Guiding Light and All Soaps: Don’t Change the Quirky Characters We Love!

By Patrick Erwin

Being a Guiding Light fan hasn’t been an easy road over the last few years. But one consistent bright spot for me has been the mother-daughter duo of Doris and Ashlee Wolfe. Ashlee, in particular, is always a joy to watch. She’s a full-figured ball of energy, quirky and often funny, even when she doesn’t intend to be. I think my love for Ashlee (and for actress Caitlin Van Zandt) was sealed when Ashlee sang “The Wedding Song (There Is Love)” at Doris and Alan’s farcical wedding.¬† (Trust me if you haven’t seen it — it’s hysterical!)

So I was a bit concerned when I read that Ashlee has undergone gastric-banding (or lap-band) surgery. Ashlee’s size, after all, is a part of her, just like her blond hair and her earnestness. And probably more than a few of the soap fans watching GL are full-figured, just like Ashlee. Which poses the question: will Ashlee’s decision be entertaining or inspirational? Or will fans who looked up to Ashlee as a role model feel betrayed? And, most of all: Why do soaps always seem to take the most quirky, entertaining characters … and then strip them of all of their individuality?

Quirky, offbeat characters have been an important part of storytelling since the first story was told. In soaps, there’s a rich legacy of character actors playing these unusual roles, from Gunther on Edge of Night, to Calliope and Eugene on Days of our Lives, to Wallingford on Another World, and the late, great Timmy on Passions. I may love GL‘s Nola Reardon for being a romantic lead, but Nola was clearly more than a bit unusual, from her unconventional¬†cuteness to her movie-star fantasies!

More recently, quirky characters are a huge gust of fresh air when our more traditional favorites are driving us crazy. Marlena has often spoken of her love for Spinelli on General Hospital; his unusual interactions (and nicknames!) for the residents of Port Charles make us laugh even at serious moments. I’m not sure what’s more entertaining about One Life to Live‘s Roxy — her outfits, her hair, or the fact that she’s a wellspring of malapropisms! And perhaps the most popular “quirky” character on daytime is OLTL‘s Marcie. In the form of actress Kathy Brier, Marcie has become a mainstay of Llanview.

The Catch-22 of all of this, though, seems to be an unwritten soap opera rule: The more popular a character becomes, the more “traditional” the story created for them must be. And in many cases, that makes those quirky characters lose all of the things that made them special in the first place.

For example, As the World Turns‘ Gwen was a feisty, energetic ball of nerves when she first came on. Gwen was unpredictable and even a bit dangerous when she was first introduced as Casey’s one-night stand. There was no one like her! But as time went on, and Gwen stayed on the front burner, all of those edges that made Gwen who she was were smoothed out. Even though the character was barely in her twenties, she was saddled with a story that made her out to be a baby-crazy newlywed.

On GL, Nola may have been a nonconformist initially, but by the time the character left, she was a mother and the owner of an exercise studio (!) Her niece, Bridget, was introduced a decade later as another rough-around-the-edges outcast, complete with punk-rock hair and snarling attitude, but the more front-burner Bridget’s story became, the more mainstream (and, frankly, boring) Bridget became. It’s a good thing that Brier was able to bring Marcie’s drive, passion, and ornery nature to the forefront with the Tommy storyline, because prior to that, the character of Marcie seemed destined to be headed for Dullsville as well.

I’m not sure what to make of the Ashlee story yet, although I was very concerned when one of the magazines quoted a spokesperson for the show as saying the story would provide guidance for people who don’t have the self-control or discipline to do it on their own! I hope they’re taking the story seriously. And I hope that even if Ashlee’s physical contour changes, GL still shows the quirky, lovable aspects of Ashlee’s inner nature – and reminds us that those parts of Ashlee were there all along.

Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    I agree with you, in spirit, Patrick, but soaps are about (or rather, should be about) the evolution of the characters.

    Nearly all of the characters you mentioned (that I am familiar with) didn’t change COMPLETELY. Most of them kept their spark, but matured. Bridget Reardon, for instance, would have been irritating as hell if she’d NEVER lost that immaturity that she had early on. Watching her mature was part of the joy of that character. But she never lost that oddball, non-traditional look; she just adapted to the experiences that life gave her.

    As for Ashlee, isn’t it pretty much a given that this is a result of her real-life experience? Kind of like when Abby Bauer had her cochlear impants?

    Patrick says: Aaron, I agree that no character should remain static, and that part of the joy of soaps is to watch a character grow and evolve. It remains to be seen what will happen to Ashlee, but in terms of the others, I respectfully disagree that they have not significantly changed. I think only GH’s Spinelli has remained uniquely individual.

    We’ve not been provided any clear indication that the actress (Caitlin Van Zandt) also underwent this procedure. Until we do, I’m going on the assumption that this is a fictional event.

    And thanks for bringing up GL’s Abby. That’s a great example of a case where the change was discussed. The deaf community often has mixed or even negative reactions to people who get implants, so this was handled very well at GL; they discussed this and Abby ultimately made the decision to do it. Wow, I miss that character (and actress).

  2. Oakdalian says:

    I don’t take issue with Bridget’s transformation either. She was always in over her head, with Hart, Nadine, Roger and Vanessa. The custody battle for baby Peter was fascinating, and only when it ended was Bridget running on empty, having found happiness with Dylan. If Ashlee loses weight, we can’t seriously begrudge her the wish to change. How is that any different from the pressure she’d feel to get skinny? What GL ought to do is show us how someone loses many pounds and still retains feelings of inadequacy. Even if they don’t, she may be even more entertaining when she’s healthier!

  3. Fabobug says:

    Hi Patrick,

    What a great column. It got me thinking as well about characters that had been sanitized through the ages including Felicia, Cass, and Frankie on AW, Bobbie on GH, Nancy on DAYS, Julia on AMC, and lets not forget how Hayley on AMC began as a gum crackin’ rebel and left as a soft loving wife and mother.

    But there are many examples of characters who fought to maintain their uniqueness. Rena Sofer left GH before Guza & co. could decimate her unique take on Lois (though they did do this with Lesli Kay years later). Vanessa Marcil never let Brenda turn into a streamlined soap heroine. Jane Elliot beautifully strives to make Tracy as nasty and callous as possible after nearly 30 years. Kim Zimmer fights for Reva to stay outside the lines – though it seems to be an uphill battle. And Matthew Ashford, bless his soul, fought desperately to keep Jack on DAYS quirky and neurotic, even when the TPTB sabotaged him left and right.

  4. D.R. says:

    I agree with just about everything that was said – except when it comes to Spinelli. He’s not just oddball; he’s annoying as heck.

  5. Matthew J Cormier says:

    I agree totally, soap operas seem to quick to take original, quirky characters and turn them into one-note bores. Some of my favorite quirky characters from the past include: Lucy Coe on General Hospital and Port Charles, Lois Curello Ashton on General Hospital, Tina Lord on One Life To Live, David Vickers on One Life To Live, Alex Olanov on One Life To Live, Luna Moody on One Life To Live and Opal on All My Children.

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