SOAPS AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

Community and Family in Wittekerke and E-street



As the title of Allens (1995) work indicates, soaps have gone global. They are probably the most widespread fictional television genre around the world, and theirs future is bright. This didn’t go unnoticed by the academy. Soaps were scrutinized. The theoretical paradigms dictated the research agenda. We’ve seen quantitative content analysises (Cantor & Pingree, 1983, pp. 69-112), and the political economy of the making of soap operas (Allen, 1985 and 1987; Gripsrud, 1995, pp. 21-70). French structuralism taught us to analyse the narrative structures of soaps (Allen, 1985) and feminist critiques suggested that soaps should be interpreted as a ‘feminine genre’(Brown, 1994; Modleski, 1982; Gledhil, 1997, amongst others). The discovery of the ‘active audience’ generated a whole body of work on pleasure, meaning making and interpretation (Harrington & Bielby, 1995; Ang, 1982; Livingstone, 1990), and we’ve read some psycho-analytic accounts of soap as well (Livingstone & Liebes, 1995). And yet another article on soaps?

Actually, contrary to what the title suggests this article isn’t about soaps. They are the pretext, the instrument for analysing the second part of the title: cultural identity. Indeed, as soaps conquered the world and mediascapes (Appadurai, 1990, pp. 298-299) were being transported around the globe we saw an emerging interest in questions of travelling texts and cultural identities. Studies of this kind can be roughly divided in two groups. The first group focuses on the flow of texts around the world and the importance of cultural differences in interpreting foreign soap operas. The much cited Liebes and Katz (1990) study is an example of this kind of research, conducted in the aftermath of - and reaction against - Schiller’s cultural imperialism thesis (Schiller, 1976). Active meaning making was emphasized, and the importance of negotiated and/or translated meanings was highlighted. The second type of research didn’t focus on the cross-cultural traffic of texts around the world, but thought of them as revealing something about the culture in which they originated. Since culture and meaning are intimately intertwined (Hall, 1997, p. 2), and texts somehow seem to ‘contain’ or ‘carry’ meaning, this tradition analyses the soap as a ‘bearer of cultural identity’. But this approach is a precarious one, given the current - mostly decontructionist -‘discursive explosion’ (Hall, 1996, p. 1) around the concept of cultural identity. The dangers of essentialism, textualism and arrogance of the analist (who sees ‘the’ meaning of the text, while audiences don’t) loom large. Yet I will argue for a modified and humble purely ‘textual approach’ and its relevance in questions of cultural identity.
 
 

1. Soaps and cultural identity

Schiller’s cultural imperialism-thesis was the starting point of much of the research conducted in the field of cultural identity. Concepts such as ‘Americanisation’ and ‘McDonaldization’lead scholars to the cross-cultural comparison of American and British soaps, since the latter country had a firm tradition of ‘authentic’ television making and was part of the threatened European culture. Though interpretations and evaluations occasionally differed, a consensus was reached that British soaps such as Coronation Street and EastEnders had their own distinctive ‘version’ of the soap opera format, which originated in the US (Allen, 1987, p. 144). All research pointed to the fact that British soaps articulated with the existing ‘social realism’ tradition, which ‘involves a heavy emphasis upon social class, everyday mundane reality, the so called "kitchen sink" drama, and an ideal of earthy authenticity’ (Liebes & Livingstone, 1992, p. 115). This contrasts with the American daytime serials which emphasize romance, melodrama and entertainment value. Thus, contrary to their American counterparts, characters in British soaps are mainly working class, a working class which is a specific group with its own way of life, and ‘the audience is invited to interprete the narrative from that perspective’ (Geraghty, 1995, p. 67). Moral panic ebbed away after these reassuring findings, and the time had come to investigate soap in all its cultural forms. What appeared was a vast range of telenovelas (Martin-Barbero, 1995; Lopez, 1995), Aussi soaps (Crofts, 1995) and community soaps, dynastic soaps and dyadic soaps (Liebes & Livingstone, 1998), each with its own narrative characteristics and thematical preoccupations.

One of the problems concerning most comparative textual analyses is the fact that two completely separate ‘entities’ are being compared, with the aim of finding differences in themes and portrayals. This is a problem, because in spite of the fact that differences can be found, there is no reason to conclude that they are related to ‘American’ or ‘British culture’: they could also be related to political-economical issues. A programme like Coronation Street, for instance, was develloped by a public television company, while American soaps are produced within a commercial system. In such a case differences can't necessarily be attributed to culture. They are related to different corporate structures and legislative contexts. In other words, it is difficult to identify differences as being cultural differences. Of course, as Liebes and Livingstone (1992, p. 114) remark, broadcasting structures have their own goals and corresponding televisual norms - in short, their own culture - but it is useful to make at least an analytical difference between the forces which mould the texts as they appear on television.
 
 

2. Set-up and methodology

One of the most popular Flemish soaps, Wittekerke, is based on an Australian serial, E-street. The adaption is however entirely under Flemish control: the scripts are rewritten by a Flemish author, the shooting of the serial takes place in Flanders with a Flemish cast and crew, etc... The only rule that must be followed is that the adaptation should stay as close to the Australian story line as possible, although this is not always done very strictly (cf. infra). Seen in the light of cultural identity, both serials provide us with an excellent tool to look for cultural differences. We have an ‘original’ and its ‘translation’, which means that the differences between E-street and Wittekerke should reveil something about the culture in which they were respectively originated and adapted. Furthermore, an interview with the Flemish scenario-writer was intended in order to separate textual differences inspired by a political-economical logic from differences which were inspired by cultural motivations (for an example, see 3.c). This is therefore not a comparison between two completely separate entities (for instance Dynasty and Coronation Street); the point of departure consisted of two closely related programmes with many similarities, and, more importantly, a number of very interesting differences. Furthermore, the interview with the scenario-writer provides us with a way to separate political-economical differences from differences inspired by cultural motivations.

