While sometimes compared to American soap operas, telenovelas are superior as a storytelling form in that they are conceived for limited runs usually between 60-100 hours of episodes with occasional shorter-run sequels to very successful shows. The clear beginning, middle and ending saves them from the American phenomena of running long after they’ve run out of steam.
Clearly, the class system in Latin America is more obvious than in the US, and often telenovelas are all about the class difference. One can argue, however, that they are no more than “opium for the masses” offering fairy tales of imps from the slums marrying up a la Maria la del Barrio which starred Thalia as a winsome waif. They can also be criticized for almost never talking about race except for ground breakers like Brazil’s Xica, or Mexico’s Ramona – which dealt with the US persecution of indigenous and not Mexico’s. Worse still, the darker and more indigenous looking actors inevitably play servants and are often used for comic effect while the lightest skinned are the stars. In fact, two of Mexico’s most popular stars are a pair of Krakow born sisters whose family moved to Mexico when they were small children.
Nevertheless, they often deal with social issues and sometimes in ways that are subtle and imaginative. In La Usurpadora for instance, everyone marvels how much the capricious Paola Bracho has changed. She’s suddenly interested in saving the family factory and pushes the family members to actually show up and work, even accept cutbacks while she convinces the workers that they must all come together for the benefit of everyone. She even manages to secure a big fat loan to help keep things going. Of course, Paola has been replaced by her long lost sister, Paulina – a former lady’s room attendant. While it’s a fantasy, it’s a fantasy that emphasizes the stupidity, laziness and casual cruelty of the upper class while celebrating the common sense wisdom of the masses.
As with any art form there are certain conventions. Exceptions are almost statistical anomalies. Inevitably, someone will turn out to be someone’s long lost sister, mother, father wife, daughter, etc. (Even the rightfully celebrated and much imitated, Yo Soy Betty La Fea managed to put in a pregnancy-scare subplot and the return of a husband who’d long ago abandoned his family.) Other conventions are rarely breached. The heroine will eventually wind up with the handsome galán (male lead). Often the galán is less bright than the heroine, immature and flawed, but he’s grown under her influence and is a better man by the end than when we started.
Yet to say that all telenovelas are alike would be like saying that all US situation comedies are alike. While there are sit/com conventions– a living room must have a couch, some mix-up or misunderstanding will move that week’s plot – there is a vast world of difference between the bleakness of The Honeymooners and the sublime silliness of The Beverly Hillbillies. There’s the urban sophistication of Seinfeld versus the redneck wisdom of The Jeff Foxworthy Show.
Telenovelas like cuisine tend to have regional differences that extend beyond accents. Colombia came up with the clever workplace comedy/drama Yo Soy Betty La Fea. Despite a successful run on Mexican television, it was remade with more Mexican flavor – as La Fea Mas Bella. Just as one expected a certain type of film in the Hollywood studio system to from a particular studio – Warner Brothers—gangsters, MGM musical extravaganza etc., telenovela producers are known for their specific specialites — historical melodrama, contemporary issues, etc.
My journey into fandom started with Mexico’s historical telenovela, Ramona. The show, based on the “classic” American novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, completely subverted the message of the original. Jackson’s novel was meant as a protest against American treatment of Native Americans, but the TV version was nothing less than Santa Anna’s revenge as telenovela, a retelling of the US conquest of California and its aftermath from the Mexican point of view with not so subtle allusions to other US imperial adventures and manifest destiny.
Exchanges of dialogue made it quite obvious and included the following:
The American bad guys are taking an Indian youth back to his village in order to hang him as a horse thief. They all know that he’s innocent and is being framed. At one point a henchman asks, “Why can’t we just hang him here?” The strategist for the villains replies that he must be hanged publicaly, “In order to sow terror in the hearts of the people.”
Ramona interested me as a film-fan in its use and subversion of certain movie genres – in particular the western. In Ramona, the sheriff is not a hero trying to maintain order in a rough frontier, but a petty, corrupt dictator trying to drive our Mexicans and Indians and take their land. A wild frontier outpost – Spurtown, which had formerly been the peaceful Mexican village of Todos Santos had the inevitable saloon in which could be found a bargirl with a heart of gold, a heroic hired-gun, a town drunk and other characters who could have been lifted from any western. It alluded as well to films in which the protagonists “go native” such as Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man – films which celebrate and romanticize native culture.
Since Ramona, I haven’t found any telenovela that was so blatant in its underlying agenda, but I have found other interesting and unexpected elements. Nods to Douglas Sirk-style “women’s pictures” in the design and background music of La Usurpadora, almost surreal moments of post-modernism like when Betty Pinzon, the ugly duckling heroine of Yo Soy Betty La Fea runs into the Brazilian bombshell Taís Araújo who starred in the telenovela Xica in which she portrayed a slave who uses her beauty and guile to rise to power. Araújo playing herself, advises Betty on self-acceptance and discovering her inner beauty.
I recently discovered that most telenovelas are available free on YouTube. I have been revisiting some of my favorites and watching new ones. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging on them.
I’m no expert on Latin American history or culture. Spanish is my second language, and I’m probably missing at least 15% of the dialogue and many of the specific cultural references. The blogs are subjective – interpretation through my gringa eyes and brain. I’m sure I’ll miss a lot and get stuff wrong, so comments and feedback will be most welcome.