The World’s Most Subversive Soap Operas
From telenovelas about missing girls to a series on conflict resolution amid war, soap operas are becoming agents of social change in the developing world. By Christopher Dickey.
When veteran Hollywood screenwriter Deborah Jones saw that the director of photography on her latest dramatic series was carrying an AK47 assault rifle, she thought to herself, “That’s new,” and she was more than a little worried. Jones had had other problems on other locations. There were the warthogs on the set in Kenya, for instance. But this project—in Yemen—had seemed a little fraught from the beginning. She’d started working on it in 2010 with a local production company. Then came the Arab Spring and various armed standoffs and bombings around the country. But finally, finally, the soap opera The Team had gone into production in Yemen in 2012. And now this … assault rifle.
It turned out the cameraman also was working as a stand-in and an extra in that scene, so he needed the Kalashnikov for verisimilitude. “There are a lot of guns in the show because Yemen has a lot of guns,” says Jones. “And we do deal with the realities on the ground.” Automatic rifles, wicked-looking hook-bladed daggers, hysterical shouting matches: it’s one confrontation after another on The Team, which is all about conflict resolution, in fact. The approach is surprising and, in the best possible sense, subversive. As the nongovernmental organization Jones works for likes to say, it is a “soap opera for social change.”
Over the last 40 years, such serial dramas have spread far and wide. Melodramatic telenovelas have helped bring down the birth rate and stimulated literacy in Mexico and Brazil. They’ve supported the search for women kidnapped and trafficked in Argentina, and they are used in the fight against AIDS in the Caribbean. Pick almost any social, health or environmental issue, it seems, and there’s a soap opera somewhere that has worked it into a narrative.
The Washington, D.C.-based Search for Common Ground, run by John Marks and Susan Collin, produces The Team in Yemen and versions of the same formula in 16 other countries. “We took the world’s most popular sport, football [i.e., soccer], and combined it with this form, the dramatic series, with dramatic effect,” says Marks. Typically the team at the center of the story is made up of people from different sides of the ethnic, tribal, religious or economic fences that divide a society, and they have to learn to work together. “You have 11 spots on a football team,” says Marks, “and you can put all the conflicts in a country in those 11 spots.”
The Search for Common Ground shows often have a strong subtext about fighting gender stereotypes as well. In the Nepalese version, the men’s team is coached by a brilliant woman footballer, the charismatic young actress Recha Sharma. In Yemen the coach is a woman, too, improbable as that may seem at first. (At one point, taunting some AK-toting tribesmen who are trying to keep her team from playing on a disputed patch of land, the coach says flatly, “I’m not afraid of you,” and puts the barrel of the gun up to her eye as if looking through it into the guy’s manhood.)
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the team is an all-woman squad, and the big, recurring issue that has to be addressed is the impact of rape, which has been used extensively as a weapon of war in the country’s seemingly endless conflicts. But it’s not introduced abruptly. “We start out with broad themes and as the show progresses we get to issues that are a lot more sensitive,” says Jones, who works closely with the local writers. “You have to become friends with the characters. Really that is what it is. You have to like them.”
In one beautifully crafted scene in the Congo version of The Team, a little boy asks his mother, played by Péguy Nkungandona, “What is rape?” Patiently, quietly, she explains. Then he asks her if he was created by rape. She doesn’t answer. “Mom,” he asks, “do women have to be raped to have a child as beautiful as me?” “Rape is a sin,” she tells him. “But you are not a sin.” This sort of narrative “does have a ‘subversive effect,’” says Marks, “it can change attitudes.”
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PCI Media Impact, with offices near the United Nations in New York City, has been in the education-entertainment business for 27 years. It uses animation and talk shows to reach and teach its target audiences, but “the jewel in the crown,” says executive director Sean Southey, “is the long-running drama.”
People get hugely involved with the characters on the shows, whether on radio or television. Anyone who ever hated J.R. Ewing on Dallas or loved Lady Mary on Downton Abbey will understand. It’s the same with women in the dirt-poor farming communities of Bihar province in India as they follow the struggles of Taru, fighting to raise—and to plan—her family. Eventually Taru comes to seem part of their family, and her experiences become part of community life. When parents on the soap opera held a birthday party for their daughter it created a small revolution. In Bihar, boys got birthday parties, not girls. Then, suddenly, girls were being fêted all over the place.
Academics like Arvind Singhal at the University of Texas El Paso call these “parasocial relationships,” and groups like PCI and Common Ground exploit them methodically to strengthen the message in the soap opera medium. In Bihar, for instance, PCI gave out cheap radios with Taru logos and organized “clubs” around them for women to discuss what they’d heard. In Kenya, Common Ground’s local version of The Team was one of the top 10 most-watched television shows in the country. But Common Ground also took it on the road, screening it in troubled Kenyan slums and encouraging the people to talk about it in community meetings.
The most effective dramas are those deeply rooted in the cultures where they are shown. And in developing countries the actors often live in conditions not so different from the people they portray. In 2010, one of the stars of The Team in Kenya was beaten to death for his cellphone in his rough Nairobi neighborhood.