The actual study consisted of two parts: on the one hand a character & setting analysis, through which the diegetic world was examined (starting point of the serial, setting, characters, etc...); and on the other hand a scene-per-scene analysis, which analyzes the differences between E-street and Wittekerke scene-per-scene. Special attention was given to 1. differences between actions, 2. differences between the argumentation or discourses characters used, 3. differences between narrative structures, functions and composition, and 4. differences in the way certain themes were emphasized. The remaining structure of this paper will therefore be as follows: in section 3 we will examine the ‘micro-differences’. These are differences, which surfaced during the scene-per-scene analysis, and which turned out to be classifiable. In sections 4, 5 and 6 we will examine the ideological dimensions of all these differences with regard to such concepts as the individual, the community and the family. Finally, it should be pointed out that the complete study was much more extensive, and that the complete text (which includes a more elaborate theoretical and methodological framework, and in which all the results are discussed in detail) can be found in Teurlings (1997).
 
 

3. Small things make a difference: micro-differences

A scene-per-scene analysis between Wittekerke and E-street quickly reveals that the changes display a pattern. These minor differences can be divided into three large groups: conflict, embedding and history, gossiping and social control. Before actually discussing them in full detail, I would like to point out that we are dealing with ‘objective’ differences, i.e.small differences which were clearly introduced or omitted in a scene, and which have not yet been interpreted. The ideological dimensions of these minor differences will be discussed in sections 4, 5 and 6.

3.a Conflict

One of the most striking differences between E-street and Wittekerke can be found in the way the characters interact, particularly in the degree of conflict. In this case conflict includes all kinds of human friction: people who react irritably, someone who bursts out and walks off in anger, etc... The analysis shows us that in 32 cases a conflict was ‘added’ to Wittekerke, whereas the reverse (a scene in E-street containing more conflict that its equivalent in Wittekerke) only occured 14 times. Therefore, generally speaking, it can be concluded that Wittekerke contains more conflict than E-street. Furthermore, the cases in which E-street contains more conflict show a pattern: almost all of these scenes have a narrative base. This will be illustrated by an example from one of the analyzed episodes. There is a story line in both series which announces the arrival in Westside/Wittekerke of Nicky/Nikky, the young niece of the local chief of police, George/Georges. She and her little brother will come and live with their aunt and uncle, because they were abandonned by their mother. At first the relationship between the rebellious teenager and the old-fashioned policeman is far from perfect, which is illustrated in a number of scenes. It is very noticeable that in the Australian serial this conflict between the generations is more explicit. In other words, the narrative function of these scenes is to depict this underlying conflict between the generations, and it is striking that in the Australian serial the conflict is activated more often by the narrative.

Now, if we examine the14 cases in which E-street has a higher degree of conflict than Wittekerke, it turns out that 9 of them have a narrative base. In other words, in E-street conflict is more probabale at ‘dramatic moments’, the ‘pivoting points’ in the story. When relations brake up, when intrigues surfaces, Australians turn out to be rather quick-tempered (at least in their serials). In Wittekerke, though, conflict is much more universal, it is not limited to dramatic moments: it is a part of everyday life. Though slightly exaggerated, it could be said that in the Flemish serial people are constantly angry with each other, while the Australian personae only clash when they narratively have to. Once the story-line ends, the Australian characters appear to suffer from acute loss of memory, and subsequently everybody can return to the normal order of the day, void of conflict. This characteristic of Australian soap can also be found in the literature: in Crofts' opinion the community in Neighbours consists of ‘feelgood, Walt Disney-like characters’, and he goes on to write: ‘Crises are solved quickly, usually amicably’ (1995, pp. 100-101), which refers to the forgetfulness of the Australian characters.

3.b Embedding and history

A second difference involves what scriptwriters call ‘a fictive biography’ (cf. Field, 1994, pp. 44-50). What is meant is the fact that characters do not suddenly appear out of thin air, they have lived a fictive life. In Wittekerke, for example, Nikky is Koen's sister, she lives with their aunt and uncle, there is a complete story to her past life,... in short, she has a fictive biography, which may or may not have been part of earlier episodes. If we now take a closer look at Wittekerke and E-street, it is very conspicuous that the past of Flemish characters is very often activated by the narrative. Let us compare for example E188.10 W143.12, an everyday breakfast scene between David/Frank and Claire/Klaartje, his daughter.
 
E-street: David is cooking pancakes for breakfast, while Claire stands by.

Claire: Didn't think you were going to come this morning.

David: Well, maybe it had something to do with the small voice on the other end of the telephone at 6 a.m. saying ‘Dady, wake up!’

Claire giggles.

David: Paul said to tell you he's gratefull though. You saved him from being late for work at the marina.

Elly enters to set the table.

Wittekerke: Frank is cooking pancakes for breakfast. Klaartje is watching.

