Like the plot of any good melodrama, my relationship to The Bold and the Beautiful was a matter of fate, and a part of my life before I was even born. A little over 30 years ago, my mother was working alongside my grandmother at a gift shop in Illinois, when my mother realized that my grandmother kept disappearing from work every day at the same time and without a word of explanation. After a few such absences, my mother confronted her. My grandmother admitted, a little sheepishly, that she had been sucked into the soap opera on one of her lunch breaks and couldn’t stop watching.
Years later, when my mother was put on bedrest during her high-risk pregnancy with me and my brother, she and my grandmother would call each other after the end of each episode, ostensibly to hash out the plot, but really to provide each other with a bit of company. She tells me that, after I was born, my head would swivel towards the screen whenever I heard the show’s theme song, a cascade of schmaltzy saxophones and strings. There, I became the third generation enraptured by the B&B’s sexy escapades every weekday afternoon.
This couldn’t have been good for my pliable baby brain. The premise of the B&B is, essentially, a few families in the Los Angeles fashion scene doing terrible things to each other and to themselves. For 18 years I watched its characters fake their deaths, steal each others’ spouses, sleep together, sleep together on desert islands due to tropical aphrodisiacs, throw EDM masquerade parties where they sleep with their children’s partners, stab each other with cocktail swords, and kill each other with snakes and poisonous lemon bars.
I watched the show with my mother, jeering at it next to her on the couch for 18 years. We would often eat dinner with the TV on, offering each other more commentary on the show than on whatever had happened in our days. Our phone calls with my grandmother after the final credits had rolled sometimes lasted hours into the evening. “Do you think Brooke and Ridge are ever going to get out of that bed?” my mother would laugh into the phone. “You’d think they’d need to reapply makeup by now,” I could hear my grandmother respond via the tinny sound from the phone’s speaker. For the three of us, the show was a bit of shared excitement, and something easier to laugh at than the tiring banalities of our lives.
I kept watching with my mom until I left home and lost my cable access. Subtract two days from the seven in a week, multiply that by 22 minutes a day, multiply that by 52 weeks in a year, multiply that by 18 years, you get 102,960 minutes, or 1,716 hours, or a little over 1 percent of my life. If the trend continued and I lived to be 100 years old, I would have spent a year watching bronzed television stars make out.
As I got older, I started to wonder whether the show wasn’t just bad, but bad for us. I went off to college and learned all sorts of ways to criticize TV shows, which isn’t hard for a show that comes apart in your hands. The B&B trades in the most egregious sexist stereotypes, the most vapid displays of LA wealth, and the most obvious sidelining of any character who isn’t white. Growing into my own queerness, I became more sensitive, too, to how relentlessly heterosexual the B&B is; in a show that’s all about romance, the only queer characters I can remember are a pair of chiding lesbian aunts. Devoting so much of my consciousness to straight people in heat began to feel less like a guilty pleasure and more like self-annihilation.
And yet, for every part of me that wants to rip apart the B&B—and thinks that would be a worthwhile political project, for myself and others—there’s a part of me that doesn’t. My mother is no dupe; she can see these problems too. After I came out to her, she started to invite the possibility of picking apart the B&B as secretly sort of queer, for my sake. We laughed at the way that kisses between some couples resembled what happens when a small child smashes Barbie’s and Ken’s faces together, or how the show’s male star tells women sweet nothings like a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, batting his pretty eyelashes to sell the line.
But for my mother, the B&B has also been a lifeline: a way to keep in touch with family thousands of miles away, and, when thinking about her life becomes too stressful or painful, a way to spend 22 minutes every day with something that doesn’t require much thought at all. That these 22 minutes might be filled with patriarchal/capitalist/moronic ideology is one thing, but their importance to me and my mom, if only in terms of the sheer amount of our lives spent watching, is quite another. What we might need, then, is not a critique, but a reckoning: what has become of our lives, eked out at the pace of daytime television?
Within the massive body of scholarship loosely called media studies, it is strangely difficult to find one vocabulary that could define the effects of regularly watching awful TV. Our dependence on the B&B might be a case of what the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” or “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object.” She doesn’t mean “problematic” in the millennial, politically-aware vernacular—though the B&B is certainly that—but rather a kind of object that actively works against your better interests, whether you know it or not. Cruel optimism can be anything from an unhealthy investment in a dead-end job to dreams of ‘the good life’ that may never materialize. Here it might be an attachment to the reliable pleasure afforded by a TV show that fills your life with images of the most reprehensible people in Los Angeles. (There is, in fact, one ‘therapist’ on the show, but it seems far-fetched that she could offer any of the characters advice on how to live less dramatic lives, seeing that her storyline leads her to cryogenically freeze herself after running someone over with her car.)
