Telenovela and society

Sua Vida me Pertence/Your Life Belongs to Me is considered the first telenovela of Brazilian television. It premiered on 21 December 1951, a little over a year after the inauguration of TV Tupi Sao Paulo and months after the inauguration of TV Tupi Rio de Janeiro by media mogul Assis Chateaubriand. Walter Forster wrote, produced, directed and also acted in the telenovela alongside Lia de Aguiar and Vida Alves. Together, Forster and Vida starred in the first kiss in Brazilian TV history.

Walter Forster said to me once: “A telenovela. I’m going to release a telenovela on television.” The female audience is growing day after day, and women love romance, love triangles. Suspense. And each chapter has to end up on top, to hook up onto the next chapter. Oh, and I'm going to kiss you. It s going to he great!

(Alves, 2008)

There were many obstacles that Walter Forster faced in approving the kissing scene. Ricco and Vannucci comment: “The subject was taboo not only for the public but also among artists” (2017). Walter Foster had to assure Vida Alves’ husband, an Italian engineer, that there would be no rehearsal and that the scene movements would be rehearsed technically. According to Vida Alves (2008), the chief executive of TV Tupi himself, Costalima, was against the scene, but one of the main arguments of the author, producer, director and actor Walter Forster was that in the United States this was already happening in films. Costalima, however, pondered that not only was the Brazilian public different from the American audience, but also that the programme would air in Brazilian homes, in the living room, and not in a dark cinema. After involving the entire board of TV Tupi, the kiss was approved.

Despite being chaste, according to Alencar, the kiss “generated protests of all kinds against the immorality that threatened the homes of the country” (2002). Vida Alves recalls the repercussion of the kiss. “Some people were scandalised, some kept quiet about it. And some were scared. Something important had happened; everyone knew about it” (Alves, 2008). As the telenovelas at the time were aired live, there is no documentation of this historical fact; there are only photos alluding to what happened that document moments before and after the kiss.

This episode illustrates how much telenovelas have changed in the last decades and how society influences these changes. A kiss would hardly scandalize the viewer of a telenovela nowadays. Depending on the time slot, in addition to several kisses, scenes with allusions to sexual acts may also appear. According to Eneida Nogueira, research director of TV Globo until 2017, “It is not people who watch television. It is television that watches society. What works on television is what society wants to see” (Svartman and Nogueira, 2018). According to her, a television author has to have the ability and sensitivity to glimpse in which direction the ethos of society is going: “The great secret of television is that you understand what is latent in society. Not something that everyone already knows, because that does not cause any admiration, but it also cannot be something that is too far away; otherwise, people do not recognise it” (ibid.). Following this reasoning, the kiss seen by families in their homes in 1951 also portrayed a tendency to greater permissiveness of society, a latency perceived by Walter Foster. Eneida Nogueira also remarks that the definition of what is a popular heroine has changed, especially in the last ten years. For the protagonist of today, romance cannot be the only goal; she also needs to have personal achievements, for example, in her profession. “People want to be inspired,” says Nogueira (ibid.). The heroine in the telenovela needs to follow the transformations, struggles and accomplishments of the women of her time.

For telenovela author Aguinaldo Silva in Autores (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008): “The only characteristic of the young lady that remains is that when she falls in love, she is faithful to her passion.”

One of the main tools for broadcasters to try to understand what the public wants are focus groups. In TV Globo, this research usually happens a month after the teleno vela start date. The rejection or acceptance of a romantic pair by the audience can define the romantic trajectory of the heroine. In the case of the telenovela Caminho das Indias/India: A Love Story (2009), by Gloria Perez, the lead female role of Maya Meetha, played by Juliana Paes, was to have as a romantic partner Bahuan Sundrani, played by Marcio Garcia. However, after the first month, rejection of the couple caused the author to change the original story and the heroine then fell in love with Raj Ananda, played by Rodrigo Lombardi.

