Soap Opera Sociology

Say “soap opera” today and the first thing that might come to mind is Sarah Palin’s life. Scandal? Drama? Intrigue? Vanity? Petty feuds and vendettas? check. Slutty boots? check. Firing of an ex-brother-in-law embroiled in custody battle? check. Unwed motherhood? check. Rogue betrayal? check.

Cliff Hanger!

I am not, and my guess is that not all readers here are avid devotees of TV soap operas (though fans, please speak up! I could be very wrong). I’m not talking Palin on Katie Couric’s show here, but rather Days of Our Lives, The Young and The Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful-type fare–shows that are still in fact at least semi-popular in the United States. The ratings ebb and flow, but the genre has remained remarkably resilient (and perhaps James Franco’s odd performance-art thesis research will cause a whole new demographic to tune in…or not). Whether the days of soaps are up are not is yet to be seen, but as of right now, there are still plenty on air.

In 2006, Hanna Rosin of the *New Yorker *published an article, “Life Lessons”, that chronicled a certain type of soap opera that had been prominent for several decades in Latin America, South Africa, India and now China: soap operas for social change. Rosin’s article focused on the

social relevance of soap operas as highlighted in the workshop organized by the Pop-Nation Communications International. The group pioneered the use of soap operas as a weapon against poverty.

Miguel Sabido was an early pioneer of such “educational entertainment” telenovelas in Mexico. According to Sabido,

Television teaches. If it didn’t, there would be no commercials on the screen, because advertisers want people to learn a behavior, to learn to buy their products.

Television can also teach people to plan their families, fight poverty, continue studying as adults, care for nature, and respect their own bodies.

We should use television to save life on Earth.

Sabido’s website features his basic philosophy on the soap opera (telenovela in Latin America). He relies heavily on your friend and mine, Carl Jung, to provide plot explanations, and provides lots of really simple Jungian charts like this:


No wonder soap operas are so complicated.

According to Sabido’s website, during the decades where many of his Mexican soap operas were on air t he country underwent a 34 percent decline in its population growth rate. His telenovelas–including: Ven Conmigo (“Come With Me”; encouraged people to go back to school), Acompáñame (“Accompany Me”; focused on family planning. Rosin writes that indeed, “the year that  Accompáñame aired, sales of over-the-counter contraceptives in Mexico increased twenty-three per cent.”),  Caminemos (“Going Forward Together”; sex education), Nosotras las Mujeres (“We the Women”; female empowerment against machismo attitude)–ran from 1971 to 1981.

Rosin writes that

“It is not enough to just change people’s attitudes,” Sabido said. “You have to change how they behave.”

One of Sabido’s favorite experts is the psychologist Albert Bandura, of Stanford University, whom he described as “the greatest American since Benjamin Franklin.” Bandura’s “Bobo doll studies,” conducted in the late nineteen-fifties and the sixties, showed that children, observing adults in violent forms of play, mimicked those behaviors. The best way to teach new behaviors, Bandura found, was to give people models that they could bond with and who could guide them through concrete, realistic steps. Sabido visited Bandura at Stanford to discuss plot ideas.


In a class on South Africa that I took this past quarter (as a History major you must take a charmingly acronymed Sources & Methods seminar, and History44S was mine), we watched a few episodes the South African government’s version of Sabido’s education soap opera, Tsha Tsha. It was quite entertaining and very compelling; Tsha Tsha was government funded and planned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Education division, and was, according to our professor and the ratings data, incredibly popular and effective in South Africa.

Could this model—soap operas for social change—work in the United States? Former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, who was the keynote speaker at the 1996 Soap Summit, a meeting of the minds of American soap operas, thought so. She urged her audience, which included soap opera writers, executives and producers urged, to start writing in story-lines like Sabido’s, and * Tsha Tsha*‘s: story-lines with purpose.

I’m asking you to fold into your stories accurate, life-saving information about these issues [smoking, teen pregnancy, drug use, sexual health]. I’m asking you to never forget that your audience needs to see not just anger and betrayal, but also the painful consequences of domestic violence, preventable disease and absent fathers; the unglamorous dead end that is too often reached when young people start down the dangerous road of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and teen pregnancy; and the dreams not just deferred, but ended.

I understand that you are entertainers by trade. And I understand that you need to be ever mindful of the bottom line of profits and ratings. But there is another role and another bottom line that I’m challenging you to pay more attention to: It’s your role as citizens and guardians of the public trust.

Hanna Rosin, however, has doubts about whether or not the social change-soap opera would catch on in the United States. They work well for telenovelas, but perhaps not for the American version.

Telenovelas are, in some ways, the ideal vehicle for such messages. Unlike soap operas in the United States, they are aired during prime time and are not considered the sole province of housewives. An American soap opera follows a vortex structure, with a few central characters and several story lines swirling around them, and is meant to continue indefinitely. A telenovela has one main plot, with a principal heroine, and four or five subplots that move toward a conclusion within six months to a year.

But the sheer viewership of American soap operas—*The Bold and the Beautiful *is the most watched show in the world–leads one to think that there could be a place here for the same messages that Sabido promoted.

The Bold and the Beautiful has begun to try it out, reports Rosin.

In 2001, in a major twist, Tony, a young designer, told Kristen, his girlfriend, that he was H.I.V.-positive. The writers had consulted with experts from the Centers for Disease Control, and provided an 800 number that people could call for more information. After one particularly emotional scene, the line received five thousand calls. (Kristen marries Today, and after honeymooning in Africa they adopt an AIDS orphan.) A study in Botswana, where the show is also aired, found that it had a significant effect on people’s attitudes toward AIDS.

But this is not the same as Sabido’s method, which to write the soap opera for the express purpose of educating (with entertainment as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down). American soaps are entertainment first and foremost, and if these educational plots are popular and attract more viewers, then they will use them.

Should there be a greater push for education themes to be written into the plots of American soap operas? Should Kathleen Sebelius get on this? Do enough Americans watch soap operas for it to be effective? What if there were a government sponsored soap opera? Is it not amazing (and somewhat creepy) that what the government creates and broadcasts can actually change how people behave? Is it paranoid to be worried about being controlled like that, or is it simply a wholly good thing to be able to positively change people’s life with government influence? Amid the drama, intrigue, torrid affairs, questioned paternity, and love triangles, public health questions abound!

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