Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Hybrid Fiction in Latin America

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Hybrid Fiction in Latin America

Article excerpt

THE FATHER OF A FRIEND OF MINE BECAME hooked on Avenida Brasil, a Brazilian telenovela that was a hit in several Latin American countries. Every night, as he sat down to watch the telenovela, he insisted that he was going to watch his "series," never acknowledging he was actually watching a telenovela. The "genderization" of television is not what I intend to discuss here-NYU professor Juan Piñón has already examined that subject in many articles-but rather the fact that the audience seems to need to name what it is watching. And naming television fiction genres in Latin America has become complicated in the last decades.

Authors like Jason Mittel, Christine Gledhill and Daniel Chandler have tried to define the genres, explaining their use for the producers and for the audience. To assign a genre category to a program is a way to assign some consistent rules to it, making it easier for the producer to know what has to be done, and for the audience to know what to expect from that program. If we are promised a comedy we expect to laugh and watch a show that will leave us in a good mood once it ends. If we watch a detective story we know there will be crime, suspense, and a mystery that must be solved. The producers of such shows know they must rely on certain kinds of characters, locations, props and circumstances, and that a certain group of screenwriters will be more suitable to write the scripts of one type of show than another.

Comedy, drama, police/detective fiction, horror, adventure, fantasy are only a few of the fictional television genres. Chandler warns us that the list will never be finished, and that categorization of genres varies from country to country. Most people seem to understand and identify the main genres and their respective formats-the way they are actually shown and programmed on a station. A drama may be shown as a series (weekly, most of the times), as a mini-series (defined number of episodes that will tell the whole story, from start to finish), as a TV movie (a two-hour fiction narrative shown on a specific day), or in some other format. That way of categorizing stories and their delivery seems simple and routine to the audience, unless we start to mix genres or formats, making it a hybrid genre.

In Latin America one of the most important television genres (if not the most important one) is melodrama, a genre that began with popular performances in the 16th century and developed both in theatres and on the streets, shown in the 20th century on film, heard on the radio and seen on television. Its narrative usually deals with human passions, love, betrayals, secrets, and its characters express their feelings in a very excessive, emotional and intense way. Colombian theorist Jesús Martín-Barbero calls it a "rhetoric of excess." The main format for melodrama in Latin America is the telenovela, and in the United States, England and Australia, it is the soap opera (which does not have a defined ending, as does the telenovela).

When I ask my students in class who watches telenovelas, most of the times only a few raise their hands, mostly female students. When I start talking about some very popular telenovelas, and make mistakes about their stories, I am corrected by my students, who remember better than I the names, situations, relationships and arguments. It is not unusual, however, that those who correct me are male students, those very students who did not raise their hands when I asked who watches telenovelas.

Although melodrama exists in other formats like series, mini-series or TV movies, the fact is that the only genre shown in the format of a telenovela is melodrama. So, watching a telenovela means to be watching melodrama. When my friend's father argued that he watched a series and not a telenovela, he was actually not saying that he didn't acknowledge the format he was watching. He was saying that he wasn't watching melodrama, considered by some people a female or low cultural product that men or highly educated people supposedly don't watch. …

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