Some of the stories that emerge from the audiences are as heartbreaking as anything imagined by the soap operas’ writers: According to one study conducted for Common Ground, a Kikuyu woman whose house was burned down during post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 was forced to live in a fetid camp for displaced persons, where her baby contracted pneumonia. But when she took it to a hospital, the nurse from another tribe turned her away. The baby died. The two women often crossed paths, and the hatred seemed overwhelming. But after the mother went to several mobile screenings of The Team, she decided to talk to the nurse directly, and the nurse admitted she’d been wrong. They now live close to one another, and the nurse has gotten involved with movements to foster reconciliation.
The British government, the European Union, individual European countries and the U.S. Agency for International Development have all provided funding for soap operas, and not only those conceived by international NGOs. Some of the best, Makutano Junction in Kenya, for instance, and Soul City in South Africa, originated locally.
In Latin America, the real-life search by Susana Trimarco for her daughter Marita, who was kidnapped in 2002 and probably sold into a life of prostitution, inspired an intense dramatic series called Stolen Lives. Millions of viewers tuned in. “No one ever talked about human trafficking in Argentina before,” says Trimarco, who continues the search for her daughter to this day. Another hugely popular Argentine series, Montecristo, took the classic tale of injustice and revenge by Alexandre Dumas, but moved it to Latin America during the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and their aftermath. And a radio drama, Ciudad Espesa, (roughly, Heavy City) produced by PCI Media Impact and funded (quietly) by USAID in Bolivia, begins with the murder of a journalist, then, episode by episode, explores the webs of corruption and deceit and the repression of free speech that led to the killing.
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The powers of dramatic presentations and serial narrative have been recognized for as long as we’ve had literature and theater. But the particularly addictive forms called soap operas originated with radio almost 100 years ago. They were tailored to the audience of housewives who stayed home and listened to them or watched them in the middle of the day. Their sponsors, most often, were makers of cleaning products—hence the name.
The viewership of those daytime soaps has declined dramatically in the United States in recent years, but the narrative tricks of the dramatic serial—the parallel story lines, the cliffhanger endings for each episode—have been picked by primetime in programs as varied as Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos, Homeland, and Game of Thrones. You can’t watch just one. But none could be called educational.
Many in the soap-opera-for-social-change business today actually trace the origins of “edutaintment” to The Archers on BBC4 radio in Britain, which is the longest running soap of any kind anywhere in the world. Its original purpose, during a time of food and foreign exchange scarcity in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s, was to teach farmers how to grow more and better crops. According to a BBC history of the show, for many years it was 10 percent specific advice about farming, 15 percent general information relevant to agriculture, and the rest just entertainment about the Archers and their neighbors in rural England.
In the 1970s, a brilliant writer-director-producer at the Televisa network in Mexico, Miguel Sabido, looked at studies linking television viewing to aggressive behavior in kids and decided to try to turn that pattern around to see what he could do with media role modeling for social good. The seven telenovelas he produced from 1975 through 1982 are credited with significantly increasing interest in family planning and adult literacy. But some of the most radically subversive soaps are created without such self-conscious designs.
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In the Middle East, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer and massive TV viewing. In years past, the television studios of Egypt and Syria competed ferociously to see which could produce the most popular serials. But because the shows needed to seem fresh and “relevant” to attract an audience, they grew increasingly daring even under dictatorships. Reluctantly, autocrats like the Mubaraks and the Assads accepted them as pressure valves that let people vent emotions watching fictional dramas as long as they didn’t create real dramas in the streets.
Long before the ongoing uprising against the Assad regime in Damascus, The Atlantic reported on the way a Syrian soap called Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves painted a corrosive picture of the country’s abusive power elite. “You can have your revolutions, your socialism, and your rights—do whatever it is that you do,” intones one of the heavies in the series. “But in the end, everything will return to its natural state. It will always hold true: the son of the Pasha remains the son of the Pasha and the son of the maid will remain the son of the maid.” Since the Syrian civil war began two and a half years ago, however, the national tragedy has overtaken the fictional melodramas and brought the industry that created them to a standstill. What happens to the real son of the real pasha remains an open question.
One of the most revolutionary soaps in the Arab world was designed as pure entertainment. The Turkish serial Gümüş, translated into Arabic as Noor, caused a major sensation all over the region, but especially in Saudi Arabia. As Faizah Saleh Ambah, a Saudi journalist and filmmaker, wrote in 2008 after almost 140 episodes had aired, this tale “featuring an independent fashion designer and her amazingly supportive and attractive husband is emptying the streets whenever it’s on.” Saudi men railed against it, and the country’s chief cleric even issued a fatwa denouncing it.
What really struck Saudi women in a society where they can be treated almost as chattel, and even in the best of homes can’t drive or travel without a male escort, was the husband in the series. Blond, blue-eyed Muhannad is “tall, handsome, romantic, respectful and treats his wife, Noor—the title character—as both a love object and an equal,” says Ambah. According to several Saudi newspapers, some Saudi men divorced their wives when they found photos of Muhannad on the women’s cell phones.
By design or default, it’s in that complicated terrain between the world of men and the world of women that soap operas are the most natural agents of social change.
“These are not shows about advocacy, they are shows about possibilities,” said Deborah Jones after Common Ground launched The Team in Tanzania in April. “The balance between men and women can be very delicate in a lot of these countries. We want to get people to ask questions about what the relationships are. We want to take them to the end of the line—but we don’t want to push them over. To have plenty of people asking plenty of questions will be enough. People will start asking, ‘What do we want to do?’” The answer: something different than what we’ve done before. And that is the very definition of subversion.