The Code of Sudsville
March 20, 1972
Feminism may come and go, but vast and devoted bands of TV viewers believe that woman's role has not changed in 35 years—or 3,500 years. These are the 35 to 40 million people—mostly women, and especially housewives—who watch the soap operas each week. To them, woman's lot is as deliciously full of predicament, villainy and suffering as when "Our Gal Sunday" and "Helen Trent" endured a crisis a day on the radio a generation ago.
"The main thing is trouble," says Ruth Warwick, who plays Phoebe Tyler on ALL MY CHILDREN. "Right here in River City. They say you get happy roles on a soap opera—forget it. If you're really a happy character, you're going to be fired or killed or something's going to happen." Escapism? Hardly. Unless, of course, escapism takes in such topics as murder, rape, insanity, adultery and terminal illness, which are the soaps' daily fare (among the remaining unmentionables are incest and homosexuality).
Baby Trouble. Illegitimacy is more of a problem on daytime TV than it remains in real life. Sometimes it seems as it no one is born in wedlock; even then the father is often in question. "I love you, Howard, but I'm carrying Brian's baby," one woman said on a recent installment of
NBC's BRIGHT PROMISE, which next month will be replaced by yet another version of PEYTON PLACE.
Some of the shows, which are, all in all, the networks' biggest profit makers, have been slipping in the ratings recently—especially the long-running serials on CBS—and the producers have tried to add spice to the old recipe. Sex is more explicit, and husbands and wives can now be shown in bed together—with naked shoulders, no less. An observer of CBS charges that the number of rapes on the network's soaps betrays an effort "to increase the melodrama, which means using either the penis or the switchblade." Even the good people are now seen drinking. There are also black lawyers and doctors wandering around Sudsville. Although some of the shows are trying to develop a social conscience and thereby attract younger viewers, a real discussion of racial problems has yet to be added to the staple woes.
"We still have the strong leading woman whom viewers like to identify with," says Doris Quinlan, producer of ABC's ONE LIFE TO LIVE. "But we are writing men with more guts than we used to. Helen Trent had 14 fiances, and none of them were worthy of her."
It's about time, because the soaps suggest that the main concern of any smart woman is now, as it was for Helen Trent 35 years ago to find a male chauvinist worthy of her and bear his children, the more the better. A woman is allowed to work, but a career is clearly an unsatisfactory alternative to marriage, unhappy or not. An aggressive woman district attorney, beset by a number of personal conflicts, cracked under the strain of a cross-examination she was conducting on a recent episode of CBS's THE SECRET STORM. "What's she going to be like after this?" her son asked his girl friend at the local health-food restaurant. "Her memory ." As any veteran viewer could have told him, she should have known better than to take a man's job in the first place.
Sudsville—usually a small, vaguely Midwestern town—is a highly structured social community and a highly ordered moral universe. Evil is eventually punished there, even if it takes years, and good finally emerges triumphant after a prolonged purgatory. "If a man has an affair," says Nick Nicholson, producer of THE EDGE OF NIGHT on CBS, "he has to have a good reason for it. Then he should feel guilty and suffer so that we can salvage him. Finally, he has to do something noble; then the audience will feel better about him. The bonds of marriage on our show are still sacred. A man can get a divorce, but not because he's having an affair—unless, of course, he's a villain."
Some soap writers—many of them women—proudly trace their craft back to the 19th century serials of writers like Charles Dickens. The analogy, though flattering to the soaps, is apt enough. The trials of Amy and Sandy or Nick and Martha are just as important to many TV viewers as the sorrows of Little Nell were to readers a century ago—and just as gratifyingly hopeless. Says Kitty Barsky, a writer on both ONE LIFE TO LIVE and ALL MY CHILDREN: "This is the big payoff—to end up with everyone watching in tears at the end."