Traditional soap opera dialogue is not unlike the pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein’s stylised magnification of the commonplace in his satirical paintings of the 1960’s. Coupled with Lichtenstein’s oft-considered triteness of relationships, which is duplicated in soap operas, both have their critics that regard them high art or inferior pop art. Soap operas provide mass entertainment for a countless number of people of varying gender, age, ethnicity and social position.
These electronic melodramas are observed in millions of homes around the globe each day, where it is not uncommon for fans to partake in several consecutive televised soap operas a day. Dedicated spectators watching these programs have, in some cases, created a blur between fantasy and reality and consequently written letters to warn actors about impending danger. Social theorists have raised concern over these habitual and unusually involved viewing practices, proclaiming that the serial may be a vehicle for a concealed capitalist ideology that claims to be light entertainment.
Conversely, what some critics see as the poorest display of the electronic media soap operas are also revered, by some, as the vanguard of it. Theorists of the Frankfurt School, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, wrote extensively in their book (The German Ideology), on the subject concerning the media and its’ hidden hegemonic ideologies. Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, the study of how social dominance of one social group is held over another, led Marx and Engels materialist theories into the sphere of ideology dispensing institutions (cited in Lull; 1995; p. ).
Marx described ideologies as “the transmission of systems of signification across class lines” by communication (cited in Bennett; 1982; p. 48). This ongoing transmission of ideas, values and predisposition’s through the manipulation of public information and imagery constructs an ideology that some theorists claim sustains the material and cultural interests of its creators. A dominant ideology is a system of ideas that asserts, reinforces and advances the interests of a society’s elite socioeconomic group.
The mass media is an ideal way for the elite to reach the inferior classes on a global scale and television is the perfect medium. In the form of light entertainment programs, commercials, news, current affairs and soap operas, television has the ability to expose, dramatise, and popularise certain viewpoints to the public. Many theorists claim that the ideological perspectives that are projected through the electronic media cannot be responded to only consumed. Ward (1995; p. 24) developed the hypodermic needle’ theory where the media and its ideologies are “pumped directly into the veins” of the viewer.
Developed by Harold Laxwell, with a distinct American liberal approach to the media around the 1930’s, hypodermic needle theory assumes the media consumers to be uniform in their reactions to the programs viewed. A direct cause and effect relationship is implied which proposes that the public ingests the media text and responds predictably. Nothing intervenes between the media text and the consumer. With the first mass signs of propaganda and government brainwashing evident, during a time of world conflict, it is clear how this theory was developed.
Attributed to Gerbner and Gross (cited in Lane; 1996; p. ), cultivation thesis, comparable to hypodermic needle theory, limits the audiences capacity to oppose ideologies through media texts. The publics’ perception of crime will be shaped, according to their thesis, by how it is reported in the media. The media cultivates how they want their viewers to see the world. This theory fails to recognise the audiences’ capability of forming opinions based on empirical evidence, not just what the media wishes them to see. With the formulation of new theories came greater autonomy for the viewer.
McComb and Shaw’s agenda-setting theory (cited in Lane; 1996; p. ) allowed the public the ability to resist any underlying ideologies but the institutions that dispense the capitalist tenets still had the power to set the agenda for which the consumers then proceed to discuss. Entman’s information-processing theory (cited in Lane; 1996; p. 76) enabled the audience to block out ideals that may be unsympathetic to their beliefs and take in those that reinforce them. However, this indicates that the socio-political elite could continue to reinforce the capitalist ideology if the audience accepted their class systems as standard.
With power resting in the hands of societies socio-political elite the pieces and fragments of information propelled through the media meld into a dominant ideology supporting capitalist ideals. Media texts supporting capitalist ideologies may be images promoting consumerism or materialist concepts and the depiction of the proletariat and capitalist classes as normal. Marx and Engels saw this as not beneficial or representative of the working class and thus impeding on the formation of a revolutionary consciousness amongst its members.
