Thursday, August 07, 2008

As the World Turns

"It was a great soap opera"- Brett Favre

Favre was far from the first person to describe the events of the past several weeks as a soap opera. In fact, it became a bit of a cliche (right up there with the "messy divorce" metaphor that Mark Murphy felt compelled to contribute at the press conference announcing Favre's trade from Green Bay).

The Favre story, as prominent and unique as it as been, is far from the only event that has been designated a "soap opera" by the very media which perpetuates it. The O.J. Simpson case famously became a "soap opera" (when it wasn't a "media circus"). But it's not just football players who become real life soap operas: witness Scott Peterson, the Menendez Brothers, Monica Lewinsky, even Saddam Hussein. In fact, most national media stories about personalities have probably been termed by someone as a national soap opera.

But what exactly made it a "soap opera" instead of a simple narrative (or "story" if you will)? And what does it take for a saga to gain such a distinction? Furthermore, why does the association automatically acquire a negative connotation, when it necessarily also means that people are more interested in the story than they otherwise would be?

Here is one possible list of "ingredients" necessary for a story to attain "soap opera" status:

1. Protracted length: this is perhaps where news "soap operas" most closely resemble television soap operas as opposed to other narratives-- they drag out interminably.
2. Reversals of fortune: Favre is out, he's in, he's out, he's in...
3. Melodrama: Drama built on emotion rather than other dynamics. Think of the last couple times that Favre has most been in the national spotlight: his tearful retirement ceremony and his performance after his father's death.
4. Ambiguous designation of guilt: It is no coincidence that many of the "national soap operas" revolve around criminal trials, the ultimate forum for determining guilt. Yet we are drawn more to those that involve some degree of uncertainty. Even in the cases of O.J. and Scott Peterson, though the principle "characters" became mostly reviled, they maintained a strong charisma that made the assignation of guilt problematic. In the Favre saga, opinion polls were constantly being administered in Wisconsin to determine who the "bad guys" were---with the results constantly shifting depending on who gave the last interview.
5. Competing narratives: The truth is elusive in these real-life narratives, enabling the public to debate internally which version is the more likely.
6. Relatability (conscious or not): The more that a story has elements of psychological or sociological points of tension, the more likely it will become a public phenomena. The O.J. Simpson case became as much about race in America as about the guilt of an ex-football player. The Monica Lewinsky scandal turned into a national discussion on sexual mores. The Brett Favre story? A clear cautionary tale about workplace relations.

Speaking of Monica Lewinsky, she was improbably quoted in the Los Angeles Times in 1991 as saying that Days of Our Lives added "spice" to our lives. Along with the common description of soap operas as "juicy" and my own use of the word "ingredients" above, it becomes apparent that our "consumption" of soap operas is in a sense gastronomical. It bypasses out brains and heads straight for our bellies. And we all know what happens to food after that.

Yet whereas too much junk food is a bad thing, obviously some food is necessary for sustenance. Do we need these soap operas to live? Perhaps not in a physical sense, but in another way, does societal interest in narratives that involve complicated matters of judgment and morality constitute enervation or vitality?


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