Apologies for the length of this entry, folks. To cover the creation of a program with Soap’s controversial history, sooner or later you have to start getting to the bottom of why these controversies arise in the first place, which is what I’ve tried to do here.
These are, of course, only one person’s view. I would love to hear what you think, too. Please post your ideas in the comments to this entry.
Until a few days ago, I had never heard of the forthcoming ABC pilot Good Christian Bitches. Yet now that it’s entered my mind, I think it’s an interesting opportunity to see first-hand the type of controversy that so plagued Soap during its initial run. Though the two shows are separated by more than 30 years, it’s the same old factions at loggerheads.
Um, ‘Good Christian Bitches’? Really?
First, some background. The TV pilot — which hasn’t actually been shot yet — is based on the novel of the same name by Kim Gatlin, which tells the story of Amanda, a woman who returns to the affluent Dallas community she’s from after a divorce, only to find that the ostensibly good Christian women there are content to let “love thy neighbor” slide when it gets in the way of a good, vicious gossip.
And that’s really as far as I can go with that, as I haven’t read the book, and to the best of my knowledge, few of those who’ve voiced their outrage have either; certainly none have seen the pilot script. Unfortunately, nature abhors a vacuum, so there have been plenty of people rushing in to fill it.
‘GCB’: The Complaint
The Parent Television Council was the first out of the gate with its objections to Good Christian Bitches, or GCB as it appears to have been “rebranded,” with President Tim Winter putting the group’s case this way:
“ABC’s decision is not only an affront to women, it blatantly attacks the world’s largest faith. The ‘b-word’ is toxic and is used to degrade, abuse, harass, bully and humiliate women. And the ‘Christian’ element only adds insult to injury. Regardless of whether the title ultimately makes it to broadcast, ABC has publicly proclaimed its values and it has tarnished the Disney brand.”
However, in the context of Soap, it is the Christian-based American Family Association that I find most interesting. Naturally, the AFA is pretty steamed, too, and has even set up an online petition to encourage people to voice their concerns to advertisers and their local ABC affiliates. What few may realize, however, is that this is one of the few groups that has a direct lineage to those that challenged Soap all those years ago.
The Summer of ’77
The AFA was started in 1977 by Rev. Donald Wildmon after he became disgusted by what he saw on television the previous Christmas, he told AFA Journal. He started his effort by advocating a “Turn the Television Off Week,” which garnered a fair amount of publicity, just as he thought it might. Pretty soon, he used that publicity to found the National Federation for Decency. (It was renamed the American Family Association in 1988.)
Tipped off by media reports about what would be shown in Soap prior to its premiere, Wildmon’s Federation launched a letter-writing campaign against the series, joining similar organizations such as the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and others. The result: thousands of letters each week, and an advertiser backlash that Soap never truly recovered from.
‘Soap’: The Complaint
Today, Soap has withstood the test of time, and is regarded as a classic work of American television by most, though some will never forgive its irreverence.
Yet in the summer of 1977, the furor over Soap was even worse than the gnashing of teeth inspired by GCB.
Many railed against the story line in which Father Tim harbored unresolved feelings for Corinne (and vice versa), though no one had actually seen the show. Yet that same year, the English speaking world made the Australian novel The Thorn Birds, a clear inspiration for Father Tim and Corinne, a bestseller.
What few admitted at the time was that though Soap had its share of screwball scenes and suggestive material, it also possessed a gentleness and humanity that enabled its characters to tackle subjects seldom discussed on the airwaves.
Burt’s impotence and his brush with mental illness after the murder of his son, Jodie’s anguish in a world that told him his sexual orientation made him unworthy of love, the loneliness that drove Jessica to cheat on her philandering spouse — this was not some torrid burlesque for its own sake, but the perils and heartaches of which life is made.
In some ways it did what all good art does, it told people wrestling with similar issues that they were not alone. For the truly devout, it is enough to answer these situations with a “thou shalt not,” but for most, the world is not so black and white. Most virtue is untested virtue, some embrace faith, and the rest must find their own ways to cope.
‘GCB’: A Different Case
Which brings us to that other ABC show.
While there is something decidedly Biblical about a rush to kill the first born before it has the chance to grow up to become a problem, these campaigns hardly bolster the image of the maligned party. The fact remains that, in America at least, protests over mere words has always carried with it the scent of the crybaby. There are exceptions to this, naturally.
As the AFA rightly points out, replace “Christian” with “Jew,” “Black” or “Gay” in Good Christian Bitches, and people would be furious. Unfortunately, you cannot simultaneously claim to be the largest faith on earth and a put-upon minority. Not only is it disingenuous, it further wounds the reputation. Just as not everybody voted for the same president, not everybody worships at the same altar. While some blow off steam by complaining about President Obama’s socialism, others may question the devoutness of the devout. Just as the Obama opponent pays taxes to aid the common good, the Hindu, agnostic and other pay the taxes that the churches, temples and synagogues do not.
At this point, we must address exactly who has been most vocal about GCB, and about Soap, for that matter. Groups such as AFA and PTC and many others exist to rally the faithful when something offending is sighted. Doubtless all give alms to the poor, but protest is, itself, their industry. There is no shame in this, but it does dilute the value of the indignation.
I still remember my first job at a small newspaper — the fax machine was kept busy several days a week pumping out protest press releases from groups that blasted plays, TV shows, films, companies, magazines, politicians, celebrities — to their ire there was no end. I think that is what shaped my view of these things. Bristle at one thing and you may have a case, or two, or three. But when your ire with the world can fill a fax paper roll, the fault may lie in the bristler.
Seriously Though, What WERE They Thinking?
Though those inclined to do such things have fired off emails and spammed their friends with cut-and-paste complaints over GCB, these messages predictably have joined the cognitive dissonance of the Internet populated by cute kitty videos, Farmville requests and Viagra solicitations.
The irony is that in 2011, when getting 24 million out of 365 million people to watch your show is considered a “hit,” the majority of those still watching network television today are predominantly of the demographic most likely to be appalled by a title like Good Christian Bitches.
How did producers think it a good move to keep that title? No doubt it describes the type of people that the lead character must endure in the book, but you are dealing with a different market the moment you set foot in network television. A curious person can pick up a book in the store, flick through a few pages, and have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into. When all you’ve got going for you is a title, you have a lot riding on a few little words.