Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cast Off : Why Otalia is a Failure

To so many of us, the town of Springfield, USA seemed to be inhabited by flesh-and-blood friends, and not fictional characters. Since we live in a society that always wants to know "why?" and "how?" - so much so that there's practically a CSI for every city, discovery Channel has explored the "murder mystery" of King Tut, and we even know what that poor Iceman ate for dinner before he died - it's fitting we follow through with Otalia the way we would with the demise of any friend. In other words, now that Guiding Light has breathed its last breath, the time has come for a postmortem.

The Shape of Things
Otalia was meant to be an old-fashioned love story - the sort of story soap operas excelled at in their heyday. There's a formula to such stories, and it goes like this:
  1. Boy meets Girl
  2. Boy and Girl dislike each other intensely
  3. Circumstances force Boy and Girl to be together for prolonged periods of time
  4. Antagonistic banter ensues
  5. Antagonism gives way to civility as Boy and Girl each secretly realize that they are attracted to the other
  6. A crisis arises forcing one or the other to blurt out a climactic "I love you!"
  7. Boy and Girl kiss
  8. Boy and Girl make love for the first time in some significant setting
  9. Boy and Girl become celebrated couple in the community
If we're talking about not just a couple, but that rarest of pairings - the Super Couple - the formula has some added elements:
  • Outside forces/circumstances work to prevent Boy and Girl from pursuing a relationship
  • Outside forces/circumstances actually force Boy and Girl to be physically/geographically apart for a period of time
  • Boy and Girl overcome numerous barriers and hurdles, and beat the odds in order to be together
  • Boy and Girl enjoy widely celebrated reunion
  • Repeat as necessary
That's it. That's the classic formula for a successful coupling. If one were to change the pronouns to "Girl 1" and "Girl 2", we would have the story of Otalia:
  1. Olivia and Natalia meet when Natalia gets a job as a chambermaid at The Beacon.
  2. Because of Olivia's aggressive efforts to snag Gus (Natalia's fiancee') and overall bitchiness, the two women dislike one another, intensely.
  3. Olivia's illness -both before and after her heart transplant - force the two women to begrudgingly spend inordinate amounts of time together, and even move in together.
  4. They argue and spar on a regular basis.
  5. As a true friendship develops, Olivia and Natalia each secretly come to love one another.
  6. On the day of her scheduled marriage to Frank, Natalia forces the issue with Olivia, inducing her to blurt out the now-famous, "I'm in love with you!"
  9. In the future, Olivia and Natalia are a couple, like any other couple hanging out in the park with the rest of Springfield
Knit One, Purl Two
I'm not much of a knitter, but I know what it means to inadvertently drop a stitch. I know that dropping just one stitch can cause the piece one is knitting to unravel. Just one stitch, and the whole thing comes apart. It's that precise, knitting. Every stitch builds on the next, each one carrying its load in terms of maintaining the integrity of the finished product.

Imagine knitting a scarf for your best friend. Somewhere in the middle, you drop a stitch. Observers point it out to you: "Hey, you dropped a stitch!" You ignore them and keep knitting. More observers point out the dropped stitch: "No, seriously - you dropped a stitch. It's coming apart. Fix that thing before it's too late." You get to the end of your knitting project and hold it up to get a good look at it. Running right through the middle is a wide, ugly run. A scarf is a simple knitting project. You still have time to go back and fix your mistake. You can pick up that dropped stitch and still save the scarf. You decide not to. You put the scarf in a box and wrap it and hand it to your best friend on her birthday. She opens the box, holds up the scarf, appreciates your hard work, and the fact that the scarf will keep her warm. In private, she scrunches up her nose at the ugly run, and can't help feeling that you've been sloppy and lazy in your knitting. One little snag, and this scarf will fall apart. Your friend knows this, and you know this. At the end of the day, your knitting project is a failure - a failure as a knitting project and a failure as a gift.

Writers of a story arc such as Otalia follow a predetermined formula, just the way knitters follow patterns. The writers of Otalia dropped a stitch and, instead of going back to pick it up - the way any good knitter would do, the way any good writer would do - they just kept writing, even as the Otalia story line unravelled and formed a wide and ugly run in the overall fabric of Guiding Light.

