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Kayla Upadhyaya: The glass ceiling of TV's golden age

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published October 7, 2013

“Soap” has turned into a dirty word. When it comes to television, the history of soap operas began with daily serialized programs like “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and “All My Children.” Daytime soaps — oft-derided for their over-the-top plotlines, ridiculous twists and schmaltzy romance — belong to a fading breed of television. But the soap opera genre is far from dead. Instead, it has evolved, strands of soapy DNA seeping into primetime programming on both cable and network TV.

But because of the genre’s roots, when I call a show “soapy,” it’s often taken to mean “ridiculous,” “indulgent” and “sensational.” These generalizations — while possessing some truth — are often exaggerated, but what’s more problematic is how people regard primetime soaps as “women’s shows.”

Soap is a gendered genre. Again, there’s historical context to that assumption. Daytime soaps were initially marketed to women (who were presumed to be at home during airtime), examined the private and public lives of women and featured female-dominant casts. But that’s exactly why the undervalued genre plays such an important role in TV history: It was one of the first television movements that was for and by women.

In 1930, Irna Phillips created the radio program “Painted Dreams,” which critics regard as the first soap ever. From there, she went on to develop “Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns,” and was, at the time, one of the only women in television with the same amount of creative power and financial success as her male contemporaries. On soap operas, female characters flourished and played essential roles in the action. That’s not to say that these early manifestations of the genre weren’t also rife with problematic gender politics — but in the early days of television, soap operas were the only programming where you could find female characters who weren’t just defined in terms of the men around them.

Just as films labeled as romcoms become marginalized under the sexist label of “chick flicks,” primetime dramas labeled as “soaps” become “women’s shows.” And, unfortunately, once it’s limited to that label, the show loses its credibility.

Just look at “Scandal.” The Shonda Rhimes-helmed ABC series is one of — if not the — most intelligent series on network TV. With its emotional intensity and complex, always-twisting plot, “Scandal” embraces its identity as a full-out soap. Sure, its storylines are often implausible and sometimes straight-up unbelievable, but since when is plausibility essential to great television? While “Scandal” often isn’t taken seriously for its more outlandish moments, other shows like “Breaking Bad” are given free pass after free pass. We let “Breaking Bad” get away with improbable feats, because the things that truly matter — emotions, characters — are believable.

The same is true for “Scandal,” which may get wacky with its plot points, but is bitingly real when it comes to its characters’ emotions and the complex issues that inform the story: power, race, sex, morality. And yet, people pigeonhole “Scandal” into the category of “guilty pleasure” TV, while more male-centric series that stay clean of the gendered “soap” label are held up as beacons of today’s golden age of television. Other female-centric programs — “The Good Wife,” “Revenge,” “Nashville,” “Damages” and “Orange Is the New Black” — are heavily influenced by soapy devices, like complex storylines driven by many characters and romantic arcs.