Klaartje: I didn’t think you were going to come this morning.

Frank: Well, it quite definitely had something to do with that little voice this morning... around 6 o'clock.... a little voice that said it was time to get up!

Klaartje laughs.

Frank: But Geert also was happy. He would have been late for work.

Klaartje: Work? I thought he wasn't a policeman anymore.

Frank: No, he works on a boat now. 

Klaartje: On a boat?

Frank: Yeah. Mr. Thijssen's boat... His son drowned recently...

Klaartje: Tanja’s boyfriend?

Frank: Yes...

Nellie enters.


 

This is a very good scene to illustrate the difference between E-street and Wittekerke: characters are put into perspective. Both their past (‘Geert used to be a policeman’), and their relation to other characters (‘Mr. Thijssen is the father of Tanja's boyfriend’) are mentioned. Similar differences between both serials occur quite frequently: the analysis shows that in no less than 25 cases a history was added in the transition from E-street to Wittekerke, whereas the opposite only occured twice. This Flemish emphasis on history, and the way characters are consistently embedded in the framework of relations, have an interesting result: Wittekerke turns into a village in which everybody is or was connected to everybody. In Westside, though, characters appear to be living in some kind of everlasting now, in which personal history or interconnectedness is not important. This also explains why there is more conflict in Wittekerke: when the Australian story-line requires conflict, it will emerge, but once it has passed the cause of the conflict will be forgotten. In Wittekerke, however, the past is often raked up, and characters are often put into perspective in order to illustrate their position in the community, with the result that people don't forget. They remember what has happened in the past, which becomes a source of many conflicts, which linger on inside.
 
 

3.c Gossiping and social control

A third and last difference between Wittekerke and E-street is the number of characters that participate in a scene. The analysis showed that in the Flemish soap opera scenes systematically have less people in them. However, at this point I would like to point out that there is a flaw in the line of reasoning that has been adopted so far. Not every difference between E-street and Wittekerke can be explained by cultural logic: political-economical aspects of soap opera also play a part in the translation. The interview with the Flemish script writer revealed that a number of characters systematically had to be written out of the Flemish serial, because of Belgian labour legislation: under age actors are only allowed a limited number of hours per month in which to perform. The Australians, however had no such limitations. In other words, the political-economical system in which Wittekerke and E-street are develloped, has its influence on the script, and therefore not every change is culturally inspired.

However, it remains a fact that Wittekerke has a tendency towards conversations with limited amounts of people in them. It is for instance very common to have a scene with a certain number of characters, in which two people have a private conversation, apart from the others. In E-street, however, conversations are public, people have few or no secrets for each other. This leads us to the conclusion that there is more ‘gossiping’ in Wittekerke. Gossiping, however, is not equal to backbiting, it is simply talking about someone else who is not present. This fits in with our previous conclusion: Flemish characters are more often embedded in the social structure and also in their own personal history. Gossiping provides the means for this embedding, because it puts characters into perspective.

This last conclusion - Flemish characters do a lot of gossiping, but it is no more than a specific kind of embedding - could lead to the idea that this gossiping is a trick of the Flemish scenario-writer to give characters a bit more depth and history. Although the gossiping is not equal to backbiting, a closer examination reveals that it can't simply be interpreted as an innocent activity. In order to understand this, we must first take a closer look at one last difference between Wittekerke and E-street, namely the degree of social control. The analysis of both serials shows that social control is much stronger in Wittekerke. This will be illustrated by a number of examples. One of the major story lines in the analyzed episodes concerns Bob, who is in love with Nellie, but who faces growing competition from Nellie's ex-husband, who has launched a serious offensive to reconquer her heart. Bob feels powerless to do anything about this and starts drinking heavily to get over his defeat. The analysis shows that in E-street Bob's drinking problem does get some communal attention, but certainly not as much as in Wittekerke, where it gets extra attention in 4 scenes. In fact, in the Australian series Bob repeatedly drinks alcohol without this being activated by the narrative. This is a good illustration of the fact that in Westside there is less social pressure than in Wittekerke, where every character is surrounded by a caring environment, but also an environment which exerts social pressure. Another example of this more explicit social control can be found in the Flemish serial can be found in the argumentation the Flemish Georges comes up with when he tells Nikky to turn down her music:
 
George: You are not the only person living in this house Georges: What a noise. This is not a disco. What will the neighbours say?

This single line clearly illustrates the difference between Westside and Wittekerke as narrative communities: the Australian George says that Nicky is disturbing the other members of the family, whereas the Flemish Georges fears the reaction of the neighbours, which means that he is affraid of disapproval by community members. And this is why gossiping should not be interpreted as being entirely innocent: social pressure and social disapproval, which are feared by everybody (and which occur frequently), can only exist through gossip. Simply put, if nothing is known, then there is nothing to talk about and nothing to disapprove of. This also explains why the degree of conflict in the Flemish serial is higher: social disaproval and social control lead to conflict within the community.

So let us resume. The three micro-differences - conflict, embedding and history, gossiping and social pressure - create a logical and coherent textual world. There is an internal coherence, in which it is impossible to identify the ‘starting principle’ or cause; it is rather the articulation of conflict, embedding and social control which makes that each serial creates its own textual world, a world with its own (cultural) logic. It should, however, not be forgotten that every representation is intrinsicly linked to power (Hall, 1997, p. 42), which means that power and ideology are an integral part of the textual world. It is therefore necessary to take a closer look at this ideological dimension. First we will examine the Australian individualism-ethos, followed by the difference in the roles of the community and the family in both serials.
 
