Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Otalia and Guiding Light

Yeah, that's right, you heard it here first.* I've succumbed to the phenomenon known as Otalia--that's an amalgam of the names Olivia and Natalia for neophytes. And, yes, that means, I am forced to admit as I hang my head in shame, that I've become a wee bit addicted to a soap opera. Not that there's anything wrong with soap operas, particularly a soap opera with the impressive legacy of Guiding Light, the longest-running scripted broadcast drama ever. GL first aired on the radio in 1937, moved over to the small screen in 1952 and is currently in its 72nd season. I'm well aware that soap operas were reclaimed by feminist scholars in the 1970s and 1980s--Modleski, Ang, Radway...rah rah rah!--and I completely understand and appreciate the appeal of the melodrama of daytime television. Still, I can't help but feel a little silly about my sudden fannish devotion to the Otalia phenomenon and, by extension, Guiding Light's continued survival (it was recently canceled by CBS, and the jury's still out on whether or not it will be taken on by another channel).

If you know anything about soap operas, you know it would be pretty difficult for me to explain the appeal of Olivia and Natalia and the year-long build-up of their relationship. Really, either you know about Otalia and love them or you've probably never heard of them. But everyone has to start somewhere, as I did when I finally succumbed a couple months ago to the groundswell of chatter about GL and decided to check out what this Otalia business was all about. In short, as with the best soap relationships, these two characters have slowly morphed from enemies to reluctant acquaintances to best friends to a loving couple (bound together through a dead husband's transplanted heart, spurred on by a misunderstood "my two mommies" school presentation innocently delivered by Olivia's daughter, and, in the best soap-y fashion, finally brought together by way of a ruined wedding).

(For an overview of their relationship in clips, I offer a couple useful links: a LiveJournal entry with a collection of links to Otalia scenes from April 2008 until March 2009 and then a more recent, picture-heavy (super pretty but less comprehensive) entry by another LJ user which covers some Otalia scenes from January 2009 through April 2009. And, if you have a lot of time on your hands (and if you want to see more recent episodes), sidle on over to the Otalia Channel on youtube. Of course, you can also watch current episodes on CBS or at

The relationship is unique, obviously, because both characters are women (a big deal for the relatively conservative soap genre), and, so far, the storyline has been handled remarkably well by the network, writers and producers--which is to say, the mainstream "hotness"-factor of lesbianism isn't being exploited and the women's relationship has been allowed to develop organically.

While GL has tried to maintain that the Otalia relationship is "label-less" (as opposed to lesbian--which seems a fair distinction considering both characters have been married to men in the past...many men, in Olivia's case), the show has not shied away from allowing the women to express their love (verbally, if only somewhat least so far). Their relationship isn't sensationalized, but it also hasn't been swept under a rug.

Other points of interest: both women are incredibly supportive of each other; they are both dedicated working mothers, Olivia especially ambitious as the owner and manager of The Beacon Hotel; and Natalia is a devout Catholic. The latter issue has been handled particularly well, in my opinion. Natalia's religion remains significant in her life, and yet she recently admitted her love for Olivia to her priest and stood up admirably to his admonishments and warnings, insisting that if God is indeed love, as the Bible insists, than her love for Olivia can't be wrong (scenes from this episode can be viewed here and then you can click through to part 2).

But besides the positive-portrayal-of-women stuff (obviously important!), one of my favorite things about Otalia is the amazing graciousness with which the two actors, Crystal Chappell (Olivia) and Jessica Leccia (Natalia), have treated their fans--sometimes popping by the Otaliafans message board to chat and continually expressing gratitude to all the people who've contacted them and shared their personal stories (about coming out later in life, about homophobia they've faced, etc.). There's a great interview with the dynamic duo here, and I can also highly recommend the podcast-ed interviews with Jessica and Crystal, respectively.

Forgive my gushing, but the depiction of an engaging, fun, well-developed, and relatively realistic relationship between two women on television--on a soap no less--deserves a little praise. At least in my book. So, if you're curious at all, check out Otalia. You won't be sorry.

*And if anyone's wondering what I'm doing posting about an American soap opera from my travels abroad, this post was already written before I left, and I simply forgot to post it (oops!). In any case, I actually have a few things I'd like to say about some German soap operas, but that will have to wait for another day.

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