Cultural Trends, Nostalgia

RIP Llanview, PA (1968 – 2012)

Today One Life To Live aired its last episode.  Well, there is a longshot that this obituary is premature, since the rights to the show belong to a company still trying to make it into a completely online program, but more and more the signs point toward today being the absolute end.

I won’t really review the finale in this space.  I suspect most of my readers won’t get the references anyway and, besides, the whole thing was so much a consolatory letter to fans that it’s practically review-proof.  I will say they probably took the best approach possible, treating it more or less like an average episode (and even ending with a twist/teaser, which I suspect they would have done even if the hopes that the show would go online weren’t still fresh at the time of filming) but at the same time providing a degree of closure to most of the on-screen characters.

I should add too that the showrunners have been superb with addressing their grieving fans.  One of the storylines that started soon after news of the cancellation hit the news involved the cancellation of Fraternity Row, which had for many years been OLTL‘s “soap within a soap.”  One character, Roxy, who matched nearly every popular stereotype about soap opera viewers from being…well, not exactly book smart to being aggressively low-class, organized a protest to save the show.  The story culminated with Roxy (along with long-term character David Vickers) storming into the studio where Fraternity Row was filmed and Roxy having an elaborate fantasy where she, and most of the “real” cast, had become characters on  Fraternity Row.  The result was a single episode dedicated entirely not only to mocking soap conventions (and the less than stellar quality control!), but some of OLTL‘s own recent storylines. But even the lighthearted, postmodern joke episode had to end on a bittersweet note, as Roxy and David – and, of course, their actors – walked out of a vacant and darkened studio hand in hand.

Neither am I going to try to justify my sense of loss or write an apologia for soaps, which are probably the most maligned sub-genre of entertainment in the US right now (besides maybe pro-wrestling and reality TV).  I already did all that, after all, and actress Erika Slezak, speaking through her character Vicki Lord (Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks), put it all better than I did.

Instead, like any mourner, I’ll just speak briefly about what the deceased meant to me.  Since both my parents worked during the day, I spent nearly every weekday with my grandmother, who happened to live next door.  Her stories of choice were Days of our Lives and One Life to Live.  Even as I got older, I kept watching via VHS tapes, savoring not just the ritual but also the very concept of watching this vast, complex, unfolding, and seemingly infinite story revolving around an entire community. In  ’99 when I went off to college I stopped watching (and for the most part television in general).  I started again in about 2004/2005, when re-entering academia freed up my schedule and I needed brain candy like never before.

So I literally grew up with the show.  I definitely grew up alongside the character of Jessica Buchanan.  We went to high school and college and got diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder at pretty much the same time!  (I’m kidding about one of those…).  Now of course I can’t say I’m devastated that the show is gone now, despite it being a small but constant part of my life for so long.  However, it does feel…off, wrong even, that One Life To Live won’t be around for me to awkwardly confess to watching to my next boyfriend, for using as an excuse for a break while I iron out the last chapters of my dissertation, and for watching for the first time in the first home I plan to live indefinitely in. I can’t help but admit, that actually will hurt.

Comics, Cultural Trends

Why Did Women Love Lady Death?

Ah, Chaos! Comics (the exclamation point is mandatory), you couldn’t go through the racks of a comic shop in the ’90s without running into them, even though their comics were the most blatant celebration of ultraviolence and big boobs imaginable. Of course, if you’ve been following this blog, you should know that I have a nostalgia for them that, like with many things, pushes the boundaries of ironic. Basically Chaos! is exactly what would happen if your high school Magic the Gathering partners who were death metal fans got their own comics company, and you can’t tell me there isn’t something downright magical about that.  And you don’t get more magical than a character like Lady Death.

The embodiment of writer Brian Pulido’s fetishes and less than orthodox ideas about female empowerment, Lady Death epitomized, if not largely kicked off, the “Bad Girl” craze of the ’90s. A generously endowed woman who slaughtered her enemies and even those who just mildly irritated her, Lady Death was almost designed to be the patron saint of “sex n’ violence.” Her origin story, which had her burned alive by medieval villagers who held her responsible for the crimes of her Satanist father and which saw her eventually lead a coup against Satan himself, didn’t end with her becoming a hero pledged to defend the helpless. Instead, cursed to remain in Hell as long as one person remains alive, she expedited the process herself by setting out to wipe out the human race. When we’re first introduced to her, she’s doing so by seducing a telepathic child abuse victim in his dreams, goading him into becoming a serial killer, and manipulating a high-tech attempt to mentally cure him in order to turn him undead and thus initiate a zombie apocalypse. Really, in her first appearances Lady Death made Doctor Doom look bush league.

