Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Otalia: Yes It's Patriarchal. So What? [Television Tuesday]

Today's Television Tuesday post is a guest post from Kate. Kate Monteiro has been watching and thinking about television since before she can remember. She sometimes posts and often Tweets under the name ZenobiaDTC. Thanks Kate!

I keep finding myself in some very long Twitter conversations. You know the ones -- where you try to make important points about soap operas, misogyny, homophobia, pleasure -- all in 140 character bursts with something akin to intelligible abbreviated spelling. That doesn't really work well. But basically the discussion boils down to this. "I feel empowered" versus "I've been betrayed." Smart, media savvy women all, and we're getting down right Twitter-pated about a soap. There must be something special going on.

Soap opera is a patriarchal form. I know critics call it a 'women's genre' and I completely agree. But being a women's genre is not the same as being a feminist genre. In this and almost all cases, the phrase 'women's genre' means the form prioritizes emotion over reason, interpersonal connections and connectedness over hierarchical structures, private over public, family over power. But as long as soap operas are produced within the commercial, corporate media of a sexist society, they will always be bounded by the expectations and norms of the genre as we know it. Our task - and our pleasure - as feminist audience (and creators) is to find the fissures, cracks and opportunities within the dominant paradigm -- to write our stories against the grain and in subversion of the dominance. We are -- for lack of a better word -- the resistance.

In late 2007, four strong, smart, modern and by all indications feminist women -- executive producer Ellen Wheeler, head writer Jill Lorie Hurst and actresses Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia, set out to create a story within a very specific context -- Guiding Light, the iconic 72 year old US daytime serial drama. Given the necessity for approval from CBS, a fifth woman, SVP of Daytime Barbara Bloom, could arguable be added to that list. The story became the 20 month arc affectionately known to fans as Otalia, the burgeoning friendship and romance of Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera. Nearly a year into this slowly developing same sex romance, by spring 2009 Otalia had become the "buzz" of the soap industry attracting both long time soap fans, and thousands of non-soap watchers. Big Purple Dreams, the primary fansite devoted to the storyline, amassed nearly 6000 registered users - nearly twice the users of the show's official site.

Question is did these smart, modern, feminist women produce a story which is free of misogyny? No. One free of homophobia? No. But is it fair to expect that of any text? Even considering texts written and produced by out queer feminist women within this culture -- How many perfect texts can you name?

Okay, so Otalia isn't perfect. But, you say, it was doing great and then they threw in that baby! (Yes, as a result of a little gay panic/she doesn't love me/mercyfuck, Natalia's 6 months pregnant)

Hold on to your hats folks. Otalia -- and I say this with deep love and a fierce belief in its revolutionary character -- has ALWAYS been bound up in patriarchy and homophobia. Yes, you read that right. Always. Inextricably. Completely.

Textual examples? Otalia began as a fight over a man. And not just a competition over sexual conquest of - or even the right to be sexually conquered by -- a man. Otalia started as a fight about a HUSBAND. (Start at 2:00)

There's Natalia and the sleazy sexually predatory lawyer who never gets punished. Olivia can 'save Natalia' from the sacrifice, but only so far. (Start at 2:22)

Then by eminent domain -talk about patriarchal power- widow Natalia's house gets taken and that small patrimony is swindled by the financier and Olivia ends up losing a job to claw the money back. He doesn't suffer any either.

Then there's the question of closeted lesbian Mayor Doris Wolfe using homophobia to further her career. (Start at 3:11)

Viewers have come to love and forgive Doris, but the text never punished her for her actions. Then there's the affectionately named "fornication of denial" when Natalia slept with Frank Cooper and the ensuing proposal of doom, the heteronormativity of the engagement party, and all the symbolism of the eventually disrupted wedding.

Overtly heterocentric (and sometimes outright homophobic) and patriarchal forces circle this text weaving in and out and around. Olivia and Natalia never vanquish them. At best, they carve out small spaces, both narrative and psychological, in which their own desires and selfhoods hold sway. For months careful viewers would get angry when characters (all male) repeatedly barged into the women's farmhouse home without knocking and being invited in. It was a literal manifestation of the precariousness of the boundaries and defenses of the self defined woman and the self defined female couple in this text and in this society.

Frank Cooper was never 'inserted' into this story (loaded imagery aside). He does not put brakes on a free and self realized powerful homocentric relationship. He was there - in one form or another - from the very beginning. The story of Otalia has always been -- and given its context could only ever have been -- about overcoming the forces of patriarchy and homophobia that weigh on us, channel us into conformity, and punish us when we don't surrender to them. Otalia is a story of resistance.

If it ends, as I suspect it will, with resistance rewarded, then it will have done its particular job in the grand scope of things. Because anytime the resistance fighters win, the patriarchy is left just a tiny bit weaker.

Read more about Otalia on Wikipedia and in the New York Times.


  1. I love this and think that the author is right. Subversion takes place from within and that's exactly what this S/L does again though within the limits of the soap opera world and our current world. Thanks for providing it under guest pieces.

  2. "Smart, media savvy women all, and we're getting down right Twitter-pated about a soap. There must be something special going on."
    -just the fact that this show and these ladies have brought about discussions like this proves that it is truly something special. i love the way your brain works zen! great article. hope you feel motivated to do more in the future!

  3. I couldnt agree more with this article. Patriachy is evident everywhere in todays society. It's a man made (pardon the pun) construct and it's been great to see the Otalia storyline challenge and resist that. Thanks for taking the time to write this Kate/Zen. Your insight is very much valued and appreciated.

  4. I just love the points you've made, here. Indeed, we are a patriarchal society; that's all we know from experience. I love seeing how this becomes, if even somewhat, a successful victim of subversion.

    I couldn't be more thrilled with Crystal's upcoming web venture. I look forward to hopefully seeing something that doesn't have the traditional fetters and filters that are otherwise imposed via network television.

    Indeed, something special *is* about to happen, and I'm glad to witness it.


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