History of Soaps and Their Use of Social-Oriented Storytelling

Soaps, a genre that has captivated millions worldwide, are more than just a form of entertainment. They are a reflection of society, a window into the evolving norms, values, and issues of the times. From their inception on radio in the 1930s to their transition to television and beyond, soaps have utilized social-oriented storytelling to engage, educate, and provoke thought among their audiences. This article delves into the history of soap and explores how they have mirrored and influenced societal changes through their compelling narratives.

Soaps have long had a reputation for being pure entertainment. But over its history, they did more than simply entertain audiences. Social-oriented stories that enlightened and informed fans were also a significant part of the medium, even when much of primetime television was busy ignoring these issues.

The Birth of Soaps

The term “soap opera” was coined due to the original radio dramas being sponsored by soap companies. These early soaps were targeted primarily at housewives, with narratives revolving around family, love, and domestic challenges. However, even in these early days, soaps were more than mere entertainment; they were a reflection of the societal norms and issues of the time. Shows like “The Guiding Light,” which transitioned from radio to television, began to incorporate broader social themes, setting a precedent for future storytelling.

As these dramas made the leap to television in the late 1940s and 1950s, they continued to evolve. The visual medium offered a new depth to storytelling, allowing viewers to connect more intimately with the characters and their plights. This period saw soaps begin to subtly push the boundaries of societal norms, addressing issues such as class disparity and the role of women in society, albeit within the conservative lens of the time.

Even during its radio days, soaps sought to address issues that were important to its mainly female audience. The doyenne of daytime, Irna Phillips, wrote many stories involving unplanned pregnancies, affairs, and socially liberal opinions. In her radio drama The Guiding Light, she featured the character Rev. Ruthledge, who delivered Sunday sermons preaching against the evils of racism, poverty, war, and intolerance. She also featured female characters, such as Rose Kransky and Dr. Mary Leland, who often dealt with disapproval from family and colleagues over their career ambitions.

The 1960s and 1970s: A Shift Towards Social Consciousness

When The Guiding Light went to television, it continued these social-oriented storylines. Stories such as alcoholism and its effects on a family became the show’s more prominent focus as Bill Bauer, and later his son Ed tried to handle their drinking problems. During the early 1960s, then-headwriter Agnes Nixon, a protegee of Phillips, penned a story in which the show’s matriarch underwent surgery for uterine cancer. The story informed audiences through its discussions on the importance of regular screenings, early detection, and Pap smears. The story was so successful that fans wrote letters to the show stating how it literally saved their lives as they went in to get check-ups with their obstetricians.

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During the height of the civil rights movement, Nixon wrote one of the first black characters to appear in the daytime, Martha Frazier. Subsequent writers penned in other black characters as well. The response to the show’s inclusivity was largely positive, surprising P&G and CBS executives.

During the mid-’60s, Nixon left The Guiding Light to write for Another World. Yet even before Nixon joined the writing staff, Phillips, who was the original head writer, told a story involving heroine Pat Matthews’s illegal abortion, a first for daytime. Matthews, who was pressured to undergo the surgery by her callow boyfriend, wound up shooting him out of emotional distress and ended up going to trial.

In 1969, Nixon created One Life to Live, a show that directly dealt with issues of class and race. The show’s two core families—the Lords and the Woleks—were twin polar opposites of the class divide: one wealthy and the other working class. The stories revolved around these class differences as young intern Larry Wolek fell in love with the wealthy Meredith Lord, much to her father’s disapproval. The show also featured the characters Sadie and Clara Gray, two African Americans, one of whom, Clara, passed for white. The character, who went under the name Carla Gray, became involved with a white doctor and a black detective (played by Al Freeman, Jr.) and revealed her anguish in not only passing for white but disrespecting her own mother. The story revealed the emotional and psychological effects of racism on black people.

In 1970, Nixon premiered All My Children and continued her style of storytelling, addressing issues such as abortion, racism, teen prostitution, Infant Crib Death, mental and psychological breakdowns, and homosexuality.

