Split personalities and evil twins, secret babies and long-lost heirs. Soap operas provide us with stories of high drama and deep intrigue, contrasting scenes of familiar domestic life with a narrative tuned to the highest possible emotional frequency. Because they air every day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, daytime soap operas are in a unique position to reflect and comment on the events taking place in the world and, significantly, in the lives of their audiences. As BBC Magazine has argued, soap operas around the world have used the power of emotional melodrama to help viewers gain insight into the lived experiences of people in marginalized communities, and to empathize with the personal and emotional aspects of social issues their audiences face on a daily basis, including adult literacy, drug addiction, and sexual health and safety.
Yet despite the impact that they have had on local and global cultures, soap operas, specifically daytime soap operas, have always been defined — and derided — by the gendered nature of their audience. As noted by the Museum of Broadcast Communication, despite being among the most narratively complex types of drama, “the connotation of ‘soap opera’ as a degraded cultural and aesthetic form is inextricably bound to the gendered nature of its appeals and of its target audience,” who are often portrayed as unintelligent and working-class. Especially in the United States, whenever a narrative is compared to a soap opera, it is meant to imply that it is tawdry, morally cheap, and appealing only to the under-educated and the lazy who are looking to escape work and their bleak realities.
The American press coined the phrase “soap opera” in the 1930s, to describe the wildly popular genre of daytime serialized radio dramas. Soap operas made the move to television around 1950, retaining both their complex storylines and their domestic product advertisers. Though only four such shows remain on the air in the United States, the popularity of the genre around the world ensures that the ‘soap opera’ remains a culturally relevant form of entertainment.1
In the United States, there are few shows that do it all better than General Hospital — at least in the eyes of this long-devoted fan. Set in the fictional town of Port Charles, New York, General Hospital (GH) holds the record for the longest-running American soap opera, and the second longest-running drama in television in American history (after Guiding Light). In addition to featuring ‘80’s supercouple Luke and Laura, whose (fictional) on-screen wedding drew a record-holding 30 million viewers, GH has also brought a number of significant and timely storylines to their show, from confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990’s, to casting a transgender activist Cassandra Jones to play a trans character named Terry this summer in order to advocate for trans justice and inclusion. Additionally, this year, the show featured a storyline informed by the #MeToo movement that took an extra step away from fiction, and towards social commentary and analysis with one enormously powerful episode.
Within the world of GH, medical student Kiki Jerome (played by Hayley Erin), is assigned to work with Dr. Bensch (James DePaiva). Though their relationship begins fairly amicably, things change when Dr. Bensch begins massaging Kiki’s shoulders during a meeting in his office. The touch is decidedly unwelcome, but as Kiki looks at Bensch’s degrees and accolades on the walls, she clearly realizes his prestige and institutional power both enable and protect him. Though Bensch later apologizes for “misunderstanding” what he calls Kiki’s “mixed signals”, his behavior continues unchecked.
After Bensch casts the deciding vote to admit Kiki to an elite mentoring program in order to have more access to her, he kisses Kiki against her will, and starts following her around the hospital, pursuing her into changing rooms and cornering her in empty hallways. Throughout the many weeks of this treatment, Kiki remains silent, afraid to speak up out of fear that she has done something to “deserve” Bensch’s abuse. However, when Bensch threatens to destroy her career with a viciously critical evaluation unless she sleeps with him, Kiki confides in a female co-worker, who immediately believes her. A few episodes later, another nurse at the hospital, Francesca Cavallo, offers to support Kiki in speaking out against Bensch’s behavior, explaining that he sexually harassed her, too.
Bensch’s abuse is not the outlandish demonstration of villainy seen in many soap opera plotlines, but instead cleaves far closer to audience members’ lived experiences of workplace harassment, as evidenced by the number of women sharing their own stories with cast members and the show via social media. And, as Recebba M. Bodenheimer noted in a critique of this plotline, “like many real harassment cases, GH depicts the ordeal women go through when they finally decide to come forward.” When Kiki’s superiors clear Dr. Bensch of any professional wrongdoing, she resolves to fight back with a lawsuit against him and is forced to fight for her reputation in court and the in press.
