The Otalia Pandemic:
An essay in which I come out of the closet as a soap opera watcher and also dissect the growing worldwide addiction to a popular same-sex soon-to-be soap supercouple.
By DJ Shiva
I haven't watched soap operas since junior high.
My best friend and I used to record Days of Our Lives, then spend afternoons at her house with snacks and sodas mooning over the trials and tribulations of Bo and Hope (and later, Patch and Kayla). Our idealistic teenage selves wallowed in the sappy romance of it all, and talked at school about what obstacles would be thrown in the paths of our favorite couples. Good times.
As I got older and busier, I left the soaps behind. Getting my driver's license gave me access to many more forms of entertainment, and TV became something that kept me in a living room, instead of getting out and getting into trouble. But I still remember the drama and the overwrought emotional angst that kept us glued to the TV, and I have always said that TV has informed the way several generations of people perceive romantic love (for better or for worse). That's probably an entire essay of its own.
Suffice it to say, for many years, I had forgotten soaps, along with many of the romantic trappings of youth. Life became its own self-contained drama, crazy enough to keep me, if not entertained, at least overwhelmed enough that I didn't need anyone else's drama. I won't bore you with my life details, but for the purpose of this story the relevant point is that somewhere in between junior high and college, I came out as a lesbian.
Fast forward...um...several years (as a matter of vanity, I won't say how many). Through the miracle of the world wide web, I was introduced to a storyline on the soap opera Guiding Light that captured my attention and, I must admit, my heart. One that, according to the actors involved, had been crafted over the span of a year, and has followed two women, Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera, from hatred, to mutual dependence, to cautious friendship, to...something more. Something that, until recently, had not been fully articulated, and even still simmers just under the surface. I won't delve into the details of their timeline; one can find that in a quick read of Wikipedia and an evening spent on Youtube. But what has resulted over that year is a deep, abiding bond that now sees the two women living together in a house (ostensibly in platonic fashion), taking care of one woman's daughter and of course, each other. The unconventional familial structure, as seen through the eyes of Olivia's daughter Emma and brought to light in her misunderstood school project called "My Two Mommies", became the catalyst for what we are seeing now: the slow, angst-filled realization on the part of both women that their bond has become something deeper than friendship. Both women have slowly come to the individual (but maddeningly not yet shared) understanding that what they are feeling is love: total, overwhelming, heart-pounding, earth-shattering, life-changing, butterflies-in-your-stomach, romantic love.
Of course, no soap opera love story is ever complete without the attending twists and turns, obstacles and angst that keep lovers apart until they overcome everything thrown at them to experience the eventual emotional apogee that brings them together. And of course, even after that nothing ever goes smoothly. But that's what keeps the viewers watching. And in true old-school soap fashion, this story has been built slowly, over a long period of time, giving nothing away until the emotions started snowballing, becoming an unstoppable force that has kept viewers hanging on every move and every word. It's the slow build that has drawn people into their story, and the long timeline that caused viewers to invest in the story of these women before they even knew that coupledom was on the horizon. It was a love story before it was a Love-with-a-capital-L story.
It is both the long-term emotional investment accomplished through an extended story arc, as well as the obvious singularity of the story being told, that has drawn people deep into the orbit of Otalia (the portmanteau given to the couple by fans). It is those factors, coupled with the obvious care and commitment on the part of both the writers and the actors to telling the story realistically and sensitively, that have continued to draw people into the realm of Otalia. The story has been crafted without using labels or easy stereotypes and shortcuts, instead relying on layered, multidimensional writing, and the superior acting talents (and AMAZING chemistry) of Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia (Olivia and Natalia, respectively).
It must be said here, that despite the sheer thirst of not-so-straight women to see our stories mirrored back at us through popular culture, we are extremely circumspect when it happens. We have been burned so many times before(even by those within our own community...I'm looking at you, L Word), by terrible writing, repeated stereotypical stories and superficial characters. We know all too well the three go-to elements of a TV lesbian: 1) ends up with a man, 2) ends up pregnant, or 3) ends up dead. It would be funny if it wasn't so utterly predictable. We see lesbian or bisexual female characters in name only; their relationships relegated to anecdote or absence. We see lesbians always assumed bisexual or bisexual women always assumed lesbian, with no nuance or understanding of the broad spectrum of sexualities exhibited by human beings. We see lesbian stories sensationalized; veiled with the thinnest of socially-conscious motives but still blatant in their attempt to attract voyeuristic male viewers or boost ratings. Then, more often than not, we see those stories butchered, bumbled and botched. We see character assassination and fill-in-the-blank storylines that mostly lead nowhere, and we see complex, challenging characters walk into the dustbin of history by way of the Seattle Grace parking lot (we miss you and your leaves, Dr. Erica Hahn). And the worst part of it is, all of that is if we see any queer women at all. Most of the time we are simply just invisible. So it is not without precedent that we look at same-sex stories on TV with a wary squint and more than a modicum of suspicion. We don't give of ourselves without caution and our love and dedication to potential same-sex stories between women is marked with a guarded approach.