 

4. The Australian individualism-ethos

One of the most striking ideological differences between E-street and Wittekerke is the individualistic discourse of the Australian characters, which is not found in the Flemish serial. Let us compare the following dialogue from episode 183 of E-street (episode 142 of Wittekerke). This is what happened before: Bob is in love with Elly/Nellie, but he faces growing competition from her ex-husband (David/Frank). He has just learned that his rival spent the night with Nellie, which provokes a violent outburst. His son Harley/Bart comes in to talk to him.
 
Harley: Listen, maybe it's none of my business...

Bob: No, maybe not mate.

Harley: ...but once you told me to fight for Toni and it worked. Now you should do the same with Elly.

Bob: (Laughs) You want me to go a few rounds with David, do you?

Harley: Not literally. Just get over there and let her know that David's not the only one on the horizon.

Bob: It's her choice, mate.

Harley: Well, what sort of choice is it if you just lie down and play dead.

Bob: This isn't playing, Harley. This is real life. You win some, you lose some.

Harley: But you haven't even tried winning, Rev. You've given up before you've even started.

Bob: So suddenly you're the expert. It's a lot more involved than you and Toni, mate.

Harley: All the more reason to fight.

Bob: I know what I'm doing, allright?

Harley: Well, I just hate seeing you moping round like this. I mean, all the stuffing's been knocked right out of you.

Bob: Is that the end of the sermon, eh?

Bob heads inside, bashing the car as he goes.

Harley: You know, I thought it was worth a shot.

 

Bart: It may be none of my business, but this thing with Nellie...

Bob: (Interrupts him) No, that's none of your business.

Bart: (Continues) Do you remember that time with Veerle, when she was dating Max, you told me to fight for her then...

Bob: (Laughs) You want me to go a few rounds with David do you? Nellie would think I'm pathetic...

Bart: That's not what I meant . I'm only saying that you shouldn't give up... You shouldn't hide. Get out there at least.

Bob: (Shakes his head) No.

Bart: And why not?

Bart: Because.

Bart: That's no answer. That's stupid.

Bob: So?

Bart: Bob, this isn't you. To let someone walk over you like that... (Shakes his head) I don't know you like this.

Bob: Then take a closer look.

Bart: Come on, what's wrong with you? What kind of an example are you setting for me here? Is this how you want me to behave?

Bob: Do whatever you want, but leave me alone.

Bart: No, I won't leave you alone. Why don't you take a good look in the mirror. You're only a shadow of the person you used to be.

Bob: (After a short pause, silently) Get out.

Bart: No.

Bob: (After a pause) Then I'm leaving.

Bob goes off angrily, Bart stays behind.

When we examine this dialogue between father and son, we notice that Harley, in E-street, comes up with one argument: don't give up, fight for your relationship.The argumentation of the Flemish Bart is twofold: Bob should fight, but he should also pull himself together because he is setting a bad example for Bart, his son. In other words, Bob uses a social argument to convince Bob: if you won't do it for yourself, then do it for me . The Australian individualism is also very noticeable in Bob's answer to Harley's remark that he should show Elly that David is not the only one on the horizon: ‘It's her choice, mate’. The Flemish Bob only answers ‘no’, an answer with no further explanation. A typical characteristic of the Flemish soap is the fact that Bob does not want to ‘have a few rounds with David’ because Nellie would think he's pathetic: another indication that what others think is more important in the Flemish serial (cf. social control above). In E-street we can observe a predominant feeling of ‘personal responsability’. The reactions of other members of the society or community are less important. This is also clearly illustrated by Harley's reaction when Bob walks off: ‘At least it was worth a shot’. In other words, Harley has tried his best, but now it is up to Bob; Harley is not to blame. The Flemish Bart, however, doesn't give up, and consequently Bob walks off angrily.

The best illustration of these ‘it's your own responsability’-ethics can be found in one of the following scenes, in which Harley literally states that it will be Bob's own responsability if he gets nowhere with Elly: there will be no one else to blame. In Wittekerke the discourse is different: Bob has to fight, he has to show (to the people) who he really is. There's no mention of personal responsability. This one-sided stress upon personal responsability and with it on fighting spirit, is very characteristic of the Australian serial. In Wittekerke we can also find examples of this, but definitely not as many. In The Flemish serial the argumentation is often connected to social control: the use of social pressure to make someone change his mind.
 
 

5. The community

The stress on personal responsability in E-street, and its Flemish counterpart (embedding and social control) is also illustrated by the meaning of the community. In the literature on soaps the community is very important: since the genre is not so much about individuals (who is the main character in Wittekerke?), the real ‘star’ of soap is the community (Geraghty, 1991, pp. 60-106). It is important to note that this is a main characteristic of the genre. In other words, the fact that the community has the lead part is a direct result of the form and the narrative structures of soap opera. However, it would be wrong to conclude that ‘community’ is a universal concept, which carries the same meaning everywhere in the world. The concept of community carries a vast range of cultural connotations, which differ from culture to culture. In my study the question was therefore: what is the definition of the community in E-street and Wittekerke, and are there any differences? In other words, what is the meaning of the community?

