Sorry this post is so long in coming. I really had to think about it for a while.
WHY is it almost every woman I meet who USED to watch soaps tells me she stopped because she had to go to work? What does that MEAN exactly? Why did so many women seemingly go to work at the same time, changing their lives and viewing habits?
Important note: Many of these women also told me they started to DVR it, or watch on Soap Net, but as their views were not counted in the ratings system, they were sadly not able to have an affect on the future of daytime TV. See two previous blogs for more of my thoughts on this subject.
Anyway… I had to go back to the 1970’s, the hey day of soaps, to understand why so many women started shifting their ideas about work in the 1990’s. It came down to two things: economy and divorce.
It turns out that in the 1980’s, divorce started becoming quite popular.
Here are some “Divorce Rate Facts” I thought were pertinent to the issue:
- Since 1970 marriages have declined 30%.
- Since 1970 divorces have increased 40%.
- Women are the first to file for divorce 65% of the time.
- Premarital cohabitation increased 70% in the 1990’s.
Now (perhaps obviously) I am not a philosopher, a professional sociologist, a trained psychologist or a statistics guru. All I am is an interested bystander who likes to figure out why things happen and what they mean. When I look at these few facts about divorce since the 1970’s, it says to me that I am right about a trend I’ve been suspecting. This “trend” (if you will forgive the choice of word) is one of women becoming more independent, more self sufficient and more economically aware. The mold of the 1950’s woman at home has been broken. We are still defining it’s replacement.
Women have discovered at least one important truth: if they are in an unhappy marriage, they can leave and be okay as a single person. The stigma of the divorcee has slowly but surely been slipping away. Personally, I think this is a good thing. I believe marriage can make you really happy if you are with the right person, but is a hell on earth if you are with the wrong one. Simply being married does not guarantee you safety, security or happiness. The women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s was an important moment for a lot of women to realize this. Soap Operas, especially the one’s written by Agnes Nixon, were at the forefront of recognizing this change in our culture. She used the medium to reflect the changing dynamic between men and women, and to explore both women’s ambition and men’s confusion towards this change.
However in order to have an audience to speak to, Soaps needed to have an audience at home or somewhere watching the show when the TV show aired. In the 70’s and 80’s many women (and college students of both sexes) organized their day around one show or another, making sure they were somewhere they could watch at 1 or 2 or 3PM. In the 1990’s, this audience began to slip. Why? What other than the VCR and the DVR attributed to the loss of this audience? Remember- this would be the audience the advertisers cared most about- one that had to WAIT through the TV commercials, insuring those commercials messages had a chance to make an impact.
I think one reason was there were just not enough hours in the day for a woman to do everything society was challenging her to do.
Do you remember the ad’s for “Engelie” body spray? “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let you forget you’re a man- ’cause I’m a woman, Engelie.” Women were being told (and still are, frankly) that they could “do it all,” which in my opinion is a fool’s errand. There is simply NO WAY you can do it all. I have worked all my life, and coming home to a man who has not made dinner for me when he didn’t work all day makes me pretty pissed. In a relationship, you gotta divide up the responsibilities. The point is, after the women’s liberation movement, women were told they could have their liberation and assuage any guilt they may have of achieving said liberation by continuing to take care of their men.
Many women were feeling guilty for not being super mother and super wife and super professional and super friend and anything else she felt she had to be perfect at. Most women were getting super tired.
Here is where Soaps started becoming irrelevant. They did not follow closely enough the shifting trends in women’s views about home, family and work. In a way, women’s frustration with being asked to “do it all” was too much of a hot issue to handle. It suggested they might not WANT to take care of their men anymore. I know Soaps tried to get into this issue, I really do. I was there day after day during this decade, trying to truthfully play out the stories I was given. I remember specifically a line my character said, “I’m more than a mom, I’m more than a wife, I’m more than Dixie Cooney Martin Martin Martin!” There it was- a 1950’s dilemma right in the middle of the 1990’s.
It may sound odd, but one thing I think Soaps really did right in this era was to focus a bit more on the men. The male reaction to women working- their excitement or repulsion about the change in women’s identity was the next phase of story to tell, and IMHO nobody did this better than Michael E. Knight as “Tad Martin.” Our character’s divorce was both painful and popular, as it reflected what was going on in the culture. To recap: Tad thought he had married a little homemaker but was attracted to Liza the businesswoman… Dixie also needed more but didn’t know what more was going to look like.
Dixie, like many women, learned the hard way- divorce did not necessitate economic freedom, only physical.
Money changed everything.
What has been one of the foremost struggles in the workplace between men and women in the last 50 years? Equal pay for equal work. Yes, every man I have ever worked with has made more than me, even if I worked longer hours, speaking more lines, saying them backwards and in high heels. Why? I would say it had to do with an old tradition that has been slow in changing. As a culture we don’t want to let go of the idea that men are the providers for the home, even if they aren’t always. What this has done to women, however, is pretty sad. Single women, especially those with children, often have to suck it up and work two jobs.
How the heck are you going to have time to watch TV if you have to work that hard? I didn’t with one job! If you needed money to raise your kids, and had to work two jobs to do it, you were probably NOT going to be at home at that vital hour the Neilson’s and therefore the advertisers counted as the most important.
The women that did have time to continue to watch the Soaps, (whether on VCR, DVR or at home) I believe did so mostly because of the ritual- the comfort of consistency they provided. The stories often reflected their world in part, but there was always the fantasy to fall back on: the man would return redeemed and help her, rescue her and protect her OR she would suddenly become like Erica Kane and come up with a fabulous business idea that would make her millions. It was (and to some degree still is) an “either-or” fantasy.
Either way you chose to fantasize- MONEY was more and more becoming an important factor. The man will love you and TAKE CARE OF YOU, or you will come up with a way to FINANCIALLY liberate yourself. (Hey, I’m not above this fantasy!) However in the 1990’s, this fantasy began to shift in ways nobody could have predicted.
Here is an interesting quote on the subject from the National Bureau of Economic Research:
Going back decades, women were perceived as secondary earners within the family, more likely to be affected by their spouses’ wages. Now the traditional division of labor between men and women is breaking down. Men and women are more equally sharing home and market responsibilities, although women still bear a larger share of housework and child care than men do. These changes in gender roles are likely to help explain the authors’ finding that the responsiveness of women’s labor supply to economic incentives is becoming more like men’s.
In other words: in the 1990’s women’s decisions ABOUT work were changing. They were thinking less about how much their husbands were making, and more about what they wanted to do with their own time and money. They were becoming independent thinkers, able to conceive of a life without a man to support them. Women’s new attitude towards money affected the soaps in a profound way, I believe, as soap operas were considered a “throw back” to the 1950’s and not reflecting the modern woman’s dilemma. This dilemma sounded something (to me) like this: “Who am I now that I know I don’t need a man to survive, that love is a choice, not an economic imperative, and how does this change my view of romance?”
It’s a big question. One that Soaps, a medium whose origin was steeped in 1950’s rhetoric, was not created to deal with. A big white wedding was not going to make the modern woman feel like she had attained the ultimate goal. In fact for many women, it was a disaster.
Next blog: OJ Simpson: How One Angry Man Reflected A Societies Rage Over Shifting Gender Roles and the Birth of “Reality” TV.