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Wednesday, April 19, 2023

April 19, 2023: Soap Opera Studying: Telenovelas

[April 22nd will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the king of primetime soap operas, Aaron Spelling. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Spelling and other soap opera contexts, leading up to a crowd-sourced cliffhanger of a weekend post! So share your soapy responses and thoughts, you evil twins you!]

On two ways a classic short story helps us understand a soap opera sub-genre.

The Mexican American author and educator Sandra Cisneros is most frequently and consistently associated with her wonderful debut book, the short story cycle The House on Mango Street (1984); that certainly includes this blog, where I’ve written about House a number of times. But while House is indeed one of the greatest debut books in American literary history (published when it’s author was only 30, no less), Cisneros has gone on to write plenty of other compelling and important works over the nearly three decades since. Among the best is the short story “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991), which tells the story of Cleófilas DeLeón Hernández, a Mexican American woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage in Texas with an angry and abusive husband. Exacerbating that already fraught and painful situation is how distant it is from Cleófilas’ dreams of her ideal marriage and future, dreams that Cisneros consistently connects to the character’s childhood in Mexico watching the national (and more broadly Latin American) genre of soap opera known as telenovelas.

Telenovelas are a cultural genre linked more to other nations than to the U.S. (although certainly part of American TV and communities alike for many decades now, one of so many layers to the broader idea of creolization for which I’ve argued in this space many times), and I’m not going to pretend to be able to AmericanStudy them in depth here. But I would argue that Cisneros’ story helps us engage with a couple layers not only to that particular genre, but to soap operas overall as well. The more obvious level to their role in “Woman Hollering Creek,” and an important topic to analyze to be sure, is the way that the genre creates fantasy versions of men, romance, and marriage for young women like Cleófilas. As Cisneros puts it in the story’s opening pages, in the first reference to telenovelas and the kinds of perspectives they have helped create in our protagonist: “passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the … telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one’s life, and does whatever one can must do, at whatever the cost.” The problem isn’t simply that Cleófilas’ husband Juan Pedro is far from a fantasy man; it’s also and especially that no person, and no love, is worth “whatever the cost,” not if the cost is abuse and violence like that Cleófilas faces.

Those limits and downsides to fantastic representations of romance and relationships are of course a relatively ubiquitous feature of soap operas (and many other cultural genres as well, to be sure). But I would say that Cisneros’ story also features a more subtle but equally significant second layer to what telenovelas can represent for a character like Cleófilas: a feminist, or at least female-centered, alternative to the patriarchal violence she endures on both sides of the border. As the story unfolds through both flashbacks and ongoing events in the present, we see that Cleófilas has been under attack by many more men than just Juan Pedro, from her Mexican father’s patriarchal expectations to the harassment she endures from men (Latino and non-Latino) in Texas. Her one source of escape and enjoyment is her occasional opportunity to watch telenovelas, “the few episodes glimpsed at the neighbor lady Soledad’s house.” “Soledad” translates to solitude or loneliness, but of course those shared moments of telenovela-watching are quite the opposite, one of the experiences of solidarity in Cleófilas’ present life. And those moments foreshadow the female solidarity that ultimately offers her a way out in the story’s hopeful conclusion, one that, perhaps, embodies not the fantasies of telenovelas but their shared, communal realities for an audience for whom they are far more than just cultural escapism.  

Next soap-post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other soap opera contexts or stories you’d share?

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