Young Soap Opera Viewers and
Performances of Self
The Dutch television soap opera Good Times Bad Times has been
popular with youth audiences for many years. In this article, I
discuss three ‘active’ ways in which young people from diverse
ethnic backgrounds use this soap for identity construction, drawing
on the concept of ‘performative style’ to analyse the results of
twenty focus group interviews. One performative style revolves
around questions of morality and sex, one focuses on specific soap
opera characters, and one looks at the soap as a whole. By referring
to these performative styles in giving meaning to the soap, the
young people who were interviewed construct a particular set of
performances of the self.
Rather than being directly influenced by characters,
storylines and representations, they seemed to use the soap for
their own purposes. Both gender and ethnicity play an important role
in the ways in which interviewees interpret the soap.
Key words: soap opera, performance, gender,
ethnicity, identity construction
In the fall of 2002, two young female characters in
the Dutch television soap opera Good Times Bad Times [Goede
Tijden Slechte Tijden, 1990-] fell, quite unexpectedly, in love
with each other. Both characters, named Charlie and Isabella, had
previously only been involved in heterosexual relationships. In the
two years in which they had concurrently been on Good Times Bad
Times (henceforth GTBT) a close friendship had developed
between them, which, eventually, transformed into a love
relationship. In the episodes in which this transformation was shown
the Dutch audience could see the two young women kissing
passionately. Young people who were interviewed about GTBT
expressed different responses to this representation of lesbian
ESTHER [I]: I would like to carry on about that for a
while, the lesbian relationship. Because what do you think about
that? About the relationship that Charlie and Isabella have?
JOLIJN: Ah, ugh!
CARON: Well, I find it foul to watch actually.
SELINE: Yes, it’s OK with me if you are like that,
but not in front of me.
BIBIANA: No, no, no… exactly!
ESTHER [I]: And what do you think about the lesbian
relationship of Charlie and Isabella?
KIMBERLY: That should be allowed, shouldn’t it? When
you love each other? We are now living in a time and in a country
where that’s possible and that’s allowed and then surely it has to
be in series as well. Because imagine, when you’re a lesbian for
example… I’m not a lesbian… [the others laugh] and you’re watching
that type of series and you’re in doubt about your feelings or
whatever and then you see: ‘Look, there it’s possible too’ and so
VICTORIA: It isn’t strange, it’s not a taboo, it’s
not like ‘ugh’.
KIMBERLY: It isn’t odd.
Soap operas typically evoke discussions amongst their
viewers. In some cases, these discussions take the shape of an
exchange of moral evaluations. Whereas the girls in the first quote
agree that the kissing scene of Charlie and Isabella was ’filthy’,
‘ugh!’ and ‘foul’, the girls in the second interview adopt a liberal
stance, albeit distancing themselves from the idea of being gay. Due
to their ‘open’ narrative structure soaps provide room for multiple
interpretations (Allen, 1985: 81-84). Chris Barker (1998: 65)
While soap operas raise numerous issues of personal
and sexual morality they are rarely ‘moralist’ in the sense of
positioning viewers in one moral discourse which is regarded as the
only possible ‘right’ course of action. Both theoretical
understandings and empirical evidence about the way people ‘read’
television soap opera suggest that the text does not ‘impose’ a
moral regime on viewers but provides a resource for people to talk
about in an ‘active’ and creative way.
In this article, I discuss three ‘active’ ways in
which young viewers use GTBT for identity construction. I use
the concept of ‘performative style’ to analyse the results of twenty
focus group interviews. One performative style revolves around
questions of morality and sex as touched upon above, one focuses on
specific characters, and one looks at the soap as a whole. By making
use of these performative styles in talking about the soap young
people construct a particular set of performances of the self.
Before elaborating on these, I first introduce the research project,
the existing research into young soap opera viewers and identity
construction, and the design of the interview study.
The research project
has been popular with Dutch youth audiences for many years. The
popularity of the soap seems to be shared by young people from
different ethnic backgrounds in the Netherlands. A small number of
studies have found that ethnic minority young people, especially
girls, enjoy watching GTBT as much as white Dutch youth (Baardwijk,
Dragt, Peeters & Vierkant, 2004: 102; de Bruin, 2001; Milikowski,
1999: 7, Schothorst & Verzijden, 1998: 44).
