Women in Peruvian Melodrama

By Giuliana Cassano

Diosa hermosa del amorMaria

The meteoric rise of a soft-spoken agronomist of Japanese ancestry to the presidency of Peru, followed by his spectacular descent into dictatorship and corruption, coupled with the revelation of secret videotapes that his spy chief used to blackmail and manipulate much of his country's elite, is the stuff of melodrama.

But the real-life revelations and the subsequent resignation of President Alberto Fujimori actually managed to change the course of televised melodrama in 21st-century Peru. The fall of the regime in 2000 spawned a severe crisis in the television industry, because many of the old owners and managers literally had sold their editorial support to the political group in power. Several network owners were brought to trial and either served prison sentences or fled the country. This meant a turnover in the management of the television stations (for more information on this subject, see the 2013 OBITEL yearbook, “Una ficción de emprendedores.”) However, this situation also offered opportunities for new fiction production companies and a subsequent blooming of new themes, actors and concerns in television.

Throughout the 20th century, most of the heroines in melodramas had been starry-eyed, virginal white girls, pure and prone to fall in love easily —with the exceptions of María Ramos, the protagonist of change in Simplemente María (1969), and Gloria and Constitución in Los de arriba y los de abajo (1994). The 21st century is bringing us stories that will revive the strength of María, the political convictions of Gloria and the drive of Constitución; that is, the modern versions offer us more mestiza women (mixed race with a strong indigenous heritage) and women with character, strength and courage. These young women, many of them immigrants, have dreams and goals beyond finding romantic love. The 21st-century protagonists, through their education, talent, knowledge and work, have been empowered to construct their own future.

This emphasis on strong women is not by chance, because, as it happens, a great many of the independent production companies entering the market in the 21st century are led by women with a large presence in the Peruvian industry. Michelle Alexander of Del Barrio producciones and Susana Bamonde and Margarita Morales San Román of Imizu are the largest producers of 21st-century television projects in Peru. We owe to them such titles as Dina Paucar, la lucha por un sueño (2004), Vírgenes de la cumbia (2006), Por la Sarita (2007), El gran reto (2008), Comando Alfa (2010), Yo no me llamo Natacha (2010) and La reina de las carretillas (2012).

All of these stories depict women with goals for their lives; women who dream of becoming someone, who have the capacity to stand up to injustice and violence; women who raise their voices against a patriarchal system that violates them in different ways.


Romanticism and Empowerment

The miniseries Dina Paucar, la lucha por un sueño relates the story of a folk singer from her childhood in the mountainous provincial city of Tingo María to her triumph on the national stage. Dina’s story is that of many migrant women from the Peruvian countryside who, through their hard work, perserverance and personal sacrifice, manage to change their own destiny.

Her story is recounted in an article that fictional journalists Eduardo Muro and Cinthya Velasco are preparing for the Spanish newspaper El País. Eduardo represents the world of Lima alienated from contemporary history, while Cinthya is a symbol for those who recognize the profound changes experienced by the Peruvian capital. At the beginning of the story Eduardo asks, “Who is Dina Paucar?”

Cinthya comments: “No one from the so-called middle or upper classes paid any attention and yet the program garnered a tremendous following. These [type of women] are Peru's new idols”Episode one, Dina Paucar, "The Struggle for a Dream") (All of the characters' dialogues in this text have been taken from the miniseries' aired episodes.)

Another popular telenovela, Yo no me llamo Natacha, tells us the story of five domestic workers—Natacha, Paquita, Kerly, Mary and Violeta—each one with her own dreams and goals. The melodramatic story features encounters with contemporary Lima society, a society that—in official discourse—is said to experience constant economic growth, a consolidation of democracy with high investment in education; its greatest wealth is said to lie in its diversity, which has successfully been transformed into a brand. Nevertheless, in each of the characters' stories, contradictions are apparent. These women portray different ways of being a woman: from the romantic vision of the young virgin to the empowered woman, from the all-sacrificing mother to the successful professional. These evolving identities demonstrate the contradictions of a society that declares that a woman ought to study and work for her own personal, professional and emotional fulfilment, but at the same time is constantly reminding women that marriage and maternity are their greatest forms of success.

In a third telenovela, Por la Sarita, Franco and Valentina are the protagonists of a love story which occurs a jail, a place seldom explored in Peruvian television, specifically Sarita Colonia del Callao. Valentina is a lower-class mestiza young woman with indigenous Andean features, a chola, who ends up working as a prostitute in a prison, where she meets Franco. Poverty, her mother’s serious illness, some bad decisions and an abusive boyfriend-pimp all lead to Valentina’s misfortunes. When she is thrown out for having drugged a client, she is told, “She’s a street prostitute and she’s going back to the streets.”

Franco is a middle-class accountant who was caught embezzling at work and sentenced to a prison term. His wife demanded a divorce and refused to let their daughter visit him, saying that the jail is no place for a little girl. Valentina meets Franco when she stops him from commiting suicide. She is struck by his profound sadness. Both of them feel very lonely and marginalized. Franco is the “gringo”—the out-of-place guy among the prisoners, and she is the “prostitute” who services one of the bosses from prison. Valentina’s character draws attention to the patriarchal views on gender and race that even in the 21st century continue to affect questions of diversity and ways of living together.