Eneida Nogueira notes that when television delivers something that goes against the viewers’ principles, he or she loses interest. “TV does not impose. What goes well is what society wants” (Svartman and Nogueira, 2018). There is a big difference between what the public “loves to hate” and characters or situations that the public simply is repelled by and then stops watching. It is necessary to understand this viewer’s limits and moral and ethical boundaries, without necessarily judging, but it is possible to foster dialogue through television dramaturgy. When the telenovela is perceived as reactive to what the viewer believes, imposing a way of thinking, the viewer rejects it. Therefore, it is necessary to understand that the Brazilian society of 1951 sought to see a kiss on television; the proof of this is that the telenovela was an audience success at the time, even though a large portion of the audience criticized the show.

In an interview for Autores (Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008), Benedito Ruy Barbosa considers that, when addressing specific topics, it is necessary to reflect on the differences present in the various Brazilian regions:

If every audience came from the well-to-do Copacabana, Leblon, or Paulista Avenue, you would be freer to address specific topics. But you also have to think about the inland viewers from Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiania, Roraima, Acre. They are people who have a different, more conservative and moralistic background, who deal with their children differently.

(Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008)

Eneida Nogueira recognizes that, unlike journalism, which reports what happens in the world, the telenovela allows viewers to observe what happens inside their homes, around them, in their lives: “Fiction is the moment when the person re-signifies the things he or she thinks, the things he or she knows. It is like using that to reevaluate what you think, or reaffirm, or challenge, or put yourself in the shoes of others” (Svartman and Nogueira, 2018).

There are several examples of telenovelas that were rejected by the audience. What these telenovelas have in common is precisely not being in tune with the practices and principles of society at the time.

In Dana do Mundo/The Owner of the World, a telenovela written by Gil- berto Braga that premiered in January 1992, the rejection towards Marcia, played by Malu Mader, made the author reformulate the whole plot. Gilberto Braga is a telenovela author known for discussing the morals and ethics of society. Works such as Vale Tudo/Anything Goes (1988) and Patria Min ha/ My Homeland (1994) compose a trilogy with Dono do Mundo/The Owner of the World. In Fiuza and Ribeiro (2008), Gilberto Braga tells us that the focus group of the telenovela revealed that the audience considered that the heroine was frivolous for allowing herself to be seduced by the protagonist with dubious morals. The first chapters of the telenovela revolved around a bet. The protagonist, Felipe Barreto, played by Antonio Fagundes, had made a bet that he could take the virginity of the young lady, who was engaged to one of his employees, before her future husband. He wins the bet, and the betrayed groom kills himself. Gilberto Braga comments that he considered the story very strong, although wrong as a television telenovela because it was cruel and therefore disturbing for the viewer. In an interview for the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, Malu Mader (Fernando, 2014) attributed the rejection to the lack of consonance with the conservative and prejudiced society of the time. She said it was difficult to follow a different path for the character from what she and the team had planned. At the request of the television station, the author Silvio de Abreu interfered in the work, changing the profiles of the main characters, thus gradually recovering the ratings.

A case of a more recent and less obvious rejection of a telenovela was that of Bahilonia/Bahylon (2015) by the same author, Gilberto Braga. This time Braga co-authored the work with Joao Ximenes Braga and Ricardo Linhares. It is a less evident example because the low ratings, the primary thermometer of public disapproval, were due to more than one factor. Many critics attribute the rejection to the very lack of strength of the narrative - the duel between two villains played by the stars of the station, Gloria Pires and Adriana Esteves. Ricco and Vannucci (2017) observe that at the time, critics blamed the excess of urban violence and proximity to reality as factors that put the audience off. Many preferred to switch over to the biblical plots of the competitor (Record TV).

