By Rosario Sánchez Vilela
Claudio loves Leonardo. He also loves his wife, Beatriz. It's not your ordinary clandestine love triangle: Beatriz knows about the relationship and supports her husband in his bisexuality. The depiction of this relationship in the 2015 Brazilian telenovela Imperio illustrates how telenovelas can become the stage for the circulation of meanings, of expressions of social representations, and stimulate debates of hot-button topics. Sure, there are stereotypes, but the changing expressions of gender identity have also been rendered visible in the plots and characters of telenovelas.
In addition to Imperio, I'll take a look at three other telenovelas to show you how new possibilities of gender identity have been projected: Rastros de Mentiras (Brasil, 2013), Botineras (Argentina, 2009) and Farsantes (Argentina, 2013). These telenovelas are key to the changing portrayal of homosexuality in Latin America in as much as they both reflect changes in public perception and stimulate such change.
Social representations, the way we understand them in daily life, are a form of knowledge, something like a second-nature common sense. Both symbolic and practical, social representations make reality tangible and permit people to communicate about aspects of daily life. The meaning of gender, understood as a cultural construct, refers to ways of relating to sexual difference. This understanding, historically situated and socially constructed--initially on the biological distinction between the sexes--is reproduced and transformed in daily practices; our givens operate as organizers of experience, promoting or censuring behavior, disciplining bodies.
Social representations also produce stereotypes, but nevertheless allow for nuances not permitted by stereotypes. Telenovelas—although often perpetuating stereotypes—can also make us aware of more complex, changing and polemical representations. In this sense, they are part of a spectrum of diverse discussions through which stereotypes are torn apart and other ways of thinking become possibilities.
As Serge Moscovici observes in El Psicoanálisis, su imagen y su público (Ed. Huemul, Buenos Aires, 1979), “Social representations are almost tangible entities. They circulate, crisscross and crystalize nonstop in our daily universe through a word, a gesture, an encounter. The great majority of close social relations, of objects produced and consumed, of communications exchanged are thoroughly imbued with these representations." Telenovelas and other television fictional products form part of the circulation and elaboration of such sensibility and perhaps contain the most visible and available discursive repertory in terms of gender representations.
In many cultural expressions, fiction is a battlefield in which some meanings become naturalized and others do not. The invented characters—bodies, gestures, situations—are part of the tangibility of representation; they embody images that operate in daily life as resources for social exchange, as well as those that project vital different possibilities. Telenovelas provide a stage and show how some new expressions of gender are accepted and others not, putting into evidence tensions and conflicts.
This is where the concepts "naturalization" and "denaturalization" come in. In English, the concepts are fairly close to "normalization" and"deviation," but those words imply a moral judgment rather than an observation of how new patterns are incorporated into daily life. And rather than "deviation," "denaturalization" indicates that previously dominant attitudes are questioned as indicators of "what has to be." You might associate "naturalization" with citizenship—a political belonging that confers rights and privileges as well as obligations.
In the telenovelas new identities emerge and others are discarded. So, for instance, the representation of femininity subjected to the patriarchal gaze, virginal and destined for maternity, becomes discarded or naturalized in favor of the proactive woman with all sorts of possibilities for getting ahead and even achieving a position of supremacy. Yet we’re looking at a double process in observing the changing notions of gender and sexuality: the naturalization of some meanings means necessarily the denaturalization of others.
When the heterosexual, hegemonic representations of gender give way to the naturalization of nomadic, multiple and flexible identties, we no longer accept representations of homosexuality that provoke laughter or associate with promiscuity or criminality.
Four Fictions in the Process of Naturalization-Denaturalization
Visibility and repetition are important in this process, as is the demonstration of many different types of situations and social roles in fictional plots. At the same time, in amorous relations, that which is shown and that which is hidden form part of this double process of naturalization-desnaturalization.
In the case of Imperio, masculinity is exemplified by the magnetism of the protagonist, Commander José Alfredo Medeiros. But what is more important is his coexistence with two other characters who are more gender-fluid. Gender is relational: its definition takes into account a spectrum of ties of affection, contrasting the differences of one from the other.
In the figures of Claudio Bulgari and Xana, Imperio shows two extremes in the representation of gender identities, of diffuse boundaries always in movement and not inscribed as heterosexuality, thus constituting a novelty in Latin American telenovelas.
