Melodrama and soap opera

I have enjoyed watching soap operas over the years but I first read about them after my sound installation Days of Our Lives became part of my PhD. I was recently reminded about the valuing and devaluing of soap opera as well as melodrama while watching the Book Club on ABC and heard a few of the regulars giving a popular book — popular with a mainly female audience I would say — a good trashing because it was ‘soapy’ and ‘melodramatic’. A note that what follows looks at melodrama and soap opera (not too extensively..) with a focus on music in both genres rather than books. (Brook‘s early interest actually centred on how elements of nineteenth-century melodrama entered modern literature and I believe there is nothing so high minded that cannot contain a microbe of melodramatic excess somewhere along the creating production line!).

Many assume soap opera is melodramatic, and while the soap and melodrama share characteristics they are distinct and have quite different histories. In the beginning, soap operas were short dramas that became serials on radio. They were written by a husband and wife team, and later a woman, for a female audience designed to highlight soap powder advertising on American radio in the 1930s. By contrast, melodrama originated in Europe in the late eighteenth century as a popular theatrical form. Melodrama flourished in the early nineteenth century, a century associated with a particular codification — and often exaggeration — of realism. Gledhill (1992) recognises this staged or stilted reality in melodrama as a value that survived continuing to our current era, entwining itself with current plots that diverge from ‘reality’ in mainstream film and TV. Melodrama pushes reality toward fantasy or social relations towards imagination, even as it obeys certain formal popular codes. In this way nineteenth-century melodrama was more than a theatrical form with its attendant conventions but was also an imaginative and epistemological mode, informing social and intellectual thought (Gledhill 1992). It initially addressed a broad audience — the disadvantaged, working and upper-middle class men and women — until a division in the mid-nineteenth century became apparent. Melodrama continued to attract the working class, women and children as a form of entertainment while tragedy was the genre accorded to an intellectual elite and, for the most part, middle class men. The denigration of the genre took place when the upper-middle class male audience turned their backs; and so value lied elsewhere in the cultural landscape. A similar elitist impulse erupted on the TV discussion on Book Club around show themed ‘Summer Reads’ where a top 10 had been picked by the show’s audience. The top book — the Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullouch — was quickly dismissed by one member for being melodramatic, for not being literary enough, for its drama and personal conflicts.

In a theatrical context, melodrama’s imaginative elements involved music, tableaux and visual signs. For people participating in melodramatic culture, these musical signs were a significant part of the program, with verbal discourse relegated to lesser importance. As Gledhill puts it: “[m]usic carries climactic moments, giving an emblematic quality to the resounding cliches that arise from confrontation, recognition, declarations of identity” (1992, 108). Melodrama, a combination of drama and melos (music), or a “play with music”, was designed to exaggerate the emotional through “the liberal use of music” (Melodrama Films). According to Brooks (1976), music was used by dramatists to “strike a particular emotional pitch or colouring” as well as to “lead the audience into a change or a heightening of mood” (49). This strikes me as a kind of preparation or priming. It is music that lends melodrama its heightened emotive effects; music emphasises and confirms the meaning of a particular relationship, a dastardly deed, a judgment, an argument, a declaration of love. Music underscores tension while audience wait for relief. It is reasonable to assume that if soap opera carries melodrama within it, then these interrelations between drama, emotion and music continue to occur during exaggerated emotional interactions. This then is a feature that overlaps.

An important element of distinction between soap opera and melodrama is that melodrama “demands an ending” to its protagonists’ struggles whereas soap opera does not reach a conclusion, and in the process, affirms the primacy of a family in constant turmoil (Modleski 1979). Tableaux in melodrama were often used at the ends of scenes and acts — frozen physical signs — as a resolution of meaning (Brooks 1976). Characters would stand, sit or balance, arranging gestures and bodies, so as to illustrate the “emotional situation”, punctuating the pace of the drama. Additionally, music in melodrama would be used to mark a character’s entrance suggesting changes in character’s strong emotions, to underlie “dark plottings” or to guide the audience as “breathtaking peripety” — the quick and almost unlikely reversal of circumstances (Brooks 1976). In contrast, although music is scored underneath conversations and at times emotional outbursts in soap opera, the soundtrack stops short of heralding every character’s entrance with a distinct orchestral hue; perhaps this is an element that is too theatrical for television. The soap opera may be exaggerated in its emotional cues and family conflict but it does not retain these features of melodrama. In American daytime serials such as Days of Our Lives, music does not offer relief in terms of large climaxes, rather, it is scored in accordance with a soap’s many small climaxes. For example, repeated semiquaver motives play under a conversation between two ex-lovers or a long sustained minor triad may crescendo at the end of a scene where conflict has occurred between two women who are adversaries.

