How soapies turn black people into wallpaper

2017-08-13 00:00

Johannesburg - I’m a third-generation soap watcher who got hooked on the programmes the same way most of my friends did. We grew up with them as background noise in homes full of women who used soapies as a way to thaw after a long day.

The sequence in my house was Days of Our Lives then Bold on SABC1, then switch to Isidingo on SABC3 before coming back to SABC1 for the news, the comedy of the day and Generations. It was a regimented approach to entertainment that seems unthinkable now in this era of gluttonous binge-watching.

Slowly, the household’s interest in Bold lost traction and waned. The show has a strange dioxide quality to it that means you can stop watching it for years, then view one episode and immediately have a fair understanding of not only the current storylines, but of the routes the characters took to get there. The writing is generic and the characters have a way of speaking that perpetually recaps everything that has happened to them.

I grew up in the golden age of black characters, especially in comedy. From Martin, Girlfriends and Amen to The Steve Harvey Show and Moesha. Comedy seemed to suggest there was a possibility of a good life for black people away from the afflictions of whiteness. Black joy was the driving aesthetic of the genre.

These programmes, however, were stitched side by side with The Bold and the Beautiful, which often openly contradicted that. The black characters in the show were fillers, receptionists, barmen and models who had no ideas or strong feelings of their own. They were at best ornamental and passive, existing purely to reflect the social reality of black people being in society, but who had no agency.

In the pristine high fashion world of The Bold and the Beautiful, with its lush white and glass exteriors, blackness was treated as a stain. The whitewashing of the way in which black culture changed fashion in the 1990s and 2000s is one of the show’s many Achilles’ heels.

In the 30 years since the soapie began it has only recently included a significant black family in its storyline. In 2008, Marcus Walton was introduced as the adopted son of Eric Forrester, the patriarch of the series. The character – unnuanced eye candy with a chip on his shoulder and daddy issues – was kept at arm’s length from the rest of the Forrester family.

Emotionally obtuse, athletic and a bit of a bad boy, he was a composite of stereotypes about male blackness and the writers didn’t know what to do with him. He was ultimately haphazardly written out, not even given the dignity of death, but instead shown to abruptly leave town – a fine example of diversity for diversity’s sake gone terribly awry.

As early as the 1990s, shows such as The Young and the Restless packed a punch with black characters like Drucilla, Olivia, Neil, Nathan and Mamie. Then Days of our Lives flexed its muscles with the likes of Abe and Lexie in powerful storylines about marriage and multiracial siblings. But The Bold and the Beautiful always felt out of step.

The show, 30 years into its run, is still overly concerned with its often melodramatic depictions of serial infidelity against a backdrop of simulated wealth. Today, Bold is in a strange place. How much longer can it continue with its tradition of treating black people like wallpaper?

And, with so many other shows that are infinitely better, who would care if they made changes now anyway?

Read more on:    tv  |  the bold and the beautiful

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