Telenovelas, queens of the airwaves

He is a wealthy, but spoiled dilettante; she is a poor, hard-working and demure virgin. They meet when she becomes a maid in his mansion, and fall in love, but class differences will keep them apart. However, she is not poor; she is the illegitimate child of a wealthy tycoon, who regrets abandoning her, dies, and leaves her a fortune. Now the lovers can be together. But wait… scheming villains and lustful temptresses still conspire to keep them apart, until the final chapter when the schemers are punished, the good rewarded, and the title characters wed.

In a nutshell, that is the typical storyline of a telenovela. Growing up, I remember watching these over-the-top melodramas, these stories about upward mobility, good and evil, crime and ultimate punishments and rewards. There was always something comforting about them, but as I grew older, there was also something annoying and predictable about the genre. The male leads were always addressed by first and middle name; they were always a Luis Alfredo, Juan Carlos, or Jose Armando, which would certainly sound more aristocratic than just plain Luis, Juan, or Jose. As for the lead women, Maria is a popular name, for obvious reasons. Telenovelas have a Manichean bent; they’re about the struggle of good versus evil, and what spells good more clearly than being named after Jesus’ mother? However, some writers, like the famous Delia Fiallo,  go through phases in which they have a penchant for certain types of names. In Fiallo’s case, what I remember most is her precious stones phase, when her heroines were all named after a precious stone. Hence, Topacio, Rubi, and Esmeralda.

It would be easy to dismiss telenovelas as “high opera in low-cut clothing” (Barrientos, 2006). But that would also be wrong and an oversimplification of the genre, and of the Latin American market for these products. Telenovelas are a significant cultural and economic force within the Latin American television industry. Furthermore, not every production company churns out the same kind of melodramatic fare that has become the canon for telenovelas. As Carolina Acosta states, melodramas may be the obvious example, but that is not all there is. Here’s a link to the talk she gave at MIT on this subject (fast forward to 14:00, or so).

In Colombia RCN and Caracol have produced some of the most successful telenovelas of recent memory, without shying away from controversial subjects, like drug trafficking and Colombia’s obsession with plastic surgery.  El Cartel de los Sapos,  and Sin Tetas no hay Paraiso dealt with these  subjects. Both have had success in international syndication. However, one of the biggest success stories has been RCN’s Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One). Penned by Fernando Gaitan for RCN, this is a telenovela that has been remade 19 times. The original version was sold into syndication and broadcast all over Latin America, in Switzerland, India, Eastern Europe, and China among other countries.

Here are some clips from the intro to different Betty versions

Original Betty – RCN, 1999

Germany, 2005

China, 2008

Vietnam, 2008

I have a theory about the German version. It is the only one that I’ve found where location is important. I asked my students if, knowing anything about recent German history, the city of Berlin would have special significance. Why not Verliebt in Hamburg? One of the responses was very interesting to me. Joe, which is what I’ll call him to preserve anonymity, told me that the title sequence of Verliebt in Berlin was like the one on Frazer. “It’s just an establishing shot, so you’ll know where you are.”

Well, duh! but when you’re looking at media critically, you should take into account the subtle codes that convey other meanings. Berlin is the symbol for a unified nation. An establishing shot that includes the Fernseturm at Alexander Platz (former East Berlin), and the Brandenburger Tor, which was on the border of East and West, deserve a second look. It tells us something about glocalization of content, about how we adapt popular formats and make them relatable to a local audience.

The ease of glocalization, in my opinion, the quality that has made Yo soy Betty la Fea into such an international success. The story is generic. A young woman, who is not very good looking, struggles to find professional success, and love, in a culture that values appearances more than it cares for substance. When the American version premiered in 2006, media commentators hailed it as an underdog story, and reminded everyone that underdogs are lovable (Adalian & Schneider, 2008).