The titles of both serials provide us with a first clue. Wittekerke is set in a fictional coastal village, while E-street is set in Westside, a neighbourhood of Ballina, a small town in Australia (E-street is - what else could it be - the main street of this neighbourhood). It is however remarkable that in the Australian serial Ballina is never mentioned: I learned this by reading the working documents of the Flemish script writer; in E-street people always refer to Westside. Let us compare for example a statement by Alice/Katrien, a member of the community in the days of the fight over the guardianship of a child from the community:
 
Alice: Aunty Vi, the Bromley's haven't got a chance. You've got to come back and fight them. All they've got to fight with is money, but you've got love, and not only yours and Mr. P's, you've got the whole of Westside behind you. We all love Rachel, and that's why she should stay here, where she belongs. Katrien: Aunty Jos, there's no reason to panic... The Megancks won't get her. There's no reason to lie down before someone has actually fired a shot... The Megancks may have a lot of power, but this time they won't succeed. And you know why? Because they don't know who they are dealing with. With you... and with me. Because I'm behind you. And I'm convinced that you've got basically the whole of Wittekerke behind you.

In other words, the boundaries of both communities are not the same. In Wittekerke the community coincides with the village, in the Australian serial however, the community is a neighbourhood. But there is more. We have already made a number of observations concerning the different definitions of the word ‘community’ in both series.

We have already established that Wittekerke contains more conflict, and that there is more historic and social embedding of characters. In other words, In Wittekerke people don't forget. We have also established that the degree of social control is higher: social pressure is used to make people change their minds, which lead to more conflict. In E-street, however, conflict is not so widespread, because of two reasons: 1. individualistic ethics keep people from imposing their will (everybody has their own, personal responsability), and 2. once a dramatic climax is over, people forget quickly, which can be called ‘collective amnesia’. The Australian community turns out to be completely positive. It is a warm, open place where ‘free individuals’ meet and speak freely of their feelings. There's no fear of public exposure in E-street: why should anything be kept a secret when the community is populated by ‘feelgood, Walt Disney-like characters’, which, in addition, immediately forget their past conflicts.

The role of the individualistic ethics in such a completely positive community is important: individualism turns the community into something open. The key word in the Australian community is therefore expectation: it is completely positive because nothing is expected from it, it has no obligation towards its members, because those members are responsable for their own actions, they determine their own fate. A community like this can only be positive: everybody can speak freely, it is a sounding board where people can unburden their hearts, but it imposes no limitations.

The community in Wittekerke has a very different nature. Conflicts are very frequent, due to more social and historical embedding, which leads to more and tighter social control. The community in Wittekerke is not a sounding board, free of obligation: there are a number of negative sides to the community, like the obligation for social conformity. ‘Free individuals’ who determine their own fate do not exist: all characters are strongly embedded in the social web, which considerably limits their personal freedom. However, this community also has a positive side to it (cf. infra): people in need get support. The community in the Flemish serial can therefore best be described as being ambivalent: on the one hand a source of social control - limiting personal freedom -, on the other hand a ‘warm’ community, in which people can count on each other in difficult times. This ambivalence can also be found in statements like ‘What will the neighbours say?’. The Australian characters do not appear to expect anything from their community, while their Flemish counterparts do. And this expectancy is a double edged sword, which leads to both actual support and social control.

We will now take a look at two examples which illustrate the differences between the communities in E-street and Wittekerke. The first is a dialogue between Martha/Magda and Bob. This is what happened before: Bob is in love with Nellie, with whom he has been friends for many years. Gradually friendschip changed into love, and Bob has just declared his love to Nellie, but she has reacted rather hesitantly (but has not rejected him). Bob talks about it with Magda, a good friend of Nellie's.
 
Martha and Bob sit at the kitchen table.

Martha: You're doing a great job. Mind you, so is David. I'm amazed, really. I mean, no ulterior motives, no power games. He's just here to do the best for Elly. I'd never have credited it.

Bob: No, neither would I.

Martha: Bob... I know it's none of my business - but I think it's great that you've finally told Elly everything. 

Bob: What she tell you?

Martha: (Nodding) Mm.

Bob: Well, I guess there's no point in keeping it a secret now, is there?

Magda joins Bob

Magda: I must say, you're doing a great job. I can tell...

Bob: I just wish she wasn't so impatient.

Magda: (Clears her throat) By the way, have you had a chance totalk to each other?

Bob: (Interrupts her) Not really... (After a short pause) She had something to tell me, but...

Magda: But?

Bob: But then Frank came in.

Martha: (Laughing) Was there really ever one?

Martha stands to go, Bob grabs her arm.

Bob: Um, Martha, what else did she say? I mean, how did she seem to feel about it?

Martha: She hasn't talked to you yet?

Bob: No, not really. Just to say she needs time to get used to the idea.

Martha crosses the kitchen and returns to the table with a cup.

Martha: Well, she's got a lot. It'll all work out, I'm sure.

Bob: I hope so.

Magda: As usual.

Bob: (Smiles) Yes... and then she kept silent.

Magda: And you didn't ask?

Bob: No...

Magda: (Shakes her head) I don't think I know many people who can make it so difficult for each other.

Bob: Maybe we're just being carefull.

Magda: You can also be too careful... so nothing ever happens.

