General Hospital, TV, and Social Commentary

General Hospital, TV, and Social Commentary

Soap operas are beloved by many women around the world. One of the longest standing soap operas to date is ABC’s General Hospital which first aired in 1963. A soap opera is a daytime drama television show. Soap operas have a long history, and,“ [t]he term “soap opera” was coined by the American press in the 1930s to denote the extraordinarily popular genre of serialized domestic radio dramas, which, by 1940, represented some 90% of all commercially-sponsored daytime broadcast hours” (Ahmed, 2012, 1). Soap operas are named for their advertising which sold products to the female viewership, and, “both the programming and advertising of daytime TV were set up to speak to women—more specifically, to housewives looking to buy affordable, practical products” (Yuko, 2017, n.p.). Advertising and soap operas were so closely tied that, “[t]he “soap” in soap opera alluded to their sponsorship by manufacturers of household cleaning products; while “opera” suggested an ironic incongruity between the domestic narrative concerns of the daytime serial and the most elevated of dramatic forms” (Ahmed, 2012, 1). General Hospital, despite criticism of its seriousness and value as an art, is an agent for social change in society that has provided a medium for conversation on otherwise taboo subjects since the 1960s.

Soap operas blend the domestic with an approach to storytelling that has a playground effect. Soap operas often rely on well-established tropes like amnesia, evil twins, swapped babies, and coming back from the dead. General Hospital has had all these plotlines. The current storyline from April 9th, 2020 is no exception, with much of the episode dedicated to a baby who was swapped with another infant who died shortly after birth. On soap operas, “there is no end point toward which the action of the narrative moves” (Ahmed, 2012, 1). Because of this open style of storytelling, old plotlines are often shoe-horned, and actors are replaced far more frequently than in serial television shows.

Soap operas have a long history on television. They are relatively cheap to produce, do not have special effects or action scenes, and rely on story-based narrative rather than impressive production techniques. Soap operas are popular in several countries throughout the world – both developing and developed:

Examples of the open soap include (The Guiding Light, etc.), the wave of primetime U.S. soaps in the 1980s (Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest), such British serials as Coronation Street, East Enders, and Brook side), most Australian serials (Neighbours, Home and Away, A Country Practice), and Indian soaps as Balika Vadhu, Uttaran Pavitra Rishta enjoy immense popularity. The closed soap opera is more common in Latin America, where it dominates primetime programming from Mexico to Chile. In India, Geet, Dil Mil Gaye fall in this category (Ahmed, 2012, 1)

The soap opera – despite its longstanding history, is often brushed aside and considered a cheap alternative to art. The soap opera, for critics, is the equivalent of a microwave dinner – barely palatable, quick and easy, and just enough to satiate a quick urge. The soap opera, “[l]ike movies in the “chick flick” category, relationship-focused television is seen as lower on the entertainment hierarchy than stories with more action” (Yuko, 2017, n.p.). Soap operas are the domain of housewives, stay at home mothers, and women who mend houses of other women during the day. Despite critic’s failure to accept the genre, “Soap-opera is the most popular form of television programming in the world”. Despite the popularity of soap operas, there is still a low-brow connotation that the genre cannot escape. Soap operas are unrealistic in some ways – with evil twins popping up, swapped babies, and amnesia plots – yet many of these plots are still possible, albeit statistically less likely, than in the soap-world.

High-brow television, or at least television that has been lauded, like Game of Thrones is certainly no more realistic than Jason Morgan returning from the dead with a new face. He was later discovered to be his twin brother who was brainwashed into believing he was Jason, the original Jason also alive. Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones falling in love with John Snow, later revealed to be her long-lost nephew Aegon Targaryen is seeping with soap opera tropes. While it is certainly true that there is less action on soap operas, numerous storylines revolve around Sonny Corinthos – arguably the most well-known character on the show for better or worse – and his dealings with the mafia. A great deal of the plot revolves around crime drama, kidnappings, murder and once upon a time … vampires. General Hospital is playful and experimental, the established characters and relationships thrown into new and exciting storylines for “may sweeps” (the time of year when soap operas have major storylines wrapped up).

