In Her Stories, Elana Levine traces the rise and fall of the daytime soap opera’s cultural relevance from the transition from radio in the 1940s to its heyday in the 1980s and its steady decline since. But Her Stories is not just a history of soap operas. As Levine skillfully argues, the denigration of the feminized media form has caused us to overlook how foundational soap operas are to the history of broadcast television and the history of American culture. Soap operas built and sustained broadcast networks both economically and through technological and storytelling innovations. Without soap operas, broadcast television would not have achieved the same degree of economic and cultural power. Soap operas also served as a vital cultural forum for decades of conversations about gender, femininity, and sexuality. In a sweeping history of over seventy years of daytime soaps, Levine shows us that histories of American media and culture “miss a central economic and creative engine when they fail to take daytime soap opera into account” (p. 297).
Levine tells the history of soap operas in three parts. First, she follows the transition of soap opera from radio to television in the postwar era. In the early days of broadcast television, daytime programs were crucial to the economic survival of networks. Soaps proved that serialized storytelling could be produced with wide profit margins and appeal to primarily female audiences in new ways. In part two, Levine charts the rise of the soap opera to its peak cultural and economic power in the 1980s. “Supercouples”, like General Hospital’s Luke and Laura, enraptured audiences looking for a postfeminist escape and helped daytime soaps generate nearly 1.25 billion dollars annually for broadcast networks. The success of soaps “literally upheld the structures of production, distribution, and advertiser funding that earned the networks immense profits and power” (p. 11). Finally, Levine follows the steady decline of the soap opera as it navigated a tumultuous media landscape, facing constant challenges from budget cuts, to changing audience demands, to the introduction of streaming platforms.
Unlike previous scholarship that conceptualizes soap operas as a static and unchanging form, Levine historicizes the genre, “exploring changes in relation to media industry structures, production processes, critical discourses, and reception practices, varying by place and time” (p. 5). Levine situates her history along “two axes of change over time”: the evolution of broadcast television’s economic and institutional power and persistent cultural power of popular culture to function as a “site of production of gender knowledge” (pp. 5–6). Levine explores these two stories by dividing her attention between the production of soap operas, the stories themselves, audience reception, and a broader social context. These stories never feel disconnected but are carefully balanced to understand television as both an industry and a cultural form.
Levine uses soap operas as a unique lens to understand seventy years of gender construction through television. In its early years, soap operas were understood as therapeutic resources for women trapped in domesticity. Later, they became interactive cultural forums for discourses about sexual violence and reproductive rights. In the 1980s, soaps offered a postfeminist escape through romantic fantasy. Gender was constructed within the soap operas themselves, but Levine also demonstrates how gender operated structurally in television production. Soap operas have always been perceived to be “speaking to and about women,” but their audiences were always more diverse than imagined (p. 6). The failure to address the diversity of the audience caused soap operas to be repeatedly feminized. Even though soaps were the financial foundation of broadcast television and often subsidized the production of prestige primetime dramas, the feminization of soap operas relegated them to a second-tier cultural status. The feminization of soap operas has also blinded scholars from understanding their cultural and historic significance.
Levine’s deep knowledge of soap operas comes from a lifetime of dedicated soap viewership, particularly General Hospital, as well as an immense amount of innovative research. Levine consults episode scripts, production documents from soap creators, sponsors, and networks, promotional materials, fan magazines, blogs, social media, and as many episodes as she could get access to. Countless soaps were never properly preserved by broadcast networks or archives. While networks discarded live-to-tape recordings, viewers diligently recorded soaps on VHS tapes and DVDs, preserving them in private collections. Levine relies heavily on her own collection of recordings and other fan-created archives. Levine’s research should inspire scholars studying popular culture to think beyond the archive. Her writing is also to be celebrated. Translating the vibrancy of audiovisual sources is a challenge for every writer. Through every dramatic plot twist and tantalizing cliff-hanger, Levine makes the reader feel as if they are sitting beside her, watching the drama unfold.
In a book that covers over seventy years of soap history in detail, it is hard to demand more of the author. Only four daytime soaps remain on-air today. Yet soap operas have left an indelible mark on television culture, especially in our understanding of other denigrated feminized cultural forms. To better understand this aspect of Levine’s argument, more attention could have been paid to the many programs that owe a debt to their melodramatic predecessor, like reality television “docusoaps”, Tyler Perry’s media empire, and some of primetime’s biggest hits like Grey’s Anatomy. These cultural products were not only directly influenced by the narrative styles of daytime soaps, but they are also consistently denigrated for their primarily female audiences despite their economic success and cultural resonance. Some analysis of the genealogy of soap operas’ influence could strengthen Levine’s argument about why we cannot understand American television history, or our current media landscape, without centering the history of soap operas.
Her Stories is a compelling and exhaustive history of American culture told through soap operas. Levine places this disregarded part of popular culture at the center of the history of American broadcast television and gender politics. In doing so, she shows us what both fields miss when they fail to see that “her stories are our stories” too (p. 298).