According to a national survey (IBGE, 2010), 91% of the population in Brazil declares to have a religion. The biblical telenovelas of Record

Television Network address such values head-on. Record TV is owned by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by Bishop Edir Macedo. It knew how to identify this opportunity and to offer well-made biblical telenovelas, with well-known actors, full of special effects that give credibility to these narratives. According to Ricco and Vannucci (2017), the language adopted in Os Dez Mandamentos/The Ten Commandments (2015-2016), without complicated dialogue or formal wording, is also an explanation for the high acceptance of the public. They further observe that the viewers pointed to the lack of violence and the themes inherent to every human being as the central values of this production. In an interview with Ricco and Vannucci (2017), the telenovela author Vivian de Oliveira comments that the dream of freedom of a people, faith and hope was all the public wanted. The author and the station perceived, at the time, a latency in society: talking about faith.

One of the authors of Babildnia/Babylon (2015), Ricardo Linhares, in an interview with the website Ego, recognizes that the kiss between the couple (the acclaimed actresses Fernanda Montenegro and Nathalia Thimberg) in the first chapter drove away a part of the audience. He states that he does not regret the scene and comments: “There is no reason for such a stir. This reveals the prejudice and hypocrisy of Brazilian viewers” (Dezan, 2015). Regardless of whether Brazilian society is prejudiced, hypocritical or not, the episode also reveals the lack of understanding between the author and his audience.

In commercial television, low ratings can make a show go off the air. In the case of a telenovela, it is necessary to take into account the considerable investment that this product demands: hiring actors, crew, set construction. The best alternative, therefore, is to modify the work so that it pleases the audience again. The authors made several modifications to Babilonia/ Babylon. They diminished affection and explicit caresses among the characters mentioned earlier. Other characters also underwent changes: Carlos Alberto, played by Marcos Pasquim, was initially gay but eventually was written to fall in love with a woman; Alice, a character performed by Sophie Charlotte that would be a prostitute, turned into a romantic young lady. Ricardo Linhares ends the interview by correctly asserting: “It is necessary to always dare. The writer cannot settle for any less” (Dezan, 2015). It is the pursuit of the Brazilian telenovela to discuss themes pertinent to society, to be relevant, and to raise issues that are often not initially perceived, but that are part of the subjective dimension of Brazilian society. An author who seeks only to please the public and writes under self-censorship will hardly be able to offer the viewer an instigating story. The difficulty lies in the tenuous boundary between what promotes discussion - and therefore, interest - and what causes rejection. The author needs to have the sensitivity and inspiration to write in an unstable situation. Aguinaldo Silva ponders:

When people approach me on the street, I talk to them. I am in permanent contact with the public. I’m the first to notice the signs that something’s wrong. I have an immediate response from people. I don’t wait for the outcome of the focus group to know what they are thinking about my telenovela.

(Fiuza and Ribeiro, 2008)

Several kisses in homosexual relationships have recently been aired on Brazilian television, but usually a network of affection is created around the characters so that viewers, as prejudiced as they may be, desire them to be happy. Ricco and Vannucci (2017) write about the first gay kiss in a Brazilian telenovela in the last chapter of Amor a Vida/Trail of Lies (2014), by Walcyr Carrasco. During the telenovela, under pressure from the audience, the author transformed Felix, a character originally planned to be a villain who was capable of throwing his newborn niece into a dumpster, into a regenerated hero. Felix and his boyfriend Niko ended up together, happily forming a family and kissing. In an interview for Ricco and Vannucci’s book, Walcyr Carrasco states that it was a significant step for individual freedoms and human rights. Nogueira (Svartman and Nogueira, 2018) considers that the relationship of the public with homosexuality in telenovelas has gradually changed. The relationship that viewers have with the characters is the same as they have with their children, friends and families - people they have affection for. Nogueira (ibid.) observes that, in recent years, gay women have begun to reveal themselves in focus groups without any embarrassment or friction with other participants. In the case of Totalmente Demais/Total Dreamer (2016), a telenovela I wrote with Paulo Halm, we tried to follow this strategy of affection with Max, played by Pablo Sanabio. That telenovela’s focus group revealed that the public adored Max, and with this information, we increased the story of this character, creating relationships for him as a gay man. Felipe Cabral, a collaborator and LGBTQI activist, who wrote Max's scenes, also suggested a sequence that would show how prejudice could make this beloved character suffer. The scene of the homophobic attack against Max and his boyfriend was a chapter cliffhanger. The effect of the scene on the audience was encouraging, with the public support of actors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the writing team and crew on social media. At the time the telenovela aired, homophobia was not a crime. Only in 2019 did the Supreme Court rule that discrimination against sexual orientation was illegal in Brazil.