A common preference for one Dutch TV programme among
young people from different backgrounds seems remarkable when one
regards the tone of public discussions about the Dutch multicultural
society in recent decades. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s ethnic
minorities in the Netherlands were granted freedom to find their
place in society while retaining a cultural identity premised on
their country of origin, from the 1990s on the dominant discourse
has urged migrants to ‘integrate’, and ‘adapt to’ dominant Dutch
culture (Prins, 2000: 28). This shift in the public debate has led
to an increased application of an ‘us versus them’ perspective and
an emphasis on the cultural specificities of ethnic ‘groups’. A by
now classic illustration is a national newspaper column by Paul
Scheffer, who wrote that in the Netherlands everyone seems to have
‘their own bar, their own school, their own idols, their own music,
their own religion, their own butcher and their own street or their
own neighbourhood’ (Scheffer, 2000: 6). He concludes: ‘To be honest,
these old and new Dutch citizens know next to nothing about each
In this context, the first question that comes to
mind when considering the popularity of GTBT among young
viewers from a range of backgrounds is whether people from different
ethnic ‘groups’ interpret the soap in different ways. One famous
audience study into soap and ethnicity which addresses this question
is The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas
by Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz (1990). Liebes and Katz interviewed
members from six ethnic backgrounds about their interpretation of an
episode of the American primetime soap opera Dallas. Most of
these groups were living in Israel, namely Arabs, Moroccans,
Russians and so-called ‘kibbutzniks’. Interviews with Dallas
viewers were also conducted in the US and Japan. It turned out that
each group interpreted the episode in their own unique way,
comparing the soap’s characters and storylines to their cultural
values and knowledge. Arabs and Moroccans seemed to pay relatively
more attention to family aspects, Americans and ‘kibbutzniks’ more
often focussed on individual characters, while Russians and Japanese
distanced themselves from the soap by questioning its cultural value
(Liebes & Katz, 1990: 72).
Influenced by Liebes and Katz’s study, I undertook a
pilot study for the present project into the ways in which
Surinamese, Turkish and white Dutch girls give meaning to an episode
of GTBT (de Bruin, 2001). My conclusions were different from
Liebes and Katz’s in a number of ways. First, gender, a category
that they do not dwell upon, seemed to play an important part in
talking about the soap. The girls tended to focus on the female
characters who appeared in the episode. Second, no clear-cut
differences between ethnic groups emerged. On occasion ethnicity
played a role in a particular interpretation and was referred to
explicitly. For example, when a girl of Surinamese descent evaluated
the reaction of a mother character in the soap she made explicit
comparisons to what a Surinamese mother would do in a similar
situation. Third, the notion of ethnic ‘groups’ was debunked by
diversity within groups. One ‘Turkish’ group, for example, consisted
of four girls who all had a Turkish background, yet their
personalities differed enormously. Each girl seemed to have carved
out her own conception of what it means to be Turkish in the
Netherlands. At closer inspection, the Liebes and Katz study turned
out to be rather essentialist in its conceptualisation of ethnicity
and culture and its conclusions about the way in which these
categories influence audience reactions (see Harindranath, 2005).
As a result of the findings of the pilot study, the
focus of the research project shifted. The aim was no longer to
interview young people from particular ethnic ‘groups’ and analyse
differences between these groups, but to talk to young GTBT
viewers from diverse ethnic backgrounds and grasp the role that
ethnicity plays in their interpretations of the soap. Gender was
added as a category of interest. In the larger study presented in
this article, boys were also interviewed and the role of gender in
interpretations of boys and girls was analysed. The emphasis on the
role of ethnicity and gender led to a focus on processes of identity
construction. The theoretical framework for the project therefore
consists of studies on young soap viewers and identity construction.
The existing research into young television soap
opera viewers stresses that young people have considerable freedom
to interpret the soap text in different ways. Young viewers, David
Buckingham argues, ‘actively seek to construct their relationship
with the programme on their own terms’ (Buckingham, 1987: 154).
Buckingham also found that an important aspect of giving meaning to
a soap opera is talking about the programme (ibid.: 162-163). The
young people he interviewed watched the British soap EastEnders
because everybody at school was talking about it. EastEnders
was a regular topic of discussion in the peer group, and to a lesser
extent in families, and thereby had become an important part of the
youngsters’ daily lives.
The ethnographic study that Marie Gillespie (1995)
conducted in the London suburb of Southall generated similar
findings. The young people she talked with about television were
mainly of Punjabi background. The Australian soap Neighbours
was one of their favourite television programmes, which led to a lot
of ‘gossiping’ about its characters and storylines (Gillespie, 1995:
142). In the process, young people compared their own lives to those
of the soap characters. Their ethnicity played a vital role in those
comparisons. Some interviewees decided to distance themselves from
the ‘western’ values of the soap and oriented themselves towards the
Punjabi ‘parent culture’, whereas others felt involved with the soap
characters’ lives and used Neighbours to make ‘translations’
between Punjabi and ‘western’ values (ibid.: 8).
The distinction between distance and involvement is
one that is found in many studies on soap viewers. Buckingham’s
interviewees were constantly ‘shifting between an intense
involvement in the fiction and a critical (often satirical)
distancing from it’ (Buckingham, 1987: 165). Liebes and Katz, in
their study of Dallas, distinguish between ‘referential’ and
‘critical’ readings of the soap text. When using a referential
reading viewers regard the soap as a manifestation of ‘real life’,
which allows them to make comparisons to their own lives (1990:
100). In a critical reading viewers expose the ‘constructedness’ of
the soap, for example by commenting on the actors’ performances,
which directs them to look beyond the reality of the soap text
Referential readings open up possibilities for
identity construction. Gillespie’s research shows how the
‘translations’ that young Punjabi Londoners make between the soap
Neighbours and their own lives lead to the formulation of ‘new
ethnicities’ (1995: 11). These translations were predominantly
related to interpersonal relationships, such as relationships
between neighbours, family members or partners in a love
relationship (ibid.: 162-174). For example, the young people
interviewed valued the freedom that young soap characters were given
by their parents to make their own decisions. They used the equal
relationships between parents and children in Neighbours to,
albeit very carefully, critique the relationship they had with their
own parents. In this way, Neighbours played a role in the
formulation of ideals regarding their own lives.
