For the past 39 years, a particular television character has remained exceptionally active, managing a multi-billion dollar corporation, engaging in the occasional baby abduction, navigating through multiple marriages and divorces (and repeating the cycle several times), combating bouts of alcoholism, assisting her lookalike in overcoming alcoholism as well, participating in an enduring feud spanning nearly four decades, undergoing facelifts, and occasionally and quite intentionally causing the demise of at least one former partner.
This character is none other than Katherine Chancellor, the matriarch within the enduring American soap opera The Young and the Restless.
Jeanne Cooper, a respected actress from the stage and screen, has portrayed Katherine, establishing her as one of the soap opera genre’s most iconic figures.
While Susan Lucci may be recognized as the First Lady of daytime television, Cooper reigns as the grande dame of the soap world.
She possessed a formidable presence when she made her soap opera debut in 1973 and continues to command that presence when given material that aligns with her substantial talents.
Throughout her illustrious career, she has earned two Primetime Emmy nominations, garnered 10 Daytime Emmy nominations (clinching a win in 2008), and been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1993, she was bestowed with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, marking the first time this distinction was conferred upon a daytime actor.
Katherine’s introduction to the soap opera realm transpired during a period when these serialized dramas basked in their zenith of popularity.
Historically, soap operas endured ridicule and marginalization by the mainstream, but during their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, daytime serials often eclipsed their primetime counterparts in terms of popularity and cultural relevance.
Not only did they brim with themes of romance, extramarital affairs, and sensuality, but they also frontline the shifting societal norms of the era.
They even earned a spot on the cover of Time magazine in January 1976, headlining an article titled “Soap Operas: Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon.”
While the genre has witnessed a significant decline in viewership since then, one aspect has remained consistent—aside from the unchanging set designs: the targeted appeal of soaps to female viewers and their potential buying power.
Consequently, women have perpetually assumed active roles in soap operas. The notion that soap operas merely offer viewers the televised equivalent of bodice-ripping romance novels with damsels in distress is an oversimplification.
While the occasional plot may involve a woman’s abduction, her replacement by an arch-nemesis (courtesy of astonishingly convincing plastic surgery), and her subsequent need for rescue, more often than not, soap opera characters, such as Katherine, are permitted to exhibit the same level of complexity and multifaceted personalities as their male counterparts who presently dominate primetime television.
This is not to suggest that soap operas are devoid of misogyny and problematic gender issues, as they do indeed persist.
However, soap operas have consistently demonstrated a greater inclination than other genres to narrate stories about and for women.
Since the late 1960s, they have also been recognized for delving into controversial storylines, with few characters igniting as much controversy as Katherine.
In fact, her introduction to the series was rooted in this very aim.
William J. Bell, the creator, envisioned the character as a means to inject excitement into The Young and the Restless during its inaugural year.
The show had a sluggish start in the ratings and desperately required a source of conflict.
Katherine was introduced as a woman of significant influence in Genoa City, boasting wealth influence, and a husband who was a business tycoon.
However, she was also grappling with alcoholism, and the tension between her public persona and her struggles was tearing her life apart.
Essentially, she epitomized the archetype of a desperate housewife: possessing immense power yet feeling utterly powerless.
It’s no surprise that the character resonated with countless women, many of whom were contending with the challenges and opportunities presented by the women’s liberation movement.
While Cooper wasn’t Bell’s initial choice for the role, securing her for the series was a significant achievement.
Although she wasn’t a household name, Cooper had already accumulated a strong industry reputation after years of working with Hollywood luminaries like Tony Curtis and Glenn Ford before transitioning to daytime television.
In her memoir, “Not Young, Still Restless,” Cooper disclosed that she initially harbored concerns about her ability to portray Katherine.
However, those doubts evaporated after performing a monologue that shifted her perspective. In her own words:
“Any concerns I might have had about finding common ground with Katherine Chancellor vanished with my very first monologue, a beautifully crafted explanation from Katherine to Phillip that what she wants—all she wants—is someone to love her just for who she is, nothing more, nothing less; someone to be a shoulder not for her to lean on from time to time but for her to count on…
Which is to say that, no matter what soap opera craziness the writers had in store for her, I loved and understood the essence of Katherine Chancellor from the moment I stepped into her designer pumps.”
Katherine’s essence revolves around her pursuit of love while remaining unafraid to engage in morally ambiguous behavior.
She is an anti-hero, characterized by her audacity and internal turmoil, akin to Don Draper from “Mad Men” or Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” albeit preceding their emergence.
Her transgressions include impulsively giving away her arch-nemesis baby out of jealousy and causing the death of her ex-husband, Phillip, whom she fatally drove into a tree while under the influence, rather than witnessing him marry another woman.
Following his demise, she assumed control of his corporation, commencing her tenure as a competent yet ruthless businesswoman.
Moreover, Katherine was a trailblazer. At the age of 55 in 1984, Cooper decided to undergo a facelift.
She proposed to Bell the idea of having Katherine undergo the same procedure in the storyline.