7 and 8
At this point in time, and for the purposes of this postmortem, talking about CBS or Ellen Wheeler or Jill Lorie Hurst is pointless. The bottom line is this: the story of Olivia and Natalia started out as a beautiful love story. It had all the elements of a classic soap opera romance. It even had the potential to venture into Super Couple territory. All the pieces were in place, but a stitch or two were dropped and never picked up.

Stories about people falling love are only truly engaging and satisfying when protagonists explore what it means to be in love. For two adults in the 21st century, a significant part of being in love is physical intimacy. Hell, this was true in the last century. It's been true since the beginning of time, even if it wasn't openly discussed or expressed. Today, though, literature and film and television most certainly do discuss and portray varying levels of physical intimacy between characters. It's part and parcel of relationship storytelling. A romantic relationship story doesn't ring true if there is no physical manifestation of the love two characters share.
In the Otalia story line, the 7th and 8th steps of the storytelling formula were ignored, completely. Even as we viewers waved our arms and pointed out the dropped stitches, the writers kept going. They kept building a story even as the story behind them unravelled. What started out as a touching, realistic love story with momentum and forward-moving trajectory became static and phony. Otalia failed us in the worst possible way: it started out with great promise, and it ended up in bland mediocrity.

Olivia and Natalia were pretty to look at. The chemistry between Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia was palpable. The build-up to their love story was a thing of beauty. The performances - especially by Chappell - were often breathtaking. In the end, though, the de-sexualization of these characters turned Otalia into just another failed attempt at cashing in on the last vestiges of lesbian chic. A stunt. It was as much a stunt as Madonna kissing Britney Spears - except without the kiss. It was pretty to look at, and it tugged at our heart strings and made us hope that this time someone would get it right but, in the end, it was just a stunt. Where Otalia could have been groundbreaking - the depiction of same-sex love that set the bar for all future same-sex story lines - it has done just the opposite. This was not, at the end of the day, a story about two women who fall in love and enjoy a healthy, adult relationship, complete with physical intimacy. Natalia might have said that she didn't intend to give up any of "the things that people in love share," but she did. Instead of setting a high bar, Otalia takes us two steps back, to the idea that fagdom is okay as long as no one has to actually see it or think about it. Melrose Place's Matt Fielding lives!

By neutering Olivia and Natalia, the writers of this story dropped a stitch. They had ample opportunity to go back and pick up that stitch. Olivia and Natalia should have kissed at the spa. They should have kissed when Olivia returned from San Francisco. There should have been at least an implication of sexual activity during all those hours spent alone at The Beacon. There were dozens of opportunities to pick up that dropped stitch and save the integrity of this story, but this effort was never made.

We were promised a luxurious Pashmina. What we got was a pile of pretty yarn.


B Fuhr said...

I'm at a loss at what to say, but this hits on everything that upset me with the Otalia pairing that 'mattered'.

Yes there were missteps involving other characters and I even tried to talk myself into being okay with the portrayal if it made one person think more openly about GLBT individuals.

Until my friend said, "but they can just ignore it because there was no kiss, there was no intimacy. So they could just say they were really good friends that decided to live together to raise a child and that they love each other, but they are not IN love with each other because there is no physical intimacy."

It was at that point that my shoulders slumped and all that hope, hope, hope I had put forth deflated.

Because she was right. The beautiful love story in the eyes of someone who wants to ignore it can just be platonic.

And that to me, is the most upsetting part...

Also - I really enjoyed the knitting reference, even as a crochet-er.


Neixa said...


ocean1blue said...

Yep, they definitely took the coward's way out. Rather then move forward, it was decided to leave Otalia treading water, and we all know how exhausting and frustrating that gets to be. The whole Otalia mess reminds me of the scene where Natalia pours out the bottle of champagne when she is packing up the celebratory dinner that never was. What a waste of something so good.

Laurie said...

