Brazilian soap-operas or
telenovelas are a national passion: broadcast at prime-time,
six days a week, watching telenovelas is part of the daily
practices of millions of Brazilians. Most research on the
reception of Brazilian telenovelas has taken into account
viewer’s reactions to and interpretations of the plots of
telenovelas. One has a well-delineated program and a
well-delineated research context, namely the immediate
reception (read interpretation) of telenovela plots. Here
I argue that a complete analysis of viewers’ reception of
telenovelas should take into account the way telenovelas are
integrated and implicated within other media and within
events of daily life. Telenovelas should be approached as
dynamic cultural products whose retrievability goes far
beyond the medium of television. Ethnographic fieldwork
makes such an approach possible. Moreover, ethnography
foregrounds telenovela reception as a dialogical process of
appropriation, circulation and reiteration of meaning; one
that is anchored and framed by socio-cultural contexts and
Keywords: telenovelas; everyday life;
ethnography; flow; dialogism
are a portrait of Brazil. What you see in the screen is the
revelation of a hidden desire, [the revelation] of something
that every Brazilian would like to have come true.” (Jeferson,
21, undergraduate student. Excerpt from a class essay on
telenovelas to see different things. Because here, in
Brazil, there is nothing different to see. If you don’t
watch television, you won’t see anything.” (Meire, 18,
live-in babysitter. Excerpt from a conversation.)
tempt the eyes of the viewers, showing everything that they
would like to be, see or have.” (Júlia, 20, undergraduate
student. Excerpt from a class essay on telenovelas)
Here I argue that a complete analysis of
viewers’ reception of Brazilian telenovelas should take into
account the way telenovelas are integrated and implicated
within other media and within events of daily life. Such an
analysis should, moreover, approach telenovelas not as
uninterrupted and delimited stories about the life destinies
of a collection of characters, but rather as dynamic
cultural products whose retrievability goes far beyond the
medium of television. Finally, an analysis of viewers’
receptive experiences should also describe how messages are
circulated, appropriated and reiterated in everyday
situations and encounters. Underlying this discussion is a
dialogical approach to the reception of media products.
The argument proceeds in three broad stages.
The first is a discussion about how I came to realize
through ethnographic fieldwork that when viewers/informants
mentioned telenovelas in their everyday errands and
conversations, they were not only referring to the plots of
these programs, but also to images, advertisements,
magazines, and diverse commodities that interspersed with
the plots of telenovelas. Ethnographic fieldwork allowed me
to visualize a crucial – though messy and complex – part of
my informants’ receptive experience. In the second stage of
my argumentation I discuss how I, in order to grasp and
describe this complex receptive experience, engaged with the
concepts of “flow” and “dialogism.” The third stage consists
in the analysis of two ethnographic case studies that
concretely illustrate my earlier points.
The discussions presented in this article
emerge from and contribute to a much debated theme within
both media studies and anthropology about the impact that
particular representations (telenovelas, rites de passage,
films, public celebrations, advertisements) might have on
people: do they shape what people think and how they act?
The work of cinema studies scholar Robert Stam (1989) and
cultural studies scholar Valerie Walkerdine (1997) regarding
people’s reception of popular culture has colored my own
understanding of reception processes. These two authors
argue from different perspectives (Walkerdine has examined
the role of popular culture in the making of feminine
subjectivity among young, working class girls in England,
and Stam has explored Brazilian films) that there has been a
polarization on the debate regarding the relationship
between readers/viewers and popular culture: people are
either described as (a) revolutionary and resistant in their
readings of popular culture, or (b) as duped, unable or
unwilling to make critical readings and concrete demands on
the real world. In my own fieldwork in the Brazilian city of
Belo Horizonte, I came to share those scholars’
dissatisfaction with these polarities. The people who became
my informants, and their ways of relating to telenovelas,
cannot easily be characterized as resistant; neither can
they be characterized as duped or uncritical. As I will
illustrate in this paper, my informants’ receptive
experiences are part of their everyday practices that,
together with a range of other activities, come to shape and
constitute their positions as subjects within Brazilian
follows, I briefly discuss the place of telenovelas within
Brazilian television and society. I then move on to present
some previous research on reception studies, focusing
particularly on studies about the reception of
Latin-American telenovelas published during the course of my
research (1997-2002). It should be noted that even though
the literature revised here is interdisciplinary, it is
nevertheless particularly oriented towards anthropological
understandings of media.
