Soap Operas’ History, Features, and Effects

Summary of Argument

Stern, Russell, and Russell (2007) explore the negative effects of character images in soap operas on audiences, which are mostly comprised of women. To support their perspective, the authors refer to the history of soap operas as a genre by analyzing its specific characteristics inherited from its antecedents in the form of print materials and radio programs. The focus of the arguments is regarding soap operas as marketable items capable of affecting behaviors of consumers by attaching special importance to the content by the use of emotional appeal. As a result, women who are exposed to negative role models in soap operas develop strong emotional connections with them, which affects the behaviors and attitudes of the members of the audience. Particularly, Stern et al. (2007) argue that the viewer’s life satisfaction, critical understanding of reality, and aspirations are influenced adversely. The main reason for that is the development of parasocial attachments to soap opera characters and subsequent adoption of certain behavioral patterns, such as those of “subordinated women characters in luxurious surroundings” (Stern et al., 2007, p. 19). Since the image of the norm is altered by the emotional appeal, soap opera viewers become targets of marketing incorporated into the content, which deepens the effects of such television shows.

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In contrast, Khattri (2011) argues that being exposed to soap operas can positively affect female audiences in developing countries from a social perspective. The author pays particular attention to India and argues that a woman there is normally perceived as “shy, covert and someone who is so poised calm and dutiful to all the spheres of her life” (Khattri, 2011, p. 242). With the growing popularity of soap operas inspired by Western examples, the role of women is being reconsidered by the television shows’ female audiences. As they witness strong, bold, and independent female characters in soap operas (who are often lead characters), the members of the audience tend to imitate the behavior, becoming more empowered in their lives. However, Khattri (2011) also recognizes such a negative effect of soap operas as social introversion. Soap operas viewers may become strongly connected to characters on the emotional level, subsequently demonstrating more interest in the characters and events in their lives than in real people and real events around them. At the same time, the author argues that the strong emotional connection facilitates positive change because women affected by the image of empowerment conveyed through soap operas become more aware of the “many misconceptions and superstitions that still prevails in [India]” (Khattri, 2011, p. 246), and they become more willing to address these issues and improve the situation.

Comparison of Research Questions

Research question design is a crucial component of a study because it should be ensured that all the research activities contribute to obtaining a valuable understanding or applicable results by revealing certain correlations, and the way to ensure it is to formulate a succinct question, the answer to which is pursued in the study. Generally put, the research questions in the compared studies are similar: What are the effects of soap operas on female audiences? However, closer analysis discovers some differences. Stern et al. (2007) address the effects of soap operas on viewers in three areas: attention to details, perception of the norm, and setting and achieving personal goals. Therefore, three research questions can be identified that support the general question. First, how much attention do female viewers pay to the televised lives of soap operas characters? This question addresses not only attention per se, but also the importance that consumers tend to attach to the details of the characters’ stories. Second, do viewers tend to accept the fictitious storylines of soap operas as the social norm applicable to their own lives? This question pursues understanding the influence of soap operas on their audiences’ ideas of what is socially acceptable in the real world. Finally, do the images and perspectives obtained from soap operas alter the values and the decision-making process of viewers?

Similarly, Khattri (2011) explores how much attention female viewers pay to the content of soap operas and how important it is to them. Moreover, the author’s interest seems to be whether or not soap operas viewers attach more importance to soap opera storylines than to actual events of their real lives. This is a challenging research question because perceived importance is hard to measure, but the authors address it by exploring how much time is dedicated not only to watching soap operas but also to discussing them compared to how much time is spent to discuss real-life occurrences. Also, Khattri (2011) addresses the issue of behavioral changes, and it is a special emphasis in the study compared to the other study because, in India, normal and socially acceptable behaviors associated with the role of the woman are significantly different from those displayed and largely promoted in Indian soap operas because soap operas are inspired by Western examples. Therefore, the question that is placed above all in the study is how female soap opera viewers “go on the track of role reversal and image transformation” (Khattri, 2011, p. 242), and this question shapes the perspective of the study.