Research by Chris Barker also shows that the soap
Neighbours can fulfil a role in the lives of ethnic minority
youth in Britain. Barker emphasises that in talking about the soap
young people actively construct identities: ‘Teenage talk about soap
opera is constitutive of identity in that young people negotiate
through talk shared understandings about how to ‘go on’ in their
society as persons within social relationships’ (Barker, 1997: 612).
For the Black and Asian girls that Barker studied, a range of
identity experiences came into play. Ethnicity was crucial, yet was
cross-cut by gender when the girls talked about storylines
concerning relationships and sexual behaviour (ibid.: 619). The
girls adopted moral stances, especially when talking about sex, by
drawing on both vernacular and more authorised and approved
discourses. Characters who were involved in what was referred to as
‘inappropriate sex’ were, on the one hand, blamed for their actions,
yet, on the other, were forgiven for the same actions. Barker (1998:
71) concludes that this ‘double’ interpretation provided the girls
with a means of dealing with their own moral and ethical dilemmas
around sexuality. This interpretation of a soap opera is not only
used by girls with ethnic minority backgrounds. David Buckingham and
Sara Bragg (2004: 17-18) interviewed white young people in the UK.
Their interviewees found the sexual content of soap storylines
particularly fascinating and, similar to the girls whom Barker
interviewed, engaged in moral evaluations of characters’ sexual
behaviour (ibid.: 164).
As mentioned above, soaps in general invite young
people to engage in moral debate. They do not impose a moral regime
on viewers but, due to their large number of characters and
interweaving storylines, present a range of moral positions that
viewers can take up. This grants viewers a considerable amount of
agency in interpreting the soap text. As Buckingham concludes in
relation to his interviewees: ‘the
children appeared to be able to apply their own moral and
ideological frameworks to the programme without feeling that it was
encouraging them to adopt different ones’ (Buckingham, 1987: 177).
The interview study
For the present study twenty focus group interviews
were conducted. A total of 95 young people participated. They were
selected via secondary schools in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the two
largest and most ethnically diverse cities in the Netherlands. Their
ages ranged from twelve to eighteen years old. Out of 95 young
people, 73 were girls and 22 were boys. The reason that more girls
than boys were interviewed is that girls expressed more willingness
to participate in the study. This gender imbalance can be explained
by the fact that usually more girls than boys watch soaps, and on
top of that boys seem generally less willing to admit that they
watch them (see Gillespie, 1995: 146). The majority of young people
who were interviewed were from one of the four most frequently
occurring ethnicities in the Netherlands: 23 were Turkish, 20
Moroccan, 15 Surinamese, and 20 white Dutch. The remaining
interviewees were from a range of other ethnic backgrounds, such as
Indonesian, Antillean, American, Ghanaian, Scottish and Romanian.
The groups consisted of four to six young people. Eleven groups
consisted of girls only, three of boys only and six were gender
mixed. All but four groups were ethnically mixed.
The interviews were conducted by students whose MA
theses I supervised: Annerieke Bijeman, Peggy Gemerts, Monika Isaak
and Esther Langerhorst. All four were women in their early twenties
at the time and two have an ethnic minority background. The
interviews were conducted at schools, most of them during class
time. Before the interview commenced interviewees watched an episode
of GTBT. Episodes were selected by the interviewers and had
been aired shortly before the time of the interview. Watching an
episode before the start of the interview enhances discussion, and
moreover allows interviewers to get a direct sense of how
interviewees interpret particular representations (see Liebes &
Katz, 1990: 6). A short topic list was used to give direction to the
interviews. Using this list as guidance, specific questions were
formulated about the episode and GTBT in general during the
interview. The interviewers were instructed to ask open questions to
give the interviewees the opportunity to tell their own stories (see
van Zoonen, 1994: 136-137).
The interviews were audio taped and transcribed
verbatim. All informants were assigned pseudonyms and appear with
their pseudonym in this article. The transcripts were analysed using
coding procedures from the grounded theory approach. Three forms of
coding were could be distinguished: ‘open’, ‘axial’ and ‘selective’
coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). First, all occurring concepts in
the transcripts were mapped out and put together in thematic
categories, which led to an initial idea of what interviewees had to
say. Second, interviews were compared to each other along the lines
of these categories. This ‘axial’ coding elucidated ways in which
interviewees talk about GTBT and the roles that gender and
ethnicity play in interpretations. Third, one core category, a
‘central phenomenon around which all the other categories are
integrated’ (Strauss & Corbin, 1990: 116), was searched for. The
concept that emerged from the data was ‘performative style’. Using
this concept, processes of identity construction in relation to
GTBT were analysed.