I have to
watch! Brazilian Television and Telenovelas
Brazil is a country with one of the largest
television audiences in the world. Eighty-seven percent of
the households in the country have at least one television –
in sheer numbers, this means 39 million TV households. Even
outside the household, televisions are everywhere – in
cities it is impossible to pass a street without seeing a
shop, a bar, a restaurant or an office with a television.
Through communication satellites, reception dishes and
retransmitting ground stations, television reaches people
even in the most remote villages in the country.
To understand the development of television in
Brazil, one has to look at the political context of the
country. Television technology was introduced in Brazil in
1950 by the head of a chain of newspapers and radio
stations, Assis Chateaubriand.
This was a time when industrialization, modernization and
regional development were keywords in the Kubitschek
government (1955-1961). Brásilia, the current capital of
Brazil, was under construction (1957-1961). Its indirect aim
was to propel the country forward, towards modernity. From
its infancy, television was seen as a way to mediate oral
and visual information to all possible kinds of viewers,
including among them a considerable number of illiterate
persons. Its spread throughout the country was seen as an
issue of governmental importance.
The military coup which overthrew President
João Goulart on March 31, 1964 resulted in increased state
intervention in the implementation and programming of
television. Television was seen by the military government
(as it was by the Kubitschek government) as a way to create
a national identity, and as a way to link the remote regions
near Brazil’s borders to the rest of the country (Straubhaar
1982, 1984; Tufte 1993). The military government encouraged
the expansion of private, commercial television networks,
and favored those networks whose programming would help in
the preservation (and construction) of a national memory (Kehl
1979). Moreover, it was thought that television was a
perfect medium to create a domestic consumer market and to
attract local and foreign capital. Able to reach the whole
nation, television was a way to address Brazilians as
potential consumers (Lopez 1995).
Television was thus given an agglutinating
function: first it integrated the nation culturally by
spreading understandings of southeastern, middle-, and
upper-class standards of life (such as eating habits,
leisure activities, dressing and consumption styles) to the
rest of the country. The southeastern region (i.e., the
economic center of the country) formed by the states of Rio
de Janeiro, São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo,
became a positive model of progress, development and
Television not only contributed to spread middle- and
upper-class values from the center to the periphery of
Brazil, but its positive portrayal of the southeastern
region and its cities might also have contributed to an
increased rural migration and maybe even affected other
demographic changes, such as birth rates (Faria and Potter
In 1997, during my most extensive period of
fieldwork, the Brazilian television industry consisted of
five main independent commercial networks – Rede Globo;
SBT (Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão);
Manchete (bankrupted in 1998); Bandeirantes, and
TV Record; and one non-commercial (and
non-governmental) television network – TV Cultura.
There are, nowadays, other commercial channels (MTV,
Canal 21, CNT, Gazeta, Rede Brasil, Rede Mulher, Rede TV!,
Rede Vida, TV Senado) whose broadcasting is connected to
certain parts of the country.
Introduced in the country in the early 1990s,
cable television and its approximately seventy channels are
a new option for upper- and middle-class viewers. Statistics
from IBOPE – Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and
Statistics (2001) estimate that only thirteen percent of the
households with television sets in Brazil have access to
cable TV. Significantly, IBOPE also reports that viewers who
have access to cable TV spend more time watching Brazilian
non-cable channels than they do watching the cable channels.
