Telenovelas are often parodied and mocked ad-nauseam by Latinx and non-Latinx audiences alike. However, even the staunchest advocate of the genre can see where the memes are coming from—after all, you could make the world’s tastiest sandwich with all that ham and cheese.
But beyond the melodramatic approach to the scenic arts or the firmly established clichés, telenovelas have played a pivotal role for Latin American women over the last sixty years. For good and bad. As such, the telenovela phenomenon deserves to be analyzed and acknowledged without the misogynistic and even slightly racist disdain they tend to evocate through each discussion.
Look, we all know telenovelas are problematic under scrutiny. Your grandmother’s beloved Kassandra, your mother’s María la del Barrio, or your childhood favorite Betty la Fea feature machismo, enforce gender roles, have their fair share of toxic relationship dynamics, and even include homophobia for extra pizzazz. Not to mention the colorism and classism that permeates through the casting and writing.
However, it is time to give telenovelas recognition long overdue, which often remains buried amidst the more negative connotations they carry.
Telenovelas are Latin America’s version of Hollywood, and performers can reach their countries’ peak stardom through regularly starring in them, unlike American soap operas. What makes it fascinating is that telenovelas are designed for women and, as time advances, by women. In short, Latin America’s celebrity culture has been historically centered on content catered to women.
This is no minor deal. Although Latin America has a thriving and growing film industry, a significant portion of the media is dedicated to telling women’s stories, struggles, and journeys. Even if telenovelas can be tone-deaf or present the aforementioned issues, they still displayed the untold stories of Latin American women through a filter of melodrama, a good dose of exaggeration, and a guaranteed happy ending
With Latin American women being historically oppressed by highly misogynistic and chauvinistic societies that impose strict gender expectations and roles, it is not a surprise that we have latched to content catered to us. Telenovelas were a source of understanding and a mirror for women to see their struggles acknowledged and overcome in cultures where machismo encourages marianismo and women’s martyrdom.
This is by no means denying the rightful criticism telenovelas have received across the decades. However, we must push the genre towards improvement and further inclusivity. Encourage racial equity, tell more Afro-Latinx stories, embrace gender discussion and LGBTI romances, and ditch uncomfortable classist undertones. Many contemporary telenovelas make an effort to be inclusive and diverse. Still, they’re not nearly numerous enough to be the new norm.
Telenovelas can and must improve alongside societies, but they should never go away. Content catering to women is mocked enough as it is; let us give Soraya Montenegro one more shot.
Figuratively, not literally. Don’t give her a gun.
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