On the July 25 episode of GH, Kiki visits her attorney, Alexis, at Alexis’ home to state that she wants to drop her lawsuit, exhausted by the public scrutiny and hostility she is facing daily. Instead of arguing, Alexis invits Kiki inside, where four other women are waiting for her: her mother, Ava, police commissioner Jordan Ashford (one of the only Black women in the cast), restaurateur Olivia Falconeri, and Dr. Kim Nero. These characters seldom appear together, and when they do, their interactions are hardly amicable. However, as Ava explains, “We’re not here as friends, we’re here as women. Women who have been in your shoes, Kiki.”2 Alexis then asks the assembled group to “Raise your hand if you’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace.” Each women in the room does.
This silent statement, in and of itself, is a powerful one, not only acknowledging the reality of workplace harassment, but showing these women characters standing in solidarity with each other and with their viewers. The real emotional impact of the episode comes later, however, as each character tells her story of workplace intimidation and harassment. In the context of the episode, each character is speaking to Kiki. However, all five actresses deliver their lines directly to the camera, shattering the fourth wall that separates character from audience, fiction from reality. The emphasis is clear: these women characters are speaking not only as characters within the context of the show itself; they are engaging in a dialogue with their audience, and speaking on behalf of the viewers who may very well recognize some of their own experiences in the characters’ narratives.
It is clear that the writers conscientiously assembled a group of characters who are economically, socially, and racially diverse — this last is especially noteworthy in a show that features few people of color in general. This intersectional approach emphasizes the reality that sexual harassment is an issue that affects women universally but also affects each women individually, depending on her identity, her circumstances, and how vulnerable she is in her job.
Moreover, the episode shows women of different ages sharing their experiences, encouraging each other, and working together to promote justice and many forms of change; while Kiki is speaking out in a court of law, Jordan, Kim, and Olivia are working to raise sons “to be [men] who…could never even imagine doing the things that Bensch did to you.”3
The whole scene, in fact, is carefully constructed to emphasize that these women are challenging the kind of toxic masculinity that enables the kind of abuse they suffered, and changing “the definition of what a man is.” By recognizing that the corruptive nature of patriarchal systems is at the heart of these instances of abuse, this adroitly avoided making a claim that “not all men” are abusive.
At the end of the episode, when the women ask Kiki if her opinion on bringing her lawsuit against Bensch has changed, she declares, with growing confidence, “I didn’t realize what this lawsuit meant before today. But it matters because it matters. And sometimes in life, things are bigger than us, and this is definitely bigger than me. So, as hard as it’s going to be, I can do it. You all persevere, so I can, too.” And persevere she does. Since the July 25 episode, Kiki has won her lawsuit and has condemned all attempts to slut shame her for the life she led away from Dr. Bensch’s influence. Since winning her case, Kiki has also publicly stated that she is donating the $250,000 Bensch was ordered to pay her to women’s organizations, in order to provide help for those who cannot afford to speak up as she did.
Soap operas have always been in a unique position to comment on the events happening the “real world,” often doing so with a skill and nuance that wholly defies their cultural reputation as being cheap, salacious entertainment for the uneducated and the unthinking. General Hospital has historically addressed the social, medical, and personal issues with which their female audiences are coping. Few episodes, however, have spoken to the audience as directly as the July 25th #MeToo episode. By turning their faces to their viewers, the women of General Hospital broke walls and broke silences on both sides of the screen, creating an hour of television that deserves to be remembered.
- Those four are, in order of Neilsen ratings, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, General Hospital, and Days of Our Lives. Return to text.
- General Hospital, Season 56, Episode 81, directed by Frank Valentini, written by Shelly Altman and Chris Van Etten (ABC, July 25, 2018). Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
I guess this makes up for the hideous Luke and Laura origin story (falling in love with and marrying your rapist).
I couldn’t agree more! In talking with some other fans of the show from the Luke & Laura era, it is pretty impressive, generally speaking, how much progress has been made regarding women’s role and storylines. Still a long ways to go, but it’s a great start.