What is broadcast on all these television
channels? Soccer, of course, is shown more or less
continually, broadcast at least twice a week. News and
entertainment programs make also an important share of
television’s programming. But one of the most broadcast –
and most watched – type of programs is the television
novelas (which I, in accordance with academic writing on
this topic, will refer to with the term telenovelas
Telenovelas are broadcast throughout Brazil
six days a week, during prime-time. They attract a daily
audience of more than 40 million viewers. Individual
telenovelas are able to catch and maintain the
attention of a faithful audience during their duration of
six to eight months. Unlike U.S. or British soap-operas that
may last for many years, a Brazilian telenovela ends after
150 to 200 episodes, and is immediately substituted by a new
one. Their plots can conform to real life seasons and
holidays, and often, they introduce fashions and products,
approach polemical subjects and comment upon (in a realistic
or parodic way) contemporary social issues. In terms of
specific content, telenovelas deal with a great variety of
subjects. They address issues of social positioning and
power, social ascension, gender relationships, love and
The first telenovelas were broadcast in 1951,
twice a week. They were adaptations of melodramas and
radionovelas to television. From 1954, most telenovelas were
adaptations of non-Brazilian novels. Authors such as Jules
Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo had some of their
works adapted to telenovela plots. In 1963, starting a new
trend in Brazilian television, the network Excelsior
aired the first daily telenovela “2-5499 – Ocupado”
(“2-5499 – The Line is Busy”). The content of most of these
first daily telenovelas was however often still based on
non-Brazilian, non-contemporary, exotic themes and
By 1968, the network Tupi broadcast the
first telenovela based on Brazilian contemporary reality. It
was the story of Beto Rockfeller, a Brazilian
malandro (scoundrel), and anti-hero. Beto was a
shoe-salesman who managed to pass as a millionaire and
started dating a rich socialite. The telenovela portrayed
how Beto oscillated between his two lives – as a humble
shoe-salesman and as a prestigious (fake) millionaire.
Besides its innovation in theme – the sympathetic anti-hero
– this telenovela introduced colloquial language and slang
to the television screen. It attained great popularity.
Soon, other television networks developed their own styles
of making telenovelas and started exploiting themes picked
up from the contemporary social scene (such as class
conflicts, inflation, middle-class life style, politics) as
basic and recurring elements in the plots.
Since the end of 1960s, it
is not unusual to see telenovelas referring to contemporary
social issues: in December 1992, for example, Brazil’s
then-president, Fernando Collor, was impeached by Congress
for corruption. In 1993, the telenovela Fera Ferida
(“Wounded Beast,” broadcast by Globo) portrayed the
impeachment of the fictive mayor of the city of Asa
Branca (“White Wings” – a clear allusion to the
government and the capital city of Brasília, whose original
master plan was the shape of an airplane). In 2001, one of
the characters in Laços de Família (“Family Links,”
2000-1, Globo) found out that she was suffering from
leukemia and that she would have to go through a bone-marrow
transplant in order to survive. The telenovela launched a
national campaign to promote and encourage the donation of
organs (Veja, January 10, 2001). According to
the statistics held by the Brazilian Association of
Voluntary Donors of Bone-Marrow, the number of donations in
November 2000 was of approximately twenty persons a month.
When the telenovela discussed leukemia and organ donation,
this number raised to nine-hundred donors a month; an
increase of 4,500 percent (Alencar 2002).
Connecting fiction and reality, many
telenovelas follow the real calendar: telenovela characters
celebrate Carnival, Christmas and New Year on the same days
as their audience. Telenovela characters wear the same
fashion that can be seen in shops and magazines and they
speak about problems that are lived by the audience.
These references to
contemporary social issues are embedded in a narrative
structure that euphorically emphasizes articulations:
unexpected, improbable, implausible interrelations make
characters go through personal transformations that often
result in some kind of social mobility. Seduction and love
are often the driving force behind transformations and
change. Different spheres of activity are brought together
by telenovela characters who seduce and love one another. A
message that seems to run through all telenovela plots is
that seduction and love slip through the social hierarchies
of class, age, race and sexuality.
In telenovelas, the
subjects that most consistently represent and embody
transformation and movement across social hierarchies are
women. These transformations are depicted as individual
renegotiations of the self: characters change from poor to
rich, from unattractive women to seductresses, from
prostitutes to respectable housewives, from elitist whites
to politically aware mothers of black children. These
transformations in attractiveness, knowledge or status are
usually lived by women and connected to social mobility.
