By Nora Mazziotti
I first became interested in telenovelas as an academic subject when, more than thirty years ago, I heard my then two-year-old daughter sing a song for the first time. It was the opening theme from the 1979 telenovela Los ricos también lloran (The Rich Also Cry), starring Verónica Castro. I realized that the melodrama and its well-known manipulation of emotions had got a hold of my toddler. “Aprendí a llorar”—I learned to cry—was the song's constant refrain. And it wasn't just my little girl whom the show attracted: Los ricos también lloran (perhaps one of the best telenovela titles to date) introduced the genre with great success to several European countries, as well as to Russia and China. And much of that success can be attributed to its protagonist, Verónica Castro, and her character, the beautiful and brave Mariana.
Following the example of Julieta (of Romeo and Juliet) and of Melibea (from the Celestina, originally known as the tragicomedy of Calixto and Melibea), telenovela heroines are very active risk-takers who surrender body and soul to the tasks at hand. In the amorous duel of the telenovela, in the tremendous struggles narrated in the stories, the existence of other is always present. Because it is not only a matter of falling in love with the wrong person. It is that this love is an impossible love; it is a prohibited love, which challenges all the expectations and mandates established generation after generation. It is a love that is difficult to recognize: it emerges first as a game of attraction or rejection—or sometimes evan an initial head-on confrontation. I observed that the heroines are almost always humiliated in the stories, much more so than the male protagonists. It is a simpler affair for the male characters, who are permitted to court whom they wish regardless of social status or indulge in purely sexual attraction.
For the heroines, love is revealed as something extremely powerful that shakes them up, that keeps them on tenterhooks, that challenges them. They deny it, they struggle against their very selves; they engage in self-deception…until, finally, they accept the nature of this love. They feel it in their body. And they do not doubt it any more. And this acceptance transforms them, redeems them, gives them a strength they were lacking or of which they were not aware. Then, they grow. They are capable of confronting the hostility of their social class, to take on cultural and religious differences. The certainty of love gives them the energy to overcome any obstacle.
This fledgling love must confront obstacle after obstacle. It's always at risk. It is a love that is difficult to recognize, to maintain or to recuperate. It seems practically impossible that this couple (up until now, heterosexual) can unite to construct something together, to realize their dreams. They manage to survive separations, misunderstandings, meddling by others and difficulties that only increase with each episode. Perhaps to prove that it is genuine, it is a love that must overcome time, distance or the most terrible catastrophes one can imagine. Often, the lovers spend years apart, each living in remote places without having any certainty that the loved one is still alive.
In all these struggles, the heroines shine. And many of them do not correspond to the archetype of Cinderella, the poor and suffering princess waiting for her prince.
I'm going to tell you about my favorite heroines—a deliberately arbitrary selection. Although I certainly recognize their merits, I was never captivated by the telenovelas made by the Venezuelan Grecia Colmenares in the 1980s and 90s: Topacio, in Venezuela, later María de nadie, Grecia, Pasiones, Manuela and others in Argentina. They did not have the “physique du rol” needed for an active part. Their appearance characterized them as too naive and undemonstrative, and their acting never managed to overcome appearances . These telenovelas didn't move me. An angelical style, unruffled from the first to last episode. Something similar could be said about the 1990s films made by Mexican telenovela icon Thalía, the so-called “trilogy of the three Marías,” María Mercedes, Marimar and María la del barrio. I know that my own particular likes and dislikes don't necessarily jibe with popular taste, since these telenovelas were wildly popular and had thousands of fans all over the world. Marimar, in particular, amused me and the naivete of its protagonist was funny, but I'd characterize this series as a humorous program—not the kind of telenovela that touches my soul.
In contrast, the Mexican telenovela star Verónica Castro, in the 1970s and 80s, depicted heroines who went from being humiliated, made fun of, scorned, to blooming through an internal transformation. El derecho de nacer, Los ricos también lloran, Rosa salvaje, Mi pequeña Soledad--all have this characteristic. The heroine at first is untamed, neglected, crazy. But she grows. She learns to control her destiny and gains true love.
