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.
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.
Marshall Fish on February 17, 2020:
I only just saw your Hub now (although it was published a long while ago). I'm an EastEnders fan, too, even though I live in the U.S. Those early EastEnders episodes in the 80's with Den, Angie, The Fowlers, Beales, Mary "The Punk" Smith, and many more were so unlike the U.S. soaps of the day. So, nice Hub, and yes, June Brown is tremendous!
Alleviate on March 25, 2019:
Toad.who pull few
Ileana Margarita on February 24, 2018:
I watch Turkish and Latino Soap Operas. I asked myself why I do watch them in my free time. I find it relaxing, I enjoy to see the production part, how expensive can be to do a scenarios. Some seems real houses, farm. How the actors get a expensive clothing to represent their characters. I enjoy imagining the cameras rolling the scenarios and characters. I enjoy characters being so good doing their performance.
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on January 23, 2016:
Congrats on HOTD! Well-done analysis and explanations.
For myself, I never got into watching these--I'd rather be outside doing stuff, like camping, skating, and the like. (Tomboy at heart.)
One time, I was in for a haircut, and all the other women were chatting about some awful thing that had happened to someone, and I thought they all knew each other, and the person in question. It took me a good 10 minutes to figure out they were discussing a soap opera. I just rolled my eyes.
I'd rather watch educational things on the History channel, or for escapism, give me Sci-Fi and the likes of Star Trek! ;-)
Al Wordlaw from Chicago on January 23, 2016:
Hi Polly C, Congrats on HOTD! Watching the soaps affects the watcher's life to a large degree and in more ways than one. Let's take for instance, a man on the program says something to or abuses his female partner for whatever the reason, then a man watching that may abuse his female partner because of the idea he saw on the soap. A woman watching may use the idea that she saw a woman say or do on the program a well. I think for serious viewers, watching the soaps will leave you depressed, manipulative, imitative, with anxiety and late doing what needs to be done like picking the kids up from school or getting somewhere on time.
Marlene Bertrand from USA on January 23, 2016:
I do have my soaps (The Young and the Restless and Bold and Beautiful). I have watched them since the first day they aired and I suspect I will watch them until I can't watch them anymore. My attraction to them in the beginning was that their storylines were closer to real life than the other soaps. But, now they are way out of line with reality. I watch them now to see how far the writers will take a story line before reeling it back to reflect reality. I watch soaps when I don't feel like doing anything else. It's not real life, so like Calgon, it takes me away for a while. By the way, congratulations on receiving Hub of the Day.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on January 23, 2016:
I've been watching soaps for many years since I was 12 years old. The same can be said for US soaps, since we're down to four. But there's a hope that AMC and OLTL might be back on air, depending on the ongoing arbitration between ABC and Prospect Park. Most of the issues have been realistic to a T, when it dealt with AIDS/HIV, gay relationships/marriage, rape, abortion, cancer, etc. We can all relate to those issues in our own lives, Congrats on HOTD!
Carol Clarke Reed from Remote on January 23, 2016:
I like, (Days of Our Lives). Would I have watched this and (Another World) if I hadn't sat and watched them when I was a young girl with my mom and sister? Probably not. (Another World) is off the air, now. And the only time I am able to watch, Days of Our Lives, is when I have some free time. Sometimes they are so far off from realistic but I must say, with in the last few months it seems like they have discovered a new writer for my show because the drama is a considerable improvement, with extreme emotions brought out by the same characters that the show has had on for some time now and more true to real life. I love movies and I love the traditional watching of the one Soap Opera that I have left. It gives my sister and I a few more things to talk about, considering we neither one find it sporty to talk about real people and their lives. Rest in peace Mom, whom started it off in my close-knit family. Thanks, Polly C, for sharing your topic and the chance for me to leave my comment.
Marc Lee from Durham, NC on January 23, 2016:
Most people watch soap operas because those character's lives are so much more messed up than our own...It's a escape from reality, as we watch them in all kinds of crazy situations and intrigue..and, yes, in college, I was one of those guys that did watch them.....I remember getting caught up in General Hospital and One Life To Live and All My Children......
Victoria Lynn from Arkansas, USA on January 23, 2016:
Congrats on HOTD! Soap operas are pretty popular in the US, too, although there are fewer than there used to be as talk shows seem to have taken over daytime TV. I watched Days of Our Lives with my mom when I was a kid, and I still get hooked on it now and then through the years. :-)
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 23, 2016:
Congratulations for the HOTD!
You raise an important issue here. I don't watch soap operas because I do not enjoy them much especially the long and never ending ones. But many of my family and friends do enjoy and as you said never miss a single episode.
I think it is an individual choice. Some like watching television shows others enjoy reading or engaging in some outdoor activity.
Enjoyed reading your hub! Thanks.
Craig Whyel from Charleroi, Pennsylvania on May 06, 2015:
Great Hub. Thanks.
One of the great things I used to love about Brit soaps were the prominence of the everyday person.
There seems to have been a shift, however, in more attractive people and characters who could almost fit on US soap opera.
I don't think it's good form as US soaps have been on their last legs for a while now.
Again, thanks for the Hub
Polly C (author) from UK on November 20, 2012:
Hi Caroline - well, I don't know much about latino soaps but they definitely sound like great stress relievers and a great contrast to the often rather bleak scenarios portrayed on British Soaps! Thank you for sharing your views :)
Polly C (author) from UK on November 20, 2012:
Hi Eddy - Eastenders is my main weakness since I have watched it from the first episode and it is now too much of a habit for me to stop! I haven't managed to get into Emmerdale. I think Coronation Street is probably the all-time Queen of the Soaps though, isn't it? I'm sure my grandmother watched it from the very beginning right until the end of her life when she was 97.
Thank you for reading, I'm pleased you enjoyed the hub :)
Caroline Holmes on November 20, 2012:
Nice post, for me I only follow latino soap operas, also called telenovelas, why? I guess muscular bodies and sexy spanish accents take away some of the office stress and then I can sleep like a baby!
Eiddwen from Wales on November 20, 2012:
I only watch Coronation Street and Emmerdale and have done so for as long back as I can remember.I so enjoyed this hub and now look forward to so many more by you.
Polly C (author) from UK on November 20, 2012:
@ Daytime Divas - thank you for sharing your views, it was very interesting to read of your opinion. I know some males like watching soaps because I often have my 12 year old son watching on the sofa next to me!
I'm a Brit, so I tend to prefer British Soaps and have to write what I know about. Those in the US might well have different thoughts on the subject and it is great to learn of those. Many thanks for stopping and sharing your perspective :)
Polly C (author) from UK on November 20, 2012:
londonlady, thank you for comment and for stopping by :)
Daytime Divas from Salem, Genoa City, Port Charles... on November 19, 2012:
Watching soaps is definitely a predominantly female past time. To be fair though, there are some very devoted male soap opera fans.
For me, I watch soap operas because they aren't realistic. I don't want to see my life on TV.
Though I have watched Coronation Street and Eastenders in the past, the pure escapism that the US soaps (love em or hate em) provide is what draws me in...
Laura Writes on November 19, 2012:
I definitely agree that females watch more soaps than males. I can use my mother as an example of this! Informative hub, voted up and interesting.