To Fiske (1987), the ultimate power of a work’s message lies in the viewer’s reading of it, rather than in the producers’ ambition or proposals. The relations between the texts take place in two dimensions - horizontal and vertical. The horizontal dimension exists between primary texts such as, for example, two different telenovelas. The vertical intertextual relationship consists in the relationship of a primary text to secondary texts that use the former as reference: advertising, criticism, promotional content. The vertical intertextual relationship may also extend to tertiary texts. These occur at the level of the spectator and his social relations. The researcher explains the public’s relation to television, pondering that primary, secondary and tertiary discourses, from the perspective of the viewers’ life trajectories, are associated with the content and favour the creation of this social link. A spectator relates the television text to his or her lived experiences, to reading their intertexts within their own historical and social contexts. Consequently, each reading is unique, and every viewer actively elaborates on these connections. The more subsidies the work offers for this phenomenon to occur, the higher the connection of the public with the work. A telenovela has the challenge and vocation of engaging with a massive audience, creating identification with plots, practices and characters in order to bring about reflection on everyday topics, in addition to offering information, entertainment, fantasy, decompression and inspiration. For Hamburger (2011), the telenovela becomes a privileged stage for the problematization of interpretations in Brazil because it can make daily chronicles based on conflicts of gender, generation, class and region. In 2012, given the repercussion of the telenovela Avenida Brasil/Brazil Avenue, Maria Immacolata Vassallo de Lopes, coordinator of the Telenovela Studies Center of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), observed: “The telenovela, in Brazil, more than entertainment, is the narrative of the nation. Joao Emanuel captured the spirit we live today” (Britto and Bravo, 2012).

Despite the approximation and harmony of telenovelas with society, it is necessary to have a critical look at the real representativeness of daily life and Brazilian society by telenovelas. In his documentary A Negaqao do Brasil/Denying Brasil (2000), filmmaker and activist Joel Zito Araujo demonstrates how several works distort reality and how even in literary adaptations, the characters are “whitened.” He mentions, for example, the telenovela Escrava Isaura/Isaura (1976), in which the main character, the daughter of a black woman and a white man, is played by Lucelia Santos, a white actress, misrepresenting the description of the character in the original work. Recently, in Segundo Sol/A Second Chance (2018), written by Joao Emanuel Carneiro and directed by Dennis Carvalho, the casting of a majority of white actors was questioned in a telenovela set in Bahia, one of the states with the highest number of people declaring themselves as being black or mixed-race in Brazil. The headline of the Huffington Post Brasil Online was explicit: ‘“A Second Chance’: The white Bahia of the telenovela is quite different from the real Bahia, with 76% of blacks” (Tcrto, 2018). Veja magazine showed the repercussions even before the work went on air: “The next nine o’clock telenovela of TV Globo, Segundo Sol/A Second Chance, has not debuted yet, but already has provoked controversy on social networks” (Veja, 2018). Regardless, the audience of the telenovela, which dealt with paternity, sexual orientation and incest, among other themes, was significant, and the outcry over the casting of a majority of white actors was diluted over the months on the air. The issue of representativeness and diversity in characters and plots becomes pressing in contemporary times, in which identity struggles are increasingly present. Telenovelas need to follow society and continue addressing values, practices and transformations, activating the public’s secondary and tertiary discourses in order to survive. Therefore, they need to offer the viewer more and more narratives, plots and actors that can create identification, dialogue and harmony with the present, to remain relevant. In this sense, they need to absorb diversity, representation and identity demands and struggles in their narratives.

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