Romance or Soap Opera?

By Poison Ivy,

Quick, explain the difference between a romance and a soap opera.

Can’t figure it out? Try a concept from college or high school English. What is the underlying view of the world in a romance, versus a soap opera? (Or a real opera, for that matter?) The world view in a romance is optimistic. Sure, bad stuff happens, but the really awful things usually happen before the story starts, not during it. During the present action of the romance, the heroine is on an upward curve even when she might think she’s hit bottom. Once she meets the hero, no matter how hairy things get, her life is on the path of improvement. And most of the time nothing really bad happens to her during the romance. Or will ever happen to her again, because there is always a happy ending.

Contrast that sunny attitude with a soap opera (or a real opera), in which the world view is much more negative and realistic. In English teacher terms, it is naturalistic. Think about what happens in a soap opera: everything. The kitchen sink and then some. Missing brides, twins who steal each other’s identities, abortions, birth defects, job loss, alcoholism and drug addiction, crimes of all sorts, fatal car accidents, fatal diseases, miracle cures of fatal diseases, and more. The soap opera world is the real world with all of its flaws. There are no holds barred. And it never ends. New plot threads begin as others are being resolved, and there never is a happy ending.

Why is the term soap opera named for opera? (We know it’s named for soap because the original radio sponsors were soap manufacturers.) The answer is because they’re both highly dramatic story types that can turn tragic. Additionally, just as all of the adventures in a soap opera might be taking place in a mythical town like Port Charles in “General Hospital,” most operas, because they were written during periods of heavy censorship, tend also to be transposed from the real world to someplace less identifiable. That can make an opera very romantic, because real world events are softened, or very tragic, because real world events are happening to a symbolic figure. And once we have symbolism, we usually have big tragedy.

Despite all the drama and misery of the soap opera (and the opera), romances today are more optimistic than ever. Why? Because romance heroines no longer are passive. In olden days, a romance heroine had to be modest, chaste, and willing to wait. Her role was to remain pure and hold on until chance informed the hero that any blot on her reputation was an error, or fate brought the hero back to her because he’d finished his daring mission, or the hero finally decided he’d prefer to marry a nice girl instead of an obvious tramp. Or whatever. There always were some feisty heroines who pushed along the course of events to make their own happiness. But mostly, it was up to the hero. Today the heroine of a romance is not passive at all. She acts to improve her situation, or even to save the hero and the world. And she always wins. A romance still ends with a happily ever after.

But surprise, romances used to be much more soapy. I’ve read a lot of romances—mostly antique, but not always—that poured on the suffering in soap opera style. The heroine has lost her money, and must choose between the poor-but-honest man she loves and a rich man whom she doesn’t want to touch her. Or the hero has lost his money and there are many scenes of farewell before circumstances improve by sheer chance. There’s a lot of talking about going to work, but not a lot of working in these stories. But then, the heyday of such soap opera romances seems to have been between the world wars. So maybe they’re terribly out of date and not worth discussing. That must have been a rather depressing time to live. The old order was changing, financial insecurity abounded, and men and women found themselves seeking different lives from those of their parents—wait, it’s just like today.

Well, then. I guess those old soap opera romances are a little more relevant than I had thought. Many were based on rigid social standards that were then in the process of crumbling. For instance, a number of them were about the usually taboo subject of the heroine being in love with a married man. He of course hates his wife, but honor keeps him trapped in the loveless marriage. At the end, some force of nature gets rid of the wife in a manner that keeps both hero and heroine pure. Fatal car accidents abound.

The poverty theme was popular. I can remember a heroine who’d lost her fortune repining about how she could no longer wear silk. She hated how rough cheap clothing felt against her very upper class, refined, sensitive body. As someone who has always hated the feel of silk, I found this amusing. But also kind of sad. As if this heroine, raised on such fine things, had had her feet bound. There was no hope that she could adjust to such common garments because she had super-delicate skin. And her only choices seemed to be rich man’s wife or shopgirl. Naturally, there was a nice-but-dull rich man available to sell herself to. But she really loved the young man who could not support her in the style to which she was accustomed, or who was busy being engaged to some perfectly practical and rather bumptious middle-class girl. One who wasn’t so refined and naturally sensitive as our heroine. And so on.

Was it a lot of hooey? Probably. Authors like Ruby M. Ayres, Denise Robins, Maysie Greig, and Olive Higgins Prouty could ring the changes on this kind of story and drag out the suffering for many chapters. The romantic leads did not merely suffer; they suffered at length. That also seems to be a hallmark of the soap opera. Of course the soap opera romance novel is different from a soap opera because it ends happily. Unlike, say, famous soap opera novels that aren’t romances at all, like Stella Dallas, Madame X, or Back Street. Talk about depressing. Let’s just say that these women do not find a happily ever after.

So now you know what the difference is, and you can impress all your friends.