Nobody can ever accuse daytime dramas of being equal opportunity employers. A quick survey of the genre’s history will reveal that non-white characters haven’t had as much of a presence in the sudsy soap dramas as their white counterparts. As daytime ratings sink faster than a stone in a pond, soaps are going to have to think outside the box in order to appeal to new audiences.
In the past, soaps have made attempts to be more inclusive. During its radio days, The Guiding Light featured a core Jewish family—the Kranskys—before switching to television in 1952. And during the 1960s, it featured two of its first African American characters, performed by veteran actors Billy Dee Williams and Ruby Dee, and later by James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. When the ABC soap opera One Life to Live debuted in 1968, two of its original core characters were the African American Sadie Gray and Clara Hall (portrayed by Lillian Hayman and Ellen Holly respectively). Their story featured Clara passing as a white woman to fit into Llanview society and being torn between her two lovers, one white and the other black. OLTL also featured the middle class Jewish family, the Siegals. During the 1970s, All My Children had popular couple Frank and Nancy Grant, then later in the 1980s, Jesse and Angie Hubbard, who were every bit as popular a supercouple as the white Jenny Gardner and Greg Nelson. During the ’70s and ’80s, various soaps, such as The Young & the Restless, Another World, Days of Our Lives, and General Hospital, had African American characters involved in front burner storylines. During the late ’80s, for instance, General Hospital featured one of daytime’s first interracial romances with Dr. Tom Hardy and Simone Ravelle. In the 1990s All My Children had success with Noah Keefer and Julia Santos, who were perhaps the genre’s first popular interracial supercouple. On One Life to Live, then headwriter Michael Malone created the popular Nora Hannen (Hillary B. Smith), a Jewish lawyer, who was once married to black attorney Hank Gannon (Nathan Purdee), with whom they shared a biracial daughter.
But, by and large, non-white core families were few and far between in daytime until the premiere of NBC’s shortlived soap Generations. Created by Sally Sussman Morina and starring such African American actors as Vivica A. Fox and Kristoff St. John, Generations was the first soap to feature a core black family. Though the show overall had mixed results, both critically and ratings-wise, it was a benchmark for its racial inclusivity. In 1989, veteran soap Guiding Light, created two African American families with the Speakes and the Grants, who would go on to have strong, frontburner storylines, including one on racial violence, over the next few years. During the 1990s, The Young & the Restless struck ratings gold with the inclusion of the Barber and Winters families (and starring such popular actors as St. John and Victoria Rowell), who brought in scores of African American fans, placing the soap at the top of the ratings race. In 1999, James E. Reilly created Passions, a soap with a supernatural bent and which featured African American and Latino core families who were as deeply entrenched within the show’s history and storylines as their white counterparts.
Yet, despite this, daytime hasn’t been inclusive toward other ethnic groups. Very rarely do you see Asian characters or families on soaps. Or characters of different religious backgrounds, if at all. Characters of African, Arab, Native Indian or East Indian descent are also rare. Considering that most daytime dramas have always featured hospital settings, this is a strange oversight since many immigrants or first-generation Americans turn to medicine as a means to pursue the American Dream. And while gay and lesbian characters have been respresented in the past (As the World Turns, One Life to Live, All My Children, and General Hospital have all featured gay and lesbian characters over the past twenty-five years), their storylines often languished on the backburner and they were rarely shown to have romantic inner lives similar to their heterosexual peers.
Elderly characters are also not represented in daytime nowadays, a stunning omission considering that historically soaps have always had older or elderly characters in their casts. Whether it was The Guiding Light’s Papa Bauer, As the World Turns’ Chris and Nancy Hughes or Days of Our Lives’ Dr. Tom and Alice Horton, soaps have always had tentpole characters who represented the shows’ wisdom, respect, and familial love. Now, glance around any soap, and it is rare to see any character over the age of forty in a frontburner storyline. And while show’s such as Guiding Light feature fifty-something women (Reva Shayne specifically) in frontburner stories, it is equally rare to see women of a certain age who aren’t shoved to the backburner.
Weight is another issue in daytime. All the women are usually size 0 and the men buff and handsome. And while beautiful actors have always been a staple of the genre, it is rare to see characters who are overweight or who look like people who could be the audience’s next door neighbors. One Life to Live’s Marcie Walsh McBain (Kathy Brier) and Guiding Light’s Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer) and Ashlee Wolfe (Caitlin Van Zandt) are rare exceptions. Actors now are chosen for their model looks rather than their acting skills.
What makes daytime drama’s lack of diversity most glaring is the fact that primetime has been ahead of the pack for a few years now. Ratings hits such as Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, Ugly Betty, or Heroes have featured multi-racial and ethnic casts and, in Heroes’ case, has a fan favorite in Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), who is Japanese. The NBC popular drama also has a penchant for featuring non-English speaking characters and regularly features subtitles during its program. Another hit NBC show, Will & Grace, has had a long run on primetime featuring two homosexual characters. And the popularity of such shows as the aforementioned Ugly Betty and HBO’s The Sopranos reveals that actors don’t have to look like they just stumbled off the runway in order to be a hit with fans.
Since daytime ratings have been in a freefall recently, perhaps it’s time for TPTB to start thinking outside the box and tell stories that reflect the growing changes in our society. A soap opera staple, starcrossed love stories, has grown stale when the two lovers in question are relatively average, white, heterosexuals who have no reason to have their love questioned or contested. But a love story featuring a young Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy could have explosive potential. As the World Turns is already showing how telling another soap staple, the love triangle, can be given a fresh angle by putting two gay lovers (Luke and Noah) at the forefront and still be a smash with fans. As long as soaps stay within archaic traditions that look creaky to today’s audiences, it will always be dead last when it comes to critical and popular success.