Telenovelas: An Instrument of Social Change?

The States has Hollywood, India has Bollywood, and Latin America has telenovelas. The genre is so ingrained into the cultural milieu that during prime-time hours—when the most popular telenovelas are broadcast—you can hear tumbleweeds blowing. Women of all ages rush home from work or school and glue themselves to the couch for the latest installment of their favorite telenovela; not a moment can be missed: who is falling in love with whom? Who’s the neighborhood cheat? And more pressingly, who has the best muscles? After the show is over, the discussion continues: over the dinner table, on the bus, at the hairdresser’s…

Called so because they are staged television (tele) narrations of romance novels (novela), telenovelas came into prominence in the 1950’s and are popular across the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, including in Germany, Russia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and South Korea. But it is in Latin America—and predominantly in Mexico—that telenovelas rule the airwaves. They are so popular, in fact, that even Mexican domestic transport providers will often treat their commuters to downloaded screenings of the beloved genre en route.

In the late 1990’s, the country’s largest TV network, Televisa, claimed that telenovelas were Mexico’s leading export product. More recently, in 2006, BBC reported that Mexico produces almost 3,000 hours of telenovelas, at a total cost of about US $250 million, a year.

But what makes them so popular? The titles can be ridiculous, the plots are melodramatic, the acting exaggerated, the characters unrealistically good looking, and the messages (forbidden love, cheating, revenge) not exactly the stuff impressionable teenagers should be exposed to. One of the current telenovelas, La Malquerida (The Bad Mistress) follows a love triangle which centers on a wealthy mother and daughter and their handsome employee. Mi Corazón es Tuyo (My Heart is Yours) focuses on an exotic dancer who, due to a clerical error at an employment agency (because a stripper can never amount to anything else), finds herself working as a nanny to a wealthy widower, who, of course, falls in love with her. De que te quiero, te quiero (Head Over Heels), another well-received telenovela which recently ended, is about a young, spoiled woman who, despite having everything she wants, is unsatisfied.

Some telenovelas are set in different time periods, but their messages remain same. Amor Real (Real Love), a telenovela which aired between 2004 and 2005, was set in 19th-century Mexico and revolved around a beautiful young woman who is tricked into marrying a wealthy landowner by her status-conscious mother. The female characters seem to be categorized as one of the following: gorgeous young naiveté, powerful matriarch, mistress, or gold-digger.

Juan Diego_3

Juan Diego Covarrubias, photo courtesy of Pepe Rincón PR Management

But Juan Diego Covarrubias, the actor who plays the male protagonist in De que te quiero, te quiero, tells me that telenovelas don’t only portray fantasies, they also reflect society. “To a certain extent, people identify with the characters that are presented in telenovelas. The stories are based on the culture of Latin American roots and on Mexican communities. It’s powerful to be able to identify with characters taken from the public domain and that’s why telenovelas are so resonant,” he says. Furthermore, says David Zepeda, another well-known Mexican actor and musician who has starred in over 10 telenovelas, the characters portrayed are indicative of everyday personalities. “The magic comes from the characters being based on real, rather than fictional, people.”

A dominant media tool as they are, the impact of the telenova on Mexican society—and especially its women, who make up the majority of the telenova audience—can be profound. Telenovas possess the power to influence and damage; to educate and dumb down. Pop culture seeps into our daily lives, and in a country where 95% own and 80% regularly watch television, its showcased content is unequivocally important. It is easy to dismiss televonelas as shallow and empty, but perhaps it’s more beneficial to look at what kind of impact they are having.

As Professor Thomas Tufte argues in his paper, “Telenovelas, Culture and Social Change,” “Telenovelas maintain a crucial and well-documented cultural and social role and function in the everyday lives of their audiences, but…from the producers’ perspective, [they can be used] as a deliberate and strategic tool to promote social and cultural change and a specific development process.”

In The New York Times, playwright Ibsen Martínez, who has himself dabbled in the genre, brings our attention to the not-so-positive messages of telenovelas: “It took me 30 years to realize that telenovelas are merely a dramatized metaphor for Latin American populism. These shows deal not as much with unrequited love as with social redemption myths as undying as those of Evita Perón’s. The most frequent theme prescribes redistribution of wealth among the poor with little consideration of how that wealth is created.”

