Boy Soaps: Liberalism Without Women

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

What’s old is new again on television, as prime-time boy soap operas like Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Life As We Know It, Summerland, The Mountain, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and The OC have come to replace girl-centered teen dramas like My So-Called Life, Popular, and Buffy. The new boy-centered soap employs “feminine” generic serial elements to explore male adolescence and relationships between males, often focusing around brothers or fathers & sons. Like their female counterparts, these programs offer more character-based drama than most current network television. The combination of seriality and an adolescent focus make for intense storylines which revolve around self discovery, the development of non-familial relationships, sexual exploration, and life lessons, especially liberal “awakenings”. Indeed, the male creators of these programs are among the most liberal on network television — some are even openly gay. The boy soap is as pleasurable a text for female viewers as television offers today. Yet at the same time, these programs consistently give short shrift to female characters and points of view, putting female viewers in the difficult position of cheering on the sidelines in the one generic field where they had dominated.

The reasons for this shift are multiple, but would certainly include the rise to prominence of gay television producers in the 1990s, most prominently Alan Ball of HBO’s Six Feet Under and Kevin Williamson of the WB’s Dawson’s Creek, who were given their first highly publicized opportunities to create television series after they had penned hit movies. Although a welcome change, this development also reflects continuing male industrial dominance, even on smaller networks and subscription channels (straight female and lesbian producers have remained rare, especially as the creators of programs). The consuming power of a white, liberal, educated audience (what television scholar Ron Becker has referred to as “SLUMPIES”) has also helped ensure a loyal gay and gay-friendly viewing community, which is perhaps most evident in the broad popularity of homoerotic “slash” readings of television texts by very vocal and influential internet television communities. At the same time, the general political and industrial shift to the right has resulted in less explicitly feminist or lesbian television texts like Buffy getting the green light; instead, risky behavior and moral heroism have become almost exclusively (white) boy territory, which is more socially acceptable.

Some key characteristics of the genre:

Boy/Boy Focus: Male relationships form the core of these programs and are privileged within the text: father/son on Everwood; brother/brother on The OC, Jack and Bobby, One Tree Hill, Summerland, and The Mountain; and male friendship on Life As We Know It and Smallville, the latter of which focuses on future enemies Clark Kent and Lex Luther, both of whom also have difficult relationships with their daddies. There is very little consistent female solidarity anywhere on these programs, and when it does it exist it is generally constructed as a support or reaction to the central male characters and relationships, i.e. Lana and Mrs. Kent worry about Clark on Smallville.

Gendered Character Growth: While men can be feminine on these programs, women cannot be masculine. Boys are scholars and weepers, leaders and followers. A women who exhibits more masculine qualities is invariably regarded as shrill, cold and dysfunctional. Christine Lahti’s professor mom Grace McCallister on Jack and Bobby is a self-identified feminist, and, as Entertainment Weekly recently noted, the most unlikeable character on the program who “embarrasses herself” with her didacticism and must be taught “lessons in tolerance and motherhood”–in other words, how to be feminine. Such lessons are only necessary for older women, as none of the younger girls seem to have a problem being feminine. They do, however, seem to have a problem being anything else and are often criminally underwritten. Because boys are allowed such a broad range of emotions and girls are not, the girls seem stunted, stuck in an adolescence in which they don’t seem to learn or develop. On-line viewers have complained about the vapidity of Smallville‘s Lana Lang for years, but producers decided that they were simply jealous of Lana’s beauty.

Homoeroticism: The traditional female-targeted soap promotes men as objects for female consumption, but the teen boy soap takes such objectification up a notch. The WB’s stable of gorgeous former male models offer a degree of youthful beauty and athleticism that is unsurpassed; combined with melodramatic adolescent yearning, the homoerotic content is hardly subtle. Indeed, these programs are “slash-friendly” texts in which producers often deliberately insert gay innuendo to reward viewers (reaching its apotheosis in the first season of Smallville). Most prominent among “slashed” relationships are Seth/Ryan on The OC, Jack and anyone on Jack and Bobby, Dr. Brown and Dr. Abbott on The OC, and, of course, Clark/Lex. Because female relationships are not as developed or given as much screen-time, girl-slash is much less possible, and the characters’ feminine passivity, lack of sexual desire (see below) and narrow emotional range also make erotic “sparkage” much less likely. In addition, the girls are rarely presented as the models of desirability the boys are: Amy’s best friend on Everwood, the starry-eyed and childlike Hannah, is mousy and wears glasses — the nadir of television sexuality and a definite slash-killer.

