Why students' homework involves watching the soaps

By Ivan Muzychka

If you come to university you might expect to have to read such works as Plato's Republic and the plays of Shakespeare, or become acquainted with the theories of Darwin and Einstein, and the structure of the double helix. What if your professor required you to become familiar with the plot lines of The Young and the Restless, or had you study the characters on Coronation Street?

If this sounds like the hopeful dream of an anxious student who fell asleep in front of the TV, it isn't. The scenario is actually true for some students at Memorial who are taking the course Anthropology/Sociology 3324: Media and Popular Culture.

Don't let the description fool you. This is a serious course which explores the messages conveyed through popular culture. And since television almost single-handedly defines popular culture today, it's no surprise that TV shows are a large focus of the innovative course. It is being taught by Dorothy Anger, Anthropology, who developed it in response to her recently completed research on soap operas.

Ms. Anger realized the popularity of soaps while trying to carry out a research survey in northern British Columbia. "As I went around, I found that I couldn't get to talk to people because they were all watching Another World," she recalled. "...Around town people were talking about 'Mac' and 'Rachel,' and I didn't know who they were. In order to fit into the community, I quickly realized that I had to be able to take part in those conversations, and since I could not interview anyone anyway, [for a time] I began to watch Another World."

A subsequent move to Newfoundland to conduct research put the soaps back in her life.

Eventually, her interest in soaps and her training as an anthropologist came together, and she successfully pitched an idea for a show to CBC Radio's <i>Ideas</i> program. She wrote and narrated Other Worlds, which explored the cultural differences between American and British soaps. The program was recently expanded into a book, to be published this fall by Broadview Press, called Other Worlds: Society Seen Through Soap Opera. Ms. Anger recalls a conversation she had with a colleague, Dr. Raoul Andersen, about soaps and other communications and how these artificial worlds provide material for gossip.

"You can't get into trouble by completely trashing a fictional character, where you might if it were about a real person," she observed. Ms. Anger has analysed the differences between shows such as Coronation Street, the internationally popular British serial, and soaps produced in the U.S. -- collectively referred to as "American daytime." American and British soaps seem to contain an ethos which echoes their identities as nations. "On the American daytime shows everyone is rich; if they are not rich when they come on the program, they become so at some point," Ms. Anger explained. "Everyone is wearing fabulous clothing, the women wear stupendously huge diamonds at seven in the morning. And although the stereotype is romance and deceit -- you have all the melodramatic elements: overheard conversations and misunderstandings -- the main ethos, in my opinion, is that you too can grow up and do anything you want. It's the Andrew Carnegie and Horatio Alger story, the belief in the tale of going from a log cabin to the White House."

On British TV screens, the ongoing dramas are almost the exact opposite. "British soaps are very different, they are centred in a neighborhood, they are very much concerned with community," she said. "There is nobody who is stupendously gorgeous...there is no one who is very well off, and the people that are well off in the northern soaps are usually from London and not particularly likable characters. Coronation Street and East Enders are a celebration of working class."

Ms. Anger's research has taken her to Granada Studios in England and to NBC Studios in New York, where she met the writers and producers of the soaps -- and, yes, she met the stars, too. Despite the seemingly light topic, Ms. Anger's lectures explore serious questions about how popular entertainment contains and influences our vision of reality. And if students are perhaps more enthusiastic about some of the required reading -- er, watching, Ms. Anger points out that analytic literature on soaps is no easier to read than the analytic literature on anything else.