Otalia embarrassed me and made me uncomfortable as a lesbian. That the story was set up as a relationship, a fully developed adult relationship that ended up without a NORMAL physical sexual component at this time in history is beyond disappointing. It is bizarre, ludicrous and a slap in the face to lesbian relationships.

I agree with you that this was not progress, even if it started out as such. It was a giant step backward and very damaging, because by desexualizing Olivia and Natalia it ‘proved’ love between two women is only Victorian, chaste, pure, virginal. Safe. It treated lesbian sexuality as non-existent, and worse, unnecessary; that even a kiss in public, a kiss on the check for goodness sake, is not even normal. Olivia and Natalia were portrayed as happy just holding hands, wiping peanut butter from each other’s mouths, brushing away a stray strand of hair…ad nauseam.

I like your knitting metaphor. So much good was dropped and unraveled such promise. I think the legacy of Otalia, when looked at objectively, when the emotions of projection (“well, they kissed off camera” or “did you see how O looked at N, you can tell they did the deed even if it wasn’t on screen”) lessen, we will look at this s/l and find some truth as to what it really was. Not all negative, but very much like a tease, a very sexual tease that doesn’t get satisfied. And that is not new, that is par for the course, and sadly, the one thing that could have made Otalia new, ground breaking, progress.

Robert said...

What's even more strange is that there was a discussion between Olivia and Natalia about the eventual physical side of their relationship back in May or June, and though Olivia nobly said she could live without sex if necessary, Natalia assured her she wanted physical intimacy, too, at some point soon. This makes it sound as if there was an actual trajectory planned at one point. Maybe not extended scenes of the two women rolling around in sheets and making out, but certainly scenes showing romance and at least implying the two women have become intimate.

P&G allowed this on ATWT when Luke and Noah finally got together. (Although it is ludicrous to portray two gay college-age men as waiting a year and half to do the deed; Luke and Noah weren't shown actually in bed, but they were shown in afterglow effect in conversation letting it be known they had been together in "that way."

So where did the ball get dropped? It seems naive to think it was solely due to JL's maternity leave. Why did the story suddenly jump from "buildup for two women in love" to "whoops, no, let's just say they're a couple without actually showing it happen"? It's perplexing, and I assume we'll never know the whole story and which element (CBS, P&G, or Ellen Wheeler) was ultimately the decider.

ramcduff said...

The difference with our interpretations is that I think the whole thing was still very salvageable upon Natalia's return. However, that point is mute. They didn't even begin to salvage it but sent in the wrecking crew. (I'm sorry that I am not a knitter so need different analogies...) Anyway, you clearly read the writing on the wall better than I - so I bow to your interpretation. It really ended up as a very unsatisfying mess.

Anonymous said...

I was convinced that they were going to kiss in the gazebo scenes. If they followed the soap couple forumla, Natalia should have kissed Olivia either right before or right after she told her she loved her. A kiss would have been a way for the characters to know that this was not the love of casual friends. It would have been a way to tell the audience they were not just friends.
It wasn't just the kissing that was censored. They weren't allowed to be physically close. Certain words were taboo like lesbian, girlfriend, sex. They were never allowed to have another grand declaration of undying love. In the end, after having heard that Olivia was Francesca's mommie we were not allowed to see her in that role. Couldn't they have at least shown Olivia holding her daughter? That crucial mother/daugher moment was also censored.

Sarah said...

I just have to disagree though that it doesn't matter who is to blame. It can't fix the train wreck that Otalia became, but whoever was responsible needs to feel our gay, gay wrath. I mean, if they were worried about offending sensibilities with this big LESBO storyline and therefore avoided physical intimacy, they need to know they offended a whole different group and that it's not okay.

Anonymous said...

I don't knit but I get the metaphor of a dropped stitch it's a good visual.

I was one of the first of my friends to jump ship on The L Word because it didn't 'really' portray lesbian life.

To say that I'm heartbroken about the dropped stitches of the Otalia story is too simple a metaphor. I feel like I have a dirty disease that has no cure like the one Phillip had the one with no name. And there is no way, not that even a transplant of any kind will cure.

