Soap Operas and Romance Novels: The Feminist Debate

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Recently on Twitter I saw two things that really made me stop and take a second look.  The first was a comment that said that “Soap opera is the most feminist of genres, by nature of ongoing narrative” and the second being “Feminism and the writing of romantic novels are a contradiction in terms. ” Why did these statements make me take pause?  Simply said, I am a fan of both.

I have watched soap operas since I was a little girl who was too young to recognize the true complexities that were taking place on my television screen.  One of my first ever “ships” was between Alan-Michael Spaulding and Lucy Cooper.  I simply loved everything about them.  The contrast between their social classes, how Alan-Michael fought his feelings for Lucy, and how hard they had to strive to get their happily ever after.  I simply loved them.  The same can be said for my love of romance novels.  I have always loved to read, and one day I picked up my mom’s Sandra Brown novel and from then on I have been a big fan of the genre.  So yes, these broad sweeping statements made me take pause.

Feminism: (n) the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes 

Early romance novels were classified as “bodice rippers”.  The hero was typically older rogue who is assertive of his dominance over the younger, often virginal, heroine.  A woman’s wants and needs were secondary to the hero’s.  Indeed, romance novels in the early 70’s were very patriarchal in nature, even as the feminist movement was simultaneously taking place in America.  Modern romance novels feature stronger heroines who are successful in their careers, and the heroes are men that see them as equals.  Why the shift?  Because the women writing romance novels today grew up during and after the feminist era.  They take feminist ideas that were seen as revolutionary as a given.   The heroines are no longer pushed into making changes in their life but take the proverbial bull by the horns and choose their own destiny.  In other words, they can maintain their personal relationships without sacrificing their careers.

Romance novels are a billion dollar industry.  Yes you read that right, a BILLION dollar industry, with the majority of the writers being women.  In my opinion that is impressive in that women have carved out an industry that is highly lucrative, though this “for women written by women” mentality has also led to the stigma attached with reading romance novels.   Like all things romance novels can be as feminist or not depending on the writer.  But in my opinion romance novels give readers a chance to read about and examine their own desires.

Soap Operas emerged from detergent companies sponsoring radio shows aimed at the housewife.  But while the soap opera may be a female genre, it has a strong patriarchal ideology that remains to this day.    The women can be smart, sexy, and successful but that the end of the day the men will more than likely triumph.  A powerful female character will often time become more sensitive and thus lose her edge, or will be destined for a life of loneliness.  That while female characters will often time use their sexuality in order to influence men, that realization is never full achieved.    In fact, most female characters in soaps are likely to fall into these trends.

dn6504qp9lad5x_oTake for instance, Alexandra Spaulding from Guiding Light.  She was a cutthroat businesswoman who was out to prove that she was just as good as her brother Alan at running Spaulding Enterprises.  She was however, always unlucky in love.  When she was desperate to retain power at Spaulding she resorted to drugging her brother to drive him crazy.  She got into the illegal trading of the drug Antimonius and of course, her brother Alan tried to save her.

70518ae37663b3551235bd809a0265cbLucinda Walsh on As the World Turns was another savvy businesswoman but none of her marriages lasted very long and towards the end of the show’s run the writers even had her marry a gay man.  Stephanie Forrester on the Bold and the Beautiful manipulated Eric Forrester into marrying her, and it was her driving force that helped make Forrester Creations a success.  She was rewarded by her husband Eric having countless affairs with younger women, divorcing her repeatedly, and ultimately ending her reign as matriarch by suffering from lung cancer.  Victoria Newman on the Young and the Restless is a middle-aged billionaire yet everyone knows Victor is the one in charge, and that Victoria kowtows to “daddy”.  She left Newman Enterprises to write and illustrate children’s books, which didn’t pan out.  This is the same woman who constantly put Newman over her so-called “miracle baby” Reed, as if motherhood and career was too much to balance.  However, the very fact she still refers to Victor as “daddy” doesn’t exactly scream feminist.

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So what was the point of this article?  Well I will tell you.  1. Soap Operas are FEMININE by nature of the ongoing narrative but in my opinion they are not exactly FEMINIST in nature.  The males on soap operas will always be the ones that come out on top while women on soaps will always have to balance family and careers, with one side always losing.  Some may be strong successful businesswomen but there is almost always a man to either be their downfall or their savior.  And 2.  Feminism does exist in modern-day romance novels.  Many romance novels today contain feminist ideas while also retaining traditional notions of love and family and these relationships are based on equality.

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