Saturday, June 21, 2008

Soaps and the Average Person

This article has already been blogged here and here.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

So very alien to me on one hand, but on the other, I can see how this comes to be. All my life, people had been telling me that I was "too smart" to read the junk I read, and I should read "real" books. I loved series fiction even then, gobbling up Bobbsey Twins books at age 6, Nancy Drew at age 7, and Narnia, Little House, the Little Women books... anything I could get my hands on. I did not like fantasy and sci fi very much; I preferred mysteries and domestic stories, t(w)een precursors to romance novels, I guess. My nine year old daughter is much the same, by the way. I can't get her interested in Harry Potter!

Anyway, for a while I lied, telling people my next book would be, I don't know, "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates." I didn't know what people wanted me to read. I learned to just shut them up by assuring them that the very next thing I read was going to be "good for me." But on I went, finally, when I was about 15 or so, discovering the shelf of romance novels on my best friend's mother's bookshelf. I had been watching soap operas for a while, since I was 11 or so; I was 15 and a half when Luke and Laura got married. For a while, soaps were, if not popular or accepted, at least a subject of discussion.

But I resented people's interest in what I read and their tsk-tsking over my choices. I was the one with the genius level IQ. I was the one who was the smartest kid in my class. Why were other people telling me they knew better for me?

After a while, I started defending my tastes, not aggressively, but when possible. I wrote a paper tearing apart Ann Barr Snitow's article on romance novels when I was a freshman at Cornell. Thank Janet Dailey for being a romance author ahead of her time and portraying a level of complexity in her Harlequin American romances that, I admit, didn't exist in other lines. I started watching soaps again; my parents had bought me a little black and white tv so I could watch Guiding Light (and the Mets games). My housemates teased me for reading Cosmo (so much so that they bought me a subscription for my birthday so I "wouldn't embarrass [them] by reading it on line at the grocery store."

Then it became a way I tested people. I would get to know a person, then, when I sensed they were impressed with me and my intelligence, I'd slip into the conversation that I liked soaps. I enjoyed watching their faces change. And their reaction to me often determined whether I pursued a friendship with that person. (The exception: a boyfriend, but what can I say? Physical attraction outweighed common sense.)

I gave up soaps in 1999 not because I learned to hate them, but because I no longer had time for them once my daughter was born and I went back to work. We didn't have TiVos or YouTube in 1999! I thought having a VCR was pretty hip. :)

But I'm pretty thankful for my love of soaps. It kept me connected to a world outside of academia, even as I tried to integrate my love for soaps into my academic work. (I wrote a conference paper on rape in the soaps, and I was interviewed for an academic book on soap fandom.) I was part of soap fandom. I met fellow fans through pen pal ads in the back of soap mags. I wrote fanfiction. I joined fan clubs and went to fan club luncheons. I always contended that soap operas were the one form of pop culture/writing that was co-created by fans.

Henry Jenkins says that this kind of participatory culture is crucial to the future of democracy in America:

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

I can't disagree. Though I was older (26) when online fandom and discussion became possible for me, I have found that it has helped me find my voice and my self-confidence to be a soap fan (and later, a tv fan).

So 4 years of Ivy education and 9 years (ack) of graduate school at Ground Zero in the 1990s Culture Wars, and I still don't have a problem chatting with pretty much anyone. Except now everyone else watches reality tv, and I can't stand the genre....

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