Feminist film and television studies shared a crucial period of development in the late 1970s and early 1980s, taking shape into influential fields and helping to establish central questions for media scholarship that would carry through to the twenty-first century. Laura Mulvey's mid-1970s theorization of male spectatorship revolutionized the field, but left many feminist scholars wondering about female spectatorship, specifically the potential for feminized forms of “visual pleasure,” whether in cinema or other media.1 The result was a turn by feminist thinkers toward two objects: melodrama and soap opera. The work generated amid the Western world's second wave of feminism focused on women's engagement with screen cultures, but in so doing explored conceptions of spectatorship and audiencehood, the relationship between textual analysis and contextual inquiry, and the specificity of film and television as narrative forms and sites for the construction of identity.2
The study of film melodrama preceded the study of soap opera in an explicitly feminist vein. Beginning in the 1970s, film scholars began to attend to the category of “melodrama,” a grouping of films that were often seen as synonymous with the “family melodrama,” particularly of the post–World War II era. Such films had long been dismissed as insignificant for film study due to their feminized emotional excess, but in the 1970s such works as those of Douglas Sirk were “rediscovered” as ironic commentaries on the ideological tendencies of patriarchal capitalism, expressed largely through visual style.3 In the same period, Mulvey, writing about Sirk as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, began to define a more overtly feminist concern, declaring the specific “interest to women” in such films, given their emphasis on “the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive, and erupts dramatically into violence within its own private stamping ground, the family.”4
By the early 1980s a number of feminist film scholars had taken up this interest, which had further morphed into a focus on the “maternal melodrama” or, alternately, the “woman's film,” categories employed to designate those classical Hollywood films best suited to an examination of the relationship between gender and (film) culture.5 The slippage between these categories was at times a point of dispute, but scholarly energy was more focused on whether women spectators’ identification with the (often suffering) characters of such films was ultimately liberatory or oppressive.6 The emphasis on spectatorial identification was a product of the influence of psychoanalytic theory, but the struggle over the ultimate meaning of that identification was a political one, born of feminist scholars’ conflicting beliefs in the damaging impact of Hollywood cinema as a patriarchal institution and the hope that women's cinematic pleasures were more than evidence of dupery. As Linda Williams would put it in the late 1990s, reflecting back on this era, it was a debate asking, “Did the emotion [of the film] swallow us up, or did we [women] have room within it to think?”7
Some of the feminist scholarship on melodrama noted the link between its narratives of maternal and familial suffering and those of the sentimental novels from nineteenth-century women's culture.8 Tania Modleski traced the influence of such novels into the popular twentieth-century forms of Gothic fiction, Harlequin romance, and daytime television soap opera.9 Modleski's concept of spectatorship for the woman in the home, watching daytime dramas, included processes of identification with, and as, the “ideal mother.” This soap archetype, the mother able to empathize with the perspectives of “all her children,” provided a model for the woman spectator encouraged to feel the suffering of the broad canvas of characters, as well as of her own family. In Modleski's analysis, soap opera spectatorship acclimated women to their place within patriarchal domesticity, serving as an escape valve for their dissatisfactions while simultaneously containing their anger.10 Modleski's work, along with other emerging writing on television soap opera, was in dialogue with the debates over the cinematic maternal melodrama—all explored feminized pleasure as constrained by patriarchy.11
In the same period, British scholar Charlotte Brunsdon, influenced by feminist film scholarship and by the growing practice of cultural studies, introduced a more sociological dimension, arguing that making meaning of soap opera viewers depended on “the culturally constructed skills of femininity,” a claim avoiding the psychoanalytic bent of most feminist work on “‘gynocentric’ genres.”12 For Annette Kuhn, Brunsdon's work opened new possibilities in the scholarship on women's genres, for it helped distinguish between “spectatorship” as referencing the psychic address of a media text, and the “social audience,” the actual people, socially constituted, engaging with media. Kuhn also saw these distinctions mapping onto divergences between the study of film and that of television, demonstrating that feminist concerns were driving forces for these evolving fields.13
Some feminist soap opera scholarship continued to engage with the queries and approaches of the psychoanalytically oriented work on melodrama, considering both American and British variations, airing in daily daytime and evening slots, or in weekly prime-time berths.14 A cultural studies influence could also be found in some of these and other works of the 1980s and 1990s, with research on soap opera audiences shaping the foundation of TV audience studies and, eventually, of fan studies.15 Meanwhile, feminist film theorists had begun to reexamine the very notion of melodrama itself. Christine Gledhill, drawing upon Peter Brooks's concept of “the melodramatic imagination,” advocated for understanding melodrama as a “mode” rather than a genre, seeing it as a foundational expression of Hollywood cinema, one much more broadly applicable than previous film study had acknowledged.16 Alongside this turn was a growing body of scholarship that historicized melodrama within the film industry and the culture at large, work that veered away from some of the earlier feminist concerns but that demonstrated the vast reach of this once-dismissed form.17 Taking up Gledhill's re-theorizing, Linda Williams has pursued several projects that conceptualize the “American melodramatic mode” across literature, theater, film, television, and news event coverage.18 Film theorists have largely left behind the debate over melodrama as a women's form in favor of examining the influence of melodrama across much of American cultural history.
As the US daytime television soap opera has declined in popularity in the twenty-first century, so too has scholarship on the genre diminished. The most robust work has centered around the historicization of the daily serials of daytime network radio of the 1930s and 1940s, inquiries that have expanded our understanding not only of this genre, but of feminized culture and its implications for women in the broadcasting industry and the audience.19 My own work seeks to further develop this historicization, but to do so for the nearly seventy years of the US daytime soap on television.20 What I have found is that soap opera has had a crucial, foundational role in the economic, aesthetic, and social life of American television; in the path of daytime soap opera we can see that of American broadcast network television more broadly. My claim is more specific to the particularities of US television than is the turn toward conceiving of melodrama as a mode informing much of American narrative history, but it shares with such scholarship a crucial insight. As the study of both melodrama and soap opera have evolved, feminist scholars have uncovered ways that these long denigrated, feminized forms have been central to the two most prominent mass media of moving image storytelling. What we once considered the marginalized culture of women has proven itself to be at the heart of culture for all.