Soap operas are entertaining, attention-grabbing daytime shows full of drama and emotion. They are shown in the middle of the day, originally meant for housewives completing housework, waiting for their husband to come home from work. Soap operas may seem like a corny, somewhat outdated genre of television show, but Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History by Elana Levine describes how their impact on the development of society has been essential. Since they no longer have the impact they once did, people may be surprised by the power they held for decades, but soap operas are a monumental phenomenon in television history, and have contributed so much to the advancement of not only broadcast television, but women’s culture as well.
Levine’s central argument is that “the history of the US daytime TV soap opera is a history of a media form, but it is also a history of a prominent cultural construction of femininity and its imbrication within the institutional and artistic evolution of the primary mass medium in American society for nearly three-quarters of a century” (6-7). The power and influence soap operas have had on American broadcast television and women’s culture in general may be largely unknown by many, but is essential to understanding many aspects of the development of society.
Elana Levine is a soap opera enthusiast, enthralled by the unique daytime television they have provided since the 1940s. She earned an undergraduate degree in English and Telecommunications from Indiana University, and graduate degrees in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Levine is a professor of media, cinema, and digital studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the English department, with areas of teaching and research in television studies/history, gender, sexuality, and media, as well as cultural/production studies and feminized popular culture. She has several publications related mostly to television and media history, with a focus on women’s studies.
Levine’s uses mainly qualitative methodology, but includes others as well. Much of her research includes archival research of countless scenes from different soap operas, interviews, articles, and other monographs to reference important examples of the impact on women’s culture. Though few, Levine also includes some quantitative research and visuals, such as a graph used to represent the cost per minute of network daytime television ad time (85). She also incorporates some text analysis and close reading from works by prominent feminist writers. For example, Levine analyzes Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, including critiques that “spaces included varied expressions of the dissatisfactions of the white, middle-class, patriarchal ideal, and did not simply parrot the dominant ideology” (45), and comparing this to the world of Hollywood and gender and femininity altogether. The use of many different methods of research give different and interesting sources of support that all work together to emphasize the impact soaps had on the development of network television and women’s culture.
Part 1 of 3 in Her Stories includes chapters 1 and 2 from early the early 1940s to late 1960s. It describes soaps’ transition from radio to television, specifically its economic and creative contributions to television. While transitioning to television, soaps were some of the first broadcasts to pay close attention to visuals and sound, focusing closely on the details of production and set design such as how to maximize emotion through “face-to-face cutting,” or creating minimalistic sets for more emphasis on “working out of emotional conflicts” (24). By 1954, sponsors, networks, creators, and audiences proclaimed that soaps were here to stay. Soaps became more and more popular, and were becoming so lucrative that CBS was encouraging other networks to invest in them. It also describes the “social construction of gendered identities… offering up understandings of the struggles of postwar American life, shaping notions of gender, marriage, and family desperately in need of therapeutic intervention” (43). In this chapter, Levine brings in examples from popular texts, such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Though Friedan does not specifically mention television or soap operas, it explains that “the focus of soap opera on the very matters of femininity, masculinity, marriage, and family life so central to the feminine mystique make it a crucial space for considering popular culture as a site for constructions of gender identity” (45). This was important to understanding how soap operas became helpful for viewers, particularly women, after the war and served as a sort of escape and relaxation from stress postwar. Many elements were used to define women as housewives, such as advertisements for items like kitchen appliances, or even the time of day at which they run, reinforcing women’s role as such.
Part 2 includes chapter 3, 4, and 5, focusing on the mid 1960s to late 1980s. Levine that the soap opera was the foundation of the network era business model. Sponsors, audience members, and many others were extremely invested in soaps, and the relatively low production costs allowed for a fair amount of profit. Overall, soap operas were becoming even bigger and influential in business and television, and the narrative later “turns to relevance” and focuses on the social changes made in soaps. There began to be more pushback on the “white, middle-class, reproductive femininity” that put women into a box (11). Levine argues that soaps implemented more liberal-leaning views on relevant issues at the time such as racism, abortion, sexuality, and expectations of gender. Culture changed as soaps changed, and with such a wide viewership, soaps had tons of influence on what it meant to be a woman at the time.
Part 3 includes chapter 6, 7, and 8, from the late 1980s to the 2010s, focusing primarily on soaps’ downfall. The feminine “housewife” viewership that was often the main audience no longer needed soaps to relate to or define themselves because the concept of femininity and what it meant to be a woman was much broader than what it once was. Femininity in soaps was expanding, but they were not able to maintain viewership because of how quickly and widely women’s culture was growing. This part highlights struggles not only to keep up culturally, but economically since the decline in viewership. In order to maintain their audience and keep people coming back for more, production tried switching things up, doing their best to be as inclusive as possible, or completely rejecting the formula of soaps in hopes of staying afloat. These attempts did more harm than good, and the demise of soaps seemed inevitable.
One noticeable strength in this monograph is the immense detail Levine uses to describe the many different aspects that contributed to the culture and creation of soap operas and how it impacted viewers. Within every chapter, there are several subsections that highlight different aspects of the time and topic. For example, Chapter 4: “Turning to Relevance” focuses primarily on soaps beginning to include relevant politics and culture into their shows. Just a few subsections of this chapter include soaps’ “generational conflict” (110), “racial and ethnic difference” (115), and “stories of pregnancy and abortion” (120). Each of these subsections contribute to the overarching idea of soaps’ incorporation of relevant information at the time, but with specific focuses on different aspects that contributed to the shows and relevant culture outside of it. While they mainly focus on gender and femininity, they also include important elements that had a prominent impact on culture at the time, adding nuance to the chapters and the monograph as a whole.
Although there is plenty of detail and information on the many different topics and aspects of the history of soap opera, not until towards the end of the monograph do we see any sort of pushback or other-sided perspectives on the left-leaning stances soap operas often incorporated. Soaps often highlighted liberal views in their shows concerning abortion, rape, sexuality, even just giving women more freedom and breakaway from gender roles, and many more, but since these were newer views at the time portrayed on such a big scale, surely there must have been more pushback and implications than what is included in the monograph. Including all peoples’ perspectives at the time would create more depth to the already very nuanced history of soap operas, and would not only give readers a better view of America’s reaction to their favorite television shows, but also America’s social development as a country.
Overall, Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History was an interesting and entertaining read. As someone who is a bit too young to have experienced soap operas’ peak, delving into the world of soaps provided an unexpected perspective into the progression of gender roles and norms, and other social issues. The format of the book made it concise and easier to read, working chronologically chapter by chapter through the history of soap operas while describing its influence on media and culture, as well its downfall and why that was. Throughout every section, there is a clear topic about how the phenomenon of soap operas influenced US broadcast network television or culture in general. Soap operas may not be what first come to mind when I think of the change in women’s culture and politics, but this was an eye-opening book on such a realization, and how it was a central part of the history of television and women’s culture.
Levine, Elana. Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera & US Television History. Duke U.P., 2020.