Despite their differences, melodrama and soap opera are interrelated via two elements. The first is that an everyday understanding holds that melodrama and soap operas are histrionic and melodramatic. The term melodrama has various contemporary or informal uses such as ‘don’t be so melodramatic’ implying an emotional overreaction or an inability to think rationally, or a not-very-worthwhile piece of art as demonstrated by the book club response to the Thorn Birds. Overreactions and inabilities to think with reason have also, of course, historically been associated with women, mental illness and non-White Anglo-Saxon cultures. Irrationally and overreaction continue to be embedded in stereotypes about women’s character and women’s voices and we should continue to question this. Much feminist research into soap opera has shown how in many cases it is resistant to dominant gender and narrative norms. Those who call themselves feminist and yet judge the idea of melodrama, day-time soap opera and/or its predominantly female audience from the outside should not underestimate practices of value, particularly as this pertains to popular genres and people with lower social and cultural capital than themselves.

The second interrelated aspect concerns parts of Brooks’ (1976) analysis on the melodramatic imagination as a phenomenon that functions in soap opera. Despite melodrama demanding certain narrative endings, endings that soap opera is resistant to, language is employed in melodrama that finds parallel in soaps. The way language is used in melodrama is worth examining as, in Brooks’ (1976) account, it is a theory of disturbance. Although soap characters may be wrapped up in everyday actions, ordinary language is not always primarily used, rather, it is disturbed in two ways. Firstly, melodrama may overload language by presenting an element of the excessive or of the bombastic, thus breaking through a ‘reality principle’ and its own “linear logic” (Nochimson 1992, 146). This revisits the idea of melodrama pushing through reality as introduced above. Secondly, melodrama may engage in what Brooks (1976) calls the “text of muteness”. This is the language disturbance that best resonates with Days of Our Lives as both a soap opera and my own music-based project. In this case, there is a vocabulary that speaks “in spite of the word, around the word, or instead of the word — the tableau, the gesture, the mute character (including children and animals), and, certainly, music” (Nochimson 1992, 146). Music is key here as an element that can move and interact with our sense and understanding of what is happening, in place of direct expression.

For Nochimson (1992), soap opera takes up the ‘text of muteness’ in staging, visual organisation and direction. Furthermore, Nochimson develops the idea to include the technology of ‘partial vision’, entailing close-ups, enclosed spaces, horizontal organisation and broad depth-of-field in TV production (Nochimson,1992). This technical framework is significant and does have similarities with sound, music, space, bodies and gender (in my PhD I also link this to my research on epilepsy). The ‘text of muteness’ functioned, at times, in my sound installation through the inclusion of close mic-ed breathing, samples of character dialogue, reverb-less percussive plastic sounds. ‘Partial sound’ was achieved through the sampling of Days of Our Lives soundtrack mixed randomly with other melody files. In the four-channel spatial layout of the speakers, the space was relatively small and intimate as the sound and music panned around listeners. This means that the installation had elements of an ‘enclosed space’, however it was without the aural equivalent of a ‘broad depth of field’ (distance between near and far that appear in focus of a shot). In addition to these text-of-muteness characteristics, my installation shares a potentially unending narratives with soap opera.



Squally Winds from the West was fun to make. I used an older file of recorded flute/electro improv and I made the wind recording a few weeks ago when that squally storm was approaching. It made me think about how possible wind harnessing in real time could practically help me with flute playing, since I can’t really play with as much vim as I used to because of the breakthrough seizures. I am hoping my little fitness bursts (walking, yoga, dancing — when well) are building stamina for flute playing. There would also be creative/timbral/spatial possibilities to playing with the wind. And Melbourne sure has enough of it..

