On Sunday, the prestigious “Emmy” awards honoured the best of U.S.-American prime time television for the 68th time. Nominated and award-winning shows such as “Game of Thrones”, “House of Cards” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” have been influencing Western pop culture so much that it is hard to imagine an entirely different set of celebrated series. But one only has to look a little further south to explore another booming media industry: Telenovelas, an inherent part of Mexico’s cultural identity
Just after Brazil, Mexico is the second biggest market for telenovelas. While the genre is sometimes overlapping with other kinds of shows, media outlets and academics estimate that Mexican studios have produced more than 800 telenovelas in the last 50 years. Although “Televisa”, one of Mexico’s most influential broadcasting groups, struggles financially, telenovelas are what keeps them alive, as their annual financial report reveals. In contrast, their competitor “TV Azteca” loses in spite of focussing on the daily drama.
From the famous telenovela “Maria la del barrio” – Buzzfeed called it “the most cringe-worthy telenovela scene of all time“
Latin America’s most profitable cultural flagship, however, is ridiculed a lot. And indeed, overacting, stereotypical characters and an abundance of plot twists are an essential part of the genre. Content-wise, telenovelas are bursting with emotions. Typically, they are about a Romeo-and-Juliet-style couple: young, passionate lovers against all odds. But as opposed to Shakespearean drama, telenovela couples have a very good chance of getting out alive and even happy.
But indeed, there is a lot to criticize about the genre. In the Mexican telenovela classic “Rubí”, for example, the protagonist appears like a caricature of the greedy gold-digging woman. The narrator introduces her with “This is…Rubí, as beautiful as perverse”. She is depicted as a young woman who thoroughly enjoys catcalling and would (and actually does) do anything to get her hands on a rich man. She is juxtaposed to the rich, pure, physically disabled and – of course – modestly-dressed Maribel. Character development falls short in this telenovela. It is reinforcing the stereotypes of the greedy, sly slut and the untouched virgin.
While one could condemn the telenovela for its outdated and harmful representation of women, it poses relevant questions about love, sex and morals at the same time. When Maribel falls in love with a handsome architect online, the importance of beauty standards is open for debate. Also, can an online relationship work without physical affection? In another situation, Rubís sister Cristina goes to various job interviews to sustain the family – just to be sexually harrassed by her potential employer. Due to this, the sisters fight about what is morally acceptable to do to get a certain job. Sounds familiar, right? Although the telenovela is more than 20 years old and many characters are incredibly cliché, the show still touches on topics that are relevant today.
Nevertheless, ideas of love and sexuality change within societies and so does the audience of telenovelas. Because of that, Telemundo, a broadcaster of telenovelas from Florida and Puerto Rico, just launched three new series touching on more socio-political topics like the feminicidios en Ciudad Juárez. And yes, they deliberately called them “series” instead of telenovelas – to attract a younger audience, they say. Telemundo also teamed up with the Mexican broadcaster Argos Comunicación to create one of the most expensive telenovelas of all times: “El Señor de los Cielos”. It is based on the life of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the former leader of the Juarez Cartel in the north of Mexico. The story is told from different perspectives, including the drug lord himself, the police and the government.
Many of the aforementioned clichés are present: longing wives desperately awaiting their husbands at the window, sex bombs whose only fulfillment it is to sleep with a drug lord, murderous love affairs. Then again, it does take general Mexican values into account: How independent is Mexico really from imperialist powers like the US, which intensify the inner-Mexican conflict? How far would cartel members go to save their neglected wives?
Of course, one could argue that these aspects are inherent to telenovelas and that it is their stereotypical depiction of men, women, love, sex, intrigues and violence which is problematic. That generalization is harmful to the respective generalized groups is certainly an important aspect. But dismissing an entire genre because the story is easily digestible and because the character development is limited is wrong. Telenovelas do address important aspects and they do reflect changes in a society faster than a masterfully crafted Netflix original might. Furthermore, Mexican telenovelas are getting increasingly diverse. If viewers feel repulsed by the blatant masculinity in “El Señor de los Cielos”, there is also “La reína del sur” – a female drug lord taking over.
Hidden behind HBO spectacles like “Game of Thrones” or Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show”, there is a whole different world of drama, wars and infinite jest. While the “Emmys” remain US-American, telenovela aficionados can look forward to November 21st. This is when the “International Emmy Awards” take place in New York City. Having an entire category devoted to them, nothing will steal the show from the intense, controversial, over-the-top and incredibly entertaining telenovelas.
Featured Image: Emmy Award, by Hans Splinter on Flickr