At first only appearing as a deus ex apocalypse and a fetish fuel attendant in the Evil Ernie comics, Lady Death ultimately got her own stories and became Chaos!’s most popular flagship character. Her stories tended to be over-the-top dark fantasy, a weird combo of Heavy Metal and vintage Thor comics, especially once it was “revealed” that not only was her father a demonic sorcerer, but through her dead angelic mother she was related to Valkyries. For the most part, she spent time ending up in vaguely defined faux-medieval settings, fighting evil scantily clad women who made her the protagonist by default. Especially in the early days, Lady Death did have a harder edge than most of the “Bad Girl” characters out there, but beyond that there wasn’t all that much that made her stand out from other big-chested, bad-ass female warriors taken right out of somebody’s experimental Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Despite the (justified) complaints of characters like Lady Death being used just to tantalize an ever shrinking pool of male readers, Lady Death had a sizable female following. According to Mike Sterling of Progressive Ruin fame, “I would say a good half of our regular Lady Death customers during the character’s peak were women.” Back in the ’90s, Gail Simone noted, “At the store I shop at, I’m told Lady Death is very popular with female readers.  It’s a bit scary, but that’s probably a good sign.  Somehow.”

Gail Simone probably wasn’t the only one reticent about the fact.  So, why was Lady Death so popular among women?  Let’s ask an actual woman who reads comics, Lauren Martella:

“I read a fair amount [of Lady Death], I’m sure at least three trades worth- I think one could lump Witchblade and a bunch of Image babes in this category. But Lady Death is a cut above- I think it has to do with the fact that in our age group, many of us were living in a post-Watchman/Frank Miller world were sexuality was present in comics, but often it means a complicated or even subjugated history for women that usually meant they were sexual, but free of real agency. Hookers or rape and whatnot. And then there’s characterizations that basically bench ladies: being a love interest or the dreaded side effect of Claremont writing: crisis of self confidence i.e. whining for five pages about being a superhero instead of punching everything. The latter is perfectly fine in the right doses and in context for both genders, but there’s only so many kick ass ladies to go around.

Lady Death was all boobs killing things. And a goddess. And it was terribly written. It just didn’t give a fuck. It was melodramatic in a guilty pleasure type of way, but violent in a fashion that I don’t think we quite appreciate women really enjoying. Sometimes a lady wants to imagine she has Triple D Boobs, can pull off a string bikini and a broadsword and will kill everybody who stands in her way. In an odd way I think it relates to porn enjoyment: they say women prefer erotica and men prefer visual (porn films/images of whatever you like naked, you know the deal). I think it bears out – I’ve talked to dudes who outright dismiss erotica as having as much of an effect as straight up porn, but that dismisses another level beyond the visual that is stimulative to the experience. In relation to Lady Death: you can look at the book and think this is a crap comic with a chick in possession of huge bazongas killing stuff, but it misses levels of enjoyment that women are capable of extracting from them and the power of escapism even in forms so tacky.”

Lauren sums it up nicely, especially by pointing out that Lady Death’s character arcs don’t revolve around a guy. Changing times really have toughened up characters like Lois Lane and Sue Storm, but no matter how independent writers depict them as they still can’t quite shake the fact that they were created (and continue to be used) as foils and romantic interests for male characters. While Lady Death does have a romance with super-zombie Evil Ernie (who, I’m sure coincidentally, resembles Brian Pulido), she definitely does have her own adventures, her own cast, and her own corner of her fictional universe.

It’s also useful to compare Lady Death to another female pop culture icon from the ’90s, Xena the Warrior Princess. Although just the title “Lady Death” does have more cache than “Warrior Princess,” they’re both prime examples of female characters who are sexual but are also assertive and powerful in multiple ways. In other words, being sexual in a feminine way doesn’t contradict being able to kick ass. This is something that’s more rare, particularly in comics, than you might think; look at Wonder Woman and the various (arguably unsuccessful) attempts to make romance and sex more of a part of her character. It’s not a perfect parallel; let’s just say that compared to Xena Lady Death’s sexuality is, um, overstated. But still it is refreshing to have a violent and domineering female character whose sexuality isn’t muted or whose traditionally “feminine” qualities aren’t set up to balance out her cynicism or capacity for mayhem. At the very least, Lady Death helpfully reminds us that it’s not helpful or wise to tell entire groups what they should or shouldn’t be offended by.

