Soap Operas - Sociology of the Media and Popular Culture

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Are soap operas radical television? Or do they merely support a dominant ideology under capitalism?

Question Four

Are soap operas radical television? Or do they merely support a dominant ideology under capitalism?

"Vicki! I…I thought I heard your voice"
Roy Lichtenstein; Vicki; 1964

"Oh, Jeff…I love you, too…But"
Roy Lichtenstein; I love you…but; 1964

Traditional soap opera dialogue is not unlike the pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein's stylised magnification of the commonplace in his satirical paintings of the 1960's. Coupled with Lichtenstein's oft-considered triteness of relationships, which is duplicated in soap operas, both have their critics that regard them high art or inferior pop art. Soap operas provide mass entertainment for a countless number of people of varying gender, age, ethnicity and social position. These electronic melodramas are observed in millions of homes around the globe each day, where it is not uncommon for fans to partake in several consecutive televised soap operas a day. Dedicated spectators watching these programs have, in some cases, created a blur between fantasy and reality and consequently written letters to warn actors about impending danger. Social theorists have raised concern over these habitual and unusually involved viewing practices, proclaiming that the serial may be a vehicle for a concealed capitalist ideology that claims to be light entertainment. Conversely, what some critics see as the poorest display of the electronic media soap operas are also revered, by some, as the vanguard of it.

Theorists of the Frankfurt School, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, wrote extensively in their book (The German Ideology), on the subject concerning the media and its' hidden hegemonic ideologies. Antonio Gramsci's hegemony, the study of how social dominance of one social group is held over another, led Marx and Engels materialist theories into the sphere of ideology dispensing institutions (cited in Lull; 1995; p.32). Marx described ideologies as "the transmission of systems of signification across class lines" by communication (cited in Bennett; 1982; p.48). This ongoing transmission of ideas, values and predisposition's through the manipulation of public information and imagery constructs an ideology that some theorists claim sustains the material and cultural interests of its creators. A dominant ideology is a system of ideas that asserts, reinforces and advances the interests of a society's elite socioeconomic group. The mass media is an ideal way for the elite to reach the inferior classes on a global scale and television is the perfect medium. In the form of light entertainment programs, commercials, news, current affairs and soap operas, television has the ability to expose, dramatise, and popularise certain viewpoints to the public.

Many theorists claim that the ideological perspectives that are projected through the electronic media cannot be responded to only consumed. Ward (1995; p.24) developed the ‘hypodermic needle' theory where the media and its ideologies are "pumped directly into the veins" of the viewer. Developed by Harold Laxwell, with a distinct American liberal approach to the media around the 1930's, hypodermic needle theory assumes the media consumers to be uniform in their reactions to the programs viewed. A direct cause and effect relationship is implied which proposes that the public ingests the media text and responds predictably. Nothing intervenes between the media text and the consumer. With the first mass signs of propaganda and government brainwashing evident, during a time of world conflict, it is clear how this theory was developed. Attributed to Gerbner and Gross (cited in Lane; 1996; p.76), cultivation thesis, comparable to hypodermic needle theory, limits the audiences capacity to oppose ideologies through media texts. The publics' perception of crime will be shaped, according to their thesis, by how it is...
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