Last month, long-running U.S. daytime soap opera As the World Turns aired its final episode, roughly a year after the cancellation of Guiding Light. I hadn’t been watching either soap, but I still felt a keen sense of loss — these were the soaps that I grew up with, that my mother and my aunt watched, that still featured characters that I remembered from my childhood. The memories persist, but the sense of continuity and endurance — the prospect of dipping back into them, and instantly reconnecting to those memories of not just the soaps, but my own family — has faded.
C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby discuss how soap opera fans make sense of their fandom and their own lives in a new essay in the latest issue of Transformative Works & Cultures, Autobiographical Reasoning in Long-Term Fandom. They draw upon interviews with nearly three dozen fans who have followed their soap operas for over twenty years to explore the roles that soap operas play in how these fans construct and interpret life narratives — how soaps mediated their relationships with their family, got them through difficult times, and gave them perspective on their own lives. A lot of this resonated for me; even as I grew older, As the World Turns remained a bridge between my mother and myself. On visits home, I’d watch it with her and ask her to fill me in on the storylines, and it was always something I could talk with her about on the phone, even during periods of my adulthood where we struggled to communicate and find common ground. Harrington and Bielby offer a valuable perspective on thinking about long-term fandom — whether it’s for soap operas, sports, or Star Trek.
I’m not sure I’d count as a soap opera fan — I’ve never watched any soap long enough or consistently enough for that — but I’m definitely a fan of the genre, and I attribute my early exposure to soaps to my preference for serial narratives. I’ve sampled a few soaps for various lengths of time over the past few years, and the genre still holds a lot of pleasure and promise. The relative decline of daytime soaps in the U.S. gets variously attributed to women entering the workforce in larger numbers, competition from cable television, decreasing cultural relevance and poor management and creative decisions. Some fans and critics point to the relative flourishing of soap opera-style serial narrative in prime time television to argue for the continued viability of the genre; others site the rise of web-based soap operas to argue that online video rather than network television will be the savior of soaps.
More on this subject in an upcoming post about a forthcoming book, The Survival of Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era, edited by Harrington, Sam Ford, and Abigail de Kosnik.