Cultural Trends

A Lamentation for the American Soap Opera

Recently ABC announced that it was putting the ax to two soap operas, One Life To Live and All My Children, both of which had been running since the ’60s. “Soap operas!” I bet you’re thinking, if not bellowing as you slam down a fist. “Who the hell cares? Let ’em die!” Definitely soap operas have a bad reputation, but I’ll tell you why even people who would hesitate to watch them, even if they had a gun pointed at them, should care. First, though, let me lay down some context…

It’s been said that we are witnessing a Golden Age of Fandom, where those formerly considered nerds and geeks can both openly discuss their obsessions in most forums and have said obsessions all but infinitely catered to by the Internet, if not the media in general. There isn’t much arguing with the fact that the Internet has made it much easier to level up from dabbler to expert, especially if you have money to throw around at eBay and Amazon and the like, but there are still certain sub-genres that can be taboo. Even with Hollywood’s on-and-off love affair with superheroes, in some quarters the actual readers of superhero comics are at best cultural misfits and at worst all male,T&A-chasing misogynists (a stereotype which, to be fair, a few writers, artists, and marketing gurus at DC Comics and Marvel and some fans themselves have not helped dispel). Unless you’re a male teenager, in blue collar company, or both, you might have to joke or depreciate yourself when you mention that you’re a pro-wrestling fan. Last but not least, there’s the entertainment taboo that I’m writing to mourn…soap operas.

One would be hard-pressed to think of a visual genre more generally reviled than soap operas without maybe having to mention various forms of extreme pornography. People of all sorts of tastes and political and philosophical leanings uphold soap operas as the trashiest of trash culture, the absolute nadir of American entertainment (well, maybe; “reality” TV has fought and is fighting hard to take that honor). Not to go all fancy, ivory tower academic on you all, but it is interesting that soap operas’ low status does coincide with the fact that they’re a genre that’s both negatively gendered and classed, much the same way superhero comics and pro-wrestling are. Just as comic book fans are seen as unemployed, sexually stunted losers and pro-wrestling fans are poor, rural rednecks, soap opera viewers are supposed to be all under-educated and under-sexed grandmas and housewives. It’s also worth mentioning that all three have the unique appeal of offering complex and organic mythologies, which is completely engaging when you’re a fan but maybe a little off-putting when you’re a curious passerby trying to understand the appeal in the first place. Even superhero comics, which out of the three has had by far the most success in keeping up with the broader media through films and TV adaptations, has that nasty, unending problem of “accessibility.”

My own appreciation of soap operas was inherited. Since both my parents worked full-time and my grandmother lived next door, I spent many afternoons as a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s watching Days of our Lives (DL), One Life to Live (OLTL), and General Hospital (GH) with her. I’m grateful for that, especially since “One Life to Live” taught me all about camp. After all, it was a show that often centered around the eternal feud between two grand dames, the saintly but strong-willed Vicki Buchanan and “original diva” Dorian Lord…excuse me, Dr. Dorian Lord. (I’d agree with the Moral Guardians that gender-inappropriate exposure to OLTL made me gay, except I’m sure S.E. Hinton’s homoerotic classic “The Outsiders” already did that). Not to say that DL didn’t have its delightful campy side; who can forget Mafia stereotype/Gothic villain/supervillain-in-all-but-name Stefano DiMera or Steve Donovan, the British spy who had a butler named Alfred? Even though it was the most popular out of the three, my grandmother and I were usually least enthused about GH, although we did get a kick out of the antics of the Quartermaines, who were in some ways the standard dysfunctional, jaded rich family that appeared in every soap opera, but they were hilariously self-conscious (some might say Genre Savvy) about it.

