A window of soapie opportunity

2014-09-12 18:45

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Maybe it’s time for a complete overhaul at Generations. New story lines and new faces can spice up the stagnant show, writes Joonji Mdyogolo

On some level, I’m hoping that the Generations debacle doesn’t get resolved.

I’m very sympathetic to the Generations actors. I’m an independent worker myself, so I know all about the fight for fair pay.

Freelance journalism is shoddily paid work, where writers (even experienced ones) get offered a rate so low that it must have been set up when the typewriter was invented, and where people running companies for profit email you to write for free or for digital media’s new currency: “exposure”.

Why don’t you just pay me in Bitcoins, I want to ask.

But this is no Marikana and, executive producer Mfundi Vundla’s attitude aside, I don’t think I or the fired Generations actors can be compared to the exploited artists of old, who worked and died as paupers.

This is not a comment on labour matters (workers should be paid fairly); this is a comment on content. What I’m hoping is that the departure of the 16 actors is inspiration for producers to refresh story lines and create new ones.

I know countless South Africans (probably millions) will disagree with me, but I’m tired of Queen Moroka, and Sibusiso Dlomo, with his screaming and his menacing teeth, is not a villain; he’s an abuser.

In the next few months, when it’s reported the story line will change if actors are not rehired, I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of new ideas the producers come up with.

I know we love to deride soapies as the opiate for the brainless, but the fact is they are a powerful medium. They are the kinds of shows where dinner guests will in one breath trash them as mindless and in the next comment on the shenanigans of the characters, inadvertently letting slip that even they occasionally watch the show.

Soaps are everyday fodder for millions of ordinary people, who see them as their source of information and escape. They are the background noise in the family home.

Your mother will be grumpy if you call her at 8pm during the week – you’ve interrupted her viewing pleasure. As one radio caller aptly said: “We don’t call each other at soapie times, out of respect.”

The soaps also make a lot of money for the creators and for the SABC. That’s why the Generations drama has been as much front-page news as the goings-on in Parliament, and the public spat between the Public Protector and the president.

Soapies are important for another reason. They have been found to effect changes in behaviour, where fans model their lives around their favourite characters, who are often looked up to for being rich and successful.

The most dramatic example is in Brazil, a developing country like ours. There, the popular and ubiquitous telenovelas are cited as a reason for the population drop.

In a country where “the Roman Catholic Church dominates, abortion is illegal [except in rare cases], and no official government policy has ever promoted birth control – family size has dropped so sharply and so insistently over the past five decades that the fertility rate graph looks like a playground slide”, reads a 2011 National Geographic article called Brazil’s Girl Power.

Telenovelas, depicting very rich, smaller families, are said to be helping women realise the freedom that comes with having fewer children, so they are deciding after two children that “the factory is closed” – and this is happening across all socioeconomic levels.

In Rwanda, an article in the Boston Globe reports, researchers say radio soapies can help defuse ethnic tension. In Turkey, they spark debate on women’s issues.

Generations was the first soap to depict the black middle class before it really existed, but in 20 years, I feel that it’s mostly contributed towards the weave industry.

Zolisa Xaluva (Jason) and Thami Mngqolo (Senzo) play the gay couple on Generations, but their relationship feels sterile

Maybe it’s time for a change, to move beyond the fake hair and nails, and cardboard cutout villains. And, for Pete’s sake, it’s an opportunity to actually make that gay story line believable (I think it’s doing more harm than good).

The nation’s most famous gay couple on TV kisses on the cheek to avoid locking lips and have the stiffest intimate scenes. This only serves to confirm what many people already think – that gay love is unnatural.

Generations’ oldest-serving actors might be gone, but soapies are here to stay. This is a great opportunity to make this one even better.

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