Human consciousness is conditioned in a dialectical interplay between subject and object, in which man actively shapes the world he lives in as it shapes him. The two opposing forces in this dialectical interplay are the upper class, attempting to retain power over an ascending, lower class. Theorists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels understood this class struggle to be preliminary to the relationship between information and social power on a large scale. The socio-economic elite maintains their dominance through ideologies that can be represented and communicated on a large scale, through soap operas for example.
Rather than through direct manipulation of the soap opera’s dialogue, with actors turning into the capitalist elite’s puppets, the broadcaster sends and viewer receives this embedded dominant ideology by accepting their class-based society as typical. Marx and Engels observed the mass media and other ideology dispensing institutions all perpetuating the status quo as standard. In diverse methods the church, schools, religious groups, the military and businesses all administer the dominant ideology to the public.
With the proletariat receiving similar misinformation through the mass media and other institutions, societies elite are on their way to creating a homogenous world culture. Disputing Marx and Engels premise, that the mass media is the conveyer of a dominant ideology, is the theory that soap operas are the furthest advance of pop-culture and even considered as being radical television. Television soap operas earn praise from social theorists for their continuity. Unlike motion pictures and television serials, soap operas have no discernible end to them.
A serial tells a complete story but spreads it out over a number of episodes” (Geraghty; 1991; p. 11) unlike a soap opera that spreads its storyline over years and in some cases decades, until it is cancelled by the industry executives. The British soap opera Crossroads ran for 24 years before ending in 1988. A notable difference between soap opera and a traditional male film narrative is the lack of fast-talking, maximum action in favour of extended (often-irrelevant) dialogue and an extraordinary amount of accidents, weddings and deaths.
This is all made possible with the “implied promise that they will last forever” (Modleski; 1982; p. 105). The soap opera is a derivative of the traditional radio serial, which like its television cousin is not designed to end. Roland Barthes described this inability to end as “the discourses instinct for preservation” (cited in Modleski; 1982; p. 90). An example of this desire to be without a conclusion was confirmed when a radio serial was cancelled but needed to secure an ending before its cancellation (Modleski; 1982; p. ).
Due to the abundance of parallel storylines and lack of time to end all of them, only one could be completed. Although the viewers’ desire answers about their favourite soap operas’ future there is no comprehensive ending that could wrap up all storylines. The television soap operas generate it fans with the use of “familiarity and predictability” (Geraghty; 1991; p. 15). The viewers become attached and “understand” the characters after many episodes because of the past screen events they have shared.
This familiarity and understanding is disrupted by a shift in the storyline rendering their prior knowledge of them void. This change is rousing for the fan. When there is no end in sight and the perpetual storyline becomes disconcerting this disruption creates added interest. It is this never ending feature of soap operas that some universities and social theorists have welcomed soap operas back after years of disapproval. The theorists’ interest lies with how the audience interprets the endless storyline.
Viewers have the “freedom to decode and the freedom to read oppositionally” (Woollacott; 1982; p. 102). The producers can choose what they put into the programs but they cannot dictate how it is interpreted. As with all communication soap operas do not always fulfil the message sender’s objectives of compliance when transmitting a dominant ideology. The gap between episodes is where the producer has absolutely no control over the translation of his work. It is here that viewers turn into an active audience and engage in post-episode critique with friends, co-workers and family.
Viewers then tune in the next day to receive answers to their questions, which then present them with further complications of the plot. Discussing the future of characters and storylines enables the viewers to construct alternate solutions or endings to certain situations. “The serial form and multiple plot structure of soap operas lends itself to greater potential for multiple and aberrant readings” (Geraghty; 1991; p. 18). It is the openness of the text that fosters the creation of storyline variations.
The many classes, ethnicity’s and genders that soap operas captivate provide a variety of storyline transformations and tend to align the future plot with their own ideological position. The dominant ideologies expressed in soap operas are the stereotypes associated with the viewers particular classes, genders and ethnicities whilst promoting the dominant white, patriarchal, capitalist ideals. An opposition to this ideology is what a radical viewer may propose as their alternate ending. Many viewers use these endings to resist exploitation or oppression they may encounter (Bell; 1996; pg. ).
