Daytime and Diversity: How Far Have We Really Come?
Daytime television has come a long way from the time when soap operas solely revolved around the lives of Midwestern WASPs. Thanks in large part to Agnes Nixon, and the racially and socially diverse landscapes she brought to the artform with her daytime dramas One Life to Live and All My Children, people of color began to carve out a niche on daytime in the late 60's and early 70's. Nixon was also responsible for creating signature roles for women like Robin Strasser and Suan Lucci, both of whom have been quoted as saying they had been told their look was too "ethnic" for television early in their careers.
In the 80's, Nixon continued to blaze trails for diversity, by creating daytime's premiere black supercouple, Jesse and Angie (Darnell Hubbard and Debbi Morgan) on AMC. The color boundaries Nixon broke, paved the way for writers like Sally Sussman-Morina, who created daytime's first soap to feature a core black family from the beginning, Generations, and the late Bill Bell, like Nixon a protege of the late Irna Phillips. On his soap opera, The Young and the Restless, Bell fleshed out the family of Mamie Johnson, the Abbott family's beloved, black maid, by bringing on Mamie's nieces Drucilla (Victoria Rowell) and Olivia (Tonya Lee Williams), as well as several suitors for the popular characters— most notably buppie executive Neil Winters (Kristoff St. John) and his street smart brother Malcolm (Shemar Moore), the former who is still a contract player on the soap almost two decades later.
As with telling stories about people of different skin tones, the fight to tell stories about people of varying sexual orientations has been a hard one for daytime. Before Nixon's AMC received its first hate letter because of the friendship between Jesse and Tad's sister Jenny (Kim Delaney) in the 80's, or Y&R's St. John received his first death threat after his character was paired with Victoria Newman (Heather Tom) in the 90's, Y&R and Bell had incited the outrage of Middle America by toying with a lesbian storyline for it's grande dame Katherine Chancellor (Jeanne Cooper) back in the 70's. The soap backed off the story due to pressure from the network and the fear of losing sponsors.
Some three decades later, with gay characters and romances featured prominently on such primetime shows as Ugly Betty, Brothers and Sisters and even the teen soap Degrassi High, the writers of As The World Turns have been plagued with similar fear and loathing as it has attempted to tell a gay love story between colleg students Luke and Noah (Van Hanis and Jake Silbermann).
In early 2009, daytime has taken steps both forward and backwards in terms of same-sex storytelling. In Jauary, Luke and Noah had sex —off screen— on ATWT. In February, Bianca and Reese (Eden Riegel and Tamara Braun) got married on AMC—then had their groundbreaking union annuled the next day because one of the brides couldn't decide if she liked kissing boys better than girls (Who says she has to pick? Life's a buffet, right?).
This month, however, one soap opera, CBS's struggling sudser Guiding Light seems to be getting it right when it comes to the care and crafting of a same-sex storyline. Olivia (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia (Jessica Leccia) are struggling with their feelings for one another in GL's fictional Springfield in the kind of believable, heart-wrenching, humorous fashion that hasn't been seen on daytime in regards to a gay storyline since Nixon penned Bianca's coming out storyline on AMC.
While the daytime industry has miles to go before it sleeps in terms of actually resembling America's vastly diversifying landscape—and you all know we here at DC spend a lot of time griping about just that—each soap that has even attempted to push through centuries of institutionalized hatred to tell these stories—good, bad or asinine—should be commended.
Recently I was approached by journalist Herndon Davis (Bet.com, AOL Black Voices) to give my thoughts about diversity in daytime. Herndon also reached out to Josie Thomas, senior vice-president for diversity at CBS and Damon Romine, director of entertainment media for GLAAD, for his comprehensive, no-holds-barred feature article about the state of diversity in daytime. I was honored to be in such company. Hopefully I didn't put my size 13's too far down my throat! Check out the article here.