Claudio Bulgari is a successful businessman, married to Beatriz and father of their two childen. He also maintains an amorous relationship with Leonardo, a relationship Beatriz is aware of and accepts. In this configuration of characters, homosexuality does not exclude a fulfilled amorous relationship with the wife. This coexistence of sexualities is set forth without shrillness: nothing in Claudio's body language, gestures or manner of dressing would indicate he is homosexual or bisexual. This representation of homosexuality is in keeping with what some studies have indicated is a prevalent theme in this narrative. That is, homosexuality is accepted and not associated with figures of ridicule or crime, as it has been portrayed in the past in television fiction. This type of representation tends to go hand-in-hand with a "narrative of revelation," in which the homosexual characters have no obvious markers, and their sexual identity is revealed in the course of the story and as part of the plot. In the case of the love triangle Claudio-Leonardo-Beatriz, the aim is different and breaks with this type of representation. The telenovela puts forth the acceptance of bisexuality and of a second love relationship: Claudio does not have to make a choice. Different types of love can coexist. To “come out of the closet” assumes that one will renounce one part of one's identity. In the case of Claudio Bulgari and Beatriz, two dimensions of sexual life are permitted in a convenient arrangement that goes on for years, sustained by love.
Two things are important in the process of naturalization: the reaction of others to the revelation and the positive visibility, at least during much of the telenovela, of a new family and love relationship. The revelation of Claudio's sexual orientation meets with rejection from his son Enrico, the character who embodies homophobia in its most radical form. Enrico is met with social sanctions: he is called into question in regards to his homophobia and his rejection of his father. He loses his girlfriend and his job, and is transformed into a person capable of commiting crimes. The narration makes him into one of the bad guys in the plot. Claudio, on the other hand, is understood in terms of his circumstances. The most difficult situation is that of Beatriz, who is often criticized and taunted by other women when she goes grocery shopping. Beatriz does not inspire compassion because she is Claudio's wife, but because she is the victim of cruel social condemnation by a social millieu that does not tolerate the construction of a new family and amorous arrangement. This representation seeks to garner empathy with the suffering character. Those who attack Beatriz and Claudio receive negative reactions from the audience. The privileged point of view in the telenovela is the acceptance of Claudio's identity and Beatriz's loving support. In this context, and particularly in terms of his relationship with his son, the meaning of what it means to be a man and the relationship between masculinity and paternity become subjects for discussion.
However, tension and the coexistence of different value systems are not absent from this telenovela. Not everyone is aware of the arrangement, and it's sometimes denied. Towards the end of the telenovela, Claudio decides to go public about his relationship with Leonardo, but Beatriz now no longer wants to maintain their agreement. The end of the telenovela puts "things in order": there is an acceptance of diversity, but in heterosexual and homosexual couples instead of a fluid situation. Nevertheless, during most of the telenovela, a form of different love relationship is shown, made legitimate and visible by the repertory of imagined identities.
Latin American telenovelas are presenting homosexuality in a way that dilutes or eliminates gestures and clothing previously associated with that sexual identity. Flamboyance is out, and assimilation is in, promoting the idea that homosexuals are equal to heterosexuals. Moreover, these images affirm a repetition of the heterosexual model: love, marriage, family. In contrast, queer studies make a claim for peculiarity and stress transgressions of norms.
In Imperio, both tendencies are present, allowing for a multitude of possibilities and nuances. Claudio Bulgari is paradigmatic in the sense of homo-hetero equality, but another character, Teo Pereira, represents another possibility: his gestures, voice and diction and his expressions embody difference, bringing the character in line with the long history of homosexual representations that provoke laughter.
The process of naturalization is made more effective to the degree that the range of representations is open to the possibilities of different ways of being. Nevertheless, it is the character of Xana that proposes a more complex and risky identity: fluid and indeterminate gender that escapes classifications and established patterns. (S)he has feminine aesthetic characteristics (makeup, jewelry, dress, voice and gestures, but at the same time, refers to him/herself in masculine terms, showing a capacity to exercise extreme physical force when necessary, and has an affectionate and intense relationship with an exuberant woman, Naná. The Xana character expresses ambiguity to an extreme that sometimes becomes grotesque and comic. Xana is a revindication of queerness.
The relationship with Naná and the creation of a new type of family are two key elements. Xana and Naná are portrayed as close friends, but with ambiguous physical proximity. They share the same bed, and situations arise suggesting an attraction that transcends friendship. Xana's jealousy of Naná's involvement with Antonio seems to reveal a concealed sexual love. Xana very much desires to adopt an orphan boy whom she promised to take care of when his mother died. She can only do this if she gets married. The resolution of the plot is a rupture with the heteronormative model: Xana and Naná get married, but Antonio, Naná's boyfriend, goes to live with them, forming a new type of family. This scheme of characters, which revolves around Xana, puts forth in a radical way the idea of flexible identities in permanent flux and indeterminacy.