Since the ’70s, some feminist film critics have led a long and storied campaign against such pleasure, analyzing how media objects are formally constructed to mark women as spectacles to be looked at and manipulated, and to make you implicitly identify with male characters who take pleasure in looking and manipulating. One such polemic, from Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” is held dear by film students across the country (including myself). “It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article,” Mulvey writes, aiming for “a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film.”
That essay coined the now-ubiquitous term “male gaze,” arguing that traditional narrative film, through techniques such as camera placement, editing between shots, and out-of-nowhere dancing routines, construct women as passive and “to-be-looked-at,” and men as both the the audience and directors of this female spectacle. Essential to Mulvey’s point was that these films elicited this objectifying gaze from both women and men; this is certainly true of soap operas, which, ever since their inception as serial radio broadcasts, have almost always been marketed and addressed to women.
Much of the B&B centers around women being fawned over; a few years ago, it tried out a storyline about women’s empowerment, which led to one of the on-show fashion companies starting a lingerie line called “Hope for the Future.” But as much as soaps fixate on sexy spectacles, they also work to construct feminized gazes, not just male ones. The first radio serials, first broadcast in the ’20s, were in part advertisements for literal soap; the implication was that their audiences were largely housewives, looking for products to lighten their load. For decades after, soap operas were broadcast at a timeslot designed specifically for women living domestic lives—the middle of the afternoon, when everyone else was off at work.
You could thus reasonably attack women’s media for characterizing women as at home in the home, laboring and spending to uphold post-war family values for a country that simultaneously excluded them from the political sphere. But there were some critics who wondered if women, going to the movies to watch narratives that spoke to their lives, were only passive recipients of patriarchal ideology. Figures such as Berlant and Linda Williams proposed a sort of recuperative reading of genres such as melodrama films and soap operas, positing their viewers not as unthinking victims of political manipulation, but as women looking to media to find ways to make sense of the pain of being a (mostly white and middle-class) woman in the mid-to-late 20th century. Was there a way that women’s media represented women’s social labor and exclusion, not to promote this state of affairs, but to critique it?
One of the places critics found this form of subversion was in the work of Douglas Sirk, a German émigré who came to America during the rise of the Third Reich and began making some of the most famous American films of the ’50s, with wonderfully flowery titles like Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind. Sirk was well versed in the avant garde techniques used by German Expressionist dramatists like Bertolt Brecht, who presented life as farcical and strange in order to rouse their audiences for political action. Adapting his approach for the genre of melodrama popular among mid-century American women, Sirk translated Brechtian absurdity into a wry sense of camp, suffusing his films with an emotional intensity that verges on the obscene. His female characters wander their claustrophobic (but beautiful) homes as if in a dream; each piece of décor looms with untold emotional significance, as if a curtain blowing in the wind could speak the depths of their despair. These women are trapped, not only in their homes, but with their thoughts. There they wait, usually for terrible things to happen to them: miscarriages, murder, abandonment. “The world is closed, and the characters are acted on,” film historian Thomas Elsaesser writes of melodramas like Sirk’s. “The progressive self-immolation and disillusionment generally ends in resignation: they emerge as lesser human beings for having become wise and acquiescent to the world.” Somehow, after living through disasters that are achingly sentimental, Sirk’s women discover something that isn’t sentimental at all: their inability to escape conditions over which they have no control.
This hopeless conclusion means that these melodramatic women are, by definition, passive. But by analyzing how directors like Sirk staged female characters in forms of extreme abjection (victims not only of terrible circumstances, but also of their own powerlessness to stop them), critics pursued the glimmer of hope that the women watching them could begin to critique their own station as abject too. Melodrama’s entire raison d’être was to, by the saddest means available, practically force you to cry. But in doing so, the genre also took the most painful aspects of its female audiences’ lives—their relegation to the home, their lack of political and social agency—and displayed them in living color.
I am drawn to this sympathetic reading of the melodramatic, if only because my mom often feels powerless too. Over 30 years after working alongside my grandmother, she still works at a gift shop, now at a small children’s museum. The job, which often entails hours of standing on a bad ankle punctuated by occasional eruptions of the kids’ bodily fluids, can be grueling. The B&B, once only available to those who were home during the middle of the afternoon, now sits waiting on her DVR for when she gets back from work. Large swaths of my childhood were spent with the TV as the only noise in the house. After a day filled with screaming children, my mother was often too tired to talk much. She called the duration of the show “her moment of peace.”
