Don’t Drop the Soap Opera: Decoding Queer Visibility on As the World Turns
Dana C. Gravesen / New York University
There has been quite a bit of research into how the visibility of queer relationships has increased—via both positive and negative representation—in primetime network programming such as the American situation comedy or reality television, (( See Becker, Straight Panic!; Stearns, Making Meaning out of Difference; Joyrich, Epistemology of the Console; and McCarthy, Must See Queer TV. )) but little serious attention has focused on the role of queer relationships in the dramatic daytime serial, or soap opera (though scholarly attention to the genre as a whole is certainly not lacking). Most likely, this dearth of notoriety stems not from disinterest, but from the more practical absence of sexually active queer characters in daytime serial programming. However, in the fall of 2007, As the World Turns (ATWT; CBS, 1956-) same-sex teen couple Luke Snyder and Noah Mayer made waves with regard to queer daytime visibility. On August 17, 2007, (Episode # 13083) they kissed; just over a month later on September 26, 2007, (Episode # 13109) they kissed again. With these two kisses, “Nuke” (as they’re known on ATWT fan boards and forums) provided the first onscreen make-out time between two men on an American network soap.
Then, just as suddenly as they started, the kisses stopped. Amidst a swirl of conservative rhetoric and complaints, divisive viewer response, and continuous episodes in which Nuke almost shared another lip-lock, fans of the couple were forced to wait over 200 days to see them participate in another onscreen open-mouth embrace. Mainstream and new media speculation as to why ATWT producers Procter & Gamble, as well as the show’s writers, enacted the months-long hiatus are various (and primarily speculative): was the pause a long-running pander to Right-wing groups such as the American Family Association (AFA), the organization that called for a member boycott of all Procter & Gamble products if ATWT featured another explicit romantic Nuke display; (( The AFA threat became reality a few days after the April 23, 2008 onscreen kiss between Luke & Noah when it issued an ‘Action Alert’ based on what it found to be ‘repulsive content’ on ATWT. )) were viewer complaints that the “historically stodgy” serial suddenly fell in line with the “homosexual agenda” too much for the network’s public relations department to handle (Bellafante (( Bellafante, Ginia. ‘As a Lovers’ Kiss Turns a World Around.’ The New York Times 15 May 2008 Late ed.: E1.)) ) or was network homophobia – purportedly exemplified by the gag order (( Logan, Michael. Nuke-lear Fallout. TV Guide. 7 April 2008: 114. )) placed on executive producer Chris Goutman by Procter & Gamble – to blame? More realistically, the Nuke homo-interruptus was fueled by – and took advantage of – the most obvious of television’s influences: demographics. The more precarious question, though, is why such demographics – particularly as they relate to daytime serial dramas – are important to the politics of queer visibility in mass culture.
As reported in the New York Times, “soaps have been shedding audiences for years […]; over the past seven months [as of May 15, 2008] all but one daytime soap has lost viewers between 18 and 34. That one is […] As the World Turns” (Bellafante). Many sources attribute ATWT’s exclusive ratings gain to the popularity of the Nuke coupling; the video capture of their August 17, 2007 smooch garnished over a million views on YouTube and became one of the site’s most viewed video uploads of the year (Bellafante)—Luke and Noah have now shared a total of seven onscreen kisses. In tandem, “As the World Turns [gained viewers], specifically younger viewers, some of whom turned to the show […] after following the romance of […] Luke and Noah via [the] YouTube clips posted by fans—new media reviving fossil media” (Bellafante). The Times article continues by asserting that,
As the World Turns hasn’t done anything revolutionary with its gay kiss—gay characters on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters on Sunday nights display their affection for each other constantly [and Brothers & Sisters featured the first primetime same-sex wedding] (( ‘Prior Commitments.’ Brothers & Sisters. ABC. WABC, New York City. 11 May 2008. )) —it has merely discovered the currency of the culture wars” (Bellafante).
It is with this last point that I beg to disagree. While primetime queer visibility is important (whether comedic or dramatic) for potential social mobility, an explicit queer presence in serial daytime drama represents the penetration of, arguably, one of the most conservative spectator demographics represented in contemporary television discourse; as such, it warrants further investigation beyond mainstream print (and new media) reports of controversy or, conversely, acclaim.
The target market for daytime television is—and has been since the advent of the medium—the viewer in control of the domestic dollar (Katzman) (( See Hendy, ‘The Origins of the Soap Opera’ for a brief but thorough history of the origin of the daytime television serial. )) Daytime serial dramas are nicknamed ‘soaps’ because they are produced and owned by corporations that make consumer goods; Procter & Gamble, for instance, markets body soaps, cleansers, detergents, maxi pads, mouth wash, over-the-counter medicines, paper towels, razors, shampoos, toilet paper, and tooth paste. The implication of such a target market is a viewer with (some) disposable income, control over how such income is spent, and, because of their ability to stay at home during the daytime viewing hours, a (presumed) limited work life or education. More importantly, it has been argued that the “daytime serial is potentially a major force in the transmission of values and life styles in this country” (Katzman). (( Katzman, Natan. ‘Television Soap Operas: What’s Been Going On Anyway?’ The Public Opinion Quarterly. 36.2 (1972): 200-12. ))
Additionally, the primary reception markets for soaps have been regionally located in the Midwestern and Southern states of the United States (Katzman)—the South being particularly soap-savvy. (Minorities and women still make up the majority of soap viewers according to Weinreich “Tune in Tomorrow” .) The voting history of these particular regions over the past quarter century, at least (save a few anomalous instances), illustrates heavy Right-leaning patterns. As primetime audiences are typically more diverse, covering a broad spectrum of individuals from both the most progressive and conservative enclaves of the United States, it seems less a stretch to understand the growing proliferation of queers on sitcoms and reality programs—particularly considering the sitcom category’s legacy of representing “controversial” social issues that push the envelope of “acceptability.” Similarly, other daytime television genres, such as talk shows, are notorious for their socially-conscious or button-pushing content: the Oprah show, for instance, is extraordinarily popular in this regard, and now Ellen DeGeneres—an “out” lesbian—possesses a large portion of the daytime talk audience.
The daytime soap, however, has been behind the curve in its representation of queer people’s lives. Though often engaged with other topical social issues (abortion, divorce, adultery, et cetera), soaps have a longstanding tradition of hetero-normative content: large families, marriages, pregnancies, and other traditional domestic dynamics. If the daytime soap transmits not only programming content and advertising to its viewers—but values as well—then it is crucial that the conservative markets associated with soap viewership receive various representations of non-normative behavior —and often; one prominent, explicit gay male couple on one soap opera is not enough. Daytime reception is not primetime reception, and representations of daytime queer characters cannot receive the same critical analysis as representations of primetime queer characters with regard to mass culture demographic saturation.
Please feel free to comment.