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More than Just Entertainment

Latin American telenovelas shape the political attitudes and historical awareness of their audience, making them an ideal subject for academic study

Mar 31, 2023

Telenovelas and TV series have a broad viewership in Latin America, appealing to the sensibilities of every demographic.

Telenovelas and TV series have a broad viewership in Latin America, appealing to the sensibilities of every demographic.
Image Credit: Illustration: Nienke Schellinkhout Diaz (montage:Tagesspiegel/Bernd Wannenmacher)

Streaming services like Netflix are among the heavy hitters in the entertainment industry around the globe – but long before we had on-demand video services, telenovelas and TV series were some of the most popular and influential genres on analog television. The telenovela’s road to success began in Latin America back in the 1950s. Seventy years later, they have achieved iconic status and become part of the continent’s cultural heritage. Latin American telenovelas appeal to people from all social strata. They are broadcast at the same time every day and whole families gather together to watch. But the purpose of this genre isn’t just to entertain its audience – telenovelas are frequently among the most important sources of information on local history or politics. That is why a research project based at Freie Universität Berlin has begun work on addressing the question of how telenovelas and TV series in Latin America shape the political attitudes and historical consciousness of the wider population. The project “History Transfer through Entertainment Media in Latin America. Laboratory for Memory and Digital Media Research” (GUMELAB), which is based at the Institute for Latin American Studies and led by professor of history Stefan Rinke and historian Mónika Contreras Saiz, is being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Four researchers are working on the GUMELAB project in Berlin, with support from partners at research institutions in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, the US, and Germany, including researchers from fields as diverse as communication and media studies, political science, literature, anthropology, and physics.

Conflicts in Society Play Out in Telenovelas

Contreras Saiz says that telenovelas are popular in countries in Latin America because their audience identifies with and feels represented by them. They appeal to many different demographics within the given society. Almost every telenovela begins with a conflict or an injustice, with the plot revolving around personal and political themes such as the protagonist’s romantic relationship and widespread social inequality. The story plays with contrasts like rich and poor, and good and evil. The conflict is resolved over the course of the melodrama.

“What’s really interesting about telenovelas is that they also portray issues that are not discussed at school,” says Contreras Saiz. She points to Augusto Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship in Chile, a painful chapter in the country’s history that many families still find difficult to talk about. Many young people in Chile learned about the human rights abuses, brutal murders, and victims of the dictatorship for the first time through telenovelas like Los 80.

Issues like migration and femicide also feature heavily in telenovelas. The armed conflict between guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and drug cartels that has devastated communities in Colombia for over fifty years has been a source of inspiration for some of the most popular series in the genre, such as Pablo Escobar, el Patrón del Mal. In recent years, these topics have found a global audience through the Netflix series Narcos.

Breaking the Silence on Societal Taboos

Out of the hundreds of Latin American telenovelas and TV series that are on offer, GUMELAB is particularly interested in those that deal with some of the most traumatic aspects of Latin America’s recent history. Contreras Saiz sees both opportunities and risks in how TV series and telenovelas can influence public opinion, for example, in the way that perpetrators of injustice and violence can be elevated as the protagonists in some shows, while their victims are pushed to the sidelines. Shows in the genre can also portray criminals like the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar in a sympathetic light and even appear to find justifications for their actions. Telenovelas can also reinforce potentially harmful stereotypes, such as when students at public universities in Latin America are conflated with left-wing extremism or guerrilla warfare. Yet they are also often the first to platform otherwise taboo subjects, societal issues, and historical events, meaning that they play a role in mediating this information to the wider public and are thus highly influential.

The genre’s potential to shape the public’s perception of certain topics is exactly why GUMELAB researchers are working on strategies to promote critical media consumption. To this end, they have been developing recommendations for action for producers, directors, and screenwriters. The researchers were also invited to attend the biggest Ibero-American film and series industry event in Madrid so that key players in the entertainment industry could learn from their findings.

GUMELAB has also been organizing “travels of dialogue” in Chile and Columbia where researchers can meet with school students, artists, people who have experienced homelessness, and other members of the public to watch and discuss clips from telenovelas that address local historical and political events in their plotlines. Contreras Saiz says that the response has been positive overall: “We learn much more about social processes, which are not portrayed in their full complexity in telenovelas and TV series, and succeed in educating the public about how to critically consume media outside of the university context.”

The original German version of this article appeared in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität Berlin.