In 2009, popular film actor James Franco joined the cast of General Hospital for a special 20-episode event. Franco’s character, named “Franco”, was an eclectic artist who used murder in his work. This event was later incorporated in an art project. An article referencing the appearance wrote in 2017, “[n]o one could wrap their heads around the fact that a film actor would take a step “backward” into the constantly-mocked world of soaps” (Yuko, 2017, n.p.). James Franco wrote at the time in 2009 that this was never his intention, stating, “[m]y hope was for people to ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate. Whether they did was out of my hands” (Franco, 2009, n.p.). Soap operas are a taxing endeavor, “[w]ith […] production running only 2 to 3 weeks in advance of airing, the staff must produce an entire episode each day of the week” (Levine, 2001, 71). Soap operas tirelessly workday to day schedules – not to be confused by the lavish lives of poolside celebrities, perhaps this 9-5-esque production schedule leads to the stigma that soap operas are not art.

At times, the opera storyline lends itself to mockery. Storylines on General Hospital are often nonsensical, require a suspension of disbelief for both actor and viewer. This does not mean that the medium never takes plotlines seriously. In-fact, soap operas have a history of social commentary, interweaving public awareness with public entertainment. General Hospital has not shied away from social commentary over its run, with storylines focusing on domestic violence and women’s abortion rights. In an episode in 2006, “Dillon and grandfather Edward Quartermaine were suing Lulu to force her to have the baby and hand it over to them” (Elizabeth, 2015, n.p). This was not your run-of-the-mill storyline about abortion— it also considered the father’s pre-paternal rights and whether there were any. Lulu did eventually have her abortion, a young woman fresh out of high school, she was not prepared for parenthood. The character has continued to be on air with a new actress, a run-time long enough to show a young woman striving despite, and perhaps because of, her past emotional traumas. This is just one of many potent storylines tackled by General Hospital, as, “[o]ver the years the show has tackled HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, rare blood disorders and, of course, the requisite random bouts of amnesia necessary for exciting plot lines” (Klinger, 2018, n.p.). At times the plotlines – especially those like beloved character Laura going catatonic, a placeholder for killing the character or having her leave – do seem convenient methods of drama rather than social commentary. As in all entertainment, the narrative does sometimes come before cultural messages.

The British soap opera East Enders was studied by researchers in an academic paper entitled “Qualitative exploration of the effect of a television soap opera storyline on women with experience of postpartum psychosis”, for their plotline on post-partum depression. Since soap operas are primarily watched by women, it is a convenient method to serve plots that educate women or help them discuss social issues they might otherwise be afraid to. In fact, “It can be said that soap operas in some ways have given women their voice. Discussions about soap-operas provide an outlet for a kind of discourse in which problems about women can be heard” (Ahmed, 2012, 5). The study by Roberts et al. on the post-partum storyline East Enders concluded that the show, “normalized postpartum psychosis experiences through reassuring individuals that they are not alone and prompted a shared understanding of events between family members, a process that has been proposed to aid recovery” (Roberts, 2018, 80-81). It is hardly surprising that research backs up storytelling to discuss important social issues, especially when we consider extreme cases such as novels banned and burned in Nazi Germany for their pervasive influence on the mind. Fiction is a safe space to discuss taboo subjects and the audience reaction can gauge the willingness of society to push farther or educate a greater number.