Comparison of Methodology

Both studies employed open-ended questions to obtain qualitative data. The research methods of Stern et al. (2007) were designed to explore respondents’ history of viewing soap operas and their attitudes toward the content. First, respondents were asked to tell how much time they dedicate to soap operas, how many programs they have watched, and when the last time they watched a soap opera was. Further, the respondents were asked to choose a male and a female character and to answer a series of questions about the perceived image of those characters regarding five categories of consumption: clothing, jewelry, furnishings, beverages, and restaurants. Also, the emotional attachment to soap operas was planned to be analyzed in the study by asking the respondents to describe their feeling at the end of an episode, i.e. their feelings about the transition from the experience of being into a television show to real life. The sample consisted of women who watched television a lot (38.42 hours per week on average, with more than a fifth of this time dedicated to soap operas). Moreover, the viewing history of respondents was a consideration, too, and the average period of having watched a soap opera was 20 years with almost five episodes on average watched per week, which means that each respondent has watched about 5,000 episodes. Most respondents had started watching soap operas when they were under 20 years old.

The sample used by Khattri (2011) consisted of 100 married women who were heavy soap opera viewers, too. Sixteen questions were designed to address the research questions. First, the respondents were asked to tell how much time they dedicate to watching television. The second and third questions were about the time dedicated to soap operas in particular and specifically about the daily average of watching such television shows. Then, the questions asked went into exploring the respondents’ feelings about the impact of their viewing experience. Particularly, they were asked to describe how they thought they had been affected by soap operas in their personal lives (two-thirds said there had been no such an effect, and soap operas were only entertainment). In one of the questions, the respondents were asked to describe their compassion to soap opera characters, i.e. how much they suffer emotionally in response to viewing characters suffer on the screen. Also, the participating women were asked to compare the behaviors of characters to the behaviors of real-life people, such as the respondents’ family members. Finally, the participants needed to assess how much time they spend discussing the content of soap operas when talking to other people. The methodological approaches in the two analyzed studies are similar in terms of addressing the perception of soap opera viewers as opposed to other possible methods, such as observation or conducting an experiment.

Comparison of Conclusions

Although the contexts of the study are different, there are similarities in the conclusions made by the authors. Stern et al. (2007) were attempting to discover hidden persuasions in soap operas, while Khattri (2011) was exploring the changing social perspective among women whose traditional attitudes could have been significantly different from those conveyed and promoted by soap operas. The difference, therefore, is that the first study emphasizes the alterations in women’s perception due to the difference between the fictitious life of soap operas and the real-life, while the second study emphasizes the alterations due to the cultural difference of the soap opera content from the social context in which women who watch them live. What is primarily similar about the two studies’ conclusions is that women who watch soap operas become strongly emotionally connected to their content, which enables an actual alteration of behaviors. Also, both studies identify a sort of social disengagement, as many soap opera viewers become more interested in a certain perspective in the lives of fictitious characters than in real life.

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The most important similar conclusion that Stern et al. (2007) and Khattri (2011) make is that the behaviors and attitudes of women who are affected by soap operas change significantly, as they begin to perceive what is displayed in soap operas as normal. Stern et al. (2007) stress the negative aspects of this change, as they conclude that women who watch soap operas a lot develop a distorted image of reality, become disappointed in their lives in comparison, value money and possessions more than before, and adopt relationship and interaction patterns promoted in such television shows. Khattri (2011) agrees that the viewing experience tends to distort the image of reality, but some positive aspects are noted, too. For example, according to the author, the imitation of bold and independent behaviors displayed by soap opera characters contributes to the empowerment of women and their aspiration to equality and elimination of discrimination. In both studies, the necessity for further research is stated, as there are many issues left to address in order to understand how soap operas affect individual and social processes.


Khattri, N. (2011). Role of soap-operas in changing the social perspective of metro women in developing countries with special reference to India. Human Communication, 14(3), 241-258.

Stern, B. B., Russell, C. A., & Russell, D. W. (2007). Hidden persuasions in soap operas: Damaged heroines and negative consumer effects. International Journal of Advertising, 26(1), 9-36.

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