The Guilty Pleasure of Soap Operas

When we think of fans, many things come to mind—football fans at the Super Bowl, Taylor Swift fans sleeping outside of the stadium before a concert, and Star Wars fans lined up at Comic-Con.

Sports, music, and sci-fi certainly draw passionate fans, but, for many decades, some of the most passionate fans have been loyal to a different genre—the soap opera.

At one time, there were numerous serial programs airing in the daytime; the earliest ones in the 1930s were sponsored by companies who made cleaning products—hence, their nickname, “soap operas.”

In the current broadcast landscape, there are far fewer, but some of the venerable soap operas remain popular and inspire a devoted group of viewers. “General Hospital,” which premiered in 1963, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary on the air, something that few pieces of media can claim.

Soap operas have been criticized for unrealistic and over-the-top storylines that might distort the perception of reality and for sensationalizing real-life cultural issues and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

However, soaps like “General Hospital” remain popular. Why do viewers become so attached to these long-running serial programs?

The Appeal of Familiarity

The fact that soaps do tend to be long-running is part of the appeal. The shows draw a multigenerational audience, with many viewers first watching with a parent.

Fans’ long histories with the characters contribute to their emotional attachment. We’re drawn to familiar faces and feel a satisfying sense of belongingness when we’re with people we’ve known for a long time—even if they’re fictional. Because our brains are wired to attach to familiar faces, fans have a strong attachment to soap opera characters, who are seen five days a week.

Mirror neurons in our brains don’t distinguish between people in our living rooms and people on screens in our living rooms when it comes to feeling connected to others. Watching the same cast of characters over many decades is an emotional anchor, especially in times of uncertainty and change.

The familiar faces and voices can feel like “company” in a world that’s increasingly disconnected and in the midst of what has been called an epidemic of loneliness.

The longevity of soap operas also means that viewers have extensive knowledge of the characters’ histories and evolution, and being able to draw on those memories is pleasurable.

There’s a sense of being an “insider” because there’s no way a new viewer could be caught up on two or three or even more decades of history, so those who have “been there” feel a sense of ownership over the characters and an intimacy with them.

Over time, the multigenerational nature of both audience members and the fictional families whose narratives play out onscreen contribute to interconnections between the viewer and the stories.

Critique, Community, and Escapism

The long history also results in a tradition of spirited critique, with fans criticizing storylines, plot, and out-of-character moments, and developing a sense of community with fellow fans in the process.

Spending an hour in Port Charles is also a break from whatever stresses are happening in life, a welcome temporary escape during which the viewer can focus on the stresses of someone else’s life instead.

I confess I’m one of the people who was drawn back into “General Hospital” during the early days of the pandemic, and I just might still be watching. I first watched with my mother when the show was probably not age-appropriate, sitting beside her on the sofa when I came home after school as she shushed me so she could watch her “stories.”

I vividly remember the doctors and nurses of “General Hospital” and later the exploits of Luke and Laura, being the accompaniment to my after-school snack for many years.

Emotional Attachment

Because soap operas are broadcast five days a week throughout the year, fans have an even greater sense of familiarity with those characters than with other television or film characters. “General Hospital” marked its 60th anniversary with a long-standing tradition on the show, the Nurse’s Ball, which began as a way of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS in the early ’90s. This year’s episode was a tribute to actress Sonya Eddy who passed away earlier in the year and to Jacklyn Zeman, who had played Nurse Bobbie Spencer for 45 years. Fans were extra-grateful for the tribute to Zeman since she passed away earlier this month, shocking many long-time fans. Viewers who had been watching Bobbie on their TV screens for their entire lives expressed their sadness on social media, many saying they had “grown up with” Zeman’s character.

The strong sense of familiarity viewers feel for their favorite characters can lead to strong emotions. The genre is famous for constantly shaking up its romantic pairings, ensuring that some subset of viewers are always going to be angry (while some other subset is going to be cheering).

A criticism of soaps is that strong emotion can result in a temporary blurring of the lines of fantasy and reality, and it’s true that actors who just happen to be playing villainous characters draw a lot of irate comments on social media. However, most fans are aware that the actor is not, in fact, the character.

Playing the Game

Soap operas are also beloved because they’re a reminder that someone else’s life is always even more challenging than most viewers’ lives. The drama is intentionally over the top, with mad scientist types threatening to unleash a lethal virus on the world or create a machine to control the weather for nefarious purposes.

The everyday challenges are constant, too—if a character isn’t on the brink of death, their partner is probably jumping into bed with someone else or their newborn baby is about to be kidnapped. In comparison, viewers may feel like their own life challenges aren’t insurmountable after all.

There is also an element of “fun” that adds to viewers’ pleasure. Popular tropes are repeated so often and in such an overt manner that the audience can watch and play the “game” of anticipating which trope will play out next from the familiar cues.

The feeling of being omniscient—of knowing what’s coming before the fictional characters do—adds to the satisfaction. Soap fans watch through the lenses of the schemas they know and are always on the alert for a storyline that breaks the expected norms in some way.

Those plot twists keep viewers invested and entertained, but the very familiarity of the tropes—from slow-burn infidelity to a long-lost lover coming back to life to a child someone never knew they had—is part of the pleasure of watching.

Real-Life Representation

The attraction of soap operas isn’t only for the drama, however. For many decades, these series have also tried to incorporate more real-life issues as well. Addiction, infertility, mental health, abuse, loss, and the aftermath of trauma have all been depicted with various degrees of realism.

There have been queer characters and characters of various ethnic backgrounds for many years on these shows. Critics point out that soap operas don’t always get it right with these depictions. But, when they do, the representation onscreen is particularly powerful because viewers feel so close to the characters.

So, here’s to the next 60 years, “General Hospital”!

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