ended, no one major plot line. Narrative redundancy. Inconsistent characterisation. Why is this feminist? Because there is no singular male hero whose actions are driving the plot and its resolution. There is no real space in the narrative for the "hunter" figure to come in and make everything all right. In this soap operas are really different from other forms of TV drama, news and even sports programs.

Responsive to Audience Interest - Why is this feminist? Because these shows are mostly watched by women so this means that women are having some real control over the culture which they consume most enthusiastically.

The Content of Soap Operas - They deal with the same things that women typically talk about - domestic matters, kinship, sexuality. Why is this feminist? Because these shows are taking it for granted that these women’s matters are interesting and important when much of dominant patriarchal culture suggests they are trivial.

On p. 190 she creates a list of characteristics of "feminine discourse" which it also shares with soaps and this list is basically designed to suggest what is feminist about all this.

    • Acknowledges a position of subordination. While official patriarchal ideology presents men’s and women’s roles as equivalent and complementary, women’s discourse admits this is not the case.
    • While official ideology tends to pretend that women’s lives are easy and unproblematic, women’s discourse focusses on examples of the kinds of problems that women have to deal with in patriarchy.
    • Women’s discourse highlights the difference between official versions of women’s lives and the unpleasant or comic reality. It unmasks patriarchal ideology.
    • Women’s discourse talks about the strategies women can use to cope with patriarchy. It is a how to manual for women to improve their position of power in daily life.
    • Women’s discourse is parodic - it makes fun of patriarchy and men and dominant patriarchal practices.

Soap Operas are a Subordinate Art Form

In other words we should not be surprised that soap operas are often put down in comparison with other works of art and popular culture such as serious books, news, and sports. This is because they are women’s culture and are rejected by the dominant patriarchal culture.

The Centrality of Talk in Soaps

Soap opera celebrates the power of talk, the outrageous comment and so on and in this it supports women in their use of talk to gain power, as against a dominant view that complains about women’s talking - their loudness, long phone conversations and so on.

Soaps are used to Define and Enhance Solidarity

So people often get together and talk about soaps; it is a topic of conversation. People can identify what they share with their friends as common enjoyment of a particular soap. Since these groups are often made up of women they have a feminist effect in so far as women cease to be isolated in domestic units or in one to one relationships with men but instead develop links with other women.

Soaps Play with the Boundary of Reality and Fantasy

Soaps seem to be about real people’s lives and fans often enter into a pretence that these people are real. This is in opposition to a dominant scientific and hence masculine view that it is very important to keep the boundaries of reality and fantasy separate.

Soaps and Kinship

Kinship is very important for women and keeping kinship relationships "proper" is one of women’s key tasks within patriarchy - e.g. you don’t sleep with your sister’s husband etc. In soaps improper kinship is so extreme as to be a joke, e.g. Karl in neighbours. The result is that soaps make a joke of kinship.

Laughter and the Re-Telling of Soaps

Soaps often deal with extremely serious life and death or emotional issues for the people in the drama. Usually, as people watch these episodes, they get hooked in and emotionally affected. Yet when women get together to talk about soaps it is normal to see these terribly tragic events as a joke. In this sense the way women relate to soaps undermines the seriousness of women’s patriarchal role in sorting out and maintaining emotional relationships between people.

HomeKey Writings & Recent WorksPermaculture, Sustainable Agriculture and DevelopmentFood Security For Africa: Project DesignFeminism and EcofeminismThe Environmental Movement & The PublicThe Social Meaning of Popular MediaThe Gift Economy & How To Get ThereHumanist Realism: A Sociological Toolkit for Activists