Soap Operas and Reality TV Dating Shows

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Relationship Between Soap Operas and Reality TV Dating Shows

Tania Modleski’s “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas” proposes that the unique appeal and function of soap opera lies in (a) the viewer’s ability to inhabit the text’s prescribed spectatorial position of ‘the good mother’, and (b) use the archetypal ‘villainess’ to displace one’s own repressed anger and powerlessness. It can be argued, using Modleski’s analytical perspectives on the interpellated spectatorial positions of soap operas, that a new genre of television programs (namely the reality dating shows) function in a similar way.

An examination of Modleski’s thesis renders these statements more likely. Modleski argues that soap operas are essential in understanding women’s role in culture. She claims that in viewing soap operas, the spectator simultaneously identifies with each of the characters, and is able to jump between loyalties instantly, as she aligns herself with all characters. The ‘good mother’/spectator is thus privy to all plot developments and events, although even in this omniscient state of narration she does not, or perhaps cannot, generate a particular bias or interesting in one of her ‘children’ over another. She asserts that in inhabiting this position of the ‘good mother’[1], popular culture can change one’s concept of self, one’s identity. [2] In depicting diametrically opposed themes (such as good versus evil, and right over wrong), soap operas, Modleski suggests, demonstrate the kind of patience, understanding and compassion that is characteristic of the ‘good mother’: she can have no claims of her own within the story, and thus acts completely selflessly in her attempt to care for and nurture each conflicting character. In this way, Modleski finds a direct connection between the spectator and her position within the text: as both are removed from the public sphere, and inproportionally restricted to domestic labour (in which case she works with her husband and children) or ‘woman-friendly’ careers (those heavily requiring interpersonal and communication skills ), they share the constant burden of establishing and renewing connections and complicated relationships.[3]

Modleski claims that this desire to build and maintain relationships is only thwarted by the presence of the ‘good mother’s’ anti-thesis: the ‘villainess’. As she signifies the contrary values of the ‘good mother’ (she is selfish, manipulative, scheming, etc.), the ‘villainess’ embodies the entirety of the spectator’s displaced, repressed anger at her own powerlessness.[4] She, as Modleski describes, takes everything that makes women vulnerable and turns it to her advantage (pregnancy, for example, is used by the villainess for the sake of manipulation, not guilt, shame or responsibility).

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"Soap Operas and Reality TV Dating Shows." 26 Apr 2017
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Even the soap opera’s unconventional narrative sponsors our hatred of this antithetical woman, we actively enjoy and participate in her suffering, and we love to hate her.

The style and qualities of soap opera, Modleski notes, are also important to its reception. For the housewife watching, they serve as an extension of repetitive domestic labour. The soap opera is purposefully constructed to endlessly defer plot development, thus catering to the likely busy housewife distracted with repetitious chores and responsibilities. Modleski attributes this deliberate deferral to the indirect meanings of the text: if we are always mid-storyline, if the plot is always continuing, then social order is never re-established and is under constant re-negotiation, thus the spectator can enjoy the possibility of radical change.

After much thought and persuasive argument, Modleski emphasizes the importance of this spectatorial position within culture and society: soap operas are about emotional connection and the fantasy of a good healthy life, sympathy and caring for one another, and the desire for community. More importantly, however, soap operas recognize the spectator/’good mother’s’ need to play a causal role within society; through soaps, she can experience control over her own lives, and the lives of others, as well as unconsciously release her repressed self-anger.[5]

This positioning of the spectator as the ‘good mother’ can thus be immediately compared, via Modleski’s reception model, to that of the ‘ideal sibling’ interpellated in today’s reality-dating shows. For the purpose of this analysis, I will restrict my observations to the hugely-popular elimiDATE, as it serves well as a representative of the genre and has achieved a level of near-cult status among devotees. elimiDATE combines the most intriguing elements of reality shows and traditional dating programs in weekly increments of a half-hour comedic dating series. The show simultaneously puts four suitors against one another in a sort of ‘date-off’ during which they compete with each other on a group date. These candidates, three of whom will be eliminated over the course of the game, need to outdo the competition using wit, charm and sex appeal’.[6]

A text-based analysis of this program would question the effect of popular culture on relationships, and thus, similar to Modleski, reveal its role in shaping identity. The combination of face-paced, high-energy reality programming mixed with sexual content and a ‘survival of the fittest’ motto no doubt explain its high ratings amongst 18- to 35-year old single men and women. The viewer sees it all, or a carefully edited version of it all. These shows all elicit a viewer's sense of romance, competition, and comedy through the lens of the real. One of the appeals of elimiDATE is its good-natured approach to its subjects. While many new dating shows use mockery that borders on condescension, elimiDATE has a confidence that eschews cheap shots. In the end, the eliminated rarely seem upset. They usually skip off like good sports, happy with their fifteen minutes. The viewer is reminded that it is all just a game played for her enjoyment.