The discourse informants produce in an interview can,
on the one hand, be regarded as an expression of their beliefs,
attitudes and feelings. Yet, on the other, it can also be seen as a
means to leave a particular impression with others. Those ‘others’
are the interviewer and, in the case of a focus group interview, the
other participants (Lunt & Livingstone, 1996: 80). During the
analysis of the interview transcripts I came to realise that the
ways in which young people talk about GTBT could be viewed as
a set of ‘performances’. The context of the interviews is important
here. The interviews took place at secondary schools. For young
people school is a place where they spend a lot of time and, to a
certain extent, feel at home. At the same time, school is a space
where complex social relations are at play (Pilkington & Johnson,
2003: 275). These resonated during the interviews: classmates tried
to show off to one another by displaying knowledge about the soap or
its characters, while friends at times aimed for shared
interpretations by talking about something their mates could relate
Thus, talking about a soap opera in an interview
setting can be viewed as a vehicle for presentations of the self. An
opinion voiced in a focus group about a soap does not only tell the
other people present something about the soap, but also, and perhaps
more importantly, something about the person voicing the opinion. In
his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving
Goffman (1959) discusses how people in their everyday lives
routinely act out certain kinds of performances. According to Edward
Schieffelin (1998: 195):
As Goffman has suggested, human intentionality,
culture and social reality are fundamentally articulated in the
world through performative activity. When human beings come into the
presence of one another, they do so expressively, establishing
consensus on who they are and what their situation is about through
voice, gesture, facial expression, bodily posture and action.
People therefore act according to the rules that
apply within a particular social situation, bearing in mind the
people who are facing them: ‘In their capacity as performers,
individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that
they are living up to the many standards to which they and their
products are judged’ (Goffman, 1959: 243). In this vein, young
people who participate in an interview will be engaged with what
Goffman calls ‘impression management’. Successful performances
cannot be guaranteed, however; if performances are not carried out
convincingly they can go wrong. As Schieffelin (1998: 198) points
‘performance is always inherently interactive, and
fundamentally risky’. The young people interviewed for this
study responded to each other’s contributions, at some times
reinforcing other group member’s performances, at other times
questioning or even ridiculing them.
At a more fundamental level all behaviour in everyday
life can be regarded as performative and implicated in identity
construction. Judith Butler (1990: 142-145) emphasises that gender
is essentially a construction based on repeated performances. Those
performances are not the result of an underlying gender identity;
rather, the notion of an underlying identity is constructed as a
result of continuous performances. When interviewing young people in
groups, gender performances vary according to the composition of
those groups. Boys may perform a different version of masculinity in
the company of other boys than in mixed gender groups; girls may
perform a particular version of femininity depending on the presence
or absence of other girls or boys. Karen Qureshi (2004), who studied
young Edinburgh Pakistanis, found that young people use different
performative scripts for displaying their ethnicity, in line with
the anticipated reactions of others. She draws on Goffman when she
writes that ‘audience segregation – keeping observers of different
presentations of ‘self’ separate – is a device for protecting
impressions’. As we will see below, the composition of the focus
groups elicited young people to present particular ‘selves’ to the
interviewer and other group members. Sometimes these types of
performances can be quite successful, at other times they evoke
In the remainder of this article I discuss the
performances young people used when talking about GTBT, as
well as ensuing identity constructions. Following Goffman’s claim
that the self is a ‘product of the performances that individuals put
on in social situations’ (Branaman, 1997: xlvi), interviewees’
performances were classified along the lines of three performative
styles, which I will refer to as ‘deconstruction’, ‘association’ and
‘moralisation’. The deconstruction style is used to look beyond the
reality of the soap text, the association style zooms in on the
characters while accepting the reality as presented by the soap, and
the moralisation style is used to voice morally loaded judgements
about what is happening in the soap. Through the use of these
performative styles young people construct different ‘selves’:
respectively a ‘smart self’, a ‘sensitive self’ and a ‘moral self’
(see also Van Zoonen, 2007).
When using the deconstruction style, young people
regard the soap as a construction which can be dismantled. The
informants use this style in three ways: they look at the actors
behind the characters; they approach the soap as a media product;
and they view the programme as belonging to a genre with specific
rules and peculiarities. The deconstruction style is similar to the
critical reading of soaps as distinguished by Liebes and Katz (1990:
114). Yet it is important to note that informants do not only use
this style to criticise the soap as such, but also to position
themselves as intelligent people. In a group context, it seems
important to show one is skilled in deconstructing a soap, or, in
other words, presenting a ‘smart self’.
The skills of actors were a topic of discussion in
almost all groups. It seemed important for informants to show to
other groups members and the interviewer that they were able to
criticise the actors’ work. Some actors are criticised and deemed
‘fake’, while others are praised:
KARIMA: I think he is kind of fake, kind of fake.
KARIMA: Some of them can really do a good job, so
that you really, that you just cry with them… But he’s just fake (…)
PEGGY [I]: And what else can you tell us about Che?
NAIMA: I think he’s kind of a… good looking guy, a
nice guy… Yeah, but he acts strangely, I don’t know, like…
NAIMA: Yes, scrubby, you know when, when uhm, when
something happens he’s not really uhm…
SORAYA: Stefano for example, he can act, or Ludo.