And at this point, it’s a good opportunity to say Yes to Renewable Energy!!


As a maker of electronic music, I believe the play and effort involved with generating gesture, timbre and texture as well as resultant activities like arranging and mixing can enact a sense of metaphoric and physiological touch. I played an instrument for many years before this and spent some time practising so that the feeling I had for music in my body became somewhat effortless in performance. The body can make sense of music based on physiological understanding that musicians may have gleaned from prior playing experience (Mead 1999). This can be thought of as a gestural, tactile aural memory. I also add to this breath and respiration even though breath itself is not sonic object I focus on and is one I often try to resist. My familiarity with the embodied habits of playing the flute that built up over time mean there is a physiological metaphor (Mead 1999) of respiration (Deleuze 1994) in my electronic expression in terms of time. Metaphors of space and the breath call forward intimacy with the body in ways that are not at first obvious in my work. Perhaps it is in imagining our immediate and local spaces in temporal ways that hold some promise.

First, it is necessary to think about music’s time and music’s gathering up of ‘now’: “(m)usic’s movement mimes the striding, the leaping, the hesitations, the rocking motions, the twisting and turning of the human organism in its landscape and in its mindscape” (Burrows 2007, 68). A shift occurs whereby we are able to view in ‘music’ its mimetic qualities in the human and, I would add, its technoscientific presence in the social environment. (These are elements I write about elsewhere* including rhythm role.)  Movement in the music can be analogous to the twisting existence of the human, the body in the landscape and mindscape. The landscape-mindscape, which I convert here to spatial-mindscape, is where place , location and spatial patterning can be referred to. The link to the mindscape under question is mine, but as this is not only about me it is crucial to recognise there are multiple spaces and that there are different paces and rhythms that exist simultaneously within them at any one time.

The spatial-mindscape is an apt description for electronic and wholly synthesised compositions that evoke bodily movement for someone in place. I am not so much concerned with brain-focused music-processing approaches that look at where music lights up the brain, where the auditory sensory memory is (Collins 2014) or how the results of whether or not you are reading music show on an fMRI (Ross et all 2014). Nor am I seeking to give those looking for literal epilepsy-music connections in the brain a map. By mindscape I am referring to how a subject perceives, experiences and orders the lived world and how she orients her body here and there as clouds of epileptic and epileptic-related events and seizures arise. These are some of the experiences that I write about in the current chapter. I’m trying to draw space, the body and touch, emotion, my electronic practice and the experience of epilepsy together and make some sense of it.

In the amalgam of practice, making and listening to electronic music there are two kinds of materialities that touch can accompany (Peters 2012). The first is that of the making where the person engages with the technology in some way. There are numerous debates and practices around what constitutes a good or relevant interface for ‘musical expression’. I am not concerned here with the interface or practice and at a later stage I address both the limits of my own interface as well as what I see as problematic in the drive for innovation, even in alternative sectors. For now, I am thinking about the realm of the digital that a person enters in to create. Here, she may be thinking and feeling some of what I mention above during the playful modes of (Brown 2001) compositional engagement. Secondly, there is a listening experience that Peters (2012) calls an invisible materiality, and alongside it, a second tactility. When listened to this tactility may not only engage active bodily listening — “a tactility experienced through the sound and from the body” (Peters 2012, 20) — but also the possibility of empathic reciprocity. And while sounding positive in many ways, we (I) cannot assume that all people experience similar felt tactility, sensation and “shared existential givens” (Peters 2012, 20) in similar ways.

 * Technology and software is in conversation with cultural reproduction and is never neutral, particularly in terms of unequal gender representation as this relates to social organisation and patterning (Lury 1995). In addition, geographically the world is unevenly distributed, often using women’s bodies as expendible, cheap labor in factories in developing countries, to meet the demand for microchips and computers in the ‘developed’ world. I have to own the uncomfortable fact that my tools were made like this.

