Since the debut of These Are My Children in 1949, the daytime television soap opera has been foundational to the history of the medium as an economic, creative, technological, social, and cultural institution. In a new book, Her Stories (Duke University Press, 2020), Elana Levine draws on archival research and her experience as a longtime soap fan to provide an in-depth history of the daytime television soap opera as a uniquely gendered cultural form and a central force in the economic and social influence of network television. Closely observing the production, promotion, reception, and narrative strategies of the soaps, Levine examines two intersecting developments: the role soap operas have played in shaping cultural understandings of gender and the rise and fall of broadcast network television as a culture industry. In so doing, she foregrounds how soap operas have revealed changing conceptions of gender and femininity as imagined by and reflected on the television screen.

In this excerpt, Levine looks at how “the soaps”, challenged by flagging ratings in the 1990s, embraced the social issues of their day.

Reality versus Fantasy

As soap ratings initiated their slow decline by the later 1980s, the programs began to explore new developments in storytelling, shifting the boundaries of soap opera both topically and in the politics of its representation of social groups. Seeking to reverse the ratings declines of the later 1980s, many soaps turned away from action-adventure and fantasy and toward the social issues that had once been central. “Nets prescribe reality for soaps,” read Variety in 1990. This “prescription” was meant to cure not only the general ratings dip but also the more poorly received extensions of early eighties–style fantasy, as in General Hospital’s introduction of Casey, an alien from the planet Lumina, in 1990, or the discovery of the underground city of Eterna on One Life to Live in 1989, which critics in the soap press referred to as the “tragedy” and “destruction” of that soap. Responding to such critiques, One Life To Live took on the tale of young heroine Megan Gordon Harrison being diagnosed with lupus; she succumbs to the disease in 1992 while gazing out her hospital window, braced in her husband’s arms. This turn continued the legacy of super-couple-style grand romance, but it did so by dooming the couple to real-world trauma. One Life to Live’s shift from Eterna to lupus over less than three years typified this altered narrative strategy.

The return to social relevance was also assisted by the changing social and political climate. Public attention to topical issues, particularly espousals of acceptance around social difference, were magnified with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as US president and the message of progressive change it signaled after twelve years of Republican dominance. The soap stories of this period both contributed to and resulted from this altered “structure of feeling.” Their earnest concern with the felt impacts of real-world struggles, particularly those surrounding the physical and emotional health and well-being of oneself and one’s loved ones, fit well with soap opera’s historic emphasis on personal life and liberal tolerance. Initially, such issues as childhood sexual abuse, incest, organ donation, and breast cancer kept the return to relevance more at the level of the individual than the social, even as soaps espoused educational and public service motives for such stories. These were not necessarily the politically engaged critiques of the mid–network era’s relevant turn, but the stories were so different in tone from those of the super-couple era that, at the very least, they gestured toward wider significance.

One way the post-network era soaps demonstrated this “return” to relevance was by attending to the AIDS crisis, albeit largely by afflicting heterosexual, female characters rather than the gay men with whom the disease was initially associated. In the later 1980s and the 1990s, gay and AIDS afflicted characters alike tended to be short-term residents in soap communities, at least one step removed from the long-term, core characters. Even as these plots were one way of embracing social issues, the soap press charged that soaps had “copped out on the issue of AIDS ” by not depicting a central character with the disease. The answer to such critique was to place AIDS at the center of a youthful, heterosexual romance, which still avoided the long-term integration of gay identities — a matter with which the soaps would not grapple until the 2000s — but which brought the recent past stories of young couples in love into dialogue with relevance and reality.