There is, however, one important difference between earlier melodramas and the B&B. Sirk’s movies, as much as they were kitschy, were also impeccably made; their sheer stylishness was what allowed critics to read sorrow in its lavish settings. The B&B, however, is nothing of the sort. The acting isn’t just wooden, it’s fossilized, as if the casting crew discovered a few vaguely attractive people buried deep in the La Brea Tar Pit and put them in front of a camera. The plot, too, moves at the pace of geological time. Characters have sex for weeks. The rest of the time, they sit around talking, rehashing the same verklempt conversations over and over until someone dies or there’s a Christmas party.
More than merely being terrible, this is the formal quality of soap operas which sets them apart from melodramas, or any other genre for that matter: they never end. Just as generations of my family have grown up with the B&B, my mother and I have watched the rise and demise of multiple generations of its characters, a cycle of cycle of births and deaths, marriages and bitter divorces, affairs and heartbreak. Any other show is measured by episodes and seasons, but I can only think of the B&B in terms of years and decades. The show was there before I was born and—if CBS never pulls the plug—the plot could hypothetically march on after I die. The timescale of a soap opera is, in this respect, also the timescale of a life.
Because of this, soap operas allow you to pattern your life by their rhythm. (To this day, my grandmother will not leave the house until after the B&B’s 1:30 time slot.) The show is more reliable than a pet or a day job: there’s always a cliffhanger on Friday and a development on Monday, a constant stream of events that in fact never changes. I think my mother likes this rote novelty. She is lulled by the idea that, on any given day, she could turn on the show and feel like something new is happening. And after the next shitty day at the museum, exactly the same as the last, the excitement will be there just like the day before.
There is more than a touch of the melodramatic in the notion that soap operas are about, quite literally, endless suffering. No sooner is a child born than it’s killed in a horrific jacuzzi accident; no sooner does a character make amends with his mother than she goes and shoots somebody again. Disaster strikes, and yet none of the characters get any wiser, life never gets better, and the next episode always has more pain in store. This is ridiculous, of course, a sustained sense of drama to keep you perpetually hooked. But I think of my mom tuning in every weekday as a reprieve from a job that feels just as endless, and wonder if there might be some truth to it too.
To say that soap operas are endless might be, in one sense, an overstatement. In reality, their ratings have declined dramatically since their heyday in the ’70s, and the B&B is one of only four American soap operas that are still on the air. There will be a day, maybe soon, when my mom will have to stop watching. I can’t imagine how the show might end—perhaps a cliffhanger would be true to form.
When you look at the field of TV shows that will remain after soaps operas are gone, it can be startling just how peculiar soaps’ infinite narratives really are. Following the age of high-profile bad guys—think Tony Soprano or Walter White—a whole slew of shows cropped up in which characters gradually learn how to become wiser, kinder, more meaningful people. The TV critic Aisha Harris, in a recent New York Times editorial entitled “Breaking Good,” diagnosed the trend. “In the mold of educational children’s shows, human decency is the premise,” Harris writes. “Unlike in other series that explore the dark depths of human nature, the characters in these shows actively try to suppress their selfish and harmful impulses in ways both minor and profound.” Shows like The Good Place and Russian Doll take this at its word; both place their flawed protagonists in cartoonish versions of eternal damnation, where turning from antihero to hero is the only way out. Along the way these characters overcome adversity and give dignity to suffering. By the grand finale, they have adjusted from their mistakes and learned how to lead less painful lives.
I’m sure somebody has gleaned a moral from these shows. I prefer the soaps. The B&B may not tell you how to live—and if it did, you certainly would not want to listen—but for my grandmother, my mother, and me, it has helped us live nevertheless. The TV scholar Ien Ang, in her book Watching Dallas, describes this purpose of soaps well: “There are no words for the ordinary pain of living of ordinary people,” she writes. “By making that ordinariness something special and meaningful in the imagination, that sense of loss can—at least for a time—be removed.” There is something more honest, I think, in recognizing this ordinary pain than in a television show that teaches you how to be a hero. For those of us trapped in jobs we hate, living in conditions that don’t sustain us, sometimes there are no heroic choices, only hard ones. Isn’t thinking otherwise the cruellest optimism there is?
I am, of course, being melodramatic. My mother would be the first to tell you that things aren’t all bad. If a soap opera is as long as our lives, both can be sometimes sweet, and sometimes tragic. Away from home, I still relish when she calls to tell me about the plot, and she loves to keep me updated. In this way the show continues: three generations finding a way of getting through together. Survival might not always be bold, but I would like to think it can still be beautiful.
WILL WEATHERLY B’19 loves a bit of schmaltz.