What is so remarkable about this dialogue is the fact that the Australian Bob is asking a member of the community for advice about his relationship with Elly. In other words, the relationship is public property, and Bob doesn't seem to mind that the community knows all about his love life. In Wittekerke, however, it is Magda who asks the questions: apparently the community isn’t informed about the most recent developments, but it wants to find out as much as possible and ask questions accordingly. Furthermore, Magda comes up with a piece of ‘advice’ (don't be too careful), which nicely illustrates the meddlesome nature of the Flemish characters. The Australian Martha on the other hand limits herself to a reasuring ‘It'll all work out, I'm sure’, without giving any advice or giving her opinion on any advisable strategy. The essence of the Australian community then lies in Magda's answer to Bob's remark about there being no point in keeping things secret: ‘Was there really ever one?’. This is exactly what the Australian community is all about: it's an open space in which nobody has any secrets from the others and in which social dissaproval is rare. The community is undoubtedly positive: it is a warm nest where everybody is nice to the others in a series of everlasting nows. Wittekerke as a narrative community carries much more ambivalence: it is a safe nest, but at the same time also a source of social control and conflict, which is the reason why individuals desperately try to keep their private and public lives separate.

The second example illustrates that the Flemish community is not free of obligation (and therefore imposes limitations), and that at the same time it can be supportive. This time we will not be dealing with a simple change within a scene, like in the previous examples, but with an actual change in the story line. This is a rather radical adjustment from the programme makers' point of view: changing the story line requires the adjustment of the whole structure and build-up of several episodes, which means quite some extra work for the Flemish scenario-writer. This is why these changes are rather rare (6 in the analyzed episodes), and most of the time they have political-economical reasons (for example Belgian labour legislation, or too many expensive outdoor shots).
 
 

This particular change in the story line is about Michael's/Alex' shipwreck and his return. In E-street this happens as follows. Michael Sturgess, a rich man, takes his girlfriend, Lisa, on a sailing trip, and the boat is lost in a storm. Lisa is quickly rescued, but Michael remains missing for days. After a few days Michael's sister Sheridan, who is notoriously evil, invites Lisa for a ‘get together’. Lisa looks forward to this meeting, because she expects a night out in fashionable circles, but once she gets there with her friend Alice, the whole thing turns out to be an unofficial farewell ceremony for Michael. This is of course quite an emotional shock for Lisa, who was after all expecting a night amongst high society. Completely devastated, she returns to her appartement, where... Michael is waiting for her. Apparently he survived the shipwreck and was picked up by a fishing boat. The problem is that he can't remember anything, not even his name. He only remembers Lisa's address, but he has no clue as to who she is, or in what way they are related. Lisa, a good soul, calls Sheridan, who immediately comes over and takes Michael home. Lisa and Alice stay behind, speechless, trying to come to terms with Michael's loss of memory. After she gets over her surprise, Lisa decides to go and visit Michael, but she finds Sheridan in her way, who claims that Michael is sleeping, and according to the doctor Lisa may not tell him that she is his girlfriend: his memory loss should be allowed to dissappear by itself, it should not be rushed, because this could cause psychological problems. Disappointed, Lisa slinks off. A bit later Michael visits Lisa. He saw her from the window, and he felt that there was some kind of connection between them. He asks her questions about the nature of their relationship, but Lisa, remembering Sheridan's ‘advice’, answers evasively. This continues for a number of scenes, but then Lisa can contain herself no longer, and she tells Michael that they were lovers. This is followed by a dramatic reconcillation.

In Wittekerke the story makes a different turn. Alex and Tanja are both shipwrecked, and Tanja is quickly rescued, while Alex remains missing for days. After a full week Alex' body has still not beel found, and Camilla (the Flemish Sheridan) unwillingly invites Tanja to a goodbye ceremony with Katrien, a friend of hers, but when they arrive, Camilla tells them that the ceremony has been cancelled because (so she claims) her father is not feeling well. Katrien and Tanja go back home, but Katrien suspects something. She feels that something is wrong, and returns to Camilla's villa. Cunningly she learns that Alex has been found, and that Camilla was hoping to keep this a secret from Tanja. Katrien is overjoyed and takes Alex with her to the appartement she shares with Tanja, but Alex' reaction is rather cold (Camilla made him believe that Tanja doesn't love him anymore). Camilla comes by to take Alex home ‘because the doctor wants him to rest’, and a little bit later she tells Tanja that Alex doesn't love her anymore. This is followed by quite a number of scenes which are based on this misunderstanding: both Alex and Tanja believe that the other is not interested anymore. In the end they find out the truth, which is followed by an emotional reconciliation.

One of the first things identifiable characteristics of this change in story line is that the same elements (a shipwreck, a goodbye ceremony, loss of memory,...) are used to produce an entirely different story. When we examine the basic conflict in E-street, we notice that it occurs on a human versus nature-level: Michael has to overcome his memory loss (‘natural condition’) in order to be reunited with Lisa. The attempt by Sheridan to prevent this intensifies the basic conflict, but it does not change its foundation. In Wittekerke the basic conflict is on a human versus human-level: there is nobody else but Camilla who stands in the way of a reconciliation between Alex and Tanja. Her intrigue is the bases of the conflict that fuels the narrative, and both lovers only have to overcome her lies to be reunited. And this is where we return to the difference in the meaning of the community: in E-street Michael has to overcome himself, whereas Tanja and Alex have to overcome Camilla's web of intrigue, and it is Katrien, a member of the community, who uncovers the truth. In other words this story line is a perfect illustration of the Australian individualism (Michael does not need anybody to overcome the basic conflict) and also the importance of the community in the Flemish serial: there is real support when needed most.
 