Telenovela actors and actresses play an
important role in the media world and in Brazilian society.
Lopez (1995:258) suggests that for actors and actresses to
“work in a telenovela today is often to have reached the
apex of one’s professional career.” I would add that to work
in a telenovela is also a way for an actor or actress to
gain visibility in various media circuits.
The writers of these programs are famous and
often better known than Brazilian authors who write fiction
(Lopez 1995:261). Until the beginnings of the 1980s, a
single writer was the only person responsible for the
development of a telenovela plot. Nowadays, it is common to
divide authorship into a series of separated tasks. So a
telenovela has a main writer who sketches the initial plot
and sometimes helps to cast some of the main characters.
This writer is assisted by researchers who report on
particular professions, situations or historical times that
are going to be portrayed in the telenovela. The main writer
will also be helped by one or two co-writers, who are either
responsible for writing dialogues, or for writing certain
sequences of the telenovela (Ortiz and Ramos 1991; Veja,
28 February 96). Even though the division of tasks within
the telenovela industry has become quite elaborate, it is
still the main writer who takes the responsibility for the
success or failure of a telenovela.
Telenovelas attract millions of dollars of
advertising revenues, promote a range of commodities and
generate a variety of spin-off products: there are
television and radio shows about telenovelas and their
stars, there are gossip magazines (such as Amiga,
AnaMaria, Caras, Contigo! and Tititi),
there are fashion magazines reporting the latest telenovela
fashions (such as Moda Moldes and Manequim)
and, last but not least, there are the cassettes and CDs
with national and international tunes that are played during
Media has been studied from within different
disciplines and with the help of different theories. A
common denominator among many studies is the concern to
investigate whether or not media exercises a powerful and
persuasive influence upon people (Gurevitch et al. 1982). A
question that almost obligatorily follows this first one,
and which has also been at the core of the study of media,
relates to the status of the people who receive media
messages – do people passively receive media
messages, or should they be seen as active agents who
work to decode and interpret?
With a point of departure in Marxism, members
of the Frankfurt School (Adorno 1974; Horkheimer and Adorno
1972; Marcuse 1968) highlighted alienation, homogenization
and socio-cultural erosion as the result of commercial mass
media. The standpoint of these scholars was that media had a
power to impose its repressive messages directly upon
unprepared spectators. This kind of reasoning became
known as the “top-down” or “hypodermic” model, since, as
Hirsch (1998) has summarized, it attributed to media the
power to “inject its repressive message almost directly”
(1988:213) into people who where exposed to it. A problem
with this perspective is that its focus lays exclusively on
media messages. No other factors, such as an analysis of the
viewers’ own interpretations of the messages received, were
included in the research. An analysis of media messages was
considered enough to understand their effects and foresee
Revising and refining this Marxist legacy
(Hall 1980 ; Williams 1977),
and inspired by linguistic understandings of how messages
are transmitted and how meaning is created through
communication (Morley 1981; Hall 1982), British Cultural
Studies started approaching people as active subjects in the
process of interpretation of different media. This shift in
perspective was marked, for instance, by a change in
terminology from “spectators” to “viewers.” A “viewer” as
Fiske (1987:17) put it, is “someone watching television,
making meaning and pleasures from it […] A viewer is engaged
with the screen more variously, actively, and selectively
than is a spectator.” Viewers are seen as agents in the
process of message decoding.
The result of this re-orientation was a change
in focus, clearly noticeable during the 1980s, from the
text/message, to the interpretive practices of media
audiences. Diversity in audiences was examined, as was the
way in which various audiences engaged with and used
different media (Lull 1986). The plurality of meanings that
could be created from a media text/message was also
highlighted. Moreover, as media anthropologist Debra
Spitulnik (1993:296) has pointed out, these new tendencies
marked a change in focus on media research – there was a
move away from the idea of texts as closed, privileged sites
of meaning, to an idea of texts as “dynamic sites of
struggle over representation, and complex spaces in which
subjectivities are constructed and identities are
1980s, media researchers increasingly turned towards
anthropology and anthropological methods to better situate
their research within complex social contexts (Ang 1985;
Morley 1980; Radway 1988). Until then, much of the research
on audience activity was conducted in isolation, often
through the application of formal questionnaires, as if the
viewers’ reception was independent of any social context. A
need for an ethnography on the “ever-evolving kaleidoscope
of daily life and the way in which the media are integrated
and implicated within it” (Radway, 1988:366) was manifested.
