On a show where the hard-working, virtuous, “good” families are the lily-white Hortons and Bradys, and the criminal, selfish “bad” families are of a darker hue (the Greek-American Kiriakises and Italian-American DiMeras), one doesn’t expect particularly progressive politics, much less critiques of xenophobia and institutional racism. But two recent storylines on Days of Our Lives have me wondering if soap writers are not only catching up to the social realities of 2019 but finding their voices as social commentators. With only four daytime soaps left (versus eleven when I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s), it may very well be too little, too late, but the politics embedded—often, deeply—in them is worth teasing out.
In November of 2017, Theo Carver, the only young black man then on the show, who is on the Autism spectrum and sweet as pie, is shot by J.J. Deveraux, an on-duty cop. Theo, always eager to please those he loves (and a computer whiz—of course), has been coerced by Kate Roberts to hack into her rival company’s computer system, which requires breaking and entering. When J.J. discovers someone climbing the fence to get onto private property, he yells for the suspect—not knowing who he is—to freeze. Theo runs, at first, but when J.J. catches up with him, Theo stops and puts his hands in the air. J.J. orders him to drop his weapon. We see Theo, holding a cell phone, looking confused. The order is repeated. Finally, Theo starts to turn around, phone still in hand, and J.J. fires. Theo falls to the ground and only then does J.J. recognize him and the fact that he is unarmed. Theo is rushed to the hospital and we learn the bullet is lodged dangerously close to his heart.
As the subplot unfolded, I expected some pussyfooting around the issue of police shootings of unarmed black men. Of course, I thought, no one will blame J.J. or Theo (it was all just a big misunderstanding!). Instead, they’ll focus on identifying the culprit who forced poor Theo to commit a crime. But then comes this exchange between J.J. and Abe, Theo’s father:
J.J.: I had no idea it was Theo. It was dark and he had the hood of his sweatshirt up.
Abe: You didn’t ask him to identify himself. You just shot him!
J.J.: Abe, in a million years, I never would have fired a bullet at Theo.
Abe: You just saw an anonymous kid in a hoodie! And that’s all you needed to know!
JJ: Abe, you have known me all of my life. I am not like that!
On one hand, the nod to Trayvon Martin is unmistakable. On the other, one wonders why it would have been so difficult to substitute “black man” for “anonymous kid.” But while weaselly, sure, the scene alerted me to more nuanced storyline than I’d expected. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The Salem Police Department rules the shooting justified. Although Theo was not holding a gun, they reason, he was holding something that J.J. understandably assumed was a gun, and when ordered to drop his weapon several times, Theo did not comply.
But J.J. obsesses about the incident for weeks, replaying each piece in his head—and, naturally, on screen, allowing the viewer to review it, as well. Eventually, J.J. works out that because Theo thinks in such literal terms, he must have been baffled by a command to drop his weapon, given that he wasn’t actually holding a weapon. The viewer recalls, then, the looks of stark confusion on Theo’s face as he tried to process this particular order. The implication of all of this is that, really, neither man was to blame. J.J. followed protocol—which allows an officer to act on their perception—and Theo did not technically defy an order. But if neither is to blame, where can the problem lie, but with the protocol itself? The conclusion reached by the plot—albeit implicitly—is that shootings like Theo’s are not caused by “a few bad apples” or by the foolish actions of brazen and defiant criminals, but by something larger, something systemic.
Even racism itself is presented on the show as institutional rather than individual, challenging the still-pervasive notion that racism equals cross-burning or using the “N” word. J.J. eventually realizes he did see Theo’s face. Since we know that he did not recognize Theo—judging from his shock upon identifying him—his startling recognition can only be that he pulled the trigger just after—hence, because—he registered the face as Black. This fact having been lodged in J.J.’s subconscious—and his character in no way resembling a hooded Klansman—demonstrates his racism to be more a product of our society than a villainous individual trait. As anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “It’s very difficult to grow up in a country or even a world that’s constantly raining racist ideas on your head and to never get wet.” J.J. is not wearing Klan robes, but he has clearly gotten wet.
The most recent overtly political subplot on Days is that of Haley Chen, an undocumented immigrant from China. Haley’s much-older sister, Melinda Trask—previously portrayed as a textbook Dragon Lady—left China for the U.S. years ago, but Haley stayed behind until their parents died. While Melinda has been granted citizenship, Haley has not.
The villain of the Haley Chen storyline, Jack Deveraux, is an obvious proxy for Donald Trump. Jack is running for Mayor of Salem as the “law and order” candidate. After he latches onto the deportation of Haley as a campaign promise, his rallies consist of anonymous Salem-ites raising their fists, chanting, “Send Her Back!” while donning red baseball hats. When Jack brags to his ex-wife, Jennifer about winning the mayoral election, she responds, “You were elected because you whipped up a frenzy of fear and hate.”
Jack deploys familiar rhetoric about Haley Chen as a representative of undocumented immigrants, saying she has “gamed the system,” is “taking advantage” and “a user.” Some of the most likeable characters on the show consistently defend Haley, citing her profession as a nurse as evidence that she is actually contributing to society rather than milking it.
Shortly after Tripp Dalton decides to let Haley hide in his apartment, Ciara Brady—his roommate and the daughter of the Police Commissioner—comes home and discovers what he’s doing. But not only does Ciara not report it to her mother, she tells Haley she can stay with them as long as she needs to, explaining: “I am a Brady. My great-grandparents came to this country looking for a better life for themselves and their family. And I believe everyone deserves an opportunity to do the same.” Even later, when the Police Commissioner (Hope Brady) knows Haley is on the run, she only half-heartedly pursues her. Noting this, Jack’s wife and campaign manager, Eve, castigates Hope, “Haley Chen is a criminal. And I would think, as Police Commissioner, that would matter to you.” Hope responds, “What matters to me, Eve, is she is a human being.”
Indeed, all the characters who oppose Haley are unlikeable and their actions toward her, despicable. The ICE agent, Agent Smith, is a sniveling monster who finds joy in arresting immigration law-breakers. And the main characters who are actively trying to turn Haley in are doing it for their own gain, not because they believe the rhetoric they’re spouting. Claire Brady only wants Haley deported so she doesn’t steal her boyfriend, Tripp (which Haley clearly does not intend). And Jack and Eve only jump onto the anti-immigration train because they want Melinda Trask out of the race and they know her sister’s status will politically damage her. When other characters accuse Jack of being “opportunistic,” the viewer can only agree.
The crowning line of the whole subplot comes from Julie Williams, the show’s annoying busybody, but nonetheless one of the good guys. After Jack again cites his election as evidence that he’s worthy, Julie responds: “I think history has proved, Jack, that many men have been elected to public office who are mean, arrogant, and stupid.” If this isn’t an indictment of the 2016 presidential election, I don’t know what is.
Television shows are often hailed for guiding Americans toward an acceptance of changing social mores (e.g., Will and Grace). The soap opera has historically been the child who has to be dragged over the cultural threshold kicking and screaming. But while our dismissal of them as a source for social commentary is justified, I wonder if it’s worth taking a new look at them. Even the brattiest of children grows up, eventually.
Amanda Hiber is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Detroit Mercy by day and a creative nonfiction writer by night. She works and lives in Detroit, and her work has appeared in Clackamas Literary Review and Green Briar Review, among other publications.