I must make a confession. I am a soap opera junkie and a fandom pusher. There, I’ve said it and it feels good. CBS soaps are the ones I grew up with, sitting with my mother and grandmother in grand soap opera tradition. ABC soaps became an addiction later, when working as a bartender gave me my days free to watch mindless television. At various times in my life I’ve watched and been a fan of ATWT, AMC, OLTL, GH and GUIDING LIGHT.
I’ve shipped them all from Nuke (Noah and Luke on ATWT) to Kenlee (Kendall and Greenlle on AMC), but especially Bianca, of AMC the only out lesbian main character on daytime TV, and daughter of the infamous Erica Kane. I loved Bianca and Maggie, learned to like Bianca and Lena and looked forward to Bianca and Reese with no small amount of trepidation. Each time I came away from the experience more jaded than before, wondering if any soap would ever get it right.
So imagine my surprise (as Holly Near would say), while watching my favorite daytime character Olivia Spencer on GL. As she navigated her way through receiving the transplanted heart of the married man she’d pined for I was struck mute by the intensity of the scenes she shared with the man’s widow, Jessica Leccia’s Natalia.
Now I’m always up for a good soapy catfight but this was different. Just like Scooby-doo my ears pricked up. I blew the feeling off but kept watching, their emotional connection drawing me in hook, line and sinker. This was good stuff. Classic soap stuff.
They continued their snaky give and take as Natalia, who had made the decision to give Olivia her husband’s heart, shook Olivia up and demanded she live, demanded she not waste the most precious of gifts.
Their chemistry was blistering but still I had no reason to think any show, daytime or primetime, would ever have the courage to capitalize on such a thing.
My ears continued to prick up constantly, at their looks and body language, not to mention the small fact that the show had now positioned them firmly in each other’s orbits with nary a man in sight save for the bumbling Frank who Natalia clearly had no interest in dating. In the world of soap operas, consistently pairing to characters in a series of situations and scenes is traditionally code for a budding romance.
That’s when the rumours hit the blogs and print media. GL may be planning their own lesbian storyline, they said. A GL rep moved quickly to quash that, natch, saying “GL will not be presenting this as a gay storyline.” Many took that quote as gospel and forgot the rumour while GL just continued to tell their story and the two former foes moved slowly into a hesitant friendship, leaning only on each other during emotional times. But notice the semantics there, I’ll get back to that in a minute.
The buzz online, however, continued to grow. Was this the daring and different storyline that Crystal Chappell had re-signed for? Could GL be positioning them for a love story? Was it already happening right before our eyes?
Yes, I believe it was and is still today. Though I will admit to watching through my fingers sometimes waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In true soap fashion the last several months have been busy for Olivia and Natalia even besides the heart transplant. Olivia was there when Natalia’s son was arrested and sent to prison. Natalia cared for her as her body rejected the heart, holding her hand and begging her to live when she collapsed from a heart attack. Natalia lost her nest egg in a bad hedge fund investment and Olivia gave up her cherished job to get Natalia’s money back, asking for nothing in return. Finally in December, they moved in together, supposedly to share the mortgage and so Natalia could care for Olivia and her daughter. Meanwhile their intense connection grew.
Though they fought over religious icons and Christmas trees while moving in, the show featured them on both Christmas and New Years. (That’s another sign in soapland of the importance of a pairing.) Not in conflict but rather like any other burgeoning couple on the show, albeit sans romantic kisses. But there were thoughtful gifts and longing though unaware looks with Natalia giving Olivia keys to the house and asking her to stay despite their differences.
Through all of this little Emma, Olivia’s 8 year old daughter, has been an integral part of the story; showing through actions rather than words that two successful women could raise a healthy, happy, stable child together. A valuable lesson indeed.
Since the new year, the focus has begun to shift away from friendship and into uncharted waters. Uncharted not only for the characters but for GLBT people on television. Why uncharted? Because to my knowledge no same sex couple has ever been treated with such casual normalness. We have been voyeurs to their every interaction with nothing telegraphed, over sensationalized or treated like a bad after school special. Never before has the audience been allowed to see every minute detail in a growing same-sex attraction. Nothing has happened off screen, nothing has had to be explained in interviews or press. It just is. It’s been a slow, romantic, lush build; the kind I’d come to believe even soaps, once known for such things, had forgotten how to do with any couple regardless of orientation. In doing so Guiding Light has already changed hearts and minds, viewers becoming invested without even realizing.
Emma was given an assignment to write about what makes her family unique. As the little girl contemplated her task the show’s writers began to allow the audience to see Olivia and Natalia’s relationship through the innocent eyes of a child.
The presentation titled, My Two Mommies, continues to propel the storyline today. We’ve watched as these women struggle with now having a label put to their growing feelings. Seen Olivia kiss Natalia in frustration while trying to explain what people thought when using the word ‘lesbian’ would have made it all too real. Seen Natalia try to minimize and devalue their connection to Emma’s teacher, in the end unable to do so while looking into Olivia’s watery gaze. The speech to the teacher itself was a beautiful testament to what family really means and I cried at the honest truth of the words.
As sweeps approach, the two remain center stage. The fallout from the kiss, the presentation, the assumptions of others and their own growing awareness of romantic feelings have the characters in a swirl. Olivia, the more open of the two, is pushing Natalia towards the hapless and clueless Frank, suffering in silence when Natalia takes her advice in her own desperate need to feel normal. She then kissed an ex before finally admitting she had more than friendly feelings for Natalia. It’s all achingly realistic.
In short, the story has been, as the GL rep said, not a soap opera “gay story”. Instead it is simply a love story and has been treated just the same as any other love story on the show; superiority of the writing notwithstanding. Some say it’s the most skilfully written story in all of daytime at the moment.
This storyline has been building for over 10 months. It’s been beautifully and sensitively written, acted with great skill and subtlety, and unfolds without hoopla, over promotion or labels. It’s everything I have ever wanted to see for a same-sex relationship on screen. I pray every day they don’t screw it up.
Who knows where the future will lead Otalia? Recently we had a loving declaration from Olivia about Natalia, though t the younger woman was not around to hear it of course. This is a soap opera, you know.. It was said to the homophobic mayor who’d just “outed “ them, in a bid for political advancement. In the end the mayor said simply, “I wish a man would talk about me the way you just talked about her.” Yes, indeed, it was that blatant.
Will Olivia and Natalia admit their feelings and find love? Or will the show write it all off as a misunderstanding, shove them both in relationships with men and once again, like so many dramas before them, kick a growing fandom in the teeth?
Is it a stunt to pull in ratings for a dying show? Or are they truly committed to breaking new ground, shattering stereotypes and knocking down barriers? Will this be a story of more failed hopes and expectations, or just maybe, could Otalia be daytime’s first fully realized and fleshed out same-sex super couple?
I don’t know. I only know I’m more engaged, more invested, than ever before and happy to walk the journey with them wherever it leads.
Kudos to GL, their writing staff, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia. You might want to tune in and have a look. I promise you’ll be glad you did. I feel like I can cautiously say that someone is finally getting it right.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Also, check out the Otalia "Big Purple Podcast" at bigpurpledreams.podbean.com.