Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's Just a Soap Opera

My history with soaps began back in the days when they were a half hour in black and white. There were only three channels on my TV and there was a pretty good chance that whatever you were watching was the same thing almost everybody else was watching. Some TV shows became a part of our collective consciousness, like watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show.

My earliest memory of watching soap operas was during my preschool years when my mother turned on As the World Turns during lunch every day. We were watching that day in November when Nancy Hughes was interrupted by Walter Cronkite telling us that the president has been shot in Dallas. I lived in Dallas. I could climb up on the swingset in my backyard and see the skyscrapers downtown where it had just happened. I watched my mother cry and wonder why anyone would want to do that to that nice man I’d seen on TV. For the next three days the only thing that we saw on TV - all three channels – was news of the assassination.

It was something we faced together as we all watched it unfold.

Years later I only watched soaps during the summer or those few special days I’d stay home from school with a cold or stomach ache. And it was like coming home again. Lisa was still there, Nancy was still serving tea or washing dishes, and there was Dr. Bob, at the hospital. All was right with the world. Then one summer I started watching All My Children with my sister (who I suspect had a crush on Phil Brent). After that I tuned in to see that Erica was still getting herself in trouble and Grandma Kate was still baking cookies and Dr. Joe was still running Pine Valley Hospital. Now and then I’d take a peek at the Young and the Restless or Days of Our Lives or the Doctors for a few weeks but the one I stuck with was All My Children. One Life to Live came later.

Fast forward a decade or two. I’d been stuck at home with a bad sinus infection for weeks, feeling very isolated from the rest of the world. I got on the internet and looked up some information about my soap, the current storylines, and my two favorite actors. I found a message board for Bianca & Maggie, the characters played by Eden Riegel and Elizabeth Hendrickson. I discovered that many of the members of this online community were lesbians, hoping that the show would make the two best friends a couple. As the wife of a Baptist minister I was an odd fit for a group like that. I was sure many of these women had been hurt and judged by church people before and I wasn’t sure how I would be received. What I found was a wonderfully diverse and accepting group and many have become great friends of mine in “real life” as I’ve attended special events with them and some have stopped by my town for visits when on vacation. We’ve been there for each other during the ups and downs of our favorite storylines and through very real job losses and tragedies. When my mother died these friends helped me cope, popping up online to ask me how I was doing or to give me a laugh or a virtual hug when I needed it most.

When some of my BAM friends told me that I should be watching Guiding Light, I listened and I’m glad I did. They told me about an old fashioned love story, the slow-building kind soaps had forgotten how to tell. They told me the acting was wonderfully subtle, not over-the-top the way too many soaps had become. And they told me one of the actresses involved was Crystal Chappell who had been a favorite of mine when she played Maggie Carpenter on One Life To Live.

So I watched Guiding Light one day back in February. Did I mention the romance that was slowly building involved two women? That didn’t matter to me. Love is love and these two were magic together on screen. The style of the show was very different from other soaps I’d watched. They used handheld cameras and small sets, making me feel like I was right in the room with the characters. The actors were so compelling I forgot they were acting and I wanted to tune in tomorrow to see what happened to them next.
And isn’t that what a soap opera is supposed to do?

I joined the Big Purple Dreams message board for "Otalia" and plunged headlong into another online community along with many of my BAM friends and few thousand others from all over the world. I even wrote postcards and letters and made t-shirts and buttons to try to save Guiding Light from cancellation or find it a new home on another network. I thought it ironic when I found out that my grandmother, also the wife of a Baptist minister, used to listen to Guiding Light on the radio.

Today no actors will be going to work at Guiding Light because the last scenes were taped yesterday. Some of them have been on Twitter staying in touch with the fans, letting us share in their experiences as this American institution comes to a close. It has been a difficult, emotional journey for all who are associated with the show, many of whom have given it their all for decades. I am grateful to them, more than I can say, for opening their hearts to us and letting us share in that journey with them.

There are those who say the soap genre is dying and they may be right. The world is changing and there may not be a place for soap operas anymore. All My Children is headed for LA but when I tune in next year, will Erica still be there? Will anybody?

So many things have changed during the 45+ years that I’ve been watching soap operas. But as I’ve watched the many ups and downs of my favorite characters I see that some things never change.

