Why Do We Like To Watch Soap Operas - And Are They Realistic?
For many of us, watching soap operas has become one of life's little rituals - a way to unwind at the end of the day. Women, in particular, often become hooked on these long-running television series. Some cannot bear to miss a single episode, recording the entire series so they can watch it at will. They care about the characters, so much so that anger can even be felt when a story line takes an unwanted twist. What's more, some extreme viewers even confuse the line between fictional character and real-life actor or actress, verbally abusing 'bad' characters on the streets or in supermarkets. Such fans have become so caught up in a soap that they have illogically blurred fantasy and reality, as though they believe an actor really is the character they play.
Original Theme Tune, Coronation Street, 1960s
Are Soaps Realistic?
In most soap operas, everything is magnified. Statistics are clearly out of line with real life in most 'ordinary' residential settings. In a soap, your chances of meeting a grisly end are hugely amplified when compared with true-life data. Accidents and illness may take away some of our favourite characters, but surely it has to be the chance of getting bumped off by murder that is the most unrealistic statistic of all. Countless acts of murder and manslaughter are committed in soap operas, usually all occurring within the same street or two. Well, you know where you would never want to move to!
Such high rates of murder are out of line with 'real' life data, yet we have to remember that a soap opera is supposed to entertain us. It can't be completely realistic, otherwise it would be quite boring. Most people's 'real-life' would not be deemed interesting enough to air on television several times per week, year after year. Therefore, a soap can never be truly realistic if it is designed to entertain. Characters do have to face rather more than their fair share of problems. After all, a soap must have limits on the number of characters portrayed, both for easy-to-follow viewing (too many actors is confusing, plus relationships are not built up between on-screen characters and the watching public) and budgets.
Domestic Abuse, Potrayed on Eastenders
That said, soap operas do try to approach many serious issues with accuracy and empathy. Drug and alcohol addiction, domestic abuse, terminal illness, gay marriage and abduction are all problems that have been tackled on-screen. Script writers and actors research such story lines thoroughly, in order to portray the issue with as much truth as possible. Sometimes, they meet with real-life people who have first-hand experience of the issue. Sometimes, charities that deal with such problems are approached.
When popular soap character Stacey Slater, played by Lacey Turner, discovered she had bi-polar disorder in Eastenders, the BBC approached charities such as Mind and The Bipolar Organisation (Manic Depression Fellowship), in order to ensure that they could create an accurate story. In another story line, actress Kacey Ainsworth, who played abused wife Mo Slater over a decade ago, met with three women who had suffered domestic abuse in real life. It is not only about creating an accurate story line to give the show credibility - the airing of such harrowing issues is sensitive when it is considered that some of the watching public will resonate with the topics due to personal experience.
Die-hard soap fans like nothing better than to disappear into someone else's world for half an hour - even if that world is often fraught with problems and incidents that make their own lives seem like a box of chocolates. Getting caught up in the characters' lives is all part of the escapism . A long-running series offers a comforting familiarity, a bit like putting on a favourite pair of slippers. It is always there, ready to fill in that slot at the end of a day. Some soaps have even become part of the Christmas Day ritual - an occasion when viewers can usually be assured of watching some dramatic events unfold. Christmas on a British soap opera rarely goes well!
When you want a break from your own routine or a chance to forget your own problems, what better way than to become embroiled in someone elses' for a while? And because soaps tend to be long-running shows - the first episode of Coronation Street aired in 1960 - there is none of the disappointment felt when a favourite serial comes to an end. In fact, getting hooked on a soap can be a gradual process, which can sometimes leave viewers unable to remember a time when they didn't watch it. Long-standing characters are followed as they grow up and journey through their lives (and sometimes deaths) like loyal, on-screen friends. And when something happens to a well-loved character, no matter how fictional, it can almost be like a grieving process for some people.
Even for those of us who are not, or who won't admit to, being quite so pulled in, soaps still make for easy watching. Regular viewers can switch on and relax, already familiar with the setting and the faces on the screen. It is not like watching a one-off drama, where we have to concentrate as we get to know the characters and the story line. With a favourite soap, we know what's what from the very second the theme tune ends.
A Woman's Ritual
Often, it is women who enjoy watching soap operas, whereas men do not share the same enthusiasm. When we think about the reasons for this, we should consider the emotional nature of females compared to their male counterparts. Men are typically practical, gravitating more towards action, sports, factual programmes, thrillers with conclusions or obvious humour. Women might like these too, but by nature they are often more empathetic, feeling emotions in a different way to men. Men are much less caught up in the psychological dramas of day-to-day life - which is one of the main elements of soap operas that attracts women. Females tend to gossip more, whereas men discuss topics. Men obviously do care about relationships, but they are much less interested in discussing them, or in concerning themselves with other people's. The emotional play-out of events does not resonate so naturally with men, who like to look for quick solutions to problems. Therefore, the ritual of soap-watching will always appeal more to women.
Dot Cotton Facing Some of the Problems of Ageing in Eastenders
Another factor that draws in viewers is the apparent 'ordinariness' of many of the characters. British soaps resonate with their watching public because they reflect (to an extent) the ordinary man/woman on the street. Unlike the flashy American Soaps that we watched in the eighties, we often feel we can relate to our favourite characters. Whilst some aspects of soaps might be overly dramatic and unlikely, there is much for us to find understanding in. The typical, working citizen, who likes a drink and a bit of a banter in their local; the tribulations of relationships, marriage and divorce; the loneliness of the elderly; emotional dilemmas; struggles with money; gossipy chats with the hairdresser; teenage issues; interaction within the community - all of the aforementioned can hit a note of understanding within ourselves.
Sometimes, issues aired can help us to better understand other people and their plights - not long ago, favourite Eastender Dot Cotton, played by the legendary June Brown, was viewed suffering from loneliness and depression. Recent history showed her on-screen husband sent into full-time residential care after suffering a stroke - after Dot tried to look after him at home but couldn't cope. Without going over the entire story, viewers ere given an insight into the difficulties that might be faced as one ages, and the emotional traumas that might be experienced. Not only that, but as a result we are given a glimpse into the minds of some of our own elderly relatives or our ageing neighbours, struggling in isolation behind closed curtains.
Understanding others in our society is important, and sometimes we can be educated via the television. Yes, some story lines are at best unlikely - but most soaps also approach serious issues in a conscientious manner. Our best soaps have remained popular over decades and across generations - and it doesn't look as though they are going anywhere soon.