Millions of people are glued to soaps – EastEnders alone famously drew in 16.6 million viewers eager to find out who bumped off Archie Mitchell on 19th February 2010. Yet, it is usual for people, whether they know about them or not, to criticise the soap opera harshly for being a “lowbrow” cultural form. There are objections to their sexy yet formulaic sensationalism, their realism, surrealism or escapism, their lack of sophistication, their mind-numbing-ness, or simply a perceived complete lack of artistic merit. Their cultural value is often seen as below interrogation. The people who watch and invest in them are, consequently, passive consumers or idiots – telly addicts, people without lives, deluded into believing the characters are “real” and just not particularly intellectual.
The thing is, I LOVE soaps, and interact with them in many different ways. Sometimes I tune in to the telly at the familiar times; I watch them online; surf blogs which provide spoilers and chat about the stories in forums; survey the fan fiction (aint gotten round to writing some yet but it is only a matter of time…); flick though the mags; check out the interviews of the soap stars and producers; discuss the storylines with my friends and family. I pride myself for keeping up with, must be, almost a score of soaps from around the world. I am a hardcore soapy.
So am I brainwashed, passive and a looser without a life? Probably… but no more than many non-soapys, and there is, hopefully, more to me that this definition. I like learning, politics, playing music, fiddling around with creative writing, footballing, socialising, travelling and taking on new things. Just, I like soaps as well – not as a dirty indulgence but as an equal part of a pursuit of a well-rounded personality. But why should I feel forced to lay my intellectual credits on the table in order to get you to listen to me? If I wasn’t that person, does that render my experiences and thoughts invalid? Why should I give a damn about what certain people approve as appropriate intellectual pursuits?
Yeah but the thing is, the artistic value assigned to cultural products and practice is exactly about what a certain group of people say. The high art verses low art binary relies having a criteria, in which some people have the authority to rule some stuff good and others just shit. Yet in reality, art has never been pinned down. Our modern conceptions regarding art can usually be traced way back to 18th century philosopher Kant, where in his discussion of beauty he argues that calling something beautiful relates to a certain type of experience – that beauty is not a property of the artwork, but a type of consciousness framed by a kind of interplay between the imagination and understanding. Crucially, this pleasure is more than a sense or urge for gratification – we can’t look to the object to satisfy a physical or emotional need but we have to admire the object for itself – in a state of, what he calls, “disinterestedness”. During the first half of the 20th century Adorno defended the special status of art as crucial to reflection – criticising the corporate manipulation of mass media designed to pacify audiences. Adorno showed clear similarities to Kant: art can therefore have this transcendence, almost spiritual, quasi mystical quality. Likewise, Adorno famously observed that the jitterbug, a jerky popular dance in the 1940s, was ritualistic and an act of “compulsive mimicry” whereby people just responded to the music “whirring around like fascinated insects.” Yet neither philosopher really defined art, and behind these arguments are a suspicion of functionalism and the primitive senses of the body which can in some way be aroused by cultural objects. The formalists have argued that art should be discussed in terms of style or “significant form.” There are clear philosophical connections to Kant’s “beauty”, which also stressed on that detachment from other kinds of interest we have in an object. But the suggestion that objects have inherent qualities which evoke certain responses risks being an assertion of essentialism or absolutism. In fact the term aint any easier to understand than “art” – many things have a “form” which we admire.
The upshot is that we are confronted with the inability of art and high art to define themselves despite smug claims that high art is better than low because it is more difficult or arouses deeper emotions and that low art is inferior because it is formulaic and encourages passive consumption. At the end of the day, this leaves us with the unsatisfactory position that art is a certain judgement made by certain people – which actually aint such a bad definition after all? Institutionalist philosophers would call these “certain people” the “Art World” or cultural intermediaries – who basically tell us what is or isn’t art. Marxist cultural critic Eagleton argues in Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) that economic, social and political forces not only shape a society’s idea about art but artistic judgements are a fundamental to society’s structure. Going back to Kant, Eagleton argues that in this regards aesthetic judgement upholds the prevailing morality and social order. Likewise, assigning value to art and culture is closely connected to debates over censorship and social control. Capital, states and institutions control people’s access and ideas – but this aint just about laws or even commercialism, but about systems of selection, funding, promotion and, of course, constructions of taste.
Basically people are essentially prejudiced towards low forms of culture or art, and not only is this hierarchy related to social class, but social snobbery is inherent in the concept of high art – there can be only high art if there is low art. The idea that art has a special value which cannot be found in mass culture ends in a complete lack of respect for the cultural habits of the masses. And yet culture is an important part of all of our lives – attached strongly to our sense of identity. It is a hell of a thing to tell someone thattheir taste is shit and below discussion. It follows that the consumers of low art are less intelligent, and lower, than those of high art. When people flippantly dismiss soaps, surely they are also dismissing the people to whom soaps are important?