I stopped watching my other soaps because I couldn't even think about them on their own.

Everything I've been doing for the last year has been focussed around Otalia and the fact that two straight women in a midwestern state smack in the bible belt of America were falling in love. It was beyond awesome, I told everyone I knew and thousands that I didn't know on my book lists about it and how huge this was.

It's like a real member of my family has died and this now is the funeral and I don't even get to hug or be hugged by you all who are at this funeral with me.

I don't know who is responsible for the wrecking of Otalia but I hope whoever it is that nixed even the tiniest bit of reality in a love relationship is left as bereaved by something as I am at this moment - for a very long time.

I don't as a rule wish bad things for other people but in this case whoever did this not only hurt me but also the many viewers, who supported the Otlaia lesbian relationship as an opportunity to hold up a picture of the normalcy
of our lives as opposed to the seediness that a lot of people think we live.

It cheated the straight people out of a learning experience about the fact that most gay people live life just like they do.

Yes there are exceptions just like in the lives of straight people who have child molesters in their families or teenagers that they can't control or don't educate well enough to not get pregnant when caving into their physical natures.

Yes we have in our population people like on The L Word who don't care about anybody or anything but themselves. But they are the minority among us unlike child molesters and rapists who run rampant in the straight world.

I supported Ellen Wheeler's attemt to save GL I tend to trust people like CC who praised EW for her efforts to save Guiding Light. If I were to believe her then it wasn't EW who nixed the natural intimacies that would have been there for a real lesbian couple but rather the execs at some other section of CBS commercial television land.

So blame isn't working for me as a tool to decrease the grief I'm feeling at the loss of GL and the screwed upedness of the writing of the end of the Otalis story. While everyone else rode off into the sunset with a kiss or more than one kiss Otalia had to have their affection off stage, we were expected to imagine it.

I can't believe all of the simultaneous emotions I'm feeling about this. One isn't bigger than the other because they are all very big. Right along side those hurts lives the anger that I, (and I do take this personally) feel at being played. I would be able to get to a place where I might be able to accept this deceit if there was a contiuation where down the road they could bring this story back and write into it the realisticness it deserves.

But with no show at all there is no hope of GL ever being able to redeem itself as it has so many people in it's stories past. No itself will go down a wreck, a wreck that everyone witnessed with no hope of a miracle cure.

I watch epesodes at the CBS web site and on youtube, at least I have those venues to watch my favorite scenes over and over. It's not the same as a continuing story but it's way, way better than nothing.

I may be more able to speak of this rationally some time in the future but not right now, I'm too irrational, and poisoned to speak with viability.

Susan said...

You were so spot on, snapper, about everything.
It was meant to be an old-fashioned love story but then it turned into a steaming pile of poo.
Yes, a stitch was dropped (and an important one at that). It could have been fixed right then and there but it was simply ignored. As if no one would ever notice. When all was said and done, the end product was wrapped up in used, ripped tissue paper barely being held together by dollar store tape and presented to us as "The Gift".
As Laurie stated, the desexualization of Otalia was such a step backward and a major slap in the face to lesbian relationships. To continually show all the het couples in SF making out in bedrooms (after some cookie feasting, no less), showing them half naked on the grass in a park (and they are still just kids, in my opinion!), and well heck, having them kiss and make out everywhere merely added to the frustration and insanity. If Otalia had progressed according to the classic formula for a successful coupling...I would be mourning their loss due to the cancellation of GL to this day.
Now, I'm just glad the torture is over and I can get back to my somewhat normal life.
It would have to be one heck of an honest, skilled and by the book knitter to ever get me to look at another scarf in the same way again.

Anonymous said...

I know one thing I forgot to mention is that at the last moment of the last show on Friday were credits rolling and after that the first time I ever saw the words The End at the end of a soap I watch. The End has been used pretty much exclusively by movies so this was a really, really, really long movie that just ended.

Susan I can really see your point and feel your pain I know that there would have to be some sort of promise from whoever may attempt this sort of thing again that they would follow through.

Sylvia in Anchorage