Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Springfield Family Values

Sometimes we parents have to make very difficult decisions to protect our children.

- Alan Spaulding

In creating the Otalia story line, the writers of Guiding Light have been careful to craft parallels between traditional and non-traditional. The love story, itself, has blossomed in a way and at a pace that the best boy/girl love stories on soaps traditionally unfold: conflict putting two unlikely people together, initial tension and mutual dislike turn to a reluctant reliance on one another, comfortable affection and then to love. The course of true love never runs smoothly in the world of soap opera. Obstacles abound, as do missed opportunities, misunderstandings, communication gaps, and even third parties who threaten to come between lovers who we know are meant to be together. All of these traditional elements are present in the Olivia and Natalia saga - parallels to any other great Springfield love story: Josh and Reva, Blake and Ross, Matt and Vanessa. The parallels between traditional and non-traditional do not end here, though.

Olivia and Natalia's story is not only a romance, but a story about family. In fact, the romance, itself, has its roots in the formation of a non-traditional family. When Natalia was asked to make a decision about organ donation regarding Gus' heart, her initial choice was to deny Olivia a transplant. Only after being confronted with Emma's reality - a child about to lose her parent - did Natalia decide that she couldn't live with herself if she didn't donate her dead husband's heart. Natalia's maternal instincts run strong, not just for Rafe - her biological child - but for Emma, who became something of a daughter to her long before she and Olivia developed romatic feelings for one another. Olivia and Natalia live by very traditional family values within the framework of a very non-traditional family. The writers of GL have chosen to emphasize the traditional aspects of this family dynamic, and pose parallels between the Rivera/Spencer family and other, more traditional families in Springfield.

"Poor Baby" Syndrome

With Rafe freshly out of prison, Natalia finds herself wanting to coddle her "baby." Blissfully unaware that both literal time and prison time have changed Rafe, and that he is no longer a boy, but a young man, Natalia hovers over and around him. She seems to be a few steps behind him, always, giving him no space, no privacy. She not only wants to baby him, but close her eyes to his failings, and give him a pass for bad behavior. Natalia is suffering from "poor baby" syndrome. Rafe acts like an entitled, petulant child when Olivia generously offers him a choice of jobs and Natalia's reaction is "poor baby."

Natalia is doing exactly what Beth is doing with James. Instead of looking at the terrible things James has done, and expecting him to act like a young man with a conscience, Beth chooses to make excuses for her son, talk about what a "good boy" he is, and blame Philip for James' predicament. One has to wonder - has Beth even met James? He is not a warm, sweet boy who has made a minor mistake. He's a selfish, entitled, thoroughly unlikable young man who has no problem with ruining the lives of others in order to get what he wants.

Like Rafe, James is completely uninterested in actually working to achieve success or get money. Both young men are self-centered, whiney, and quick to judge others. Both show very little impulse control. Neither one seems capable of accepting responsibility for his own situation: James thinks he's in jail because of Philip, while Rafe what he deems an unfair system for preventing him from becoming a police officer. (Newsflash, Rafe: you chose to point a loaded gun at the District Attorney. This is a little more serious than spilling Yoohoo on the carpet.You're more than old enough to know that your actions carry consequences.) Both young men have mothers whose "Poor Baby" blinders actually enable them to continue on these selfish, immature trajectories.


With the exception of the short period when Gus was in the picture, (which - let's be realistic - really was just a blip) Rafe has grown up without any traditional father figure. In a traditional soap opera family, a young man's father is the parent more likely to offer firm but loving guidance. Where a mother will tend to coddle, a father will tend to be less emotive, and be more likely to practice toughlove. (Pease keep in ind that I'm describing soap norms and traditions, and that these roles do not necessarily reflect my personal opinion or, for that matter, real life) Gus has no such person. Frank may be Rafe's official mentor, but there is more to parenting than tossing a ball around and giving a young person positive reinforcement all the time (even when he hasn't done anything positive!) So, while Frank is a court-appointed mentor, he isn't exhibiting any of the traditional fatherhood qualities. Who, then, does Rafe have? He has Olivia.