The question remains, however, what shows such as elimiDATE offer to the spectator? It is my claim that these texts appeal to, and interpellate, the audience as an ‘ideal sibling’: that is, we are both critical and supportive of the show’s outcome. These contrasting responses arise from the viewer’s automatic association and identification with the competitors. As we are introduced to the stereotypical and archetypal locals[7] (in every episode we meet a collection of the Hick, the Bitch, the Sleaze-Ball, the Troublemaker, the Slut, the Asshole, etc.), the viewer at once recognizes similar personality traits, appearances, interests and tendencies within each of the participants to those of siblings[8], and thus automatically aligns siblings’ identities to the characters.[9] Even if the viewer cannot match sibling identify with the competitors, he or she relates them on some level to the central, targeted figure (‘the desired date’) with whom all are competing for a date.

This insight into the raw, competitive nature of humanity can be somewhat jarring; yet in identifying the characters as siblings, the spectator never ‘loses’ the competition. If, for example, Subject X wins the competition, the viewer may be somewhat upset, having preferred Subject Y (perhaps his beige sweater and Dockers were reminiscent of cousin Vinny); yet the viewer is also able to appreciate Subject X’s win as either (a) the viewer has identified Subject X as a sibling, or (b) has identified the desired date as a sibling, and thus is appreciative that Subject X is a more appropriate and suitable match. Thus in appealing to the viewer as the ‘ideal sibling’, the program is successful in securing a win for the spectator, and thus enhancing viewing satisfaction and increasing ratings. In the case that the least-identifiable counterpart triumphs, the spectator, as ‘ideal sibling’ is torn between disappointment and criticism. Much like a sibling, he or she is undoubtedly aware of and concerned about the TV-sibling’s faults, and is able to be critical within the boundaries of ‘unconditional love’.

The ideal elimiDATE spectator does not watch the show, as usually suspected, for the vain and narcissistic reassurance that one is better than the ‘losers’ one television, but rather, I believe, for that naïve, if clichéd, desire for ‘love at first sight’. The viewer participates in this absurdity as an ‘ideal sibling’ playing matchmaker, hoping to both find happiness for a loved one (perhaps to ignore one’s own lack of intimacy?) and confirm the existence of ‘true love’ and ‘the one’, even if only be chance. At the same time, however, the artificial conditions of the contest may deny the legitimacy of the experience, and thus some viewers, in their state as ‘ideal siblings’, may truly participate in the dismal experience of the eliminated competitors.

The inundation of reality dating shows, like talk shows and court shows before, is ultimately tied to cheap production values. Perhaps the future of reality television lies not in a miniseries of hour-long elaborate dramas, but rather in discrete half-hour segments. Could this encapsulation of gender dynamics, sexual ethics, and human interactions, trapped within the safe grid of heterosexual youth, represent a new era of spectatorial positioning, only a few years behind replacing the soap opera?


[1] Modleski notes that the best way of approaching a text is in inhabiting the subject position it offers. This allows the viewer/critic to relate and identify with the fan.

[2] This role has been shaped for us (the viewer) in an Althusser-esque ‘interpellation’ in which subject positions and discourses shape our identity.

[3] Modleski likens this phenomenon to the stark incidents of women holding ‘people-friendly’ jobs, such as in Public Relations.

[4] Modleski discusses the need for these repressed feelings: as much as the spectator may resent her position, she cannot express these emotions, as that would negate her status as the ‘good mother’.

[5] These desires seem notably utopian and idealistic, however, both in their radical motivations and unlikely possibilities.

[7] Each episode explores a new geographic location and this “regional” aspect of the show, which is filmed in various U.S. cities, is one of the advantages it has over competitors. The nomadic structure of the show allows the viewer to wander through social interactions from coast to coast, viewing the stereotype and the everyman/woman. In addition to making for compelling television, the local color roots the filmed individuals in their daily lives and provides them with an immediate, if one-dimensional, identity.

[8] The term ‘sibling’ in this context is undoubtedly flexible; this definition can of course be extended to include close friends, cousins etc. It is just important that a sibling-like relationship is present.

[9] The distinction must be made here between the role of ‘ideal single sibling’ and ‘good mother’: while the good mother identifies with all characters as she cares for them, and hopes for their success and happiness, the ‘ideal single sibling’ identifies with the participants as himself or herself. Thus he or she is not exciting by the success of others, but rather the success of himself or herself, as embodied by others.

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