Awash in the Soaps

Last week on All My Children:

Erica Kane was found not guilty of murdering her daughter Bianca’s lover, Mary Francis “Frankie” Stone. Erica confessed to the crime to protect 18-year-old Bianca, who she believed pulled the trigger after walking into Frankie’s bedroom and finding her in bed with a guy.

Bianca had mentally blocked out most of what happened that night, but while on the witness stand, she started to get her memory back. Fortunately, what she could remember was enough to convince the jury of her mother’s innocence. Of course, that’s not the end of the story.

Poor Frankie. She’s dead. Who killed her? Why?

Poor Erica. She made a mother’s ultimate sacrifice and confessed to a crime she did not commit to prevent her daughter from going to prison. Now she’s being charged with perjury and obstruction of justice.

Poor Bianca. Her lover is dead. Her mother thinks she’s capable of murder. And now, out of nowhere, Frankie’s identical twin Maggie, has arrived in Pine Valley to investigate her sister’s murder.

Murder. Perjury. Amnesia. A twin sister. Four conventional plot devices that soap operas have been using since day one. However, the one major difference is the inclusion of a same-sex couple, one of the few to be featured on a daytime drama. While some might object to killing off the lover of the soap world’s youngest lesbian, I see it as a sign of progress.

Back in 2000, All My Children broke new ground when Bianca returned from boarding school with a secret. Slowly, over the course of several months, Bianca officially came out of the closet when a tabloid reporter asked her if she was gay. Then Erica, who was still in denial about her daughter’s sexual orientation, was convinced that Bianca came out to publicly humiliate her.

All My Children did a terrific job of capturing the mixture of angst and joy many young people experience when they come out of the closet. In comparison to a one hour prime time drama, soaps have more screen time to develop their character and develop individual storylines. So Bianca’s emergence from the closet proceeded at a slow, yet realistic pace.

Yet Bianca was not the first teenager on a daytime drama to come out. In the 1990s, both One Life to Live and All My Children featured storylines about gay teens struggling with their sexuality. But the difference between One Life to Live‘s Billy Douglas (Ryan Phililipe) and All My Children‘s Kevin Sheffield (Ben Jorgensen) is that both characters were introduced specifically for gay-themed plotlines and subsequently phased out when their respective story arcs were complete.

Bianca’s first appearance on All My Children dates back to her birth in 1988 (which means she’s really 14, not 18). Since then, All My Children fans have watched her grow up, survive Reyes Syndrome, battle anorexia nervosa, and mourn the death of her beloved father, Travis Montgomery. Then, perhaps following in the footsteps of prime time teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which both feature series regulars who came out of the closet (Jack McPhee on Dawson, Willow Rosenberg in Buffy), All My Children producers chose an established character to reveal she’s a lesbian.

But why aren’t there more gay and lesbian characters living in Pine Valley or Llanview or Port Charles? There are ten daytime soaps currently on the air, yet only one features a gay character in a primary role. The first reason for this is purely a matter of economics. Advertisers pay more money to air their commercials on high-rated programs. Soap operas are very profitable because their demographics are generally women, ages 18-49, a homogenous group that advertisers find more appealing than prime time audiences, which are more heterogeneous. Consequently, the networks prefer to play it safe and avoid subject matter, like homosexuality, that certain segments of their audience may find offensive — particularly those living in more conservative parts of the country.

The second reason has more to do with the reluctance of soap opera producers and writers to create gay and lesbian characters who are integral members of the social community. Gay characters on soap operas, typically defined solely in terms of their sexual orientation, are set apart as the outsiders. Consequently, he or she is usually attached to an issue, such as One Life to Live‘s 1992-93 plotline, which tied together Billy Douglas’ “coming out” to false accusations of improper conduct against Rev. Carpenter, who counseled Billy; and the arrival of the AIDS quilt in Llanview. The story was certainly a powerful indictment of homophobia and intolerance, yet it only lasted a few short months, after which Billy disappeared. The soap has not featured a gay-themed storyline since.

Another ABC soap, General Hospital, also has its heart in the right place, but it has yet to take the next step and introduce a gay man or lesbian as a series regular. The few gay male characters who have appeared are either tied to an “issue” story line or appear as a recurring character in a rather stereotypical role.

An annual event in Port Charles (General Hospital‘s home) is the Nurses’ Ball, a fundraiser for local AIDS charities that afforded the writers a chance to introduce the series first gay character, John Hanley, a gay man with AIDS who assisted Lucy Coe every year with planning the event. When Lee Mathis, an actor living with AIDS who played John, died in 1996, his death was acknowledged by Lucy. While General Hospital certainly earned points for its commitment to raising AIDS awareness, the show’s remaining gay characters have been one-dimensional. Besides John, the only other gay men living in Port Charles are a teacher, Ted Murty, who Elizabeth Webber mistakenly suspected of raping her (the fact he was gay was proof enough of his innocence); and Elton Freeman, Laura Spencer’s gay assistant. As the flamboyant, officious Elton, actor Loren Herbert appears to be channeling the ghosts of Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, who played all those sissy characters in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s.

Even more problematic was a recent storyline on Days of Our Lives involving Jack Deveraux, who pretended he was gay in order to get chummy with Princess Greta (Julianne Morris) and make his estranged wife jealous. In a plot not worthy of The Drew Carey Show, Jack was constantly finding himself in awkward situations as Greta tried to fix him up with every eligible gay man in Salem (apparently there are two). Although the “pretend plot” gave Days a chance to parade out some actual gay male characters, who promptly disappeared once Jack turned them down, the story line was better suited for a situation comedy. At least a sitcom can wrap the whole story up in a half hour, instead of stretching it out over the course of a few months.

Let’s only hope Bianca Montgomery and not Jack Deveraux are the direction soap operas are headed in terms of gays and lesbians. Sure, it would have been nice if her relationship with Frankie could have been developed before killing her off. (Perhaps that’s the reason why her character suddenly sprout a twin sister (played by the same actress, Elizabeth Hendrickson) — to make up for the mistake they may have made by having Frankie meet her maker). Or maybe the producers of All My Children thought one lesbian was enough. If that’s the case, I hope the same cannot be said for the entire world of daytime television.