Other soaps followed in Nixon’s style and began featuring social-oriented stories among their usual tales of romance and murder. In Days of Our Lives, interracial dating is explored when characters David and Val fall in love. Both characters deal with the prejudices faced in response to their relationship. The Young & the Restless also explored issues of breast cancer and mastectomy and even attempted to explore a lesbian romance with the show’s doyenne Katherine Chancellor.

Fans weren’t ready to see issues dealing with homosexuality at this time and protested against the story, prompting the show’s writer to drop the storyline. During this time, Guiding Light addressed a shocking, rip-from-the-headlines story featuring two of its characters, Roger and Holly Thorpe. Roger and Holly had always been a volatile couple on the show, but the volatility of their marriage took on a sinister and violent tone when Roger raped his wife after she attempted to leave him for his infidelity. Holly would go on to charge her husband with rape, becoming one of the first soaps to address marital rape as the issue was just beginning to be signed into law across the country.

Two years later, Bridget and Jerome Dobson, who penned the Roger rape storyline on Guiding Light, created a similar story on As the World Turns involving Dr. John Dixon and his wife, Dee.

Diversifying Narratives and Embracing Complexity

In 1979, General Hospital scored a hit with the super couple Luke and Laura, setting the stage for soaps to become even more fantastical in their storylines.

During the 1980s, soaps, which were making more revenue than their primetime counterparts, could now afford to do location shoots, an advantage that allowed head writers to pen more action-oriented storylines involving intrigue and romance. Every soap tried to follow in General Hospital’s footsteps and began creating its own supercouples. But even during this period, soaps continued to confront socially-oriented stories.

On All My Children, Nixon created the first lesbian character in the daytime, a psychologist played by Donna Pescow, who was treating the character Devon Shepherd. When Devon became attracted to her psychologist, she began to question her own sexuality. The show also dealt with sexual harassment with Dr. Angie Hubbard as she legally fought against her medical superior for his behavior at the hospital. Doug Marland, while head writer of Guiding Light, penned a story about teen alcoholism featuring a young Kevin Bacon in the role of Tim Werner. The story was given depth and historical detail as Tim found a sponsor in the elder Ed Bauer, a recovering alcoholic. Marland also attempted to tell a story of psychological and mental breakdown as his character, Carrie Marler, suffered from multiple personality disorders. Unfortunately, the executive producer Allen Potter demanded Marland wrap up the story before he had a chance to tell Carrie’s slow recovery process, prompting the writer not to re-sign his contract. When Marland and Nixon teamed to create the ABC soap Loving, he penned a story about incest, a story he would repeat on As the World Turns. Also, in Loving, the problems facing Vietnam veterans years after the war were explored. Later, during the early ’90s, the show featured what would become the daytime’s first paraplegic character. Played by Patrick Breen, the character was shown adjusting to his disability and the effect it had on her romance with Ava (Lisa Peluso). Unlike other characters in Daytime who were paralyzed, Breen’s character never regained the use of his legs. One of the original cast members of Port Charles was a paraplegic character played by Mitch Longley, an actor who, in real life, was similarly disabled.

On Guiding Light, Pam Long returned to the issue of rape, as she penned a storyline involving teen Beth Raines, who was assaulted by her stepfather. Long took the character from her initial shock and withdrawal after the attack to finally her growing strength as she took her stepfather to court. Bradley Raines, while on the stand, finally admitted his crime and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for criminals to receive help. A few years later, All My Children featured a character who was HIV-positive. The show dealt with the prejudices of the other Pine Valley residents toward Cindy and her eventual love story with the mentally handicapped Stuart Chandler. The character died from complications of her illness following her storybook wedding to Stuart.

As more African American characters began appearing in the daytime, issues of race and interracial relationships became the norm.

On General Hospital, David Hardy and Simone Ravelle were the first interracial couple to marry on that show, while on Santa Barbara, Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo became the daytime’s most popular interracial super couple. Days of Our Lives, during a 1980s storyline involving Bo and Hope, addressed the issue of slavery and its effects on the descendants of slaves through the character Marcus Hunter, played by the late actor Richard Biggs.