One prominent such case was created by General Hospital in 1995, when rebellious “street kid” Stone Cates, unknowingly infected with HIV by a past drug-abusing girlfriend, confronts his AIDS diagnosis alongside his love, “good girl” teen Robin Scorpio, daughter of two of the program’s central adventurers of the 1980s. The progression of Stone’s disease put the program in touch with reality by representing the devastation of AIDS, but it also brought an insurmountable obstacle to the couple, one drastically different from the undercover operations and villainous foes the super-couples of Robin’s parents’ generation had faced. Their tragic love story was compounded by the revelation that Robin had been infected, as well. Robin’s HIV positive status subjected a “legacy” character to the AIDS threat, all the more impactful since the character had been played by the same actor since the age of six, making her an especially significant figure for audiences that had watched GH in its network era peak. Robin’s diagnosis kept her from fulfilling the archetypal princess role that had been so important to the super-couple phase. She was a different kind of soap heroine for a story that offered a near inversion of the fantastical tales of the 1980s. By beginning the story as a tragic, heteronormative romance, General Hospital engaged with the primacy of young love in recent soap history but refigured it into the more socially engaged terms of the early post-network age.

While the (re)embrace of social issues and the reimagining of romantic love were crucial shifts in the 1990s, some soaps moved in the opposite direction, pushing ever further away from the issues of the day, and at times from progressive shifts in representation. The most infamous such case appeared on Days of Our Lives, where in 1994 and 1995 heroine Marlena Evans was possessed by the devil. Created by head writer James E. Reilly, who had been experimenting with increasingly over-the-top narratives since he joined the soap in late 1992, it was a story designed to stand out at a time of declining economic fortunes for daytime drama. The story aired amid a peak of politically conservative backlash against the Clinton presidency, magnified in the rightward swing of the 1994 midterm election and the religiously tinged rhetoric of “values” associated with politicians like Newt Gingrich and William Bennett. Also significant is the airing of the plot amid the media sensation of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, which caused frequent disruptions to the daytime schedule and offered a compelling reality that could seem as sensational and bizarre as what was happening to Marlena. The Days Of Our Lives story helped to keep fans engaged amid this distraction, but that engagement was not entirely favorable, as viewers struggled to reconcile the story line with the soap opera they thought they knew. The story’s politics of representation were part of this discomfort, as Days Of Our Lives ’s engagement with the devil and focus on Christian religiosity offered more a backlash against gender equity than progress toward it. Despite the potential to enjoy the story’s campy excess, the narrative extremity of Marlena’s possession was rooted in especially conservative values.

The story conformed to features of the super-couple era in certain respects. While Marlena is the most directly affected, the threat the devil poses is to the whole community of Salem and is instigated by the serial’s reigning villain, Stefano DiMera, who puts Marlena under a spell that unwittingly makes her vulnerable to possession. In November 1994, before the audience or anyone in Salem understands what has happened to Marlena (she is mysteriously ill), the community faces acts of anti-Christian vandalism: statues in a Catholic church are destroyed, a public Christmas tree and the toy drive beside it set on fire. The police dub the vandal “The Desecrator,” a “very disturbed individual [who] will stop at nothing to ruin Christmas.” Indeed, when setting fire to a church, the Devil-Marlena bellows, “I. Will. Not. Let. God. Win!” The soaps had centered suspenseful stories around threats to the community frequently in the 1980s, the super-couples working in concert with others to save the day. But this threat was different, surpassing the menace of a villain like Stefano and posing a more elemental, spiritual danger, one that even Stefano himself comes to fear. As the devil would soon announce, the goal was to “discredit the church and destroy people’s faith,” to dismantle the moral authority of religious belief.14 Such a menace seemed to have more in common with the fears promoted by 1980s televangelists — their neoconservative values continuing to push against the purported immorality of the Clintons in the mid-nineties — than with the bad guys fought by the eighties super-couples.

Another way in which the story had only partial resonance with super-couple narratives is in its limited focus on heterosexual romance and the mutually supportive gendered identities therein. There is no central couple in this story, as Marlena and her ex-husband, John, are not romantically involved at this point. John has only recently learned that he is a priest; his amnesia about his previous life has kept him from remembering this vocation. Thus, along with desecrating the symbols and structures of Christianity, the devil aims to accomplish its goals by tempting John to betray his priestly vows. While the Devil-Marlena tries to seduce John, their involvement does not conform to the pattern of the fated couple facing adversity. Nor is Marlena a fit with the strong-willed, yet innocent, heroine. If anything, she is a younger, more glamorous version of the wise and understanding town matriarch, who, when possessed, behaves much like a villainess, using exaggerations of femininity as she tries to tempt John. But Marlena herself is not undertaking these actions, for she is an unresponsive, bedridden body. The devil is the one taking action, including at times disrobing Marlena. She is a sexualized victim, evacuated of thought or desire, most of the time literally supine. John’s role is closer to that of the super-couple hero in that he struggles emotionally (as well as spiritually) and serves the community as both cop and priest. Instead of the super-couple supporting each other to defeat their foes, it is John alone who eventually rids Marlena of Satan.