Another way the deconstruction style manifests itself
is when the soap is regarded as media product. This happens for
instance when young people talk about the makers of the soap. Often
these are referred to as ‘they’ and sometimes the production
company’s name is mentioned:
LONNEKE: What I found beautiful, when Hennie died,
how they did all that. Hennie, uncle Govert’s wife.
BIBIANA: What did Charlie give to Barbara again, in
the previous episode, when she said ‘there, get that, put it under
your shirt’, what was that?
JOLIJN: A little figure or something?
CARON: Something blue…
JOLIJN: It consisted of two parts, didn’t it?
BIBIANA: Yes, I want to know what it is.
ESTHER [I]: I don’t know either.
CARON: Ask Endemol Productions.
is also deconstructed as belonging to soap genre, which involves a
specific set of rules and oddities. Interviewees note that a lot of
outrageous things happen in soaps and that consequently characters
are subjected to a staggering number of troubling experiences. Some
informants feel annoyed by this, whereas others state that this is
inevitably part of the soap genre
EVELIEN: Yes, too many things happen at the same
time. Like that with Jef and Barbara and then something else played
a part in it and it’s all so random.
BERT: Yes, but that’s soap
EVELIEN: Yes, that’s true, but it’s all so
DANA: You know a lot of people and all around things
are happening, but this is just so much and so intense. (…)
BERT: But else it wouldn’t be a series, would it?
The deconstruction style offers young people the
opportunity to demonstrate that they can ‘read’ the constructedness
of the soap. They argue that GTBT is a media product which is
influenced by particular genre rules; it is fabricated by Endemol;
and soap characters are in fact actors who are not always good at
their jobs. By displaying these forms of knowledge young people
position themselves as ‘knowing’ subjects; they show to the
interviewer and the other interviewees that they are media savvy.
When using the association style, young people focus
on the soap characters. As was the case with the deconstruction
style, the informants use this style in three different ways. They
evaluate characters, resulting in either criticising or praising
characters; they empathise with characters’ inner thoughts, feelings
and wishes; and they imagine themselves in situations characters are
dealing with by pondering what they would do when faced with a
similar situation. In ‘associating’ themselves with the characters
in these ways, they construct a ‘sensitive self’. The term
‘association’ is derived from Gillespie’s (1995: 148) study. Her
interviewees, rather than ‘identifying’ with characters,
‘associated’ themselves with characters, situations and feelings in
The informants in this study expressed a preference
for young characters and a dislike for ‘old’ characters on the soap.
This differs from what Buckingham (1987: 164) found regarding the
British soap EastEnders. The young people he interviewed were
not very interested in young characters and denounced their
representation as ‘unrealistic’, but experienced a voyeuristic
pleasure in looking at the ‘adult’ behaviour of grown up characters
which in their own lives they could not get access to. Grown-up
characters in GTBT, however, were regularly disapproved of:
MONIKA [I]: And which characters do you not like?
MIRA: Those oldies.
JAMAL: Those old people.
MIRA: So, those oldies.
MONIKA [I]: And can you describe who those oldies
JAMAL: Mr Harmsen.
JAMAL: Robert, Jef. He will die, I think.
LEAH: Yeah, he’ll die! [all laugh].
Evaluating soap characters offers young people
opportunities to think about what kind of people they like, whereby
they in fact define what kind of people they are themselves. The
informants habitually reject the older characters by distancing
themselves from them, and position themselves close to the young
characters. While voicing these opinions the informants were in the
presence of other young people, and an interviewer who was not much
older than they were. The ‘youthful’ context may have made a voiced
preference for younger characters appropriate. The teenage character
Charlie is mentioned by many informants as their favourite:
MONIKA [I]: And what do you like about Charlie, can
you describe her?
HELLEN: She is cheeky, that’s it.
JAMAL: She is always spontaneous.
LEAH: She’s crazy.
MONIKA [I]: Yes, she’s cheeky?
HELLEN: Yeah, she’s cheeky and she just does anything.
MONIKA: What’s anything?
MIRA: Anything she wants.
JAMAL: She does what she wants, big mouth, she’s all there.
On the whole, the informants spent most time in the
interviews talking about the young characters on GTBT. When
explicitly empathising with characters, informants express even more
involvement in matters these characters are involved in. In the
following quote the girls shift from evaluating the character of
Milan, a teenage boy, to empathising with him:
ESTHER [I]: And Milan, what kind of guy is he?
ROXANNE: A sucker!
AIMEE: He acts kind of tough but he isn’t, really,
when you look at it.
PRECILLA: I think he’s a dirty little jerk [the
ANNE: He irritates me when I watch.
AIMEE: He’s ridiculous.
ROXANNE: He’s really ugly.
KAREN: I think… He just acts tough, but uh, yeah…
ANNE: He wants to help her, but then he doesn’t dare
to say it or whatever.
The informants are not just evaluating Milan as a
character, they are also interacting with each other in broaching
particular assessments of him. While Precilla and Roxanne seem
involved in evoking laughter from the other group members, the
remaining girls start reflecting on the precarious situation that
Milan is caught up in. In the episode of GTBT that groups
watched Milan has to decide if he will help his twin sister, who he
has only recently met and who is in hospital because she is
suffering from a liver disease, by donating part of his liver.