During the early ’90s, Guiding Light addressed the issue of racial violence when young David Grant went on the run after accidentally killing a young racist who attacked his girlfriend and the kindly owner of a local diner where David worked. A few years prior, The Young & Restless told the story of an African American police detective who went undercover as a white man to infiltrate a white mob. The detective wound up getting involved with the mob boss’s daughter, who was nonetheless shocked by her lover’s true identity. Though the story was cheesy, it did address issues of racial identity.

Y&R also penned an abortion storyline with heroine Ashley Abbot after she became involved with the very married Victor Newman. Yet the storyline dealt with the issue as many soaps, unfortunately, dealt with abortion as Ashley soon suffered an emotional breakdown, thus giving the false impression that women who have abortions must suffer in some way.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, shows such as Guiding Light and General Hospital continued to address social-oriented issues. On Guiding Light Alone, post-partum syndrome, teen pregnancy, breast cancer, sexual harassment, police corruption, the glass ceiling, and children born with Down Syndrome were all explored in storylines that were as compelling as they were entertaining. General Hospital told a heartbreaking story of a heart transplant procedure when young Maxie Jones became the recipient of her cousin B.J.’s heart after the latter was killed in a bus accident. The story tenderly told the emotional anguish and upheaval of the families involved and became a much-beloved storyline among GH fans.

As soaps entered the post-era, executive producers turned to more fantastic stories to keep fans enthralled in their shows. Despite this move, soaps still attempted to address social-oriented storylines, often with mixed results.

During the late ’90s, Guiding Light attempted to address the issue of cloning in its storyline, but instead of dealing with the very serious ethical consequences of the scientific procedure, the show’s writers instead went a more science fiction route by cloning Reva Shayne, a move that nonetheless tainted the show’s long-earned credibility as a domestic drama. Years later, the show also addressed issues such as heart disease and transplants and mental illness when veteran character Phillip Spaulding suffered an emotional breakdown and recently had an abortion when teen Daisy terminated her pregnancy.

All My Children introduced the first core character to be outed on daytime when Bianca Montgomery, daughter of Erica Kane, announced she was a lesbian. The show attempted to create romantic situations for the characters but often chickened out before going forward with them. In the end, head writer Megan McTavish told a storyline involving the character’s rape and subsequent pregnancy. Last year, McTavish also penned a storyline involving a transsexual rock star named Zarf. Though this was not the first transsexual character in Daytime (Loving spinoff The City had a transsexual character briefly during its run in the ”90s), the character’s presence allowed the writer a sleight-of-hand by creating a love story between Zarf and Bianca.

Zarf was pre-surgically still biologically a man, therefore allowing McTavish a wink-wink-nod-nod to the fans’ audiences about Bianca’s sexuality. The fans were not amused, and both Zarf and Bianca were written off the show within a matter of months. Other issues, such as rape, for instance, were often used for shock and awe to maintain viewing audiences, rarely approaching the level of sensitivity and attention to detail soaps excelled in the past.

The Impact of Soaps on Society

The soap’s reputation for addressing social-oriented stories is such that even today, fans continue to clamor for these tales, revealing the powerful impact they have had on generations of soap audiences.

The influence of soaps extends beyond their entertainment value. By tackling social issues, soaps have shaped public opinion and fostered empathy for diverse experiences. They have brought marginalized voices to the forefront, offering representation and visibility to communities often overlooked by mainstream media. Moreover, soaps have catalyzed conversation about difficult topics, providing a shared narrative that can bridge cultural and societal divides.

The history of soap operas is a testament to the genre’s resilience and capacity for reflection and influence on society. Through decades of social changes, soaps have remained a constant, evolving to meet the needs and expectations of their audiences. By weaving social-oriented storytelling into their narratives’ fabric, soaps have entertained, educated, and provoked thought, highlighting their invaluable role in the cultural landscape.

As we look to the future, it’s clear that soap operas will continue to adapt and reflect the times. They stand as a powerful medium for exploring the human condition, potentially influencing societal attitudes and fostering a deeper understanding of the complex world we inhabit. In doing so, soaps underscore the profound impact that storytelling can have on society, reminding us of the power of narratives to connect, challenge, and inspire.

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