Overing – a feminist view

Sara Ahmed calls ‘overing’ the tendency for some to claim, ‘I thought we had gotten ‘over’ identity politics’. This conflict can occur when someone (a she, a person of colour, a queer) questions a pathway to a space, for example, like diversity quota in academia. ‘Overing’ is also a celebration of becoming, affect, assemblages, ontologies, and an assumption or outright claim that we need to get beyond so-called ‘static’ categories of gender, race, sexuality or ability; that drawing politics, sexism or racism into a discussion is somehow ‘obvious’. Hard to believe, but see this post (towards the end) where Ahmed intervenes in a discussion that assumes the absolute separation of ontology from politics. In drawing attention to a different yet related area in an attempt to open the dialogue between ontology and race Ahmed is positioned as a ‘feminist killjoy’. In drawing attention to race in that discussion, her ability to grasp complex theory is questioned and she is put down with a ‘this is all we have come to expect from Sara’. Race along with politics is disposable in this ‘overing’.

I came up against the invisibility of gender-race like a smack in the face as soon as I moved to geography from education. In education, theory meets practice so often that the categories of gender, race and ability will usually be relevant at any juncture regardless of theoretical trends. In my experience, especially when training in the Dip Ed the general environment in most literature and practice was that the politics of one’s own position should be questioned and reflected on in relation to the many children/young people/adults one was engaging with in a constant learning and teaching cycle. Feminism had played a pretty important role here and was a strong presence in terms of qualitative research and education theory. I can’t agree with Ahmed that all Australian feminism was of a positive, generous mood type (at times I’ve been told I was too angry, too ranty, have left some men shaking their heads, who continue to physically avoid me in space for years) although I do know what she means (refer to her tweet stream). Most of the education feminism I encountered was critical or poststructuralist, very much grounded in practice and much of it dealt with the postcolonial conditions of white settler society.

While learning about education, it was hard not to be aware of gender, race, class, ability and sexuality. At the time I was teaching, research on sexuality in school space was also becoming prevalent. My queer sexuality was also questioned by a fellow student who thought I should ‘seek help’ with the church, fix myself. We were part of a six-person problem-based learning group who worked together closely for a whole semester — plenty of time for personal politics to rise and tangle.

The other thing I could see once I was a beginning teacher in classroom music in a primary school was that race, class and gender were not static. Static implies uninteresting, unchanging; no growth, endings, permanence. Static very nearly equals invisible. I cannot say that the array of relations between the children and teachers, the principal, the children’s extended families and communities (I taught 500 children aged 5 to 12 from multi-ethnic backgrounds) that took place over time were ‘beyond gender and race’. Those identities mattered to the children and their families. They are also the beginning of identifying with norms or disregarding others. Often these identifications were explicit and I would see the quite-immediate impact of something pleasurable or unkind on a child’s subjectivity, on her or his sense of self. So if taking seriously gender, race, ability, sexuality is dismissed so swiftly, then what processes are you dismissing? Conversations and dialogue with people who have had painfully different experiences? An opportunity to question norms’ reproduction? To include children in the conversation. Who would you be dismissing? The people who may not usually get access to ‘the space’ with quite the same ease as those that understand and deal in the rules of the mainstream game? In dismissing identity so hastily and in refusing to engage or reflect on it, the barriers — verbal, written, non-verbal, physical — faced by people ‘identified’ as other continue. And these continue while many in dominant groups find their way smoothly and unimpeded.

I am finding my own way to act with the terms gender, body and (dis)ability in this PhD and I did eventually find the feminist geography in the margins. There are many different possible meanings and ways of being that I can use, think, respond with, listen to and about gender and ability and there’s space and more to give, more to come. My sonic practice is entwined in this process too. In daily life, with friends, my loved one, family I also aim to draw attention to or participate in discussions about race and racism, including Whiteness and that can be difficult, messy or sometimes there is a sense of fun depending on who I’m speaking with. I’m still learning in this area. I have learnt a lot from the Greek side of my family and the racism my father and Yia Yia faced, which came in the form of threats and taunts both verbal and physical. I have never seen identity categories as static or in scare quotes, as limitations on life, even ‘life itself’. But I do see that they continue to matter out there in a changeable world.