Fragmentation and The Universality of Soap Opera Format in 2017
In 2017, the role and definition of daytime television seem to be much more in the air than in previous decades. In reading Tania Modleski’s piece, The Rhythms of Reception, I was particularly compelled by her discussion of flow and its role as a reflection and result of the fragmentation of female domestic life. Modleski’s notion of fragmentation in the domestic setting speaks to a model that may have become more relevant to modern life both inside and outside of the domestic setting, In analyzing the development of television models/formats like that of ‘shondaland,’ one finds an updated model of the soap opera format Modleski describes that illustrates a shift in anticipated audience and therefore, likely demonstrates a change in the cultural landscape and disassociation of fragmentation from femininity and domesticity.
Modleski describes Raymond Williams’ view of daytime television as a “profoundly de-centering experience” (Modelski 71) and one that reflects the female experience. Modleski states, “The housewife, of course, is, in one sense, like the little man at the fun fair, unemployed, but in another sense, she is perpetually employed – in her work, like a soap opera, is never done. Moreover, as I have said, her duties are split among a variety of domestic and familial tasks, and her television programs keep her from desiring a focused existence by involving her in the pleasures of a fragmented life” (Modleski 71). Here, Modleski delves into the concept of interruptability as a reflection of the multitudinous tasks of a housewife. Modleski’s argument points to a need for the division of attention that is catered to by the content of soap operas as well as the flow of the soap opera, in it’s multiple story lines and sense of perpetuity. She continues writing, “The multiple plot lines of soap operas, for example, keep women interested in a number of characters and fates simultaneously” (Modleski 71). Interestingly, in 2017, one finds this model reflected in much of primetime evening viewing. The fascinating part of this comes from the expected audience shifting from housewives alone and engaged in work to entire families and working professionals during their ‘free time.’
Shondaland shows provide the perfect site for the exploration of the shift of fragmentation from a daytime to evening; a viewing time with greater universality. Shows like Grey’s anatomy and how to get away with murder subscribe to precisely the model that Modelski outlines. The sensational stories of these shows follow multiple storylines and continue week after week and season after season. Similarly the commercials cater to notions of interuptability. With the rise of streaming services, these soap opera style shows have even become some of the only shows with extensive live viewership. Might one then question if this increased viewership and reverence for soap opera style speaks to a sort of generalized fragmentation in the modern lifestyle? The housewife is no longer perceived as the person engaged in multiple tasks and sources of distraction, with the rise of multiple screen use and shorter attention spans, this has become the territory of America’s families as a whole. In otherwords, the fragmentation and principle of interruptibility that were once “crucial to the proper functioning of women in the home” (Modleski 71) have now become crucial to the function of everybody in the home and in front of the television screen.
Furthermore, these developments also speak to Lynn Spigel’s notions of “ideological harmony between technological utopias and housing utopias” in Private Screenings, Television and the Female Consumer. Much as Spigel describes the initial rise of television in the domestic setting, this new format serves to bridge the technological needs of the modern individual with the utopic vision of a multitasking, multifaceted domestic life. The stories in shondaland have a perpetual nature and are ongoing, just as the viewer may transition from a television screen in a house to a phone screen on a train. Thus the viewing experience is even more fragmented than it would’ve been during the period of Modelski’s piece. Additionally, Spigel outlines the need for television to serve as a window bridging the domestic with the outside. Presently, one’s television can in fact travel with them, thus, we may see a similar progression in television becoming more fragmented in its attempt to reflect this sort of mutability and mobility in the modern world. The domestic sphere is no longer as isolated as it once was, in fact notions of domesticity are in many ways collapsing and becoming disjointed as members of a family have separate viewing experiences during prime time. Thus the popularization of such fragmented material may serve to reflect this. One might add that the subsequent popularization of streaming formats, in which one has absolute control over pauses and interruptions, also reflects the fragmentation of modern domestic life and leisure time.