Monday, October 4, 2010

stencil #027 - laura webber

not in General Hospital 
but outside Batman Park Medical Centre in Northcote

A decade before “radiant on the surface, dying on the inside” Laura Palmer, the 17-year-old high school prom queen found murdered in the pilot episode of David Lynch’s engrossing 1990 series Twin Peaks, there was radiant on the surface, dying on the outside Laura Webber, the immensely popular 17-year-old character and equally troubled teen victim of sexual violence from soap opera General Hospital.

Forced to reveal:
Twin Peaks was driven by the question: who killed Laura Palmer? Although not his original intent, David Lynch was forced by television executives to reveal the murderer in order to quell fans’ anger and annoyance at the series taking too long to reveal the killer. Ironically, once the murderer was revealed, enthusiasm for the show waned and the series was cancelled.

Forced to conceal:
In 1979/1980 General Hospital was driven by the question: was it rape? Convinced he’d soon be killed in mob activity, Campus Disco manger Luke Spencer forces Laura Webber Baldwin (married four months earlier to Scotty Baldwin) to dance with him one evening (to the pulsating music of Herb Alpert’s Rise) in his deserted disco (Laura was working there as a waitress to help pay back a loan she’d made from Luke to buy a set of law books for Scotty). While dancing, Luke pushes Laura to the floor and rapes her. Crying in fear and humiliation, Laura screams ‘No!’ repeatedly before the fade out. It is a chilling and disturbing scene...More disturbing, though, is the direction the story took after the rape. The original storyline, in which Laura gives a gut-wrenchingly painful performance as a rape victim, changed once television executives realised the onscreen chemistry between Laura and anti-hero Luke. As his popularity increased, television executives were not about to send Luke to therapy or jail. Instead, the rape was rewritten as a 'seduction' or, to use a more apt TV trope, it was ‘ret conned’. With the mob in pursuit, Luke and Laura are thrown into a series of on-the-run stories, falling in love between death threats. Once enough time had elapsed for the ‘ret con’ to be accepted (a little over two years), the wildly popular ‘super couple’ were married. Their wedding in 1981 was apparently the highest rated hour in soap opera history. (Elizabeth Taylor requested and was given a role in the show and Princess Diana sent champagne.)

Sussezq’s YouTube channel provides us with the opportunity to (re-)watch (in pre-HD/lo-fi glory!) the controversial 1979/1980 storyline focusing on Laura and Luke. (It’s still compelling.) Sussezq’s uploads have been edited to omit all but the scenes including Laura and Luke. This intense focus makes for a darker and more disturbing retelling of the story. Every scene pertains to the rape or focuses on the other sordid goings-on involving the mob. There is no relief from the torment and grief. The tight, silent movie-style close up camera shots are penetrating, zooming in for maximum character expression (mostly tortured), at the same time effectively eliminating the bad sets from view. 

(typical close up of a perpetually tormented Laura in 1979/1980)

(And while I'm on the topic of sets, the central setting of the storyline at the Campus Disco provides occasional relief from the dramarama. The tacky set looks trashily goodby day it's used as a venue for exercise classes run by Richard Simmons (!); by night, it’s pumping out classic disco tracks, including: France Joli’s "Come to Me"; Sister Sledge’s "Good Times"; Evelyn Champagne King’s "Shame" and strangely The B52’s "Planet Claire". The finger-snapping, hand waving, jazz ballet-style, disco dancing extras are a real hoot.

Note, too, the spooky similarity in the décor of the Campus Disco in General Hospital (left) and the Red Room in Twin Peaks (right) in these stills:)

Martha Nochimson’s (1993) analysis of Laura’s rape storyline in General Hospital reads as a disturbing acceptance of the rape-as-seduction ‘ret con’:
“The so-called rape…was not a rape at all, since it was almost completely free from association with dominance-subordination eroticism.”
Furthermore, Nochimson views the ‘seduction’ as a means for Laura to accept her own sexuality. Referring to the dance Luke forces Laura to have with him before raping her, Nochimson argues:
“…what this scene, both narratively and visually impresses on the viewer most strongly is Laura’s struggle with her own desire, and with her fear of shedding conventional limits…Laura’s dancing renders her a spectacle…In stimulating Laura’s narcissism, the dance brings out her own sense of her sexuality, as well as Luke’s…”
I’m not convinced. Watching Laura scream ‘No!’ repeatedly as Luke forces her down on the floor, it did not occur to me that she was merely struggling with her sexuality. Karen Lindsey’s (1993) review of Nochimson’s argument sums it up nicely: “This is pretty scary stuff.” 

Andrew Goodwin (1990) suggests that, because of its serial form and its simultaneous transmission, television sometimes has an emotional power unmatched by cinema. I would agree. Soap opera’s serial format and its use of story arcs that unfold over a longer timeframe, seemingly in real-time, provide better possibilities than movies to establish an intimacy with the characters and their stories. In General Hospital, a sustained involvement in Laura’s torment and her attempt to come to terms with what happened to her, which is troubling and convincing, enables us to emotionally identify with her. And this is what soap is all about: involvement and identification. (Warning! This kind of involvement comes at a serious cost - refer to the Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome link at end of this post.)

Twin Peaks draws much of its character development from soap opera and the serial format allows for a more intimate treatment of the psychological devastation of violence, leaving us with a greater impact of its effects. The portrayal of violence against women in the series is terrifying (Leo’s verbal/physical abuse of Shelly), shocking (Leland’s killing of Maddy) and horrific (rape of Laura by her father). Responding to criticism of images of violence against women in Twin Peaks, Goodwin (1990) poses these thoughtful questions:
Isn't this identification (the triumph of soap, of the serial, of the TV audience) important precisely because identifying with the horror of violence and abuse is the first step towards educating people about it? Are we so dumb as to believe that all representations endorse what they show? And if – as some critics have suggested – soap narratives are gendered through the link between their multiple climaxes and female sexuality, don't we also think that constant reiteration and discovery of _questions_ might have something to do with how women talk, not through bold statements, but through tentative inquiry?
Karen Lindsey (1993) thinks that Laura’s rape storyline, without condemnation, was one of the lowest moments in soap opera history.  Thirty years on (!) General Hospital does not disappoint. Eschewing traditional soap opera elements and the genre’s compensatory function in favour of darker, gloomier, schadenfreude-satisfying storylines, it continues to serve up compelling bad taste moments. Current stories focus on: mobsters and molls, hit men, excessive shoot outs, murders, prison rape, child exploitation, teen verbal/physical assault, hit and runs and car bombs. It also provides examples of these other choice television tropes: Bloodstained Glass Windows; Hitman with a Heart and Villainous Crossdresser. (Even more tropes here.) 

Strictly for fans:

General Hospital the most violent show on television (and why James Franco would agree to be on it)

A link to David Zweig’s troubling Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome which does not bode well for sustained TV (soap) watching. (Perhaps I won’t read it.)

A link to Martha Nochimson's (seemingly favourably received) book on the films of David Lynch (which I have yet to read).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have always aligned soap opera narratives with Julia Kristeva's notion of "women's time," as opposed to patriarchal or linear time, in that events will be reiterated, repeated, or returned to. Judith Butler also discusses the idea of such repetition as being "a vexed but promising instrument," in that events can be re-viewed. Nochimson's reading, however, shows why this "instrument" can be "vexed": if you impose *your* (re)reading on another, rather than allow them to re-view their own events, you are just a revisionist. LAURA WAS RAPED, you bitch!