Studies on the reception of television
programs started investigating the context within which
reception took place. Researchers looked at the varying
modes of watching television and to the place television
occupied (both physically and culturally) in people’s lives
(Barrios 1988; Lull 1988). There was an effort not only to
understand people’s interactions with the content of media
messages, but also to situate these practices within local
constraints and experiences. This effort is mirrored by
research that investigates viewers’ watching practices (the
way people actually watch programs, who chooses what to
watch, and the preparations around watching) and the place
television sets occupy in the household (Dahlgren 1990;
Morley 1986; Tufte 1993, 2000).
At the same
time that ethnography and anthropological methods for data
collection were being praised and adopted by media
researchers, they were being roundly criticized and
questioned within anthropology (e.g., by Marcus and Fischer
1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986). The ethnographic turn
within media studies lacked many times the reflexivity that
works like that by Clifford and Marcus had introduced into
anthropological practice: people’s self-reports were quite
often taken at face value, and the role of the ethnographer
in the process of investigation was not examined.
Anthropologists, meanwhile, had approached the
study of media in several ways: “as institutions, as
workplaces, as communicative practices, as cultural
products, as social activities, as aesthetic forms, and as
historical developments” (Spitulnik 1993:293).
Influenced by debates revising the
anthropological practice, the 1980s and 1990s mark a move
(within media anthropology) towards a deeper social and
cultural contextualization of both viewers and media (Abu-Lughod
1989; Das 1995; Hirsch and Silverstone 1992, 1998; Kulick
and Willson 1994). A variety of studies focused on
ethnographies of media (Caughey 1986; Hannerz 1990; Kottak
1990), the cultural construction of news and the
study of media production (Dornfeld 1998; Graffman 2002;
Pedelty 1995), and media consumption and reception (Abu-Lughod
1993, 1995; Dickey 1993; Fuglesang 1994; Lutz and Collins
1993; Mankekar 1999; Miller 1995;).
Most studies on the reception of
Latin-American telenovelas (Beltrão 1993; Bustos-Romero
1993; Kottak 1990; Munoz 1992; Pace 1993; Quiroz and
Márquez 1997; Vink 1988) have taken into account viewers’
reactions to and interpretations of the plots of
telenovelas. One has a well-delineated program and a
well-delineated research context, namely, the immediate
reception (read interpretation) of telenovelas’ plots.
Beltrão (1993), Fachel-Leal and Oliven (1987),
Tufte (1993, 2000) and Vink (1988) are just a few examples
of works in this area. These authors start from the idea
(with which I agree) that telenovelas’ plots use a great
deal of repetition in their narrative structure: important
events and problems are repeated and re-cited from episode
to episode, in order to keep viewers in touch with the
intrigues, and to allow new viewers to quickly get a picture
of the whole story. In addition, in the effort to engage as
many viewers as possible, the themes developed depict a
variety of positions and allow for many different
Most of the studies on the reception of
telenovelas focus on women’s (often from low-income
backgrounds) reactions to and interpretations of telenovelas.
Gender, class, and to a certain extent, age, are issues at
the core of reception studies on telenovelas. The subject of
telenovelas and race has, with a few exceptions (DaSilva
seldom been addressed. In spite of the differences
concerning themes for investigation and methods of research,
studies on the reception of telenovelas seem to point in
similar directions when it comes to the relationship between
telenovela viewing, age and class.
