This was originally published in Taking Children Seriously, the paper journal (TCS 18) in 1995.
Parents disagree sharply about the value of television. For some, it is like a highly addictive drug; for others it is harmless; and for others still it has much to recommend it. Despite this lack of consensus about television in general, one thing most parents do agree about is that television “soap operas” are utterly worthless. We disagree.
Soap operas are criticised for their “sensationalism” and unrealistic portrayal of everyday life, and certainly the overt content of soap operas is rather stylised. However, the subtext of the ideas presented through soap operas gives a very powerful access to the themes of our culture. Why are soap operas such a caricature of life, and is this type of access to our culture valuable?
Very early in the life of television it was discovered that many viewers enjoy series that are a sort of reflection of everyday life, but not exactly like it. For instance, exciting things must happen more frequently, and characters must behave in a somewhat exaggerated and stylised way which throws real life into relief.
In real life, when a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair, say, there is not usually a dramatic pause in which the full horror of the situation is reflected in her facial expression. People in soap operas do not behave like people in real life. However, the way they behave in soap operas does reveal the considerations that actually move people in real life. It shows them acted out – “writ large” – rather as an opera shows genuine human emotions but in a stylised way. One couldn't make an opera out of realistic portrayal of emotions. The same goes for a soap opera: the stylisation is necessary for the drama.
Soap opera is not the only form of drama that is unrealistic. A novel is a wholly artificial way of showing real life too. The narrator in the novel is a highly artificial convention which is the subject of many a PhD thesis. It is nothing like real life: indeed it is strictly impossible in real life. The narrator tells the reader what is actually happening, what the characters are actually thinking, whereas in real life, one never knows. One hardly knows what oneself thinks about a complex situation, let alone what others think, and certainly not at the time. But because the novel has been around for hundreds of years, people have got used to the conventions used in novel-writing. Few people nowadays would complain that a novel cannot tell us anything useful about life because the narrator could not possibly exist.
That soap operas portray characters behaving in a stylised way is no more reason for criticism than that novels have narrators. The important thing is not the explicit content but the cultural ideas they embody inexplicitly. If an alien explorer were to arrive on earth, he could gain much more knowledge of our culture through watching soap operas than he could by reading a book about it. But what if these inexplicit ideas are false? We happen to think that most of the inexplicit ideas embodied in soap opera subtexts are not false, but nevertheless, there are many false (and morally wrong) ideas in our culture which few would want their children to adopt. That is all the more reason why children should become familiar with those false ideas. Many parents believe that they should act as censors in order to protect their children from false ideas, until the children are old enough and wise enough and rational enough to be able to reject them. What they are actually doing is denying the children access to ideas until the children are irrational enough to reject ideas on grounds of their source alone rather than their content.
If there is a dangerous idea in the culture, that you want your children not to adopt, then the more they know about that idea, the better, The more they know about the kind of things that happen, such as teenage pregnancies, and the more they know about cultural taboos, rights and wrongs, and the complexities and interactions between things that occur in our culture, the easier it will be for them to form their own way of dealing with them. Soap operas provide access to all this. Everyday life does as well, but everyday life is a relatively narrow source of information about these things, and it is heavily biased by the particular life-style and hang-ups of the children's parents, and by the very situation of being a child, because children are not allowed to participate in most aspects of life.
Soap operas are very valuable, because one can be a fly on the wall, learning about these situations, without risking anything. Every time an adult goes through an unpleasant situation, he becomes older and wiser and hopefully learns not to make the same mistake again. Ideally, we'd like to think about these things and let our theories die in our place. The novel, drama of all kinds, and soap opera (which is merely a style of drama adapted to a particular culture) tell us about the human condition; but whereas reading Tolstoy provides information about the human condition in general, watching a soap opera provides information about things which are particular to our culture and to our time.
What children learn from soap operas is how to live in our culture. Parents naturally want their children to rise above the culture – to reject its false ideas, if you like – but to do that, one has to start from the culture one is in, and improve it. There is no way of jumping to a better set of ideas without first criticising the existing ideas. The growth of knowledge begins with existing theories.