Unlike the super-couple narratives that found ways to negotiate heteronormative fantasies and a changing society, Days Of Our Lives possession plot hewed to a more conventional melodramatic struggle between good and evil. Paired with the religiosity at the center of the story and the evacuation of the female character’s agency, the story was unusually overt in its conservative bent. And yet it was also rife with campy pleasures. Once the audience is clued into what has happened to Marlena, the reminders of her possession are frequent, as when, just days after we first see her levitate, her eyes turn yellow and she cackles in a deep, guttural voice, warning God, “You won’t win!” Marlena’s portrayer, Deidre Hall, took what opportunities she had to ham up her scenes as the Devil-Marlena, perfecting a thrown-back head and maniacal laugh. While most of the story is played entirely seriously, much as had been the case with Dark Shadows, another camp favorite, there were moments of ironic play, as might be expected of the self-reflexive post-network age. When the Devil-Marlena mocks Celeste, Stefano’s sidekick, or mimics Kristin’s attempts to be both virtuous and sexy (Kristin had been Marlena’s rival for John’s affections), the program winks at fan sentiments.

The story’s campy bent allowed a viewer cynical about religious piety or the heteronormativity of soap opera to take pleasure in the Devil-Marlena’s tactics, yet the dominant reading of the story depicted the devil’s actions as dangerous and frightening, as a true threat to the sacredness of Christianity. In permitting both dominant and subversive meanings, it functioned in the tradition of a horror film like The Exorcist, in that it simultaneously endorsed a religious, Catholic worldview in its depiction of the church’s noble battle against evil and was open to alternative, even queer, readings that took pleasure in the text making abject that which is typically normalized and idealized (the girl-child in one case, the pure soap heroine in the other). As one critic asserted in the soap press, with this story and others related to it, Days Of Our Lives “ingeniously worked both seriously and as high camp.”

The story did not work ingeniously for all; segments of the audience were quite wary. Soap Opera Weekly characterized it as “offensive” to many readers, and Daytime TV labeled it as “risky ground.” Such perspectives took offense at the story’s deviation from soap expectations. According to Daytime TV, “With this sordid tale, one thing Days definitely did was shy away from what soaps are all about!” Some viewers reconciled this discomfort, and perhaps also discomfort with the queer aura of the story’s campiness, by reading the plot as gradually bringing John and Marlena back together, a take Hall herself endorsed in the soap press and that corresponded to some extent to the super-couple trajectory. One fan noted this potential, which was underplayed on-screen: “We hope Father Black will realize how much he belongs with Marlena and Belle [their daughter]. Flashbacks of John and Marlena . . . ​would bring home these unique relationships.” The story eventually did include flashbacks of the two in more romantic times, which Devil-Marlena uses in her attempts to seduce John. As another fan explained, “The thought of John exorcising the devil from Marlena is fantastic and exciting . . . ​once the devil has come and gone, keep John and Marlena together. They are the most passionate, compelling couple ever to hit daytime.” The soaps had dallied with stories of priests tempted by love in the past, and such a narrative had been a proven draw in the best-selling novel and hit miniseries The Thorn Birds in the 1980s. Surely some of the excitement over the story’s potential to reunite John and Marlena was bound up with the (heteronormative) transgressiveness of Father Black sacrificing all for his love of a woman, which also fit conveniently with soap expectations. For many, the undercurrent of potential romance was all that saved the plot from “the show’s cheap attitude towards quality soap opera,” and perhaps also from its queer undercurrent.

Elana Levine is professor of media, cinema, and digital studies in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History (Duke, 2020). This excerpt from Her Stories by Elana Levine and was published with permission from Copyright Duke University Press, 2020