The heroines of the Colombian telenovelas Café (1994) and Yo soy Betty, la fea (1999), both by Fernando Gaitán, are among my favorites. It's not only that they are valiant, flip their lives upside down, and achieve both love and personal growth. It's also that they are working women and successful in their own right. The workplace is predominant in both telenovelas, and these heroines are comfortable in the work world and in business. They didn't inherit success and they aren't daughters or wives of some powerful man. They got where they are through their own merit, through study and with an enormous effort. La Gaviota, in Café, went from being a peasant coffee picker to becoming manager of an international coffee business. These heroines have more leeway than other protagonists: Gaviota suffers, sings and gets drunk. And Betty, who shines during business meetings, rescues the textile business through her sheer intelligence when the owner's bad business decisions put it on the verge of bankruptcy. The owner is the one with whom Betty is secretly in love without having any hope of being reciprocated. The interesting thing about Betty is that the protagonist continues to be ugly during almost all of the telenovela. And her boss falls in love with her, despite that fact. A change in her look—more a matter of internal self-esteem than surgery or radical embellishments—transforms Betty into a beautiful, as well as talented, woman.
Argentine telenovelas also had strong heroines in the 1990s, especially those played by Andrea del Boca (Antonella, Celeste, Perla Negra). These heroines, in all her telenovelas, were undisputed protagonists, without a suitor or a cast to overshadow them. Intelligent, cheeky and always sure of themselves.
But why am I talking so much about old telenovelas from the last decades of the 20th century? Because in recent years, the transformation of the telenovela genre went in a direction that had more to do with business pressures than their own melodramatic development.
In the 21st century, the telenovela has become ever more transnational. Years of telenovelas have put an emphasis on showing off bodies, as, for example in Pasión de gavilanes (2003) and its spinoffs, like La Tormenta o Doña Bárbara. The accent is on exhibiting semi-clothed bodies in fake rural settings, where only the hacienda (the main house) and the town appear. The cast is made up of Latin American actors and actresses from all over the continent—including Latino actors and actresses from the United States. They play gruff and muscular macho men and the women who blatantly seduce them while at the same time taking care not to lose their virginity. Indeed, they guard their "purity" more than Topacio did in the 1980s or any decent heroine from the 1950s. The telenovela becomes a hybrid, a jumble, of places, languages, accents and landscapes, which, in addition to the sexual attractiveness of the protagonists, prevail over acting quality, and that's precisely what the audience seems to be looking for in these most recent telenovelas. But hardly a single interesting heroine emerges from all this jumble.
Even the narconovelas lack important female characters. Although in reality, works like Sin tetas no hay paraíso (2006), or Escobar, el patrón del mal, should not be thought of as telenovelas, because they do not tell stories of love and identity, but of ambition, power and business. And of vengeance. But they are shown at the time and place of the telenovela, and they reach a masculine audience already hooked on the recent telenovelas with their mascular bodies. The heroines of the narconovelas suffer. They do not live for love but for money. They are subject to all sorts of humiliation, only one of which is being forced to remake themselves through multiple cosmetic surgeries.
Drug trafficking is treated in these narconovelas in a "realistic" and clinical manner, along with all its betrayals, alliances and mortal consequences. The world which is shown is not one caught between the good and evil, but one in which evil predominates. Disregard for life is standard fare. If the orignal Sin tetas no hay paraíso ended in tragedy and could be thought of as a morality tale about the risks of entering the fierce world of drug trafficking, years later, Escobar, el patrón el mal, aroused empathy for its protagonist.
And in recent years, television has been deluged with Turkish telenovelas. They are shown both on regular television channels and the increasingly popular Netflix. Yes, it is perhaps interesting to see the possibilities of transformation of the genre, the enormous expansion of the previously discredited Latin American genre; the languid rhythms of the narration and eternally repeated truisms are also surprising. In Argentina, the first Turkish telenovela to be aired was Las mil y una noches, followed by ¿Qué culpa tiene Fatmagül?, and many more. Today there are five Turkish telenovelas on public channels. I heard that many televison producers regard these telenovelas as a breath of fresh air for the industry, harking back to traditional melodramas. This is certain. Love stories are being revived, yes, but in these telenovelas, the male characters are more important than the women. That's why they have achieved international fame and go on fan tours throughout the world.
