As I pack to leave South Africa, I find myself wishing that I could bring back with me a particular piece of popular culture: South African soap operas. Their nickname, soapies, belies the complexity of the characters and storylines that comes across the screen on a daily basis. Unlike many of the soap operas that we suffer through here in the states because of mundane plots, recycled storylines and pretty bad acting, South African soap operas are far more engaging.
They are engaging because the characters and storylines reflect real life, instead of appearing to be stuck in a time warp. They have casts with actors who look like real people -- not necessarily models, and reflect the diversity of the culture. Blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds are all represented in the casts. People of all shapes and sizes waltz across the screen, and even sexuality is explored in a meaningful way. When people engage in sex, they use condoms. If the character is HIV positive, then the precautions that he or she must take are discussed. On the show Isidingo, a man (Parsons) whose wife (Nandipha) is HIV positive, is having an affair with a young woman (Thandi). The gossip in the town is not only about infidelity, but also about the risk that he was putting himself, his wife and his mistress in based on the behavior. HIV and AIDS is not a storyline that is foreign to American soap operas; General Hospital tackled the issue years ago. What is different is how it is talked about and written into characters' everyday experiences.
In South African soap operas, they switch between multiple languages. One is not privileged over the other. You might hear isiXhosa, Afrikaans, English or Zulu in a matter of minutes. They have subtitles to help you along and it does not disrupt the flow of the storyline or the action sequence. They also incorporate current events. Xenophobia, the public servants' strike and even Barack Obama's win over Hillary Clinton have been the subject of discussion in recent storylines. On one episode, the characters discussed for whom they would vote if they lived in America. A young black (Xhosa) woman stated that she would vote for Obama because of his refreshing ideals. An older white woman (English) stated that she liked Obama but would probably support Hillary Clinton because of her work on women's issues. An older white man (Afrikaans) jumped in with positive pointers about McCain. When both women suggested that he would support McCain, he stated that he would vote for Obama because the candidate is part African and would hopefully help his brothers.
This would never happen on American soap operas because of the false belief that the targeted demographic -- middle-class housewives -- would not want to deal with real-life issues in their fantasy world. So in American soap operas, time literally stands still with very little mention of the outside world or any character involvement with those issues. You can literally miss months of watching a soap opera and pick up where you left. You will find the same characters, storylines, plots and subplots as you did previously. Some may find that a pleasure -- the ability to always know what is going on regardless of when or where you tune into your favorite show. There is little tension because we already know what is going to happen -- we are just waiting for it to happen. We are constantly teased by cliffhangers and told to "tune in tomorrow," to find out what will evolve. It is ironic that as the world is turning, their world is at a standstill.
As someone who grew up watching soap operas with my grandmothers, I can attest that watching can be quite a boring and exhaustive practice, not to mention anticlimactic. Do we really need to watch what we already know? Half the fun is getting there, but after a point, arriving at the same point over and over again is no longer pleasurable. In American soap operas, the characters are the same. They do not change. The Young and the Restless or The Bold and the Beautiful anyone? If I have to watch Victor and Nikki break up or Brooke and Ridge hook up one more time, I think that I will scream, which is why I do not watch soap operas anymore in the states. I cannot stand the monotony. Last year, I watched the soapies and was certain that I would come back to the same characters, which was not the case. I returned and had to actually have a discussion with someone to bring me up to speed on the new storylines, characters and plot points.
After experiencing South African soap operas, I can now officially state that I am a soap opera junkie. I have already written the South African Broadcasting Corporation to find out how to get copies of shows to watch with my grandmother. Hopefully, one day American soap opera writers and producers will catch up, stop shortchanging viewers by assuming that they know what we need, and give us the complex dramas that we deserve.