Interviewees speculate about Milan’s thoughts about the situation:
ESTHER [I]: I’d like to talk about Milan for a while.
What kind of person is Milan?
EVELIEN: Well, uh… a little selfish.
QAMAR: No, I think he’s kind of sweet, but he doesn’t
want that. He wants to help her, but something stops him.
DANA: I think he’s afraid.
QAMAR: I don’t know what… I think he’s kind of a
sweet person, he just acts tough. Otherwise he wouldn’t go to the
Some informants also talk about this storyline in terms of what
they would do if they were in the same situation as Milan:
ESTHER [I]: What do you think about the liver
PRECILLA: I’d want to donate my liver to my family or
someone who is really precious to me, that’s what I mean, but if I’d
die and they can use my liver or something like that, then I
wouldn’t want it.
ESTHER [I]: No?
KAREN: Yeah, well I would do it.
ESTHER [I]: Yes, would you, Karen?
KAREN: Yes, when you can save other people’s lives by
doing it, because you’re dead already.
ESTHER [I]: But like Milan does it, who donates only
a part of his liver?
KAREN: Yes, I’d do it.
Evidently, this storyline about a liver transplant
incites young people to imagine what they would do in the same
situation. Thus, soaps can induce their viewers to reflect on
situations they would not necessarily come across in their own
lives. After some probing from the interviewer, the girls start a
conversation in which they exchange views on the topic. This seems
to be the purpose of the association style in general. Young people
use this style to interactively position themselves in relation to
different kinds of people and the situations they find themselves
in. By displaying their insight into the human character, they show
to other people what kind of person they are.
The soap talk in the moralisation style is
characterised by a strong moral undertone: young people voice
morally loaded judgements about what they see in the soap. These
judgements can refer to the behaviour of particular characters, as
well as – either implicitly or explicitly – the manner in which that
behaviour is represented. Regarding the latter, the lack of realism
of soaps is often referred to. Barker (1998: 72) found a remarkably
similar mechanism at play in his interviews with Black and
Asian-British girls about Neighbours:
Throughout the conversations the girls are engaged in
moral evaluations of characters, situations and representations (…).
The primary tension in the conversation[s] (…) is between the girls’
own moral opinions and the need to justify such judgements against
the yardstick of realism.
Like this, the moralisation style offers young people
the possibility to position themselves vis-à-vis moral issues,
whereby they construct ‘moral selves’. The informants in this study
predominantly use the moralisation style to talk about sexual
relationships of characters. As mentioned in the prologue, Charlie
and Isabella’s lesbian love affair in GTBT incited a mixed
set of moral evaluations. In those evaluations young people refer to
the love affair and the realism of the storyline at the same time:
ESTHER [I]: What do you think about the lesbian
relationship of Charlie and Isabella?
AIMEE: That’s up to them.
ROXANNE: Yeah, that’s up to them.
ANNE: It’s up to them, but it’s kind of common,
AIMEE: But it’s really overexaggerated.
ROXANNE: I think it’s really curious.
ESTHER [I]: Sorry, what did you say?
ANNE: It’s kind of common.
AIMEE: It’s up to everybody to know what they are,
not that I have any problems with it, but in this series it comes
across as really overexaggerated, really.
ROXANNE: Yes, and they’re so clinging.
KAREN: And Charlie tells everything to her mother
too, but you don’t do that, normally.
ANNE: Nobody does that.
AIMEE: No, nobody.
The girls in this group seem to shift from morally
evaluating the relationship of Charlie and Isabella to imagining
what they would do if they found themselves in their situation,
which hints at the use of the association style. This illustrates
that young people can draw on several performative styles at the
same time when discussing particular soap characters and storylines,
which adds to the complexity of their soap talk.
The young people interviewed also talked about sexual
relationships of soap characters in general terms. GTBT is a
‘dyadic’ soap (Liebes & Livingstone, 1998: 153), meaning that
characters are constantly experimenting with new intimate partners
and forms of relationships. Among some informants, these defining
features were a major reason for criticising the soap. Most of these
informants have a Turkish background. When asked why she watches
GTBT, a Turkish-Dutch girl answers:
SERPIL: I don’t really get it either, it’s very
strange, everybody’s already slept with each other and I find that
so stupid! That person is involved with that son and then with that
father and then they marry and they divorce again. That sort of
To be fair, GTBT has used quite a number of
storylines about ‘extraordinary’ sexual relationships over the past
fifteen years. Two examples concerning young characters are the
teenage girl Hedwig, who had sex with her teacher to improve her
grades; and Julian and Kim, a brother and sister, also in their
teens, who had only recently met each other for the first time and
accidentally ended up having sex. Some girls from Turkish
backgrounds heavily criticise the sexual behaviour of these
ANNERIEKE [I]: And what do you think about her?
AYSEN: Messy. You know, what I found stupid about
her, when she uhm… went to bed with her teacher, so stupid. I hated
ANNERIEKE [I]: And why did you find that stupid?
AYSEN: You don’t just go to bed with someone; I mean
you don’t just sell yourself for grades. Is just dirty and she’s got
a whole trauma because of it too.
ANNERIEKE [I]: What did you think about Julian?
