The case for telenovelas: guilty pleasure or authentic drama series?

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A collage of telenovelas 

For the longest of times, telenovelas have been conveyed as a mere guilty pleasure, the intense drama coupled with a constant dose of mystery and romances has kept many company, filled countless afternoons and evenings while giving insight to day to day life—it has taught telenovelas fans that there is always a lesson to learn from other people’s lives, even the fictionalized. Telenovelas have become, for many, a steady and reliable cautionary tale, warning men and women how not to conduct their lives, showing them in real time the many outcomes, oftentimes bitter, of a life that is full of deceit and questionable choices. 

But how did telenovelas come to be attributed to South America? When did it become a fan favorite? Can and should its authenticity be questioned?

Ever wondered how this captivating form of storytelling became recognised all over the world? How did telenovelas become a cultural phenomenon? Let’s take a quick dive into the history of one of the most loved genres of entertainment: drama series. Many have likened telenovelas to soap operas, primarily because both share similar plots of intrigues, clandestine love, melodramatic storylines and mysterious family ties and secrets, however, unlike soap operas, telenovelas come in seasons and have a total of around 120 episodes–there is usually an end to the drama. 

Through her extensive work on the origin of telenovelas, Hannah Müssenmnn, a German-Latina researcher discovered the idea behind telenovelas; they stem from radionovela, a radio programme that was first introduced in Latin America in the early 20th century as a form of entertainment for factory workers. Radionovelas were 15-minute radio pieces that were first aired in the 1930s. Apparently, these radionovelas were set up in a way to persuade or rather, entice employees to return to their workplaces every day: “If they wanted to hear the entire story, they would have to go back to work in the factories, one of the few places where there was a radio.” shared Müssenmnn. During their working hours, Cuban women employed in tobacco factories would tune in to radio dramas. They would only pause to hear the famously magical plot twist of these stories.

Telenovelas on the other hand have targeted a different demographic: housewives. Due to the often explicit sexual and exaggerated storylines, many have often referred to telenovelas as a mere guilty pleasure. This form of television that has its roots buried deep in Latin America runs for five or six nights per week (prime time) and lasts around 8 or 9 months. As previously mentioned, telenovelas tend to create multiple subplots–most of which take place simultaneously with the main plot that binds all the others together–featuring both major and small characters in addition to a certain primary story. Typically, the themes include metropolitan locations, class mobility, family conflicts, romance, villains, and, more and more, current societal issues. 

It is true that telenovelas did originate from Latin America and have since been engraved in its culture; however, few genres of television entertainment have managed to garner attention and millions of viewers from all other the world. One of the most loved American sitcoms of the early 2000s was adapted from Columbia’s telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, (Ugly Betty: American version). The worldwide popularity of Yo Soy Betty, La Fea catapulted it to the Guiness record stage by becoming the “the world’s most successful telenovela, seen in 180 countries, translated into 25 languages, and remade 30 times.” The US version tackled similar themes as did the original, from gender inequality to economic disadvantages.

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The American adaptation: Ugly Betty // Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, a Columbian cinderella story 

Research shows that the very first telenovela to be aired was produced in Brazil in 1951 titled Sua vida me pertenece, it only lasted for 2 months and was 15-minute long. A year later, Cuba released a telenovela that portrayed the contrasting views of life in the countryside and the city’s modernity. It is safe to say that these first two productions opened the doors of telenovelas, making them some of the most beloved programs to air around the globe. 

From South America to the world, cultural, social and political impact

From the 1930s to the 1960s Mexico and Brazil were the primary producers and importers of telenovelas. The United States, like Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Perù and Colombia have all joined that list at a later date, becoming frequent producers and exporters themselves. 

Telenovelas took the stage in national television productions from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, replacing North American imported prime-time shows. In the late 1980s, the genre gained further recognition across Europe, Turkey standing out with its”turkish dramas” as they are called, which are a staple in Italy. Since the late 1990s, telenovelas have become increasingly popular in East and Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Telenovela distributors see the U.S. market as a major target due to the growing Latino population in the country.
It is widely known and discussed how the power that television weans, people’s worldview are constantly being shaped by what they watch, many alike attempt to emulate the stories they watch on television. There is a lot of power in how the past is represented and what/how people think; the dangers of how some realities are portrayed in telenovelas do in fact have a subconscious and narrow perspective that end up shaping lots of minds. For example,  in el cuerpo del deseo, a very popular telenovela filmed in Florida, portrays some of the ramifications of marrying a younger woman. Narcos is a new television series available on the streaming platform: Netflix, its growth and popularity continues to garner attention amongst viewers but the lingering problem many (Columbians in particular) have come to see is its sacrificing of historical accuracy at the altar of entertainment; both contributing to  a harsh and distorted web of opinions. 


Novelas, Novelinhas, Novelões: The evolution of the (TELE) … (n.d.).  

By Sandra AISIEN

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