The Turkish telenovela industry seems to be trying to show itself in the most Western light possible. Images of beautiful cities, the sea, modern bridges and pleasant rivers seem to be distancing the programs from the Muslim world which, as is well known, has recently been construed by some as "evil," as the enemy. In Las mil y una noches, even though the main character is a professional woman, she behaves like an innocent little girl, tied to premodern mandates. Women are abused, forced to accept marriages of convenience, humiliated. I've heard it said that the Turkish telenovelas can be watched as a family, while many of the recent Latin American productions have steamy sex scenes that don't play well at the dinner table. It's only a partial truth that the Turkish telenovelas are family-friendly: likely it is because they reinforce patriarchal models of behavior that Latin Americans were thought to have left behind a while ago.
I have three favorites in the crop of the most recent telenovelas. In both, the protagonist is audacious, strong and breaks with expectations: Jane the Virgin, the Argentine La leona and the Mexican Rosario Tijeras. Although Jane the Virgin (2014) is a U.S.-made version of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, it is quite different, above all in tone. A masculine voiceover, an omniscient and ironic narrator, tells us not only what we are about to see, but the tone we ought to be adopting. And the tone is one of parody, of intertextuality with the telenovela. The father of the heroine, moreover, is a dashing telenovela galán. But the protagonist is tenacious, and navigates all of life's pressures with force and charm, taking on the demands and threats that swirl around her. It is also interesting to think of Jane the Virgin as a truly multicultural telenovela. That's not only because characters of Latino heritage speak in English or are bilingual. Or the grandmother who never speaks in English but understands everything; because they live together (convivencia), this situation is much more convincing than in previous telenovelas. Latin elements—religiosity, respect for the family, the value of virginity, dance, colorfulness—are shown in the context of being something natural, not stereotyped or in excess.
La leona is an Argentine telenovela aired in 2016. In the last few years, Argentine telenovela production has declined, replaced by the Turkish tales or Brazilian telenovelas with biblical themes. That is why this telenovela by an independent production company was important. María Leone, the protagonist, a single mother, a textile factory worker and later a union representative, opposes the attempts to shut down the factory. And she falls in love with the wrong man, the very person who has come to close her workplace. The telenovela has a strong message regarding the safeguarding of national industry. In the context of the politics of the actual Argentine government, which promotes imports in detriment to local manufacturing, the telenovela had overtones of being a defense of protectionist policies and of employment. The heroine is also a transgresor because she is frank about her sexual desires, loves to dance and drink, and has political preferences. The telenovela shows us the world of women who are in solidarity with each other, who share the confidences of friends—sisters at the factory, as it were—who console each other in the face of the rigors of betrayals and illness.
The social. family and workplace ties that protect and provide meaning for the heroine of La leona are precisely those that Rosario lacks in the Mexican telenovela Rosario Tijeras. The narrative has demonstrated its expressive potential beginning with its original version as an award-winning book, then as a film, and finally as a telenovela. Loneliness, poverty, life on the streets, and, above all, the stigma of marginalization, mark this heroine in her struggle for survival. The themes of the narconovela (hitmen, youth on motorcycles, bodyguards, snitches, femicides) and melodrama (polarized worlds, the dichotomy between good and evil, the heroine as victim) are constantly transgressed. Crisscrossed, mixed, stained with blood. ambition and hypocrisy, the story seems to be saying that the mere fact of existing is a risk that only a heroine of Rosario's stature could confront.
But these tales are few and far between. The rich narrative tradition of the telenovela is today challenged by the new ways of telling stories, the multiple platforms and screens, the hegemonic formats like the political drama and the thriller, and the new ways of consuming entertainment made possible by technological innovation.
We don't know yet what will happen with the heroines of this old and effective genre of the cultural industry. I believe there will always be a need for emotion ….stay tuned.
Nora Mazziotti is an Argentine novelist, researcher and professor. She is the author of several books on the telenovela industry, including La industria de la telenovela (1996), La producción de ficción en América latina (1996); El Espectáculo de la pasión: Las telenovelas latinoamericanas (1993), Soy como de la familia: Conversaciones con Alberto Migré (1993) and Telenovela, industria y prácticas sociales (2006).