Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The gay male soap fan

With gays erupting all over daytime :-), I thought this historical article might offer some interesting historical context on a segment of the audience that was long ignored.

In another long-promised excerpt from that out of print soap book I have been drawing from, I wanted to share this tail-end excerpt from Jane Feuer's chapter, "Different Soaps for Different Folks". Her broader chapter considers the question of how soaps, programmed for such a mainstream audience, have come to have such specialized appeal for subgroups like African American women and gay men. Because the appeal of soaps to gay men has been a through theme in this blog, I thought I'd include some her comments on that topic. The article is old (1997), so it would be interesting to think about whether what it says is still relevant almost 12 years later.


The Fan and the Gay Male Audience

Although they may not he counted as a commodity audience, demographic groups other than women in the age range of eighteen to forty-nine may he interested in soap opera as an art form. The common word for those viewers who are overly invested emotionally in soap operas is fans, and according to Michael Kape, the level of affective investment differentiates the fan from the ordinary viewer. (Very few soap fans are as extreme as, say, the one who stalked soap star Andrea Evans and forced her to leave One Life to Live.) Kape makes a distinction between fans who merely have an emotional investment and the readers of Soap Opera Now, whom he sees as better educated and more discriminating. But not everyone agrees with this distinction. Many academics believe that the audience/fan distinction has been too sharply drawn, and they now feel that viewers may be deeply emotionally involved in soaps and, at the same time, may be critical of them.

If fans have been given bad press, perhaps too sharply setting them oft from other viewers, then one group of viewers presents a particularly interesting case: gay men. Gay men are known to be more devoted fans of soap operas than straight men. Since many gay fans are not forthcoming about their sexual identities, this is an impossible audience to study statistically. Yet Michael Kape believes that the networks are aware of their presence, and that they will do more to cultivate this audience in the future. According to Sean Griffin of the University of Southern California, who has researched among gay male fans of All My Children, the show's producers are aware of this audience, or hoped to increase its size by creating the openly gay male character, Michael Delaney.

Network recognition of the gay male fans is only part of the reason why this alternative group may be of interest to students of soap operas. Gay male viewers, like African American women viewers, raise the question whether different audiences receive different messages from the same programs; that is, whether or not they constitute interpretive communities that differ from the assumed eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old housewife audience. The experts I interviewed disagree about whether gay men create different meanings from soaps than other audiences. Michael Kape does not believe that gay men respond differently from other groups. He says that if you look at the origins of soap opera as a form that relies heavily on emotional response, you will discover that "people are people," that sexuality ultimately does not affect responses to powerful soap opera dramatics. Sean Griffin, on the other hand, says that it does. His interviews with gay male fans of soaps from the Internet news group "rec.arts.tv.soaps.abc" led him to the conclusion that gay men had a fundamentally different response from other viewers to the introduction, for example, of the gay character Michael Delaney (played by Chris Bruno) on All My Children. According to Griffin, however, the responses of gay men are not uniform, and some conform to those of women and straight men. Some gay men, for instance, agree with some straight viewers that actor Chris Bruno is perfectly believable; other gay men find that the actor, who has declared that he is straight, is uncomfortable in the role. (There are straight fans who share this view too.) Griffin says that "Gay men seem more often to do a 'double reading'. While they remain completely engrossed in the story lines and characters, they also see the whole thing through the eyes of ‘camp'."

Griffin's research found that the gay culture's investment in the diva phenomenon (as explored in The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and The Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum) factors into the pleasure of some gay male fans. Griffin makes the comparison of certain gay men who are staunch defenders of Erica Kane with those who are tired of her snotty egotism. Griffin also finds that gay men generally have a greater sense of whimsy or irony with regards to soaps, because they know that they are not the networks' intended audience. He also believes that the ability to read the small clues or social signs that help gay men identify one another in an often hostile society may help them in reading where soap story lines are going (in other words, which two characters are being set up for a romance, or that a character has been limping although others ignore it).

Lastly, gay men obviously like looking at handsome male actors. Here, it is hard to differentiate between how straight women and gay men appreciate the show. In the online discussions of soap opera Web sites on the Internet, Tad Martin was usually spoken for by the female fans, while Pierce Riley (at least when played by Jim Fitzpatrick) was championed by gay men. When asked why this research is important, Griffin replied, "Well, my main interest (other than I am a gay male myself who loves soaps!) is how gay male fans challenge the often rigid ideas about how who the viewers of soaps are and how they read these things." If this is true, then the title of this article, "Different Soaps for Different Folks," is a lot more complex than it seems. It is not so much a question of say, Generations being targeted at black viewers and The Bold and the Beautiful at whites. The issue is really that different audiences seem to make different meanings out of the same soaps.

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