Olivia's role as dispenser of toughlove - and traditional soap dad - can be traced way back to when Rafe was first arrested. Rafe petulantly refused to see or speak to his mother, and no amount of begging or kindness would bend his resolve. Both Natalia and Frank were completely impotent, when it came to getting Rafe to come around. Olivia, on the other hand, was not interested in begging or negotiating. She went right in to Rafe, told him he was being selfish and childish and stupid, and demanded he show his mother some respect and decency. It was not a request, it was an order: cut out the wounded puppy crap and be a freaking man.

Now that Rafe is out of prison, walking around Springfield with a chip on his shoulder, acting as if the world owes him something, Olivia is once again the only person in his life who seems capable of being brutally honest with him, of doling out toughlove, of actually expecting him to shoulder the responsibility and consequences of his own actions. And thank God for this! Someone needs to unwrap the cotton wool and introduce this obnoxious young man to a little something called the Real World. Natalia won't do it. Frank can't do it. Only Olivia seems to have the gumption. She is, for all intents and purposes, the closes thing to a traditional soap dad Rafe has in his life - even if he doesn't know it.

Again, the parallels between the Rivera/Spencer family and the Spauldings surface. Like Olivia, Philip is deeply flawed. Also like Olivia, the one area he takes completely seriously, and about which he is determined to do the right thing, is as a parent. Just as Olivia recognizes the inherent danger in coddling Rafe and giving him and easy out always, Philip knows that Beth's soft touch and protection do not serve James well. In the end, neither James nor Rafe will benefit from being allowed to behave badly, or from having excuses made for them. Like Olivia, Philip ultimately sees that the best thing he can do a s a parent is be honest, even if it's difficult, and force his son to face the consequences of his actions.


Maternal sacrifice is another theme which is currently paralleled by at least two Springfield families. Natalia will always put her child first. We know this. Olivia knows this. In fact, it's this maternal instinct, this innate nurturing quality which initially draws Olivia to Natalia. It is a good, strong quality but, if it shifts from virtue to vice, it threatens the future of Otalia.

Natalia says she is waiting for the right time to tell Rafe about her feelings for Olivia. She has literally put her life on hold in order to protect her son. It's no mortal enemy she is protecting him from, but just - what? Gossip? Bad feelings? Fear? Really, she is protecting him from the unknown. In her mind, though, Natalia, sees a very real danger that she needs to keep Rafe away from. We may not agree with this, but it's important we acknowledge it: she thinks she is doing the right thing by holding off on sharing the truth with Rafe. She does this out of love - love for her son.

Meanwhile, Reva has sacrificed her own freedom in the name of love for her son. Just as Natalia has placed her blossoming relationship with Olivia on hold, and possibly damaged their chance at happiness together, Reva has probably damaged her marriage to Jeffery by being less than honest. Both women place motherhood first and foremost, and are willing to sacrifice all other things in exchange for what they perceive as their children's safety and well-being.

Letting Go

Natalia cannot seem to face the fact that she no longer has a little boy, but a son who is a grown man. Cutting the apron strings is proving difficult for her. Her instinct is to hover, to treat Rafe like the boy he used to be. This is not all that different than the dynamic between Buzz and Frank. Frank is a grown man, but Buzz (for reasons stemming, in part, from guilt) seems unable to let Frank go. The fact that Frank's search for an apartment of his own becomes a family discussion, with Buzz suggesting they get a place together, is both preposterous and touching. Mostly preposterous. Natalia and Buzz are always just around the corner, ready to fix things and make their sons' bad feelings go away. After Frank was jilted at the alter, he responded with a sad optimism, followed by depression, a short spell of surliness, and a bit of drunkenness. All natural and reasonable reactions. Instead of just allowing Frank to go through the organic process of letting go, Buzz was always right there, in his face, tell him to cheer up, or move on, or saying he was worried about him. It was frustrating, and it made me want to scream, "JUST LET HIM BE MISERABLE FOR A WHILE!" This is exactly what Natalia is dong with Rafe. Instead of allowing him to go through the difficult-but-neccesary process of getting used to a "normal" life after time in prison, she is always there, cutting him off at the pass, monitoring his every move, scrutinizing his moods. Rafe can't even have papers in his pocket without his mother snatching them out and reading them. If Frank needs to be allowed to have his sadness, Rafe needs to be allowed to make his mistakes, own up to them, and get things right - without his mother saving the day.