There seems to be a relationship between age
and the way people report about their viewing practices. The
younger the viewer, the easiest it is for her/him to admit
her/his likes and dislikes about a certain character or
event in a telenovela. But as they reach adulthood, the
connection that viewers make between personal feelings and
feelings depicted by telenovela characters become less
overtly articulated. The trend shifts again when it comes to
older people whose opinions about telenovelas are expressed
The relationship between class and telenovela
viewing has also been thoroughly studied. Fachel-Leal and
Oliven (1987) compare how upper-middle class and low-income
women in the city of Porto Alegre (southern Brazil) retell
the events of the telenovela Sol de Verão (“Summer
Sun,” 1983, Globo). She concludes that viewers from
these two groups have very different modes of interpreting
the same plot: they had different opinions about what the
main subject of the telenovela was, they could disregard the
prominence of certain discussions (low-income women never
mentioned that the telenovela touched upon the subjects of
women’s sexual or professional dissatisfaction, while the
upper-middle class group emphasized this very aspect in its
discussions), they had different expectations regarding the
way the telenovela should end (low-income women were more
engaged with the destinies of the telenovela’s characters
and wished for a happy ending, whereas upper-middle class
women had a more distanced relationship to the individual
destinies of the telenovela’s characters). In a nutshell,
Fachel-Leal and Oliven come to the conclusion that class
does play a role in the process of reception of telenovelas.
Vink (1988:219, 232) analyses how low-income
women living in a neighborhood in Porto Alegre interpret
telenovelas’ messages in accordance with their social
background. Vink argues that these viewers use their
“cultural resources,” their experiences being poor workers
and women in order to produce meanings from the
telenovela text. Following Fachel’s findings, he points out
that there is a difference between low-income and
middle-class women when it comes to the way they relate to
telenovelas. While the latter have a more aesthetic
involvement with the telenovela – taking a distanced
position in relation to the plot, considering the
performances of individual characters/actors, and evaluating
the development of the plot, low-income women watch
telenovelas “with their hearts” (1988:232). They have an
emotional involvement with the plot.
Vink (1988:220) asserts that “emotional
involvement is not an obstacle to insight or awareness”–
identification with a fictive character might help the
viewer to situate herself socially. He also points out that
identification is not synonymous with imitative behavior,
and concludes that telenovela messages can help the
low-income women and men to become conscious that life can
be different. In this sense, telenovela watching can be seen
as a first step towards a process of social change
Beltrão (1993) examines the process of
identification that takes place between viewers and the
characters of the telenovela Que Rei sou Eu? (“What
Kind of King Am I?,” 1989, Globo). She interviews
both men and women belonging to different socio-economical
classes, all of them living in a small community in
Beltrão argues that for the viewers she
studied, identification occurred at two levels – an
individual and a social level. On the one hand, viewers
could relate to the plot as citizens, as members of the same
community. They thus situated themselves as a collective
within a Brazilian context and drew parallels between
community life and the everyday life depicted by the
telenovela. Individual identification was, on the other
hand, characterized by the transcendence of categories of
gender, race, class and age: “I found women identifying with
male characters, and poor with high [i.e. upper] class
characters” (1993:68). Moreover, Beltrão also points that a
single viewer could identify with different aspects of
According to Beltrão, identification happened
when viewers found similarities between themselves and
telenovela characters (their appearance, behavior, and
problems), or when viewers wished to be like the characters
in telenovelas (this would explain why identification
sometimes transcended social categories of differentiation).
But what happened after identification? Did identification
with fictive characters contribute somehow to change the way
viewers’ reflected upon and acted in their everyday lives?
Beltrão leaves aside these kinds of question.
Fadul (1987), La Pastina and McAnany (1994),
Vilchez (1997) and Tufte’s (1993) discussions on methodology
and the use of an ethnography of the everyday life to
broaden the perspective of reception studies influenced, at
an early stage, the way I designed my research questions and
the methods for data collection.
media studies scholar Thomas Tufte’s book Living with the
Rubbish Queen (2000) is situated within the theoretical
framework of media ethnography. His aim was to investigate
the role that telenovelas play in the everyday life of their
audiences. Research was conducted in different periods
during the 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s, among
low-income women in southern Brazil. Tufte uses the concept
of “hybrid sphere of signification” – an intermediary zone
between the spatial and the social, the material and the
symbolic, the public and the private where he situates his
informants’ reception of telenovelas.
possible to draw several parallels between Tufte’s work and
my own. Both of us are convinced that ethnography can be
used as a means to broaden the perspective of media studies.