Once we move away from thinking that forms and styles have intrinsic value, many questions arise… Why should a cultural object be difficult and quasi- mystical? Why don’t we pride communication and engagement with working class culture as a skill? Why is it that the less people can access an art the better it is? Isn’t all culture formulaic in some way? Why should there be an art experience that is somehow higher than sensuality? What is wrong with escapism, cartharsis, sensuality or hedonism?
Look, it aint to say that we don’t have a critique of the commercialism and comodification of every part of our lives (for which Adorno is actually useful) nor about who wields power under capitalism. Clearly the denial of working class expression is a part of the dictatorship of capital. But at the end of the day everything is controlled by capital – whether it is bourgeois art or mass culture. The construction of the stupid, ‘tricked’ and passive soap–watcher allows no space for people to express agency. Saying that someone’s culture is crap and less sophisticated is a part of the denial of expression.
Going back more directly to the stuff said against soaps, academic Dorothy Hobson’s work Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera revealed that the concept of the completely passive soap viewer is a myth. Confirming my experiences, she found that soap-viewers’ interaction with the medium is complex. That viewers had a high level of critical awareness, based on a close knowledge of story lines, and rooted in their experience of everyday life. Discussing characters in the soap as if they were real was a ‘game’ they played with one another, well aware of what they were doing
Indeed, as a soapy, I am always conscious of the ‘writer’, “the producer” and “the channel”. Storylines are created in dialogue with the viewer’s mood. There are many examples where storylines have changed directions as a result of the viewer reaction – most recently Ronnie Branning’s ‘baby-swap’ story in EastEnders. It is funny to see what writers/producers attempt to get away with and what they can’t. The development of online fan fiction means that viewers actually take control of the characters as they write scenes which continue the storylines or completely change them. People cut and mix scenes into extremely diverse and creative music video or montages on YouTube. Some people translate soaps and post them, within minutes of them airing, on to online forums for others in different countries to enjoy: for no reason but sheer commitment. Soaps are ‘popular art’ with communal participation and yes, they may offer companionship to people who may be living mainly solitary lives under the alienation of capitalism – what is wrong with this????? Soaps are just a form and style – it is what is done with them that is (or is not) interesting.
I like soaps coz I am fascinated with language, characters (and characterisation), stories (and story telling). I have an intrinsic understanding of the different formulas used by different soaps, aired by different channels in different countries – I know the codes like I know the back of my hand. I assess what I believe to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing or character development. I am interested in not only what they say about a culture, what they say about how cultural intermediaries try to define a culture and to what extend people accept and resist this. I look to soaps for their realism – in that I relate and empathise with characters or grapple with the social issues which they throw up – and their escapism – to play with living the lives of these fantastical characters and events. I like soaps because they challenge me with new ideas and cultures but that they are also familiar and routine. Coz they include me in the many worlds they create (fictional and in terms of viewer communities). Coz they stimulate my consciousness and make me ask questions. Coz they also make me chill out. Coz they are addictive. Coz they give me a buzz and release in a pressurised society. Coz my Grandmother has watched Coronation Street since it began in the 1960s. Coz everyone watched Neighbours at school. Coz EastEnders is gritty and is both like and nothing like the East End. Coz Hollyoaks is fun. Coz they can be hard hitting. Coz they can be ridiculous. Coz they don’t exclude me or make me feel inadequate. Coz they connect me to other people who understand them. I love soaps because I can own them and make them mine in loads of different ways. And I don’t see why doing something you love, if it isn’t hurting anyone else, is wasting your time (something I am often accused of)…
I am sick of hearing some people dismissing soaps with a smug Guardian reading, independent record label preaching, Radio Four listening, aged furniture loving, Bob Dylan adoring, vintage chic wearing, organic food eating, self-congratulating recycling laugh – as if this means you got everything sorted with the world. Not that I am actually dissing any of these things themselves (most apply to me anyways) but I am just trying to crudely paint a “type”. And/or those who do not watch soaps and do not understand their codification. Those that judge soaps on a pre-prescribed criteria which, of course, is designed to fail them. Those that spout an opinion from ignorance. Those that have made no effort to discover the thoughts and feelings of viewers. Hobson gets it right when she says; “it is false and elitist criticism to ignore what any member of the audience thinks or feels about a programme.”
Do I think all soaps are great? Nah. Do I think that they escape the power constructions and commercialism that surrounds information and culture? Of course not – I may be a soapy but I aint an idiot. And to all those of you who dislike soaps – that’s cool, let’s have a discussion. My bone of contention aint with those who engage honestly in thought-out criticism – just don’t tell me that something which is an important part of my life is beneath consideration. And in particular, surely any Marxist who dismisses the thoughts and feelings of millions people, is walking on very dangerous ground?