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Soap operas and rape: A troubled history

Last week, on the season 3 finale of the primetime soap opera Dallas, heretofore unrepentant bad girl Emma Ryland suddenly and spontaneously apologized for all her crimes to date—ranging from an affair with a married man that drove his wife to attempt suicide, to plotting to send her father to jail so she could take over the family company.

And what brought about this heel-face turn from ignominious to ingenue? Well, that would be the rape she suffered a few acts earlier.

According to soaps, rape can be a very positive, character-building experience. This absurd and regressive trope is, unfortunately, common in soap opera lore.

In fact, the unfortunate cliché reached its peak in the 1990s. Perhaps its most decorated version took place in 1994, on One Life to Live. Susan Haskell won an Emmy for playing Marty, the victim. Roger Howarth won for portraying Todd, the rapist. And Hillary B. Smith brought home the gold for the role of his defense attorney. The OLTL writing team won as well.

In my book, Soap Opera 451: A Time Capsule of Daytime Drama’s Greatest Moments, then-OLTL head writer Michael Malone recalled:

It was a graphic, honest, intensely emotional, extensively researched portrayal of the too-often unreported crime of college rape, in this case a gang rape by three fraternity men. The victim was Marty, a fellow student who already knew them, who had previously had sex with one of them, and who was intoxicated at the time of the rape. The “message” of the story was that none of these circumstances mitigate against the fact that rape is rape and rape is a major crime.

Traditionally, though, the trope has also carried with it a second, albeit presumably unintended, message: Getting raped makes a woman a better person.

Before her rape, Malone described Marty as “a spoiled, rich, needy, and recklessly self-destructive young woman.” Afterward, she became Llanview’s favorite heroine. All of her past sins—including falsely accusing a minister of sleeping with one of his underage male parishioners as revenge for spurning her advances—were instantly forgiven and forgotten.

She wasn’t the only one. Only a year earlier, on Another World, Lorna Devon’s crimes of blackmail, extortion, and borderline child pornography were also wiped away following a rape, and she was warmly welcomed into Bay City society. What kind of a message was that supposed to send? To get people to love and forgive you, run out and get sexually assaulted?

It worked for All My Children’s Julia in 1995. When having her face disfigured by a falling chandelier wasn’t enough to complete her reformation from bitch to beloved, rape did the trick. As a result of her multiple misfortunes, Julia ended up meeting Noah, the hot and hunky love of her life. After Noah accidentally killed her rapist, he and Julia fled to picturesque Jamaica, where their romance really blossomed. And the moral here would be … ?

But the ultimate fantasy came in 1998 on General Hospital. Teenage Elizabeth Webber was jealous of her big sister, Sarah, and especially of Sarah’s relationship with dreamboat Lucky Spencer. Elizabeth pulled all sorts of underhanded—albeit childish—schemes to keep the two apart. (We also know Elizabeth was bad because she smoked.) But then Elizabeth was raped in the park, and Lucky came riding to the rescue. Soon Sarah was but a distant memory, and Liz and Lucky (they share the same initials as Lucky’s parents, Luke and Laura, whose relationship was also started by a rape) were well on their way to becoming a bona fide soap supercouple. Elizabeth remains one of GH’s favorite heroines to this day.

Thankfully, on most of today’s soap operas, rape stories that convey this sort of message have largely fallen out of vogue. When The Bold and the Beautiful’s Brooke was raped in 2007, it didn’t magically turn her into a saint—although Ridge did give back custody of her children. Because .. uh … a woman suffering from PTSD is a better mother now than she was when you took them away from her?

And then there’s the curious case of Days of Our Lives’ Sami Brady. Sami has been raped twice. The first time, in 1994, she was still a teen. But her track record already included kidnapping her baby sister and trying to sell her on the black market (her motives were kind of noble; she wanted to keep her dad from finding out he wasn’t the infant’s father). After the rape, she became even worse—drugging her sister’s boyfriend to get him into bed, breaking up the same sister’s wedding to announce she was pregnant with the groom’s child, lying about the tot’s paternity, and even briefly ending up on death row for murder (one of the crimes that she, ironically, hadn’t committed).

For over a decade, she was Salem’s holy terror. Then, in late 2006—in an act some fans see as rape while others hand-wave as her giving consent—Sami slept with EJ to save the life of her fiancé, Lucas. (Lucas was trapped under a beam and EJ agreed to help Sami move it in exchange for sex. Guess it helps him get his strength up.) Sami’s subsequent pregnancy with twins—one fathered by Lucas, one by EJ—caused her to mellow out and renounce her wicked, wicked ways.

It didn’t last long.

Which makes a lot more sense. You’d think being brutally violated would make a person harder, not softer. That it would prompt them to lash out at the world rather than suddenly make them embrace it (especially when they hadn’t before). At least this sends less of a mixed message, and certainly avoids the false premise of 1990s soap operas, where horrific acts often bizarrely improved the victims’ fortunes.

What do you think about this controversial topic? Have certain morally disturbing soap opera messages come a long way, or have they not gone far enough?

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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