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Cacilda Rego "Finding Culture in Brazilian Soap Operas"

Soap operas are all the rage in Brazil these days. In fact, soap operas are popular all throughout Latin America. Dr. Cacilda Rego, a professor at Utah State University, has dedicated her research to finding out what makes these programs so successful.

Latin American soap operas are different from those that are typically seen in the US. The soap operas, known as “telenovelas,” only last for about six months, compared to the US soap operas that continue for several years. While US soap operas are broadcast in the early afternoon, Latin American soap operas are shown during prime time TV. Dr. Rego has found that these telenovelas are a much “bigger deal” in Latin America, especially Brazil, than soap operas in the United States.

“Americans don’t have the same attraction to soap operas. But in Brazil, you don’t visit anybody during soap operas. I know that most of my students, many being former missionaries, say that nobody wants to talk to them during the telenovelas. And yes, during the telenovelas or soccer games, you just don’t bother people because that’s sacred time. Soap operas have a much greater impact in Latin America, and Brazil of course, than the US,” says Dr. Rego.

These “telenovelas” are used for much more than just mere entertainment. They’re used to sell merchandise. And Dr. Rego believes that they’re very effective—even more so than they would be within the United States.

“Americans don’t go out and buy a coke just because they saw a character do it in a telenovela, but that’s what happens in Brazil. It’s that influential. And if a character says I love your green shirt, the next day, everybody’s wearing green shirts. It’s unbelievable. You have to see it to believe it,” she says.

Using TV programs to sell merchandise isn’t a new tactic. In fact, soap operas first received their name because of this. Their original purpose was to sell products such as soap or other home cleaning products to housewives. However, Dr. Rego says that the Latin American soap operas have a large social impact on the culture because of something called social merchandising.

“They also use the telenovelas to do social merchandising. That means that they talk about issues that would not otherwise be discussed in public, including taboo subjects like rape, homosexuality, political corruption, and teen pregnancy. The telenovelas make public those issues and people start talking and it becomes naturalized because if it’s on the telenovela, then it’s okay to talk about,” she says. These Brazilian ‘telenovelas’ have such a big appeal largely because of the discussions they create. Their widespread influence stems from a period in Brazil’s history. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil lived under a dictatorship that didn’t allow for communication to be so open.

“During those 21 years, we lived under great censorship. We didn’t know what was going on. So the telenovelas became the way to have that discussion. That made fiction reality, to the point that today when you watch the news in Brazil, its all fiction. But then when you want to hear what really is going on in Brazilian society, you watch a telenovela and know what’s going on in politics and the news. They talk about those issues that are relevant to us and we would not have that kind of discourse otherwise,” says Dr. Rego.

Dr. Rego has been teaching at Utah State University since 2006. She teaches Portuguese grammar, culture, and literature classes. She also teaches Global Communication, which deals with international media. In her teaching and research, she has found that Hollywood has traditionally dominated the international market in media outlets.  One might think that this would hurt less developed countries’ media production. But what does this really mean for developing countries?

Fortunately, Dr. Rego has found that Latin American media, specifically the soap operas, are now competing with Hollywood on the global market. As these Latin American “telenovelas” are being produced and broadcast during prime time TV, they are exported globally and emerging as competition for Hollywood. For example, the soap opera, “Yo soy Betty, la Fea,” originally produced in Colombia, now has been produced in over 40 different countries, including the United States as “Ugly Betty.”

While Dr. Rego knows that Hollywood controls much of the media market, she says that Latin American soap operas have an advantage that Hollywood doesn’t. The Latin telenovelas may not have the same quality as some of the Hollywood products, but they have an appeal that Hollywood programs do not have.

“The appeal is because they talk to national audiences and to local audiences. Hollywood doesn’t have that appeal. Hollywood producers now, in order for it to compete in the global market, they have to make films that please just about everyone on a global level. That makes it harder because not everybody is pleased with the same product. But when national producers produce things that say something to you, to the national and local audience, that makes a difference,” she says.

Dr. Rego became interested in Latin American soap operas because they reminded her of her own past. Having grown up in Brazil, she felt that they played a role in her own history.  “I grew up watching telenovelas. When I think about my childhood, I think about watching soap operas in black and white. They used to be for a limited time. It would begin at five in the afternoon and by midnight we didn’t have any more T.V. because there was a limited amount of programs. I remember very young watching the telenovelas. It’s part of me. It’s part of my life,” she says.

The research that Dr. Rego does about the Latin American soap operas is a crucial component to understanding Latin American culture, specifically the culture of Brazil. “You cannot understand Brazilian society without understanding the role played by telenovelas and why they have the impact they have. So in order for you to understand the culture, you need to understand what makes the culture thrive the way it does. And I think that telenovelas is a great part of Brazilian culture and being Brazilian,” says Dr. Rego.

The popularity of soap operas in Brazil is only growing. What began as radio programs became a TV craze and the telenovelas are now moving onto the Internet. This opens new doors for different and larger audiences and even more access for public debate over social issues for the soap operas.

Dr. Rego plans to continue her work in researching Brazilian film and TV as it grows. She has published various articles and two books: New Trends in Argentine and Brazilian Cinema co-edited with Dr. Carolina Rocha (Intellect, 2011), and Migration in Lusophone Cinema, co-edited with Dr. Marcus Brasileiro (Palgrave McMillan, 2014).


By Crystal Zurcher