Accompany Me_EL Universal

“Accompany Me” (source: EL Universal)

Various studies have specifically been done to elicit whether telenovelas can influence women’s decision-making processes and lifestyles. In “Mass media and reproductive behaviour: serial narratives, soap operas and telenovelas,” Dr Stuart Basten highlights that some telenovelas have been explicitly created as “a vehicle for the conveyance of a family planning message.” One of these was Acompañame (Accompany Me), which aired in the late 1970s. As a result of the series, a report commissioned by the Mexican Institute for Communication Research in 1981 found that phone calls to Mexico’s National Family Planning Office increased from zero to an average of 500 a month; contraceptive sales increased by 23% in one year, compared to a 7% increase the previous year; and more than 560,000 women enrolled in family planning clinics, an increase of 33% (compared to a 1% decrease the previous year).

Similarly, in Brazil, more recent studies by the Inter-American Development Bank revealed that Brazilian telenovelas have helped shape women’s views on divorce and childbearing. Of the two telenovelas studied, it was observed that 62% of the main female characters had no children and 21% had only one child. Additionally, 26% of the leading female characters were unfaithful to their partners. The study linked this to strong decreases in fertility rates in the years immediately following the broadcast of telenovelas that included depictions of upward social mobility.

Inspired by the popular telenovela Simplemente María, Mexican TV writer and producer Miguel Sabido created several telenovelas in Mexico in the mid-1970s to promote adult literacy. Of these, Ven Conmigo achieved higher ratings than any of the network’s previous telenovelas and increased enrolment in literacy classes in Mexico City nine-fold.

Maria Rebeca in What Women Don't Say_Al-Jazeera

Actress Maria Rebeca in “What Women Don’t Say”, in an episode of “Soapbox Mexico” (source: _Al-Jazeera)

Last year, Al Jazeera made Soapbox Mexico, a seven-part series that took audiences behind the scenes of one of the country’s longest-running and most popular telenovelas. Azteca TV’s Lo que Callamos Las Mujeres (What Women Don’t Say), a soap about women who have had painful experiences, is watched by over 10 million people in Mexico everyday. Unlike many other telenovelas, this show tackles issues that are often considered taboo by Mexicans: domestic violence, sexual abuse, and mental illness, while remaining faithful to the style of “emotionally charged, glamour-edged programs” that is favored by the TV networks. Soapbox Mexico followed Alicia Carvajal, a veteran producer and dedicated women’s rights campaigner who faced the challenge of relaunching a new season of the telenovela. The program revealed just some of the ways in which the telenovela was educating and helping women and marginalized groups in Mexican society: Giovani, an actor with Down’s syndrome appeared in an episode; Vicky, a victim of sexual abuse had the telenovela to thank for helping her heal; Eugenia and Zacarias, an indigenous couple helped with the filming of an episode which tackled the issue of superstition in rural communities; and Horacio was a victim of mafia violence.

Covarrubias echoes that—at least these days— rather than presenting them in a sexist or superficial way, telenovelas are instead empowering women: “Female characters are presented how they truly are in Mexico and Latin America. Nowadays, women decide themselves and are fighters with strong values. Women play important roles in culture and their opinions are taken into account.” It is also the female telenovela actresses, he adds, who experience greater success. “It is also not a gender thing, but women identify more with other women.”

In fact, Covarrubias believes that more often it is the men that are being portrayed as stereotypically beautiful and unattainable. “[But] I have worked hard to make sure the characters I play are more grounded to reality,” he adds.

David Zeppeda

David Zepeda, photo courtesy of David Zepeda

Both Covarrubias and Zepeda stress that most telenovelas are designed to entertain and that this should not be forgotten. “Our shows are never made with the pretence of educating or contributing something specific. The intention is to provide a form of escapism for people,” says Covarrubias. “People are bombarded daily with news that talks of the country’s social and economic situation, but telenovelas provide a form of relaxation for people who sometimes want to dream. Love and family unity, which are two major themes, contribute to their success,” adds Zepeda.

Actress Maria Rebeca says in Soapbox that “Mexicans love drama,” so this is possibly the main reason that telenovelas are filmed in the style that they are. Carvajal adds that telenovelas are “therapy for the women who watch it.” So perhaps it matters little whether they are fluffy, light entertainment, or deep and educational. Perhaps all that is important is that telenovelas are a force in Mexican society—especially for its women—and thus deserve our attention.

Translations for interviews from Spanish to English by Daniel Salinas Conejeros.

Title image source: musikislife.net

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