 

6. The family

The meaning of the family is yet another identifiable variation in the two soap operas. In the introduction, it has already been mentioned that there are many national and cultural differences in this regard. In American soaps, for instance, ‘mothering’ tends to be the territory of biological mothers, whereas in British soaps this is done by mother figures, who are not necessarily (biologically) related to the object of their maternal love (Liebes & Livingstone, 1992, 99-102)

With reference to Wittekerke and E-street, it must be pointed out that the actions of the characters are alike. ‘Mothering’ or taking care of is not only the responsibility of close relatives. On the contrary, in the analyzed episodes there are a number of examples of children who are being taken care of by people who are not their biological father or mother. Zac/Koen and Nicky/Nikky, for instance, were abandoned by their mother and live with their uncle and aunt. But there are other examples: Toni/Veerle lives with Elly/Nellie, the ex of her father who disappeared from the serial long ago. Elly/Nellie treats her lovingly and raises her as if she were her own daughter. Apparently both the Australian and the Flemish serial resemble the British model when it comes to the meaning of the family.

There are, however, also differences, not as much in the actions of the characters, but in the discourse they use. Let us compare, for example, the following scene in which Toni/Veerle tells Harley/Bart that David/Frank spent the previous night with Elly/Nellie (Frank is Nellie's ex-husband, and he's trying to win her back). Veerle en Bart discuss if and how they will tell Bob now that it appears that David/Frank and Elly/Nellie are getting back together (Bob is in love with Nellie).
 
Harley opens the door and enters, followed by Toni and Claire. He sighs.

Harley: Is all this secret stuff really necessary? I mean the Rev’s feeling on the outer enough as it is.

Toni: Well, he’s going to feel even worse.

Harley: Why?

Toni: It looks like that Elly and David might be getting back together.

Harley: Toni, don't be stupid.

Toni: Tell him Claire.

Claire: Daddy stayed the night with her.

Harley: What, you mean he spent the night in the flat? So what?

Claire: In the bedroom. On her bed. He was still there this morning.

Harley: You're kidding.

Claire shakes her head, very seriously.

Harley: (Sighs) I'll punch his lights out.

Toni: I knew you'd have the answer, Harley.

Claire: You can’t do that. He's my dad.

Harley: Hey, hang on, the Rev's my dad too.

Toni: Look, look, we're not sure what actually happened.

Claire: They were being really nice to each other.

Harley: Well, what do you want me to do about it?

Toni: Well, don’t you think Bob ought to know?

Harley: Well, yeah.

Bart and Veerle enter

Bart: What's with all this secrecy? Is this really necessary? You know how touchy Bob is lately.

Veerle: Just wait... He's about to get even touchier.

Bart: What do you mean?

Veerle: (Sits down on Bart's bed) It looks like Frank and Nellie... That they... (Tries to find the right words).

Bart: What?

Veerle: That they're back together again.

Bart: You're kidding me!

Veerle: It's true... Frank just stayed the night with her. He was sitting on her bed when I came in with breakfast.

Bart: You're not serious!

Veerle: (Nods) When I came in they pretended nothing was going on, but then Nellie tried to explain and that's when I knew.

Bart: What if Bob finds out?

Veerle: What are we going to do?

Bart: What can we do? Nellie's old enough to know what she's doing...

Veerle: No, that's not what I meant... I mean: shouldn't we tell him?

Bart: I wouldn't like to be the one to tell him.

Veerle: But wouldn't it be better if he heard it from us?

Bart: I don't know... He's been rather nervous lately.

 

Toni: Look, we all know Bob loves Elly.

Claire: So does Daddy.

Toni: Exactly. So that's why Bob has to know where he stands.

Harley: Hang on a minute. I'm being a little bit confused here.Who do you want as a Dad?

Claire: Well, I've already got a real Dad. I don't know. I love them both.

Harley: Right.

Veerle: Yes, but what if he finds out from someone at the bar...

Bart: That would be disastrous.

Veerle: Exactly.

Bart: (Sighs) So it's up to us to tell him then. (Scratches his head).

Veerle: How?

Bart: (Nods) How?

They stare at each other, not knowing what to do.

Toni: Harley, somebody has to tell Bob.

Harley: Sure.

Claire and then point at Harley.

Harley: Now... hang on a minute.

Claire: He's your Dad.

Toni: We figured it was a family responsibility.

Harley: Great. You two have just made my day.

 


 

This scene clearly illustrates the fact that in the Australian serial family is considered to be a direct family-tie, a blood-tie so to speak. In their discussion Claire and Harley are wondering who should be loyal to whom. Claire repeats no less than three times that David is her father. Furthermore, the third time she calls him her ‘real father’, although in reality he is of not much use to her: he doesn't live with her and she hardly ever sees him. In fact, it is Bob who has been taking care of her (being a good friend of Nellie's, he came round frequently). Apparently fatherhood is a biological matter. The end of the scene says it all: ‘It's a family responsibility’, and only a blood-tie can be regarded as real family. In Wittekerke the discussion is completely different. The word ‘family’ is never used, and both Bart and Veerle have only one concern: how are they (not only Bart) supposed to tell Bob. And again we find an example of the fact that in Flemish soap operas the contrast between the private and the public domain is sharper: the worst thing that could happen is Bob finding out ‘from someone at the bar’. Family is important in Wittekerke, since it is the domain of the private sphere, but blood-ties or biology are not all-important here like in the Australian serial: family tends to be described or implicitely assumed as a praxis.