Family Values

The writers of GL have chosen to focus on traditional family life and the parent/child dynamic for at least the early part of the summer: Reva/Shayne, Buzz/Frank, Philip/James, Beth/James...with elements of each relationship mirroring elements of Springfield's non-traditional family unit: the Rivera/Spencers. The parallels are no accident. They reinforce a theme which has run through Otalia from the start: that there are elements of the human condition which are universal. Romantic love is one of these. The love parents have for their children is no less universal, even when we're talking about two mommies. The cast of characters may look different, but the emotions, the conflicts, the obstacles - many of these are exactly the same.

Because Philip literally is a father, his path has less obstacles than that which Olivia is forced to navigate. Her role in Rafe's life is undefined. Where Philip can take a stand and say "I'm James' father," Olivia has nothing comparable, when it comes to Rafe. The writers, though, do not insult our intelligence by painting a picture of mother/father/son that is all rosy and impeccably landscaped. Yes, Olivia has many obstacles to overcome if she is ever going to be allowed to be the firm parental figure Rafe so badly needs, but Philip, too has his obstacles to face. His so-called traditional family is, quite frankly, a mess. Every family in Springfield is a mess. The Coopers are too inter-mingled. Reva is more honest with and close to her ex-husband than her current husband. The Spauldings are just plain ugly. The "family values" that some close-minded people claim are threatened by a pairing such as Otalia include deceit, infidelity, betrayal, abandonment, criminal activity, and violence, just to name a few. By stark contrast, Natalia and Olivia are hoping to build a life together based on mutual trust, love and affection, devotion to their children, honesty, and genuine friendship.

No wonder people find same-sex parenting so very scary.

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves


Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Really enjoy reading your take on this show and its writing. :)

Robert said...

A great thing about the Otalia story is exactly what you're discussing here, how it parallels other family situations in Springfield AND offers its own unique story. Further proof to viewers that a gay family is as much a family as more traditional families.

Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post!

Lynda said...

Your analysis is so tight that if i didn't know better I'd say you were a GL insider with strong connections to the writers inner sanctum ;) . Seriously though this is such a wonderfully written and thought out piece.

.. and anyone that can work "gumpton" into their text pings my heart space.

Anonymous said...

I've been noticing these parallels myself. I loved your post. The father/son theme seems to be dominant which is unusual for soaps which usually spends more time on mothers/daughters. Remy/Clayton are also playing out a father/son story. Have you noticed how many infant/father scenes we've had lately? I loved them showing the town's tough guys talking about teething and diapers.

Snapper said...

Robert - It's amazing (and amusing) to me how very traditional this story actually is, while still pushing a certain envelope. I think the fact that it's about Olivia, whose love life has been so very fucked up for as long as we've known her, makes it work as well as it does. It's a straight up (no pun intended) redemption story about how much better life can be when people do the right things for the right reasons - something Olivia hasn't done much of in the past.

Lynda - Wow - thank you. I've got no inside dope. But,during the thousands of hours I've spent watching soaps over the last 35 years I've picked up a thing or two about story-telling structure and dramatic devices. Soap opera really is one of my favorite forms of story-telling. When it's done well, it's a beautiful thing. Right now, GL is a beautiful thing.

Lynda said...

I've been eating chocolate all my life, which, as much as I would like to think so, does not make me an expert. I know, weak analogy, but suffice it to say knowing "a thing or two" is modest speak for you're a guru of Soap critique ;)

... off to read your latest offering :)