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. Like “Scandal,” these series are similarly marginalized and undervalued by viewers due to the gendered assumptions about their genre.

“Orange Is the New Black” is one of the most female-centric television shows on TV right now, and while it has received huge critical acclaim, it’s still trivialized and referred to as a lesser, diluted version of its more male-centric, prison-set predecessor “Oz.” “More ‘Gossip Girl’ Than ‘Oz’, ” boasted the New York Times review of “Orange,” in what’s an offensive — not to mention entirely inaccurate and misleading — analysis of the series. Other critics similarly gloss over the show’s more violent and threatening aspects, focusing instead on the witty, “Weeds”-y humor that flows throughout the darkness. “Orange” features an almost entirely female cast and crew, but that in no way means it’s a show “for women.” The character-driven series captures human emotions and experiences that speak to a whole range of demographics, and if you think it offers a fluffy take on prison life, you aren’t watching very closely.

The soap genre also informs and influences a whole slew of male-centric dramas like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards.” Yet, even at their soapiest, these four series are rarely described as such. “House of Cards,” in particular, with its melodramatic, borderline theatrical characters, is an overtly soapy show, but critics often refer to it with the more male-centric term “noir.” “Cards” pushes the line of believability with its far-fetched storylines and, unlike “Scandal,” the Netflix series fails to construct convincing characters and lacks entirely in emotion.

But it still got an Emmy nomination, because male-centric melodrama is simply taken more seriously than female-centric melodrama. In fact, in the past 15 years, the eight series that have won Emmys for Best Drama — “The Practice,” “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos,” “Lost,” “24,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” — have all been male-centric shows. They were all created and run by male showrunners, and with the exception of “Homeland,” all feature men as protagonists (despite Carrie’s prominent role in “Homeland,” I still think it plays out as a very male-centric series).

In his book “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever,” longtime TV critic Alan Sepinwall chronicles the 10 drama series that epitomize this golden age of television. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is arguably the only female-centric show that makes his list. He, as most critics do, gives credit almost entirely to “The Sopranos” and “Oz” for the rise of HBO, even though “Sex and the City” played a huge role in the cable network’s beginnings. In their analyses of the golden age, critics like Sepinwall unknowingly perpetuate the assumption that a show has to be “manly” in order to be consequential. The golden age of television has come to be associated with hyper-masculine programming bursting with violence and voyeurism. “Soapy” has turned into a coded way of saying a TV show is “for chicks,” and as a result, brilliant, female-centric shows (and shows created by female showrunners) are compartmentalized and regarded as somehow lesser forms of their golden-age brethren.

When a dead-behind-the-eyes show like “House of Cards” can manage to nudge out an emotional and visual knockout like “Scandal,” there’s something wrong. Part of why we don’t see more female-centric series break into the Best Drama category at the Emmys is a numbers game: There simply aren’t enough women-centric shows on television, and that has to do with the gender barriers that exist in the industry, making it more difficult for female showrunners to break in.

A series like “Orange is the New Black” — with its cast of over a dozen diverse female characters and women-filled writers room — feels revolutionary. There’s truly nothing else like it on television. Sepinwall’s revolution was led mostly by Dons, Walters, Vics and Seths. The revolution I’m still waiting to be televised will be one where shows like “Scandal” and “Orange” feel less like a divergence from the status quo and are treated as seriously as anything else on television.