LEYLA: Interesting, but I found it dumb that he slept
AYSEN: Failure, disgraceful!
ANNERIEKE [I]: Why?
LEYLA: Because they were brother and sister.
AYSEN: You just don’t do that.
These girls are very straightforward in their
judgements: the things that happen in GTBT regarding sex are
outrageous. Yet at the same time, they implicitly seem to be talking
about their own lives, as is suggested by the use of the word ‘you’:
‘You don’t just go to bed with someone’, ‘You just don’t sell
yourself for grades’ and ‘You just don’t do that’. The girls use the
soap to present themselves as moral experts. They actively voice
their opinions in the presence of other (Turkish-Dutch) girls and
the white Dutch interviewer. Their gender and ethnicity, as well as
the interaction with the gender and ethnicity of the interviewer,
play a role in these performances. Before trying to explain the
specificity of these girls’ interpretations, however, I will first
analyse the role of gender and ethnicity in interpretations of
GTBT in more general terms.
The role of gender and ethnicity
Gender seems to play a pivotal role in how the
moralisation style is used to talk about sexual relationships of
soap characters. It was mainly girls who engaged in this activity.
Most boys who were interviewed did not have much to say about sex in
GTBT. This difference could be explained by the different
position towards sex that girls occupy as compared to boys
(Buckingham & Bragg, 2004). A ‘double standard’ is at work: while
boys have more freedom to experiment with sexuality, girls are
generally urged to guard their sexual reputation. Possibly this
double standard has motivated female interviewees, more so than male
interviewees, to talk about sexuality in a moralising way.
Ethnicity also plays a distinguishing role in the use
of the moralisation style. The main activity within the use of that
style is the testing of the informants’ own moral frameworks against
those represented in the soap. The sexual behaviour of characters is
judged against values that young people impose upon themselves and
upon others. Those values can be related to ethnicity. At the same
time it is important to stress that morality and ethnicity cannot be
related in absolute ways. Young people from ethnic minority
backgrounds form ‘new ethnicities’ (see Back, 1996, Gillespie, 1995)
and previous studies into young soap opera viewers have shown that
young people from similar ethnic backgrounds can make different
choices in giving meaning to a soap opera. Nevertheless, it was
striking that some girls from a Turkish background relatively often
stated that their moral worldview was at odds with the way in which
GTBT deals with sexual relations.
As discussed earlier, the moral evaluations of the
relationship of Charlie and Isabelle in GTBT diverged. Some
girls expressed fairly liberal opinions, while others dismissed the
relationship as inappropriate. Some Turkish-Dutch girls explicitly
referenced the role of the Islam in their interpretations:
MONIKA [I]: And who do you not like?
AMIN: Those lesbians [the others laugh].
MONIKA [I]: Why? What do you… what do you not like
MUSA: It isn’t normal.
MONIKA [I]: Can you describe what is not normal about
AYLINE: But you also know that…
AMIN: Yeah, it doesn’t belong to our religion.
AYLINE: It doesn’t, it doesn’t belong to our
religion. It’s just not allowed to have lesbian feelings. That’s why
we think it isn’t normal.
By using the phrase ‘our religion’ the girls perform
a particular version of their cultural background to the
interviewer, which is given weight by a reference to the
interviewer’s presupposed knowledge about this background. These
types of performances should not be seen as a natural reflection of
what a particular ‘ethnic group’ thinks about a subject, however.
The role of religion also came up in an interview with a group of
boys from Moroccan backgrounds. A young female GTBT character
who has found out she is pregnant, is criticised with reference
being made to the Quran:
PEGGY [I]: What is her character like?
PEGGY [I]: She is a bad woman?
MOHAMMED: Yes, she want to give up her child for uhm…
AZIZ: But it’s not her child…
MOHAMMED: Yes, sure.
JAMAL: But she’s uhm, pregnant by someone else.
AZIZ: She was raped.
MOHAMMED: Oh, oh, oh, she was raped?
PEGGY [I]: Then what should she do?
AZIZ: Then she should…
MOHAMMED: Then… I have to study the Quran [the others
PEGGY [I]: Well, that isn’t odd, is it? What should
MOHAMMED: Would they have to remove it then? I don’t
PEGGY [I]: Yes, what do you in a situation like that…
MOHAMMED: No, no, no, no, no, but seriously, the
Quran says, uhm, whether you can keep it or not. Then I’ll study the
Quran and look it up.
AZIZ: Hey, there’s no abortion in the Quran, man…
That is to say, Mohammed tries to interpret
Mathilde’s situation with the help of the Quran, yet his attempts
provoke laughter among fellow group members. This is an example of a
performance of a particular conception of Moroccan masculinity which
ends up being unconvincing to its audience, and therefore goes
wrong. Mohammed aims to use the soap character to show others that
he is a devoted Muslim, but instead he provokes laughter and
It seems therefore important to take into account the
function of these sorts of performances. As mentioned, some girls
from a Turkish background are the most passionate in their criticism
of, in their view, outrageous sex in the soap. These girls also tell
the interviewer that in their own lives, they have to obey strict
rules concerning sexuality and dating. Raziye talks about her
RAZIYE: They have more freedom than us, really. They
very often come home late from going out and stuff.
