Far from condemning daytime television as a “distraction” for American women in 1950s, Tania Modleski argues that it was in fact a woman (wife, mother)’s role to be distracted and distractible, and that television simultaneously enforced that state of distraction, reflected it back, monetized it, and engaged with it to elicit pleasure. To the latter, Modleski re-contextualizes television not as escapism, but as a force which extends the woman’s world, creating intimacy and pleasure while reinforcing the limiting paradox of their social identity—switching instantly from “bedmaking, dishwashing automaton to a large sympathizing consciousness” (72).
Modleski argues that soap operas, in their ceaseless deferment of resolution, do not offer the possibility of success but keep women in a state of “decentered-ness” (through close-ups, they focus women’s attentions on reading others’ needs/emotions and through commercial/narrative breaks, they mirror a state of interruption). The female audience’s pleasure then is one of “nearness” rather than identification: it provides an “extension of their world,” a sense of camaraderie and social investment, but ultimately (as I see it) no agency—no opportunity or impetus to “become,” relegating women to the eternal service of others.
Similar to the use of humor in situation comedies discussed by Patricia Mellencamp (Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud), pleasure in Modleski’s reading can be read as a reification of woman’s existence for the benefit of others. Like Freud's humor, pleasure in the soap opera allows the fulfillment of the ego through the sublimation or deferment of inner conflict (Mellencamp calls humor the substitute of affect; I would call soap operas the substitute of agency). As Mellencamp says, the female spectator and performer are interchangeable—the “containment” created by the situation comedy echoed a larger policy of containment on political as well as domestic fronts. Together with Modleski’s idea that the pleasure created by soap operas is one of “nearness,” one might say that the pleasure experienced by the female spectator is derived from the feeling that—whatever realm she may occupy—she is not alone.
This is an interesting designation that I am now considering in the context of contemporary “women’s” television programs. While many recent programs have targeted intimacy between women as a “new” mode of central storytelling, I wonder which of these actually allow agency and affect instead of substituting it. In network programs directed toward women such as Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family), Desperate Housewives (ABC Family), Gossip Girl (CW), and Reign (CW), a woman’s agency is often interrogated; however, these shows mimic soap operas in the sense that resolution is constantly deferred, storylines are constantly shifting, and characters’ reactions/conversations take priority over continuity. Audiences often stop tuning in for story continuity and begin to see the characters as friends—each of these shows features an ensemble cast of gorgeous women (and their gorgeous male partners), each distinct and fashionable (and marketable) in their own way. Viewers are encouraged to identify: if you don’t resonate with bohemian Serena, you might see yourself as a Blair (remember the Team Serena/Blair split)? If you’re sick of Felicity Huffman’s story, you can tune in for Eva Longoria’s.
Distinct from the soaps of the past, is there a nearness here, as well as identification? The rise of internet technologies means audience members can access the lifestyle of the stars more easily than ever before. Watching is anything but idle—viewing parties, episode breakdowns, and live tweet-alongs are commom. This strong participation isn’t built upon the shows’ prestige or quality, but on fans’ labor and devotion; in other words, fans are central. It seems that fans continue to experience intense closeness ("not alone-ness") with characters, but also that viewers are enacting agency rather than enforcing limits through their watching.
I ask: Are these programs continuing to entrap women within the objectification and capitalist consumerism that drives hegemony and limits agency? Or is the emergence of fan studies a sign that new forms of engagement between women onscreen and women in the audience are interpellating women to "become" rather than "substitute?