Rastros de Mentiras takes another step in this process of naturalization: the homosexual character is the villain here. At first glance, one could argue that this representation stigmatizes gays— like the traditional roles of those depicted as criminals and prostitutes. However, it's much more complicated. For a long time, the acceptable representation of homosexuality was founded on the idea of equality, based on equal rights and a quest to do away with the dominant stereotypes. Because of this, the characters had to have physical appearances and behavior that did not give away their sexual orientation. They had also had to be good and likeable. In the Brazilian telenovela, the emblematic case has been the relationship of two university students, Jefferson and Sandro, in the Próxima Víctima (1995): good sons, good friends, good students, neither rich nor poor. One likes them before it is revealed they are gay, and the public readily accepts their relationship because it already is favorably disposed toward the characters. The program generated much debate and contributed to the process of naturalization of homosexual relations and the legitimization of minority voices.
However, for this naturalization to be complete, homosexuality must be portrayed with its virtues and vices—the full spectrum of human possibilities. In Rastros de Mentiras, the homosexual character is the protagonist and also the villain. Moreover, his mannerisms form part of his characterization. The cycle of naturalization is almost complete when the character is not one with exceptional treatment; he can, like Félix, be bad and perverse; he can cause laughter, and he can also be the subject of a tale of redemption, just as men and women entrenched in identities beholden to patriarchal models have done in story after story.
Two Argentine telenovelas, Botineras (2009) and Farsantes (2013), demonstrate other aspects of the naturalization of new gender identities. The first is developed in the context of soccer and depicts a homoaffective relationship between two players. The incorporation of this representation jeopardizes—detaches, denaturalizes—the masculine stereotype predominantly associated with this sport. The very title of the telenovela conveys this challenge to stereotypes, as botineras is the term used in the Argentine Rioplatense context for women who get involved in love relationships with soccer players; the term comes from botines, the type of shoes worn by the players. In the case of Farsantes, two male lawyers have a love affair. Both telenovelas widen the scope of identities, but above all, the presence of the body—a physical sexuality— in a love relationship is made very visible.
Both Argentine and Brazilian telenovelas show a lot of skin when it comes to heterosexual couples, but that does not hold for other types of relationships. Corporality is watered down in lesbian or homosexual relationships in Brazilian telenovelas. In La Próxima Víctima, Jefferson and Sandro get to live together; they are accepted by their families and receive wedding gifts to start their new life, but their bodies are absent: sexuality is not part of the celebration. In the 1999 Brazilian telenovela Torre de Babel, the intimate nature of the relationship between Leila and Rafaela is put into evidence by suggested nudity, but there is no explicit sexuality. Even so, the hint of that possibility seems to have provoked an audience rejection to the point that the characters end up dying in a changed script. In the case of men, kisses have been the most explicit indicator of a sexual relationship, as in the recent case of Rastros de Mentiras.
Argentine telenovelas have gone further and also earlier. In 2009, four years before the Brazilian telenovela, Botineras showed a kiss between the two soccer players and more body language, making the sexuality of the relation evident, rather than just the affective and sentimental dimension: the bodies of the two men in bed without being covered by sheets is a radical displayin the context of displaying sexualized bodies—even more radical perhaps because the heterosexual couples in the same telenovela are shown with their bodies draped in sheets.
Farsantes, in the other hand, relies on suggestion more than direct narrative. Nevertheless, the corporality of the relationship is made explicit through the kiss and caresses, as well as by showing the characters in the process of taking off their clothes, although only the upper part of the body is shown naked. It is the same type of visual treatment as that of heterosexual couples in the same telenovela. The cycle of naturalization is completed with this symmetry.
In these four cases, we witness the expansion of the range of possibilities for gender identity as shown in telenovelas. This is a two-way process: naturalization of new identities and denaturalization of those that were previously common. In the telenovelas, characters and situations, bodies and actions, were and are carriers of dicourses in conflict, more than unanimous opinions about how homosexuality is depicted. The emergence of new identities, behavior and social relations, as seen in the telenovelas, in a certain fashion reflects and demonstrates the margins of tolerance of the societies that produce and consume these works of fiction.
In this sense, they become a barometer of naturalization. At the same time, the visibility and circulation of these new representations provide symbolic resources with which to imagine multiple possibiities of sexual identity, to understand them, and put oneself in others' shoes.
Rosario Sánchez Vilela is a professor of communications at the Universidad Católica del Uruguay (SNI Nivel II). She is the coordinator of the Ibero-American Observatory of Television Fiction (OBITEL) in Uruguay. Among her publications are Sueños Cotidianos. Telenovela y Oralidad (2000) Taurus-UCU, Montevideo; Infancia y violencia en los medios. Una mirada a la agenda informativa(2007) UNICEF, Montevideo; ¿Cómo hablamos de la democracia? Narrativas mediáticas de la política (2014) Universidad Católica del Uruguay-Manosanta Editorial, Montevideo. She can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org