AYSEN: Yeah, but do you know why that is, why a girl
is not allowed to do that? A lot can happen to a girl, she can be
raped and a boy can’t. Well, yeah, it’s possible, but yeah. When
you’re a girl you lose your virginity and then you really have a
problem. When you get married and your man finds out and he will
divorce you and then he will gossip and stuff.
The conclusion for these girls is that they have to
be careful and constantly watch their sexual behaviour. The
significance of gossip in the daily lives of some women from Turkish
backgrounds in the Netherlands has also been discussed by Marlene de
Vries (1988: 77-78), who in her research among Turkish-Dutch women
found that the prevalence of gossip forced them to orientate
themselves towards their family and domestic life instead of the
outside world. Some girls who were interviewed for this study seem
to use GTBT to discipline themselves to correct sexual
SERPIL: Yeah, but what can you learn from Good
Times Bad Times, really? Nothing at all, right?
FATMA: You can.
SERPIL: No, nothing at all! That you should sleep
with your brother?
ANNERIEKE [I]: But you said you can, so what can you
FATMA: To, uhm, to avoid certain problems.
For these girls, moralising performances based on a
soap opera can fulfil a function in presenting yourself to the world
as a ‘decent’ girl. Qureshi (2004) points out that for the Edinburgh
Pakistani young women she interviewed the presentation of self had
to result in an impression of ‘respectability’. Soap talk can be
used for ‘respectable’ presentations of the self. As Serpil phrases
SERPIL: They show all kinds of bad things, so we as
viewers can figure out: ‘That’s how we should not behave!’.
The study discussed in this article has shown that
young people who were interviewed about the Dutch soap GTBT
use three performative styles to interpret the soap’s characters and
storylines. When using the deconstruction style they look beyond the
reality of the soap text. They show the interviewer and the other
interviewees that they can see through the reality as created by the
soap makers. Thereby they construct a ‘smart self’. With the
association style they talk about the characters, accepting the
reality as presented by the soap. This gives them the opportunity to
express their views on characters’ qualities and actions and relate
these, implicitly or explicitly, to their own lives. In doing so
they construct a ‘sensitive self’. Finally, they create a ‘moral
self’ by voicing morally loaded judgements about what they see in
While the three styles focus on different aspects of
the self, they converge in the opportunities they provide for
identity construction. Identity construction is an ongoing process
for young people, with identities being formed in several contexts
(at home, amidst family and friends, at school, in public spaces, et
cetera) and along various lines, such as age, gender, sexuality,
ethnicity, nationality, appearance and personality (Pilkington &
Johnson, 2003, 275). For young people from ethnic minority
backgrounds processes of identity construction are arguably even
more complex, since they have to take into account meanings from
diverse and sometimes conflicting cultural sources (Barker, 1997;
In giving meaning to soaps different identities are
at play. The construction of a ‘smart self’ seems to refer primarily
to age. The eagerness of informants to deconstruct the soap can be
explained with reference to public debates about young people and
media, in which it is often stated that they are vulnerable in the
face of detrimental media effects (Buckingham, 1993: 3). Regarding
the construction of a ‘sensitive self’, informants focussed on the
young soap characters. Besides age, many other identities (gender,
ethnicity, sexuality, appearance) can play a role in the use of the
association style, depending on which character is talked about. The
processes of identity construction in the creation of ‘moral selves’
seem to be the most reflective in nature. Young people do not only
evaluate what is represented in the soap, but also make comparisons
with ways in which society deals with moral issues. They ask
themselves an array of questions: What happens here?, Did the soap
makers do a good job?, How should people behave?, Where do I stand?
By talking about soaps in moralising ways, young
people judge what they see in the soap against the values that they
impose upon themselves and others. Because they use their own value
systems as starting point, the distinguishing roles of gender and
ethnicity come to the fore. While girls are generally more
preoccupied with issues around sexuality, some young people from
Moroccan and Turkish backgrounds make references to the Islam in
their interpretations. In the use of the moralisation style the
positions that young people occupy in society are at stake. They use
this performative style to display their values, thereby refining
and sharpening them. In that way, they look for ways to deal with
moral issues which play a role in their personal lives. This
illustrates the unfruitfulness of the focus on ‘ethnic groups’ which
has been used in some previous research into soap opera audiences (Liebes
& Katz, 1990). While young people at times draw strategically on
their cultural, ethnic or religious backgrounds, these instances can
be regarded as performances. The young people interviewed for this
study were invested in ‘impression management’ by presenting
particular aspects of their personality to the interviewer and the
other interviewees. Some performances were successful, while others
turned against the performer and evoked laughter. Regardless of the
success of particular performances, the underlying principle is that
young people use the soap text to perform to others where they stand
in relation to media, other people and society at large. Rather than
being influenced by soap characters, storylines and representations,
they use them for their own purposes.
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Contact (by e-mail):
Joost de Bruin
Joost de Bruin is Lecturer in Media Studies, Victoria University of
Te Whare Wānanga o te Ūpoko o te Ika a Māui,
Aotearoa / New Zealand