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,2 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;3 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 (Bellafante4 ) or was network homophobia – purportedly exemplified by the gag order5 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] 6 —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)7 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).8
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.
1. Daytime “super-couple” Luke Snyder (Van Hansis) and Noah Mayer (Jake Silbermann) share their first open-mouth kiss on CBS’ As the World Turns.
2. Front Page Luke and Noah Kiss
Please feel free to comment.
- Jensen, The teen couple […] was named one of ‘Soaps’ Best Super-couples’ by TV Guide, and just this month landed on Entertainment Weekly’s list of ‘17 Great Soap Supercouples’. [↩]
- See Becker, Straight Panic!; Stearns, Making Meaning out of Difference; Joyrich, Epistemology of the Console; and McCarthy, Must See Queer TV. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Bellafante, Ginia. ‘As a Lovers’ Kiss Turns a World Around.’ The New York Times 15 May 2008 Late ed.: E1. [↩]
- Logan, Michael. Nuke-lear Fallout. TV Guide. 7 April 2008: 114. [↩]
- ‘Prior Commitments.’ Brothers & Sisters. ABC. WABC, New York City. 11 May 2008. [↩]
- See Hendy, ‘The Origins of the Soap Opera’ for a brief but thorough history of the origin of the daytime television serial. [↩]
- Katzman, Natan. ‘Television Soap Operas: What’s Been Going On Anyway?’ The Public Opinion Quarterly. 36.2 (1972): 200-12. [↩]
Thanks for the article Dana. I really appreciated the distinction between daytime and primetime television. While I am not a soap fan, I do spend a lot of time watching the Soap Opera Network. Just from the promos for the different soaps aired on the Soap Opera Network I have found a remarkable difference between the established daily shows and the spin-offs created by the network itself. While one would think that the primetime spin-offs of daytime soaps would be catering to the same audience, it doesn’t appear so. I would be interested to see the different relationships on the primetime/late night shows and how they differ from those geared towards the daytime crowd.
Thank you for your interest and comment, Tiff.
I think the primetime spin-offs of popular daytime soaps are very interesting for a variety of reasons. With regard to your comment, I would be curious how much something like separate network placement has to do with the content of daytime soaps in contrast to their primetime spin-offs (For instance, ABC airs General Hospital whereas SOAPnet airs General Hospital: Night Shift. Other factors in content variations between daytime and primetime soaps might include broadcast vs. cable, sponsorship availability, time-sensitive viewer expectation (which can also be linked to broadcast vs. cable expectation), and a variety of writing teams.
I wonder how different the actual viewing audience is with respect to the primetime vs. daytime soap operas. It would be interesting to find if the same people who watch the daytime soaps tune in to the primetime ones. Although they are both marketed as soap operas and the network as the Soap Opera Network, there are so many different factors, including the rest of the scheduling for the Soap Opera Network (Beverly Hills, 90210, The O.C. and One Tree Hill), that change the whole dynamic of the soap operas airing on the network.
Once again, thanks for the very interesting column and one can only hope that the other soap operas (daytime and primetime) will one day follow suit and provide their audiences with something more than heterosexual relationships.
Here’s what I want to know. Why is it that 14-year old Parker and 15-year old Liberty get to have sex before Luke and Noah? The Parker shirtless scenes were almost as laughable as they were disgusting — has this kid even gone through puberty?
Luke and Noah have been saving themselves for way longer than is believable for any couple… gay, straight, or otherwise. The way the producers and writers have made them squeaky clean and borderline nauseating is not fair representation, at least not in the soap world. The rest of Oakdale is running around having affairs, shooting people, and engaging in catfights… but the sacred gay couple is busy telling each other how special they are and creating charity organizations for children in need.
The real mark of acceptance would be to let Luke and Noah be just as fucked up as the rest of Oakdale.
Mikel: Luke and Noah are just as fucked up as the rest of Oakdale. They just aren’t getting laid.
General: The ratings for ATWT went down after they started downplaying Nuke. They also got rid of the two best actors on the show during that same time period. I suspect the ratings problems are a combination of both.
The Gay boys, Luke and Noah, just kissed!!
That is IT for me – a long time follower !
I am NOT supporting any product, CBS, OR ATWT again!
Or any other Gay programming from any other station.
ATWT has been going down the tubes for quite some time.
I predict ATWT to be the next soap to bite the dust in the very near future.
Today’s Gay Display of Affection was the last straw and I am happily watching FOX!!
GOODBYE ATWT, GOODBYE CBS!!
So long Proctor and Gamble
Time for the Gays to go back in the closet if they want acceptance.