SOAP operas - aimed at women - are as popular as ever. But if they appear to endorse family, they may also undercut it with a subtext that institutionalizes female subordination. At the same time, for women who are unsatisfied with real life, soaps may be a kind of substitute for family.
Soap operas often give the appearance of valuing family. Characters yearn for ``the kind of security that a family has that has deep roots.'' They urge that ``family means giving and sharing.''
Indeed, one soap, ``All My Children,'' begins every daily episode with a shot of the family album.
Soap characters, who come to eloquent realizations - like ``Family is important'' or ``Family is all we've got, and we must never ever lose sight of that, ever'' - manage to get through all their trials and tribulations only because they are sustained by their families.
In difficult situations, characters repeatedly identify the family as ``the one thing that kept me going.''
Consider, for example, the apotheosis of the family in the following exchange from ``The Young and the Restless'' (between Nellie, a bag lady, and Jack Abbott, scion of the wealthy Abbott clan, concerning his estrangement from his father):
N: ``Mothers and fathers always forgive their children. ... Isn't that why most religions call God our Father? H'm? Because if we're truly sorry, He always forgives us?''
J: ``Yeah, but you're talking about a supreme being, not a human being.''
N: ``I'm talking about parent-child, mother-daughter, father-son. That kind of love lasts forever.''
While all this may seem fairly straightforward, it would be a mistake to take these comments at face value. Yes, the explicit message of the soaps may be the glorification of the family, but a different message is implicit in the way it is actually depicted.
Even as the family is glorified, it is always in turmoil. For example, the reason for the antagonism between Jack and his father is that Jack had an affair with his father's second wife.
So if the family is enshrined, as portrayed in soap operas, it is also embroiled in massive and nasty problems - adultery, divorce, incest, alcoholism, illegitimacy, and baby-napping.
Not a very pretty picture.
Although criticism of the breakdown of family and punishment of deviations from family norms occur in the soaps, there's a big difference between what is said about the family and what is shown.
SINCE the fragmentation of soap opera story lines encourages the suspension of critical processes, viewers probably never analyze (and may be unaware of) the underlying contradiction.
Instead, they may turn around and cling all the more tenaciously to the conservative message, which endorses the patriarchal family as the only explicit solution that has been offered.
The subtext that in fact questions the stability of the male-dominated family goes unrecognized, possibly generating inward concerns - especially since the contradictions may be exactly those that are central to women.
The basis of these contradictions may cause the same concern brought about by the breakdown of the patriarchal nuclear family and deep-rooted female ambivalence about the institution, in a form that dates at least as far back as the 18th century.
FEMINISTS have located the idealization of motherhood as women's chief identity in the Industrial Revolution. Production was transferred out of the home, which ceased functioning as the major manufacturing unit.
No longer economically useful at home, women came to accept motherhood as a full-time vocation that dominated their lives.
The ``sanctification'' of this form of at-home motherhood and the gradual dissolution of the extended family were attended by increased sexual division of labor and its consequent inequality for women.
Adult relatives - as well as nonfamily members (boarders, servants) - who could help take care of children left the home. Child care became the exclusive domain of the mother.
IRONICALLY, however, many soaps do not primarily reflect the nuclear family. Often they hark back to the extended family, as adult children marry and have children of their own without moving out of the family home.
This nostalgic leapfrogging may indicate dissatisfaction with the nuclear family.
It may fail to provide sufficient emotional sustenance for women, whose lives sometimes become circumscribed by economic dependence and child-care demands.
On the soaps, where there's a child, there is usually an extended family (or, at the very least, servants) to help with care. Whether aunt, uncle, parent, grandparent, or servant, somebody always seems to be on hand.
This may be a kind of female fantasy, unavailable to most women - or perhaps available only on the soaps themselves - which can come to function to a high degree as a replacement for extended kinship.
Like the respondents in a recent survey I conducted, many viewers regard soap characters as ``family'' or ``friends.''
They often treat these characters like real people, discussing their problems, sending them a barrage of mail, or showering them with gifts like baby booties, as the occasion demands.
When their husbands are transferred and women move away from traditional systems of support - family, friends, community, and church or synagogue - they can always ``take along'' their soaps.
Assuming a quasi-familial role, soaps may diffuse a need created by the development of the nuclear family.
They may provide isolated mothers with what may be their only adult ``conversation'' and ``company'' during the day.
For many, then, soap operas may both heighten and lessen concerns about family. They may simultaneously embrace and undercut the nuclear family - even as for some they function as a substitute for it.
Deborah Rogers, an English professor at the University of Maine, Orono, is writing a book on soap operas and women.