That brings me to another aspect of the Otalia story that defies historical context. This one snuck up on us, just like it did to Olivia and Natalia. Sure, there were hints along the way, and if you go back and look now, they are all the more telling in their subtlety. No one took out ads blaring about the "groundbreaking lesbian storyline" on Guiding Light. There was no overblown press surge; no giant headlines proclaiming OMG LESBIANZ!!! The eventual arc wasn't played out months in advance through internet spoilers. No hot "two girls kissing" ads drawing us in that were then cut to a 10 second scene with a depressing and abrupt end. No insta-lesbian character dragged into labyrinthine implausible and unrelatable situations (I'm looking at you, All My Children). Just a dramatic beginning and an emotional arc that found its true heart somewhere in between mutual respect, folding laundry and helping Olivia's daughter make valentines for her school chums.
But all of that only scratches the surface of what has become near (ok, way past) obsessional levels of adoration for, and investment in this couple. With over 360,000 views on Otaliafan's Youtube channel, the weekly Big Purple Podcast (full of adoration, analysis and snark in equal measure), a growing number of fanfics at the Incandescent Fire website, and the Big Purple Dreams fanforum (now the cozy home to 1700 plus members, and Team Otalia HQ), the fandom has exploded exponentially in just the last few months. And the obsession is not measured simply in numbers. It's in the sheer dedication of people watching live (or unable to watch live) and posting in the play-by-play thread on the fanforum. Or the seemingly compulsive need to watch and rewatch Otalia scenes, subsequently dissecting them for meaning and impact. It's seen in the cryptic, acronymic lexicon that has sprouted up around the storyline (Por ejemplo: FoL = Farmhouse of Love), and the Otalia-based version of the internet phenomenon known as LOLcats (in our world, LOtaliacats) that soothe the daily angst that keeps the fandom on edge. Lately, it has been seen in the multiple admissions of an overwhelming preoccupation with, and dependence upon the positive outcome of the journey of these fictional characters. Put simply, for many it has gone far past simple fandom and is bordering on (ok, way past) addiction.
It was the repeated mentions of this addiction (and my own admission of the same) that drove me to dissect this growing phenomenon. The disease is Otaliaitis, and its worldwide spread across the internet has become the Otalia Pandemic. But what is it about two fictional characters and their story that has driven perfectly sane, functional people to complete distraction? How can a soap opera inspire insomniac 12-hour stints of Youtube viewing to catch up on the backstory, and a quasi-religious fervor that quite literally compels people to play hooky from work to watch a key episode (or blow off work to take part in the daily play-by-play from the computer at their office)? How is it that a negative swing in the story (when in a fit of utter panic and fear, one of the characters pushes the woman she is in love with toward a loveless straight marriage) causes not only tears, yelling and the hurling of inanimate objects toward the television, but actual physical discomfort, from stomach pains to actual...erm...upchucking?
I think the clue lies in that last bit. Here is where I make a disclaimer and also a claim. I know that there are people of all walks of life, all persuasions and all sexualities who have been drawn into this storyline, and care very much for these characters. I don't mean to discount or to downplay anyone's personal life history or love story. At its base, Otalia is a classic love story, one that many people can identify with and feel invested in. That much is absolutely true. But the difference, and the core of why this has affected women all along the spectrum of queerness on a level unparalleled by any other (TV) story in recent memory is this: while straight people may identify with certain aspects of the storyline, and while their lives and loves are important as well, their stories HAVE been told. Their stories, in all of their drama and variety and configurations, have been told over and over and over again, ad infinitum since the beginning of literature, poetry, art, movies and television. So much so, in fact, that the overwhelming presence of their stories has come to define "romance" and even "normality", and as a result have completely supplanted our queer lives and stories. The presence of the majority is what inevitably both creates and disempowers the minority. It's human mathematics.
So here we are: finally we see our stories being told through the looking glass of popular culture, and being told in a way that resonates for so many people on an intensely personal level. And while one story obviously cannot represent the span of queer experience, nor can it mirror exactly each individual's story, this one hits on enough points to really matter. This is confirmed by a thread on the fanforum where many members have come forward to tell THEIR stories, and talk about how Otalia reflects their lives, whether because of Natalia's strong religious faith, the reality of realizing one's sexuality at an older age, falling in love with a best friend, being a part of a non-traditional family (whether parent or child), or just being a not-so-straight outsider with a burden or a secret to bear. It's all in there.
