Guiding Light, not just the longest running soap opera, but the longest running scripted broadcast series ever (it started on radio in 1930 and moved to television in 1952 where it has broadcast five days a week ever since) will no longer shine as of September.
Mine was a General Hospital household. I was 17 when Luke and Laura wed, apparently one of 30 million people who tuned into the highest rated hour in American soap opera history. Okay, given Laura fell in love with Luke after he drunkenly raped her made for a less-than-conventional romantic love story, but that’s what soap operas have always done best — taken reality, and given it a hyper unrealistic spin.
That’s why they were such a hit with clothes iron-wielding housewives, whose greatest daily drama was whether to serve meatloaf or tuna casserole for dinner.
But while soap operas have long been stereotypically dismissed as a frivolous indulgence that housebound women waste their time watching while ignoring their domestic duties, one could argue that soap operas have often been on the cutting edge of mainstream TV, at least when it comes to sexuality.
Soap operas were dealing with storylines that involved abortion, unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence and infidelity back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, long before primetime TV touched the stuff. As the World Turns introduced a gay character in 1989, All My Children introduced an AIDS-related storyline in 1988 and One Life to Live included AIDS and homophobia in its storylines. All My Children created a media stir with its first on screen lesbian kiss back in 2003 and introduced a transgendered character shortly thereafter.
Sure, often the most controversial plotlines are brief and usually done to temporarily boost lagging ratings but, given the popularity of soap operas (at their height in the 1980s, two-thirds of all women living in homes with televisions “followed” one or more soap operas), there is no denying their influence.
Losing such a mainstream outlet for these issues is a bit tragic. I just hope we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the soapy bathwater and that mainstream television continues to shine some light on sexuality issues that are important to all of us.