Her motivation was to challenge the stigma associated with plastic surgery.
For Cooper, it was a cosmetic enhancement, but she believed it could help her rediscover her sense of self.
Bell endorsed the idea, and they decided to elevate it further by filming Cooper’s actual facelift, blending fiction and reality to enrich the narrative.
The procedure was captured documentary-style, and the cameras continued rolling when Cooper’s bandages were removed.
This occurred before the advent of reality TV, long before the days when you could switch on TLC and witness a multitude of unconventional surgeries. Moreover, it was broadcast in the middle of the afternoon.
The recoveries of both Katherine and Cooper unfolded simultaneously, unfolding in real-time before a captivated viewing audience.
For numerous viewers, observing the positive impact of the procedure on Katherine’s life proved to be a liberating experience.
In her memoir, Cooper reveals that she received an inundation of letters from fans, many of whom had harbored reservations about undergoing the procedure but found courage in the candidness of the storyline.
Katherine’s ongoing struggle with alcoholism had a similarly profound effect on fans.
Her battle against addiction motivated some to seek treatment for their issues, providing others with a character they could genuinely relate to.
During her battle with alcoholism, Cooper drew strength from her character to confront her situation.
Each time Katherine succumbed to the allure of alcohol, Cooper would use it as an opportunity to caution her fans.
The profound sense of responsibility she felt toward her fanbase stemmed from the unique nature of soap operas, characterized by their open-ended narratives.
She understood that people weren’t tuning in just once a week; instead, they were dedicated viewers, tuning in daily.
After a couple of decades of such devotion, it’s unsurprising that some viewers regarded the characters populating their “stories” as extended family members.
What has truly defined the character’s enduring legacy, even more so than the various social issues the series addressed through her, is her complex relationships with other women.
For nearly four decades now, Katherine has been embroiled in a relentless feud with Jill Foster.
Katherine’s initial encounter with Jill transpired during Jill’s tenure as a manicurist, and the two initially formed a friendship.
However, their relationship soured when Jill became romantically involved with Phillip.
Since then, these two women have oscillated between intense love and passionate hatred, crafting a dynamic that has consistently delivered riveting television drama.
At first glance, the source of their conflict appears to revolve around a man, but beneath that surface layer lies a profound betrayal of trust.
Katherine perceives—and continues to perceive—Jill as a reflection of herself in many respects.
Both women are fighters; both have risen to become formidable businesswomen, and they frequently find themselves entangled with the same men.
Regardless of how often they attempt to disentangle their lives, an intrinsic connection persists.
In the mid-’90s, an unusual provision in Phillip’s will forced Jill to assert her claim to half of his estate, leading to a situation where the women had to either coexist as housemates or one of them had to swallow her pride and depart.
They chose to become housemates. Apart from a few minor disputes and confrontations, they have evolved into a pair of harmonious platonic life partners who occasionally harbor lethal intentions toward each other.
At one point, the writers erroneously unveiled that Jill was Katherine’s biological daughter, but they sensibly retconned this connection a few years later.
Evidently, they recognized that the complex dynamics between the two transcend the boundaries of a typical mother-daughter relationship.
Katherine shares an equally potent bond with Nikki Reed, the former stripper who married one of the town’s billionaires, Victor Newman (incidentally, much of his success is owed to Katherine).
Nikki and Katherine have been best friends since the 1980s, serving as one of the show’s most solid foundations.
Together, they have established a robust, positive support system that has guided them through numerous divorces and battles with alcoholism (Nikki, too, grapples with alcohol addiction).
In a world where the Bechdel Test is a necessary consideration, Nikki and Katherine stand as an enduring testament to how genuine female friendships can be cultivated successfully.
In recent times, Katherine has settled into a more subdued role.
While she continues to oversee her late husband’s business and occasionally finds herself embroiled in scandals, her primary function revolves around offering guidance to the younger characters on the show.
She welcomes impromptu houseguests and has even officiated weddings for couples in town who decide to tie the knot in the middle of the night.
The absence of compelling storylines for her character mirrors the genre’s growing descent into irrelevance.
Soap operas are rapidly approaching extinction.
Their fanbase is aging, and the decline in the number of women available at home during the afternoons to introduce their children to the world of soap operas means that new generations are not being drawn into the fold.
When you factor in economic challenges, a shortage of engaging storylines, an increase in entertainment options for viewers, and networks recognizing the cost-effectiveness of replacing soaps with much cheaper-to-produce talk shows, it becomes evident that the era of soap operas is nearing its end.
In a poignant farewell scene, Katherine once implored her dying friend, John Abbott, to keep living. She said, “You gotta fight, John; that’s the key to this whole damn life.
You’ve got to fight.” For the past 39 years, that is precisely what Katherine has done.
She has battled her inner demons and fought for respect, power, romance, and love.
She is a character who has existed on the fringes of pop culture but has been cherished by those in the know—much like soap operas themselves.
Currently, only four soap operas remain on American television, yet Katherine Chancellor endures as a reminder of why soap operas have held significance for generations of both female and male viewers.