Gay Inclusiveness: These boy soapers frequently include “out” gay characters or references. Both The OC and Jack and Bobby have featured recurring gay characters and episodes devoted to “outing” and its consequences. Gay identity and gay relationships are taken very seriously: when a boy develops a crush on Jack in Jack and Bobby and tells him about it (“I love you”), the show makes clear that the boy has “outed” himself as gay. The boy, in fact, is so depressed and frustrated by the realization of his homosexuality that he commits suicide. The portrayal of gay identity assumes a fixed gay/straight binary where men don’t experiment, making the show safe for straight boys to watch without feeling anxious. Lesbianism, however, is not taken nearly as seriously; when girls kiss other girls on these soaps, they’re dabbling, experimenting, or “acting out.” Marissa on The OC kissed a girl because she’s rebelling against her mother (the same reason she had an affair with the gardener) — the fact that the kiss occurred during February sweeps also says much about the cynicism at work here. Long-term lesbianism doesn’t exist, and girls don’t struggle with their feelings for other girls the way boys do.

Sexual Desire and Practice: Refreshingly, teens do have sex on these shows, which generally has kept them out of the Parents Television Council’s good graces. However, the treatment reaffirms essentialist traditions, at least for girls: Boys want sex (and sometimes relationships), girls want relationships. These girls seem to have almost no sexual desire for anyone; they view sex as simply a stepping stone in cementing a relationship. And once they have sex, like Amy and Ephram do on Everwood, they don’t seem to need to ever do it again. When women do feel sexual desire, they’re pathologized (unless, of course, they’re married). Inevitably, these desiring unmarried women are past a certain age and, as we know, they’re “desperate,” leading them to make unhealthy sexual choices that lead to personal and professional chaos. Indeed, desire often directly undermines their professional well being: high school teacher Monica Young sleeps with her student on Life As We Know It; Grace McCallister has an affair with her graduate student. Former political radical Rebecca (Kim Delaney) threatens Sandy and Kirsten’s perfect marriage on The OC because apparently, in her 20 years of being “on the run”, she hasn’t had one relationship and is, therefore, desperate.

Reproduction: While the characters do have sex, it inevitably causes more trouble than it seems to be worth. Even though condoms are faithfully used, a pregnancy almost always occurs (although surprisingly, no one ever seems to get an STD). While the dramatic value of an accidental pregnancy is a soap opera standard, the frequency with which pregnancy seems to occur on these programs suggests that the Bush Administration may be right and condoms shouldn’t be trusted. The message seems to be either don’t have sex or don’t have sex with girls (given these boys, the latter seems a much more likely outcome). Pregnancy is viewed here through the eyes of the male heroes, and it clearly has the potential to ruin their entire lives: The OC‘s Ryan moves back to Chino to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Everwood‘s Ephram (spoiler ahead!) misses his Julliard audition once he learns he fathered a child. The women’s reactions to pregnancy are marginalized, since most are supporting characters who leave the show after their wombs have served their dramatic purpose. Abortion is bravely presented by producers as an option, but it is portrayed very negatively, usually in a “closed” episode where it can be dealt with quickly, the offending girl banished, and the ensuing male trauma resolved. Pregnancy, after all, is a man’s crisis.

The scenarios I sketched above are not unusual; indeed, the whole basis for the development of slash fiction writing by women stemmed, in large part, from the lack of strong female characters and relationships on television. It is this very familiarity which makes the boy soap seem to me like a step back (or perhaps “sideways”?), even when producer intentions towards women are clearly honorable.

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