It is the formation of subversive opposition to the creators intended message, which may counter the effects of a dominant ideology and contribute to the production of a revolutionary awareness amongst the oppressed social groups and classes. Simultaneously, the white upper class males are procuring reinforcement that their existence is the norm or something to be sought after, by creating their own plot outcomes. The citizen, regardless of class, is tolerant as long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned (Adorno & Horkheimer; 1977; p. 374).
It is with the upper class white male response that reflects closely the producers message because they, commonly, share the same cultural codes. Ward found that gender and age created the most alternative of textual readings (cited in Lane; 1996; p. 81). The audience creates millions of different of interpretations because the soap opera extends across the boundaries of class, race, culture, politics, education and gender. Television is thus regarded as polysemic (Fiske in Bell; 1996; p. 96). Polysemy is a concept linked to semiotics, which asserts that signs (images) have many possible meanings and interpretations.
Viewers’ numerous alterations of the messages transmitted, by the media, challenges Marxist class-ruling ideology thesis. Chamberlain states that viewers of soap operas are not merely “cultural dupes who swallow hook, line and sinker whatever is served up to them, they confer their own meaning upon the text” (cited in Bell; 1996; p. 95). Ward stresses that a dominant ideology cannot be consummated, according to reception theory, because media messages have no fixed meanings (cited in Lane; 1996; p. 79). Dominant ideologies are in perpetual conflict with polysemic text interpretations.
Polysemic texts like soap operas contain many meanings, some subversive others supportive, whilst a dominant ideology embedded in a media text, is competing for the audiences sole attention. Polysemic, or open ended, texts give people pleasure in being able to resist. This pleasure in being able to resist implies, however, that viewers are aware of an apparent ideology transmitted into their homes by the media. “Fish don’t problematise the water in which they swim, audience members don’t always analyse how their everyday environmentsshape thinking” (Lull; 1995; p. 22).
Cultural studies theorist John Fiske (1989) argues that popular television can never have a direct radical or subversive effect. Fiske (1989) maintains that no matter how much a social group subverts a text it is not going to instill in them a revolutionary spirit. It is this radicalism that would raise them from their oppression or exploitation. Fiske (1989) does not see any direct link between a reaction to entertainment and a creation of an organised opposition to particular ideologies. The effects are retained internally and not transmitted sub-culturally (Fiske; 1989).
However, he does cite that popular culture is not formed as a reaction to the dominating ideological and cultural forces but as a semiotic resistance rather than a socio-political resistance. Soap operas lend the viewers an opportunity to oppose the preferred ways of thinking handed down to them by the cultural elite. It will never eventuate into a march on parliament, but it will enable the viewer to oppose smaller institutions. An institution to be overcome on a smaller scale is the sub-ordination of women in the household, which can be achieved by a subversive reaction to the female stereotype commonly portrayed in the media.
Counter hegemonic interpretations reveal that the public has an “independence of thought, creativity, determination, and resistance that hegemony cannot destroy” (Lull; 1995; p. 40). The idea that the public has the strength to resist is quite distinct from earlier theories that claimed the audiences were unable to oppose the socio-economic elite’s transmitted ideologies. Fiskes’ theory (1989) supports the idea of audience resistance by stating that people are free to decode televised programs in any way imaginable.
This suggests that no investigation is needed into the relationship between soap opera texts and the state and class systems. The electronic media, soap operas in particular, do help transmit and maintain ideological tendencies, but the audience has the power to interpret the loaded media texts in any way they desire. They can support a message sender’s ideology or they can subvert them to suit their own ideologies. This is not to say that dominant ideologies don’t exist and aren’t capable of an influence over the public; they are.
Dominant ideologies frame perceptions and inspire interpretations that can serve the general interests of dominant social institutions. To satisfy the socio-economic elite, soap opera viewers need to attend to the messages sent as an affirmation that their current social standing is the norm. It is within the audiences’ capacity to engage dominant ideologies in soap operas to invent, manage and change their present situations. It is the viewers’ decision to whether they subvert the soap operas embedded ideologies, sustaining their radical nature, or use it to manage or maintain their current social situation.