We can still learn from our mistakes and try to do better.

We can forgive and find healing when hearts are broken. And we must learn to do this because…

We still need each other…

…to laugh together
…to cry together
…to hope together
…to make a better future for all our children.

Maybe it’s not just a soap opera after all.


  1. Donna -

    Although I have not been watching soaps nearly as long as you or other viewers I am glad that I happened upon GL and Otalia and BPD. For me, the biggest reward of all of this was to find a community to belong to, a home, if you will, full of welcoming and loving people. Simply, finding Guiding Light changed my life.


  2. That was beautiful and heartfelt, Donna. You said it perfectly. Jac

  3. Thanks for such a beautiful article!

  4. Donna - great blog and yes we will continue to need each other. Wonderful thought and these message boards have been a blessing for me, and with their diversity they help to bring the world into my home and heart. Thanks for the gift you give with your wisdom and talent!

    Sharon (idgit20)

  5. Donna,

    This is wonderful sentiment. Just as so many things in our lives, it's difficult to say "just". Nothing is ever that black and white.

    I had to smile as you reflected upon your history with soaps...and quite frankly, the soap's history with you. It's nice to look back and remember the days of old, when the prima daytime divas had all their original parts.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. The first soap I remember watching was AMC when Erica was having a miscarriage during the watergate hearings. I read a description of the Otalia storyline in a soap mag, gave it a try and was hooked. I am not a lesbian but this s/l appealed because of the actresses/actors and the stregnth of the writing. It is a story with universal appeal. It was about two women who were always there for each other and accepted each other unconditionally. Who doesn't want to be loved for who they are? I wish soap executives understood the importance of that theme to their viewers, both lesbian and straight.
    Thank you for your blog.

  7. Muchas Gracias for sharing your sensitive and beautiful blog. GL/OTALIA adios-we will miss this historic and progressive love story.


  8. Donna,
    I've been watching tv for a long time too, since it was black and white and that's as fine a heartfelt overview from a personal as well as historical perspective as I've read. Both of those 'same sex' love stories were/are so GENUINE which is why even the Baptist Minister's wife can empathize with the Romance and give such a humanistic (and, heck, there is a place in religion for humanism, goshdarnit) point of view. BAM and Otalia are/were of not only historic importance in the roles presented as landmark storylines on two of the dwindling number of soaps, but as something that touched a wider audience as their portrayers hoped they would. Thank you for providing evidence of that!


  9. Two women falling love? Love is love, but if same sexes were supposed to be together then they'd be able to have children.

  10. If the ability to have a child is the only thing that deems a correct coupling than you are sidelining all infertile couples or those after child-bearing years.

  11. I think your comments Donna are wonderful, heartfelt and sincere. Thank you for sharing your opinion.
    The last comment about if it was ok for same sex couples then they would be able to have children. Same sex couples can have kids and i don't feel i have to go in to the birds and bees about that. Well goes to show your ignorance, what would that mean to all the so called 'normal' couples that can't have kids for whatever reason. When you Love someone it can overcome all.

  12. That's a pretty sad statement to make. What about women who cannot carry a child to term? Men who cannot father a child? Are they not allowed to fall in love and be with someone, since they can't have children? It's this sort of narrow-minded talk that proves we, as a people, have not learned a thing. The only thing you got right is that Love is love.

    Beautiful piece, Donna. I grew up with soaps and have always been a loyal viewer and fan and a hopeless romantic throughout. It was a soap and the friends I made through the pairing of BAM that helped me get through my cancer treatment. Soaps have changed and the loss of Guiding Light will change them again. I'll miss it. But I've got the friends I've made because of shows like it and All My Children and for that I will always be grateful.

  13. Donna, thanks for sending me this link! I know Megan McTavish through the Bernese Mountain Dog club and remember eating lunch with her at a picnic when the Bianca's baby story was at fever pitch. There are so many ways these stories cross our lives and our societal progress.

  14. Donna - I'm so happy to have your blog in my reader. I grew up watching soaps, too, with my mother and baby sitter. My babysitter is now almost 90 years old and whenever I see her we still talk Young and the Restless.

    As a teenager, I didn't care much for recreational reading. Out of desperation, my father bought me a subscription to Soap Opera Digest...ha! I had it all through high school.