Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Slipping on soap

Why living in a soapie is so bad for you

I’ve always found soapies hard to stomach, and indeed, they’ve been described as weak on beginnings, but with expanded waistlines+. I sometimes catch myself watching Passions, not because it’s entertaining but because it’s so incredibly bad. There are a pair of characters, a devilish blonde auntie and a halfway ugly, half cute young boy, that have some diabolical alliance with the underworld. I manage to watch for about 5 minutes, just to see if the next minute will be any more ridiculous than the last. Terrible! Passions, for me, is like a very bad, very silly dream. It’s only noteworthy as a precursor to the News at 6.

But then my girlfriend, and millions like her, love 7de Laan. She organizes life around it. That means going to gym and dinner are arranged with 7de Laan in the middle. &de Laan is a utopian shpiel that presents crime ravaged, bruised-by-the-real-world South African audiences with addictive dollops of lighthearted and probably much needed escapism. I don’t mind watching 7de Laan with her (do I have a choice?). 7de Laan is the second most popular soapie in the country; Generations has a million more viewers at 3 428 000.*

So what is it about soapies that have South Africans glued to their screens in the millions? At first glance, it simply seems about South Africans doing the most mundane of things (shopping, or drinking coffee), and talking about the most contemporary stuff.
Well, imbedded in these casual statements are the very reasons why soapies have risen to iconic status on our televisions. And as audiences have begged for more soapie satisfaction, their antithesis, reality television (which is what I really want to watch), has emerged as another contemporary force.

You see, soaps (and reality TV) accurately reflect our present ideology. We’re rocketing into new social territory, and these new paradigms have emerged so quickly, that our communities often have no way of knowing how to deal with all the innovations going on around us. Soaps slow down the chaos, and present the world as one-problem-at-a-time (more or less). We get to see several characters evaluating problem-based scenarios, and then these same characters develop a solution. Then the solution is evaluated by various characters. A negative evaluation spins off a new problem (new drama), so too do contested evaluations, creating a multilayered narrative. And it is in the progression of these evaluations of problems that progress (dialogue driven) is made in the story. Dialogue is the ‘action sequence’ in soaps. There are always multiple interpretations to scenarios, and worse, there is never any final closure.

So if soaps accurately represent our ideology, what’s wrong with that? Firstly, soaps are filled with figurative language and rhetorical techniques like metaphor, as well as synecdoche and metonymy, which are representations of things as being smaller or bigger than they really are (respectively). Harmless? Soaps are all about problems, not success. And the solutions to these problems are always unclear. The impact of imbedded nuances and negativity is far more powerful on an impressionable audience than we might imagine.

Now let’s examine someone who went from no exposure of Western culture, to six months of sustained exposure in the city (and especially to soaps). This guy, Khulani**, had a strained relationship with his father, and a prescribed view of the role of women. Since he’d never watched television (because of a life growing up in a rural area), when he arrived in Jozi looking for work he ‘educated’ himself about the real world by watching soaps. He especially liked ‘Days of our lives’, he said, because there were no boundaries between males and females. And the relationships portrayed between children and their father’s made a ‘deep impression’. He suddenly realized that he didn’t need to be bound by tradition; that it wasn’t wrong to talk to his father or to tell him about his own feelings. He realized his father could even be his friend. He also realized he could shop around until he found the right woman. It wasn’t a case of a one-off eeni meeni meini mo. And this fellow is just one of whole echelons of a rising black middle class, who have televisions in their new-paint, new-lounge-suite scented homes. They’re not quite sure how to do the middle class transition, and here soaps provide vital instruction.

But if we think for a moment that soaps seem not only harmless, but a truly valuable means to edify whole communities, that perception would be very defective indeed. Soaps aren’t designed to be simply altruistic; they’re designed to be addictive, to provide ongoing content so that advertisements can be inserted between parts. Have you noticed how perfect the structure of soaps are to allow for segmentation? This means they can easily be cut in multiple areas for the insertion of commercials. And here’s the rub. There are identifiable generic features in soaps. The most disturbing of these is the serial form, which resists narrative closure. The implication of this is obvious. It takes a while to establish what is being talked about, but not too long that one’s attention span comes under threat. As soon as you’re just about up to speed on one plot, the scene ends (after an average of about 18 turns) and the next subplot or scenario develops. There is plenty of abrupt segmentation between parts, with males playing ‘sensitive’ and females who are often ‘powerful’ and free of the home environment. Furthermore, there’s usually a common setting for all these interactions.

If we lived our lives deliberating endlessly and uselessly over problems, evaluating all our actions ad nausea and never doing anything, never resolving anything, the result would be incontrovertible: depression. If you want to live a crazy life, surround yourself with sensitive men and powerful women, and ensure that neither ever make up their minds about each other. Evaluate just about everything negatively, and watch how your problems pile up. Stay in the same environment, with these same people, and talk endlessly, and indecisively about the past. Entertain flashbacks, and flirt and fraternize tirelessly with your partner’s immediate family.

Adorno, in 1971, writing about ‘Television as Ideology’ pointed out that a noticeable feature in practically all American soaps was ‘false consciousness and misrepresentation of reality…drummed into people’s heads.’
It is this profoundly unconscious set of ideologies we expose ourselves to daily that project us with defeatist structures of problem solving and conflict resolution. Worse still, we learn to invite drama into our lives at the smallest provocation.

It’s particularly worrying to me that millions are gripped by this diseased thinking entertainment genre, disguised as normative and constructive distraction. We’re exposed to endless cycles of love triangles and people coming back from the dead. Plenty of the problem solving scenarios eventually become irrelevant as writers try to top their latest plot-venture. So the trend in soaps is that they become increasingly ridiculous over time, eventually flouting moral boundaries (and in some cases, the laws of nature!) becoming a farce of contradictions.

Soapies are just plain bad for you. Never resolving anything is no way to live. Nonstop talking but doing nothing in real life equals Lazy Drama. And I think in the end, this semi-disgusted, semi-detached, ongoing preoccupation with the absurd is why we watch soaps at all. It’s sillier and more sullying than stopping to get a good look at a pedestrian that has been run over. And when focusing our attention daily on silliness, we run the risk of sillying and sallying our lives in the process. Rather go outside at 5pm or 6pm and work in the garden, or go for a run. Watch the sunset. It might take a while to snap out of the incessant cyclical programming, but when you do you may begin to once again feel the sunshine, radiate confidence, and come alive once more.

+ Brown, ME, 1987
* Pressure Release, by Isaac Mahlangu, Sunday Times Magazine, October 8, 2006.
A Discursive Analysis of Eastenders, John Wheatley, 1999
Ideology in the English Media, 2006, a 3rd year University course designed and presented by Dr Susan Brokensha.

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