Melodrama almost always demands a happy ending; love must triumph, and those who acted in a bad way have to be punished in one way or another. Above all, good must prevail (a few exceptions occur in Brazilian telenovelas and some melodramatic comedies). Mazziotti (2006) reminds us that “justice is the reward that gives meaning to the entire narrative.” Thus, in all of our stories, happy endings come to pass, the journey of each protagonist ends in the fulfilment of a story of love and/or maternity, but at the same time each reaches her fulfilment as an autonomous character in a society in flux.

Traditional melodrama has taken root in the Peruvian psyche (with the exception of the few outlier telenovelas mentioned above) ever since television arrived in Peru in 1958 in the context of modernity and economic growth. Melodramatic tales in the form of series, miniseries, stand-alone programs or telenovelas garnered a wide audience. In 1960, Panamericana Televisión, the channel that relied on these melodramatic tales for its success, aired the first Peruvian telenovela, Historia de tres hermanas, written by Juan Ureta Mille and starring Gloria María Ureta, María Elena Morán and Mary Faverón, who played the three sisters of the title. The telenovela was a hit, and afternoon after afternoon, evening after evening, women were glued to the television set to watch these stories. Teresa Quiroz and Ana María Cano point out that the melodramas were carving out a space in programming and became an important venue for advertisers ("Los antecedentes y condiciones de la producción de telenovelas en el Perú. Estudios sobre culturas contemporáneas," 1987). The stories were about impossible loves, lost children and the glorious culmination in marriage so the protagonists “live happily ever after.” The stories also seem to be talking about subjects important to Peru—and to Latin America in general—female traits, values and demands. We note that:

From the beginning, the Peruvian telenovela bet on traditional melodrama—that of secrets, identities and relationships. It is important to point out that some of the telenovelas also had a high degree of social content denouncing prejudice(…) At the same time, telenovelas considered women as their primary audience (Cassano, 2016).

In these stories we find keys to understanding our own lives, not only because of the ritual of daily consumption that telenovelas imply, but because the concerns or opinions that are being molded in these stories reflect cultural values that connect with our personal lives. The telenovelas narrate our lives, tell of our experiences and express our desires and fantasies—but they are also stories that rely on certain traditional formats, which did not begin to change until the Peruvian television industry left many of its patriarchal roots behind following the Fujimori debacle.

Melodrama and Feminine Representations

The nature of the Peruvian telenovela in the 20th century was in keeping with traditional forms of feminine representation in melodrama. Yet melodrama theorists were the first to glimpse the genre's possibilities for evolution. British theatre director Peter Brooks (1995) defines melodrama as “form of modern imagination” that takes shape over a period of time, in which good and evil face off against each other; and as a fictional world in which identity—our own and that of others—is material for a constant search. Cultural theorist Jesús Martín Barbero (1993) understands melodrama as “a narrative of exaggeration and paradox” that touches daily life not only as a counterpart or substitute, but as something that thrives on repetition and anachronisms and provides a space for the formation of primordial identities. And, the Mexican essayist Carlos Monsivais (2003) reminds us that in Latin America, melodrama operates within the space of the family itself —the space for sentimental education —forming a language for our passions.

Telenovelas are a cultural construct that condense the meanings that every society elaborates concerning sexual difference, spelling out what are masculine and feminine attributes, what values, roles and tasks are assigned to women and men. These meanings structure perception and establish certain mandates and social expectations. Historian Joan Scott (2011) points out that the systemic design of the gender is manifested in at least four dimensions: the symbolic—myths and representation; the normative—laws and rules; the institutional—the organization of relationships; and the subjective—that which makes up each individual.

This systematic construction is devised to act on the social imagination and to model the points of views of men and women. Nora Mazziotti (2006) proposes that the telenovela is the format that brings melodrama up to date, using aspects of modernity to come closer to our own realities. She suggests that these stories give us forms of expression, emotions and passions, societal norms regarding the family and couples, the punishments and pleasures, the relations between the sexes, their practices—all of which express the values and beliefs of the different time periods portrayed in the stories.

Thus the emerging Peruvian telenovelas of the 21st century put into evidence a dynamic space where productive meetings of the minds and dialogue occur, but also contradictions, confrontations and constant conflicts. These conflicts reveal both existing patriarchal mandates and the changes that are glimpsed in Lima society at the beginning of the 21st century. But now the Turkish telenovelas are arriving in Peru and with them, patriarchal stories that in some way represent a return to the past, but that is indeed a whole other story.


Giuliana Cassano is a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. She holds a Master's in Gender Studies and a doctorate in sociology from the same university. She is a researcher for the Peruvian Audiovisual Observatory and the Ibero American Observatory of Television Fiction. She specializes in themes related to gender and its representation in television fiction.