It is sometimes difficult to unpack the desired outcome of narratives on soap operas. A storyline about a serious issue – HIV/AIDs as an example – could easily become nothing more than a dramatic plot serving to please an entertain. Some television shows take disorders, racism or other important issues, use them for quick jokes and drama, and then discard the cause without any repercussion, like children trying on masks at Halloween. Juliet Holt Klinger, an expert on dementia care is a long-time fan of General Hospital, stating in an article, “I have watched ABC’s “General Hospital” for over 40 years now – it is my guilty pleasure. I know I am not alone; I have many friends and colleagues who are equally hooked” (Klinger, 2018, n.p.). Juliet states her worry when Sonny Corinthos’ father, Mike, first showed signs of alzheimers. “I cringed when I first saw the glimpses of this storyline,” she writes. Adding, “Were they going to do it justice?”. With writer’s rooms that have no problem with amnesia and back-from-the-dead subplots, it is no surprise that Klinger was worried. General Hospital, though, is capable of taking a storyline seriously and Klinger praises their efforts, saying, “I have to say that so far, so good. The writers have, in my opinion, created scenes that capture the real-life experience of many American families coping with Alzheimer’s. The scenes with Mike and his family have covered the shock of receiving the diagnosis, the disappointment over minimal options for treatment, and the increasing stress that 24/7 care partnering can have on a whole family system” (Klinger, 2018, n.p.)”.

It is one thing to talk about social issues. Family Guy, a satire, frequently has subjects like abortion, murder, politics, and any other topic you’d shy away from at Thanksgiving dinner. This does not mean that Family Guy will change society. As a satire and commentary, Family Guy merely serves as a mirror for self-reflection, not necessarily a drive for social change. Audiences and the context of the social issue presented in the narrative play a role in a television show having an effective influence on society. General Hospital can discuss social change and controversial topics day to day, but that is not enough to say that the show has influenced society. It could be true that society has gone through inevitable changes, forcing the show to follow suit and adapt. Social commentary and change through Television are a chicken-egg conundrum.

According to a Variety article, [s]oap operas have often been ahead of primetime dramas with depictions of social issues” (Maloney, 2018, n.p.). General Hospital is a progressive program “In the 1990s, “General Hospital,” … addressed breast cancer, organ donation and HIV/AIDS, earning the show three consecutive Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series from 1995-1997” (Maloney, 2018, n.p.). General Hospital is comfortable normalizing plotlines even before they are socially acceptable – but they also are willing to let characters to evolve into personas not just dictated by social commentary. In the Variety article, lead writer Shelly Altman proclaims, “You can feature Lucas and Brad — two gay men — but [being gay] isn’t their story […]. [t]hat’s when you have real evolution. Their story doesn’t have to be about becoming who they are or facing prejudices” (Maloney, 2018, n.p.).

There is some scholarship that focuses on soap operas as actions for social change. This is especially true in parts of the world where social change has been slower. As agents for change, “[s]oap operas are proving to be especially influential in developing countries. They can improve marital communication, advise people on HIV and AIDS prevention, and counsel children about how to get along with their parents” (Ahmed, 2012, 4). Humans are social beings. It should not be too surprising that shows focused on relationships and social issues can become part of the greater narrative of society. This is especially important in countries where gender rights are still developing – such as India, a popular hotspot for soap operas. With that said, “[p]aradoxically, soap operas are still spoken of as trash. If women’s lives and women’s stories are to be taken seriously, then women genres need a serious look” (Ahmed, 2012, 5)”. Soap operas changing society is not a given – but they cannot be accused of not presenting social issues. Echoing the sentiment of James Franco, it is up to the viewer to derive value from art.

After 57 years on the air, General Hospital continues to face skepticism from viewers and threats for cancellation – in 2011 its sister-shows All My Children and One Life to Live fell to modern budgeting constraints and afternoon talk-shows, replaced by a cooking and talk program called, The Chew. General Hospital persists whether it is considered low-brow art, providing beloved entertainment and social commentary for women (and yes, the never mentioned man) young and old. General Hospital has changed television by allowing women’s issues, gay issues, and anything you wouldn’t talk about at Sunday dinner, and if we’re lucky, will continue to do so for another half-century.


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