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.