A second observation concerns the degree of conflict that can be found in the family. We have already established that the conflict of the generations between Nicky/Nikky and George/Georges is more explicit in E-street. It has also been pointed out that this is an exception of the general ‘conflict-rule’. But this Australian stress on conflict within the family is also found on an intra-generational level, for instance in the relationship between brother and sister. An example of this can be found in a scene between Sheridan/Camilla and Michael/Alex, brother and sister, in which Sheridan says that Michael has always been her father's favourite, while she never got any attention. In Wittekerke Camilla does not attack Alex, but Tanja (Tanja is Alex' girlfriend, and Camilla cannot stand her because she is lower class): from the moment Alex met Tanja he has not been himself. The rivalry between brother and sister is much less important in the Flemish serial, but the Australian serial puts extra emphasis on it. This example is yet another illustration of the Australian individualism and the Flemish emphasis on social aspects: the Australian Sheridan blames nobody else but Michael, while the Flemish Camilla considers Alex to be a victim of Tanja.

This does not mean, however, that none of the Flemish families have any conflicts: it has already been pointed out that Bart refers to the bad example Bob is setting as a father to make him change his behaviour (cf. part 4). Conflicts do occur in Wittekerke's families, but they should be interpreted as a special kind of social control, and generally speaking this social control is stronger in Wittekerke. It would be therefore fair to say that in Wittekerke the position of the family is more ‘positive’ than its Australian counterpart: indeed, it belongs almost exclusively to the private domain, it is a haven where people can lick the wounds they suffered in the public domain. The Australian family, though, is more ambivalent: conflict is (relatively) more frequent, but this is compensated by a ‘family is and remains family’-moral: people bounded by blood-ties will remain loyal to each other. And that is the reason why Sheridan gets so angry with Michael: he ‘leaves’ the family, brings dishonour to it through his relationship with a lower-class girl, which is unacceptable behaviour. In spite of its numerous internal conflicts, the Australian family is everlasting, unchangeable. No matter what happens, it will always be there for its members.

That is why in the scene above between Claire and Harley the central issue is the question who will tell Bob that David stayed the night, and logically this will have to be Harley, because he is Bob's biological son. It's also striking that, although Harley sighs, he does what has to be done (unwillingly, but still). In Wittekerke the characters face a different problem: Bart feels that he should tell Bob that Frank stayed the night, not because he is his biological son, but because otherwise Bob might hear it in the pub, which would be disastrous. In this case there is no ethics of ‘family is family and will always remain so’; rather, it is the space of the private sphere which needs protection. In short, the Australian family is biological and untouchable (in spite of its numerous internal conflicts), while its Flemish counterpart is a praxis, which belongs to the private domain. The Australian community is completely positive while the Flemish community is more ambiguous. However, the opposite can be said about the family: the Flemish family is more positive than the Australian.
 
 

7. Conclusion

The objective of this research project was to compare the Australian original E-street and its Flemish translation, in order to account for cultural differences. This was done through a textual analysis of Wittekerke and E-street. We have tried to unravel the dominant discourses concerning the individual, the family and the community, and it has been established that, although these two serials are based on the same structure, there is a significant number of differences between them in relation to these three subjects. Both series create their own, unique textual world, which proves to be coherent, and which functions according to its own, unique logic.

It would be tempting now to posit that I have found ‘the’ Flemish and Australian meaning of community, individual and family, which would lead us directly into the territory of essentialism. The jump from text to culture is however not trouble-free. One way to grasp this relationship is to conceive of culture as a ‘river of discourses’ (Fiske, 1994, p. 7), which makes possible a textual analysis based upon different and often competing meanings and discourses. In other words, this article and the method that it used is not capable of solving the critical sociological questions: how do different Australian groups interprete the textual world created by E-street, and do they all share these notions of community, family or the individual? How does this legitimize or or favour a certain social group? Furthermore, neither texts are fully coherent: as the account of the meanings of the family demonstrated, Australian characters may use a biological discourse, but they don’t behave accordingly. In short, discourse and praxis differ, and this is exactly why a text can be ‘polysemic’ and viewers can be ‘interpretative’. People can watch the same series but see different ones. Or put into Saussurian terms, we may share the same signifiers but ‘have’ different signifieds. Yet at the same time there are limits to our interpretations (Eco, 1990), and popular television texts indeed try to tell a coherent story. They structure or limit the possible meanings in them, and it is the task of Cultural Studies to unravel this delicate shifting of meaning in text and subject. Put to its theoretical extreme, this research project unveiled nothing but ‘a’ preferred meaning (Hall, 1980, p. 134), be it an argued one with some textual warranties. But scholars are after all human beings, which means they are by definition interpretative and reflexive towards texts and the people that watch them. Hence my call for a moderate and humble textual analysis, since this research act searches for the limits of meaning. Nothing more, nothing less.
 
 

Notes
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

References
 
 
 
 

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Soaps and cultural differences: community and family in Wittekerke and E-street



 
 
 
 
 
 

Jan Teurlings

Researcher Centre for Mediasociology

Vrije Universiteit Brussel













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E-mail: jan.teurlings@vub.ac.be
 
 
 
 
 
 

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