What made soaps so weird and appealing to my young self wasn’t that they were Harlequin romances in TV form, which is still the widespread preconception, but that they often had a weird and schizophrenic mishmash of different genres and tropes. Sure, they were still predominantly focused on love and sex, but since the late ’70s soaps, already responding to the fact that women were less homebound than ever, started expanding beyond domestic drama into strange waters. GH (in)famously pitted its premier couple, Luke and Laura, against a Greek criminal mastermind armed with a weather machine (yes, really). In the mid-’80s DL sent its cop characters to some pretty beach locales to investigate a crimelord in an obvious aping of “Miami Vice.” Other soaps became as much about corporate intrigue and backstabbing as about family melodrama. And it worked! The ’80s/early ’90s were undoubtedly when American soap operas hit their peak. While they were still stamped firmly with the label “lowbrow,” they still got a bit of positive mainstream attention here and there, probably most famously in the 1991 movie “Soap” which was both a parody and a homage, and inspired ratings-grabbing prime time imitators like “Dallas”, “Dynasty”, and “Melrose Place” (which caused so much painful inner turmoil over gender appropriate entertainment choices for Jerry Seinfeld).

I have no idea why soap operas suffered a sharp decline, both in ratings and in cultural currency, starting in the later ’90s. Conventional wisdom is that changes in demographics, mainly more and more women joining the 9-to-5 workforce, is responsible, but that doesn’t explain why soap operas (including American soap operas) remain popular in other countries like Germany and Argentina that underwent similar changes or why their decline wasn’t more noticeable earlier. Hopefully some fledgling sociologist or cultural historian is already spending way too much time thinking about it. My own guess is that it has more to do with changes in the culture of the entertainment industry, specifically the growth of its near-psychotic obsession with the holy 18-to-39 male demographic, and because of writers like James E. Reilly in DL, who took the chaotic blending of genres I loved so much to extremes that pissed off longtime viewers by making stories about demonic possession, UFOs, and mysterious mute women living in swamps (he went on to create the short-lived sub-cult hit and bizarrely ultra-Catholic soap, “Passions,” which had among its regular cast a Satanic witch and her living doll Timmy). Whatever the case, soap operas started floundering badly about the time I started watching them again after a years-long hiatus, because they offered something that was lacking in prime-time television. Yes, the budgets were lower and the acting was often worse (especially among the male models and ex-porn stars who were often recruited to try to grab back wavering female viewers), but honestly it offered a variety and a manic, unpredictable creativity that was lacking more with every year in prime time television. The shows had gone down in quality in about every possible way since when I watched them on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, but I still had more fun watching them than most of the things the networks had to offer in the evenings.

But, like I said, I’ve come to praise OLTL and AMC, not to bury them. In fact, I’m convinced they, like Caesar, were struck down before their day had really come. OLTL was actually experiencing something of a revival under a critically respected head writer and was going up in the ratings. The fact that both shows are being replaced by a trendy cooking show (with the atrocious name “The Chew”) and yet another “reality” show about health and fitness is another damning piece of evidence. Perhaps the decision to cancel was motivated by the comparative cheapness of “reality” TV compared to scripted fare, but my suspicions are raised by the fact that the only surviving ABC soap will be GH, which years ago stopped being a traditional soap opera and turned into a z-grade imitation of “The Sopranos” (no, I’m not exaggerating). Maybe The Powers That Be were relieved to jettison a genre they saw as fit only for aging trailer park housewives, maybe not, but either way I doubt that the sour taste that comes with the phrase “soap opera” wasn’t a factor. With OLTL and AMC gone, there are now only four American soap operas left at all. “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” might actually be around for quite some time, since they command a pretty sizable following in the international markets (I’ve been told that they love “The Bold and the Beautiful” in Germany), but DL, NBC’s last daytime soap, has had its budgets cut down to the bone and is likely the next on the chopping block.

Now that brings us to the question, “Why the hell should I care?” Because it means that it’s one more way that network television will become a less diverse, less interesting place. The decay of the soap opera genre is another validation for the studio executives who pursue fads and short-term profit over the long-term strategy of building and nurturing loyal niche audiences, the same people who have turned A&E into just one of the 90-plus channels that show almost nothing but “reality” shows and reruns of police procedurals. Even if you actually downright hated them in the same way I hate “Super Nanny,” even though I never watched it and never will, barring the possibility of severe brain injury, you have to still appreciate that they were there, an off-kilter option in a bland landscape of “Law & Order” reruns and shows whose entire raison d’etre is showing washed-up celebrities. Look at what the shows are being replaced with; it’s not an exaggeration to say that the two shows are being cut down to make way for literally more of the same, and that they’ll be lucky if they last until the next big TV fad comes along. For that reason I feel bad for the shows’ fans and their cast and crews. In the end, though, I also feel just a little sad that I’ll no longer get to imagine how my fiery Southern grandmother would have reacted to Dorian Lord’s latest antics or if she would root for Dorian against the ever stuffy Vicki.