Soaps have always been about using plot devices and crazy bendy twists to keep couples apart, and to put them through an emotional rollercoaster that makes the eventual declaration and culmination of their true love that much more satisfying. Most of the time the twists and turns are so over-dramatic as to be unrealistic, but viewers practiced in the art of suspension of disbelief stick with characters through comas, amnesia, kidnappings, death-not-death, being buried alive, and various and sundry other fantastical plot devices. We watch couples play the game of push-me pull-me, weather marriages to the wrong people, refuse to come clean with their true feelings, practice many methods of self-destructive behavior and just generally act completely stupid, and we stick with them because it is the journey that creates growth and makes the destination worth all the heartache. In the case of our ladies, the plot devices and twists and turns of recent days are simply just...our lives. All of us. The ones who have lived it all before. Instead of being a fantasy world that we can delve into to escape reality for a while, in so many ways it IS our reality. These are OUR stories being told, and it's real and sometimes intensely painful, and there is no way we cannot be completely invested in the outcome. This time, finally, it's personal.
That we can see ourselves in the mirror of Otalia is testament to how well their story has been put together by the writers and the creators, especially Executive Producer Ellen Wheeler and Co-Head Writer Jill Lorie Hurst. With such rich material and exceptional performances from Crystal and Jessica, it was a sure thing that queer women would be all about it. But the sheer depth of commitment from the fans was not quite as predictable. Neither was the reaction of both actresses to their fans. Both women have not only been appreciative, but have graciously welcomed fans (and Team Otalia buttons) with genuine love and support. At a recent Guiding Light taping and fan event in Orlando, Jessica even showed up (intentionally, according to her) wearing the Official Team Otalia Color: purple. That our love for these characters and the women who play them is reflected back at us, has only added to the personal investment of fans to this story.
With all the positivity and love surrounding the Otalians, we are still anxiously heedful of the inevitable attacks from the less-tolerant end of Right Wing Nutjobbery. By virtue of the quiet build of this story, and the lack of overt, self-serving hype, this story has mostly flown under the radar of the invasive and mean "moral majority" types. It is unavoidable though; they have their tentacles out looking for any excuse to attack. And despite the intentional "label-free" nature of Otalia, in their world there is no other way to interpret this story other than "queer". The attacks will come, and they won't be nice. The backlash is already evident on some of the major soap forums, so assuredly it will spread. As the "face" of Otalia, the main actresses will doubtless take a good chunk of the heat.
Regardless, I refuse to call either Crystal Chappell or Jessica Leccia "brave" for "playing gay". The absence of cowardice in playing a same-sex role should not be considered notable, nor should it garner accolades on its own; it should simply be expected. To their credit, neither have treated this story as anything other than a gift. Their bravery lies in their willingness to tap into a place of deep emotional turmoil and sometimes ugly truths, and distill the emotions found there down to the essence of humanity: love.
And that is why fans will not only defend them should negativity be thrown their way, but we will keep watching. We will keep our DVRs primed, staying up until ridiculous hours to ratchet up ratings on the official CBS viewing site, and ceaselessly watching Youtube clips. We will keep writing letters to magazines and websites to push our beloved fandom, and keep writing fanfiction when our favorites are not in the day's episode. We will post wildly speculative and hopeful predictions on the fanforums, while listening (and giggling maniacally) to the Big Purple Podcast when we should be working at our jobs. Above all we will continue to be drooling, unabashed fangirls for our Otalia, because even with the sometimes angsty lows, when we hit the high points, it feels like falling in love again. It's all butterflies and tinglies, can't-spend-a-moment-without-you, oh-look-we-like-the-same-color, giggly-happy, nine-kinds-of-ninth-grade adoration. Yes, we are addicts. We admit it, we accept it, we own it and we love it, even through all the angst; because we all know in our hearts, that Otalia is the endgame.
Besides, who needs a 12-step program when you have LOtaliacats?
Youtube Otalia Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Otaliafan
Big Purple Dreams Fanforum: http://z8.invisionfree.com/otaliafans/index.php
Big Purple Podcast: http://bigpurpledreams.podbean.com/
Incandescent Fire Otalia Fanfiction: http://incandescentfire.com/index.php?showforum=249
CBS.com Guiding Light Website: http://www.cbs.com/daytime/guiding_light/
Guiding Light Dot Net: http://guidinglight.net/
Return to Femslash Meta & Essays
Return to Main Page