Changing the Conversation About Soap Operas?

A few months ago, I was asked to participate in a effort to send a message to the soap operas that “rape does not equal romance.” I declined. Why? Well, I do agree with the message but  I also know the soaps. And I thought it was pointless and wouldn’t work.

EJ coerced Sami into sex on Days of Our Lives
EJ coerced Sami into sex on Days of Our Lives

I really regret that decision. So when an opportunity to speak up presented itself, I went for it. During General Hospital’s 50th Anniversary extravaganza, a side story emerged – try to stay with me  – 22 year old Michael Corinthos was dumped by his girlfriend so he got drunk and woke up in the bed of his former stepmother, Brenda Barrett. Michael’s mother Carly found them in bed, jump to conclusions (as did Michael) and all hell broke loose. It was actually a pretty amusing set of scenes as Brenda baited Carly and Carly went ballistic. Amusing because it was pretty clear that the two did not have sex and Brenda was just playing Carly.

Then I gave it some more thought – not so funny. Michael is a rape survivor who has had terrible problems with sexual intimacy as a result. Brenda was nearly raped when she was younger. Michael was clearly so drunk he did not remember if they had sex, he was remorseful and took the blame and Brenda let him. Michael’s biological father applauded him for sleeping with a supermodel. And everyone is wondering what will happen when Michael’s father (Brenda’s ex husband) Sonny finds out.

Brenda (l) lets Carly & her son think he slept with Brenda
Brenda (l) lets Carly & her son think he slept with Brenda

It is not funny that Michael might have not been able to give his full consent to sex. It is not funny that he blames himself. It is not funny that Brenda is playing a headgame with him in order to take shots at his mother. And it is simply not funny that people are high-fiving the “kid” for banging a supermodel. Seriously? Not funny. Even if they didn’t have sex, Brenda’s actions are pretty atrocious – she should have tucked him to bed and been a responsible adult, not a petulant jerk.

So I posted something to this effect on a soap opera bulletin board. Almost no one agreed with me that this could potentially be a sexual assault storyline – ok, its an opinion so that’s fine. But a sample of the responses that went a bit further

1. Michael’s experience being raped in prison was a “real” rape – this was just drunken sex.

2. She’s a supermodel so he should be proud of himself.

3. Michael isn’t acting like someone who was raped. (I must stop here and point out that Michael is appalled with himself, fully believes he took advantage of Brenda and distraught at how his adoptive father Sonny is going to respond – not exactly a strutting rooster.)

4. Attitudes like mine are why men are falsely accused and women think its “alright” to cry wolf.

5. It is okay for Brenda to let Michael think they had sex because it is good for her storyline.

And a lot more. My personal favorite is the accusation that I hate Brenda, whom I might add is a fictional character on a television show.

I think soap operas are always going to be unrealistic and silly at the same time as they are prisms for social issues – but the increasing social attention to sexual assault suggests that it is time for daytime television to challenge more of these assumptions.

Many of the rape story lines involve strangers attacking women. (Michael is one of the few men to have been assaulted but it was also by a stranger in prison.) The shows weave good information in while the characters play out guilt, shame, stigma, fear, etc. Some story lines involve intimate partners (including GH’s Luke and Laura.) Sometimes there are PSA’s with hotline numbers and most of the time there is at least one terrific supporting character who says and does all of the right things. change-the-conversation-2

If we are going to change the conversation, we need our cultural beacons to do that same thing – the storyline of the ingenue being raped by a scary stranger in the park or a college boy in a bar are not the only stories worth telling. There’s always going to be a fantastical element to soap stories – Michael’s mob enforcer uncle killed his rapist, Elizabeth’s teen squad BFF’s teamed up to trap her rapist – but the shows need to embrace some consistency and realize the conflicting messages that they are sending.

Change the Conversation – older women allowing drunken younger relatives to think they had sex is not “hot” or okay or right. It is an abuse of her power and relationship to this young man, especially given his history. The shame is on her for playing games like this.

Change the Conversation – more people are raped when they are drunk with people they know than when they are walking through a dark park.

Change the Conversation –  parents of adult children who discover their kid may have gotten so drunk that they had sex with someone they would otherwise NOT have sex with, need to focus on the important issue, not high-five them.

Change the Conversation – rape is not romance. Some day the character of Johnny DiMera is going to realize he was conceived when his father raped his mother (they are currently in a relationship) and the whole sordid history (she shot him, she hid another pregnancy, he kidnapped Johnny’s sister & let Johnny think she was dead, etc.) Now this is clearly not how real life plays out, but it goes to show how distorted this message can be – even in soapland, would you want to have this conversation with your teenager?

Change the Conversation – there is no “right” way to act after you are raped.

These are all messages soaps can tackle when they continue to explore sexual assault storylines. They can continue to challenge viewers’ expectations and assumptions and educate us on the realities – there’s plenty of drama in reality.

Click here to learn more on how to change the conversation.

Please consider donating to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape to help change the conversation.




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