I feel like I’m about to take a very bold step. It’s OK Joe, take a deep breath, you’ll be fine. Here it goes. I’d like to share with you all today that I’m a fan of soap operas. And when I say I’m a fan, I mean that I’m a massive fan. There may be a lot of social stigma attached to watching soaps, but they’ve served an important purpose in my life, so today I’m here to defend their honour.
Well deserved cynicism
I hear a lot of cynicism when I come out as a soap fan, and do you know what? A fair amount of it is well deserved. They can get pretty ridiculous after all. From Hollyoak’s ‘alien’ plot where a character befriended an extra terrestrial called Kevin, to Emmerdale’s amnesia plot which saw a man forget his wife entirely after one bump on the head, soaps do have a tendency to take thing too far.
I also get that the stories soaps most often tackle aren’t that consequential. Look at the staples of a good soap. Affairs, cat fights and disasters. In a world where Donald Trump is wreaking havoc as US President, and Brexit looms like a dagger over all of our necks, watching Eastenders’ Kat Moon slap a love rival or Corrie’s Ken Barlow sleep with yet another woman seems a bit pointless really.
I get why people are cynical about soaps, I really do. But I actually think they serve a vital purpose in our society. I’m, a fairly engaged person – I watch the news religiously, I’m passionate about social issues such as women’s rights, and I make it my mission to spread liberal, progressive values any way I can. But do you know what? Even I find the world depressing. Sometimes I just need to switch off.
That’s what soaps are to me. Pure escapism. They serve the same function that programmes like TOWIE and Made in Chelsea serve for reality TV fans. When I switch on Emmerdale, or EastEnders or Hollyoaks, I can escape everything going on in the real world and just enjoy some good ole fashioned drama! Yes it’s a bit voyeuristic. But let’s face it, we live in a voyeuristic world where we judge everyone we meet by their Facebook posts and Instagram stories. Soaps are tame in comparison!
In service of the public
As much as they’re a form of escapism, soaps can actually do some really good as well. These programmes are now using their powerful platforms (they get millions of viewers every night), to tell important stories. Whether it’s David’s male rape story in Corrie, Cleo’s struggle with bulimia in Hollyoaks or the gripping knife crime plot EastEnders explored in 2018, soaps shine a light on vital issues that often make people think twice about the way society should be.
As a gay man, I can honestly say that this has impacted me personally. I grew up in a small town on the North East Coast of England. There weren’t a lot of role models for me. Seeing fictional gay couples like Tony and Simon in EastEnders during the 90s, or Hollyoaks’ Craig and John Paul in the mid-2000s, made me feel like I wasn’t so alone. That I wasn’t a freak. I can’t begin to tell you just how much of a positive effect that has on someone who’s struggling with and hiding their sexuality.
Holding up a mirror
From a sociological perspective, I also think that soaps reflect changes in society, showing how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go. When I was growing up, the most controversial issues they tackled were gay relationships and cancer. In those days, soaps thought nothing of having characters get slap happy, or using sexist terms like ‘cow’ as though they were going out of style. Whether we like it or not, a large swathe of society thought this behaviour was acceptable then and it showed.
Now we know better, and we’ve seen this reflected in the way soaps play out. These days there aren’t as many cat fights and punch ups, but there’s a greater focus on promoting understanding and tolerance. Some of the storylines now on screen reference important social issues such as the #MeToo movement (think Ruby in EastEnders) or the rise of radical right wing extremism (Ste Hay’s current storyline in Hollyoaks). It’s almost like soaps serve as an important historical record, and I think that’s a critical thing to have in a world where we often all too easily forget the sins of our past.
Story of my life
I basically love soaps because in so many ways, they’re the story of my life. In fact my mum (Felicity Davis, the author of Sins of the Family), has told me that EastEnders was on in the delivery room the night before I was born. And from that point onwards, they’ve always been with me. They’ve always been with the society I’ve been living in. We’ve all got to have a guilty pleasure, and if we watched a few more episodes of Emmerdale each night, believe it or not the world might just be a better place.