Telenovelas an intercultural phenomenon (II)
Telenovelas, Spanish-language melodramas from south of the border, are the ultimate crossover phenomenon. Their addictive formula -- a woman's agonizing struggle ending in redemption -- attracts 2 billion viewers worldwide.
That explains novelas' staggering global appeal, and just what are they, anyway? Like regular novels, telenovelas have a beginning, middle, and end; they do not run on indefinitely like soaps. Each plays daily Monday through Friday for a few months to a year, often in prime time, until the sidebar couple is united, good defeats evil, and the last credits run down the screen. Audiences may miss friends and enemies who have pursued intrigues in their living rooms nightly, but there is always another novela.
In many early telenovelas (broadcasts began in the late 1950s), a poor Cinderella struggled against adversity and finally married her Prince Charming. The prince, it must be said, rarely did much of anything. Not surprisingly, this plot catered to poor women. Still, today, if you ask a Mexican man what he thinks of novelas, he may burst into nervous laughter. But the audience of Amor Real was evenly divided between the sexes and spread across social classes, according to the producer, Carla Estrada. Novelas still follow a formula as precise as the waltz in the opening sequences of Amor Real. Though there are many subplots, the main plot must be about an impossible love. It need no longer be between Cinderella and her prince -- Matilde is an aristocrat and Manuel a bastard son -- but the female lead remains the driving protagonista. Why? "If you see a man suffer in a novela, you don't care," shrugs novela director Ernesto Alonso. "If you see a woman suffer, you feel her pain." The couple, separated by social chasms, evildoers' plots, and their own hesitations, must endure unimaginable suffering before finally overcoming the impossible.
Telenovelas always reward good and punish evil. In the better ones, characters may be torn by conflict, as Matilde is. Good people may do bad things, for which they suffer. Bad people can be redeemed, after purgatory on earth. The legal system may be just a corrupt backdrop of life, jailing the innocent and the guilty, too, for good measure. But the Virgin of Guadalupe never errs. Justice must be done on this earth. Alongside the search for love and justice is a search for lost identity. Deceived about their true origins, characters must ask, as Argentine communications professor Nora Mazziotti observes: Who are my parents? Where is my child? Who, finally, am I? In the end, not just marriage and fortune but self-discovery provide "just reparation" for the unimaginable suffering.
Clearly, the worldwide appeal of Novelas transcends their often vivid cultural heritage. A good Mexican novela, for instance, bsidebarly paints that nation's cultural traditions on the screen. Colors are gaudy, facial expressions distorted as in popular art sold in street markets, says Mexico City television critic and journalist Alvaro Cueva. The acting no more ought to be classically correct than street art ought to follow the rules of perspective.
Yet Mexican culture, powerfully shaped by Aztecs, Mayans, and other indigenous peoples, does not seem crucial to the novelas' global success. Haresh Shah, the editor of TV Tip Serial in the Czech Republic, notes that some Argentine novelas are as popular as Mexican, though Argentina's thoroughly European culture could hardly be more different.
The warm display of Latin emotions from both nations is surely indispensable, says Shah: "The older generation of Czechs were never sure who might rat on them. Even 13 years after the fall of communism, they are not able to express their real feelings. Novelas give them an outlet to feel their emotions." But English-language soap operas have powerful emotions, too.
Novelas' special force lies in their traditional folkloric themes and, inseparable from those themes, "an almost religious possibility of justifying existence," as the Mexico City novela writer Cuauhtemoc Blanco says. Despite characters' unimaginable suffering and fate's obscure turns, novelas pose the hope that ethical conduct will be rewarded on earth.
Alvaro Cueva goes further. At the novela's core, he says in an interview, is "human passion that is like the passion of Christ. Characters fall and get up, fall and get up, and after falling many times, they achieve glory." Christ here is a woman, and hers is a most earthbound glory: love and fortune. Yet it must include a religious ceremony, as Cueva says, usually church marriage. Perhaps the protagonista has been raped or even willingly had sex before marriage (but only for love). No matter: She deserves to be dressed in white.
If Christianity is so embedded in novelas, why do they appeal to audiences in Indonesia or the Persian Gulf? Broadcasters there may cut the most blatant Christian images, and viewers accept what remains as a foreign setting, something they are no more forced to adopt than eating tacos. But the framework of an underlying moral order amid a chaotic world translates across languages, cultures, and religions. Two billion viewers harbor strikingly similar hopes. The "clash of civilizations" may not go nearly so deep as supposed.
Increasingly, novelas have been exploited as conduits for powerful social and political messages. In the not-so-distant days when the Mexican ruling party won rigged elections by landslides, it was exquisitely skilled at manipulating popular sentiment, not least through novelas. The Interior Ministry, which managed the political machine and secret police, used them to help keep people in line. It had a representative at every recording session, recalls distinguished novela and stage actress Angelica Aragon. Novelas could not discuss corruption or protests, she says: "Characters had their gloomier days, but in the end, happiness and well-being prevailed."
Novelas served more constructive purposes, too. Luis Echeverria, who rose from secretary of Interior to become president of Mexico in 1970, launched a didactic series under the producer Miguel Sabido to promote literacy, family planning in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and even women's sidebars. Come With Me in 1974-75 is credited with persuading some 800,000 Mexicans to sign up for adult education. Daughter of Nobody faced the plight of street children.
In seemingly innocuous ways at first, Aragon herself sought to advance feminism. "Even the very traditional Cinderella telenovela is still about a woman," she says. "Though she marries the prince, and we know that's not true, we're talking about women's issues." Aragon would omit lines she considered false, such as "I can't stand to tell my friends about personal matters, because all women are gossips." She says she just asked the prompter to delete such prejudicial statements. The representatives from Interior did not pay enough attention even to notice.
Recent novelas have shown women as powerful entrepreneurs, told realistic stories about rape, and depicted sympathetic homosexual characters. Plots in which gorgeous young women get AIDS have underlined the dangers of the virus ...