However, the paths through which we got to our findings,
follows I fully explain my research methods and present a
concrete suggestion on how ethnography can be used within
the context of reception studies.
Approaches to Fieldwork
Born and raised in Belo Horizonte, I came to
Europe as a student at the age of nineteen. Several years
later, then as a Ph.D. student at the university of
Stockholm, Sweden, I decided to return to Belo Horizonte and
make it the setting for my research. By choosing to conduct
fieldwork at home, I was aware that I would have to deal
with previous, biased, subjective knowledge on the field I
was about to investigate. How should I handle this question?
I came to position myself as both an insider
and an outsider in relation to my field. How could I ever
pretend that I did not know anything about telenovelas? How
could I ignore the fact that during my childhood and
adolescence I laughed, worried and talked about these
programs, their actors and characters? I decided to take
advantage of my previous knowledge about telenovelas. My
point of departure on the investigation of how people
related to these programs had to be that of an insider: I
started asking my old friends and acquaintances whether they
knew anybody I could interview. I thus used their networks
of acquaintances and relatives as informants (this technique
is called “snow-ball sampling”).
Like Brasília, Brazil’s capital, Belo
Horizonte was planned and built to become the capital of the
state of Minas Gerais. The city was inaugurated in December
1897. It has today a population of approximately three
million people. I rented an apartment in a, according to
local standards, middle-class neighborhood: by coming in
contact with my neighbors and by finding ways to participate
in the everyday life of the bairro, I recruited a
second sample of informants coming from varying
In my walks up and down the neighborhood, I
saw television sets almost everywhere: post-offices and
banks had television sets installed in a corner of the wall,
so people standing in queue could see (but often not hear) a
telenovela re-run, commercials, a film or a talk show. It
was very common to see television sets in bars and
restaurants. Some of them were placed in a discrete corner,
sometimes behind the counter (in this case they were for the
staff, rather than the clients). In other cases, huge
television sets could be strategically placed facing the
bar’s tables. Some bars had a “sport profile” and their
television sets were only tuned in to sport channels.
Others, generally “family” restaurants, such as pizzerias,
were tuned in Globo’s channel (the largest TV network
in Brazil, and the fourth largest in the world). Sometimes,
while running errands, I could follow, walking from block to
block, the results of a football game or the dramatic
quarrels of a telenovela couple. I just had to turn my head
towards the places where people where sitting (or were
supposed to sit) and there was a great probability that I
would find a television set. It is important to keep in mind
that television sets were not only domestic commodities
exclusively found inside households – television sets were,
through commercial establishments, disseminated throughout
urban spaces, throwing their sounds and images towards
I gathered a total sample consisting of forty-five persons –
thirty-eight women and seven men. The majority of them,
i.e., thirty-two persons, were aged between fourteen and
thirty years. Informants occupied different social
positions: thirteen of them had truly low incomes (about 100
reais a month, which corresponded to US$100), three
of them came originally from low income families but
ascended socially and economically, and the rest of them,
i.e., twenty-nine persons, had higher educational levels and
higher incomes. In 2001, I tried to compensate for the
predominance of female informants by gathering 183 essays
about telenovelas written by undergraduate university
students at their first year of communication studies. Of
these 183 people, 107 were women and 76 men, all aged
between seventeen and forty years (with a majority aged
between eighteen and twenty-two), coming from different
Throughout fieldwork I combined two major
techniques to collect data: interviews (semi-structured and
informal) and participant observation. Participant
observation was a way to obtain access to the moments when
media intercepted with viewers’ everyday lives.
Influenced by an anthropological
understanding of media, and convinced by the argument that
practices of reception are not confined to the moment of
broadcast (Ginsburg 1998), I decided to focus on a broad
understanding of reception, and set to examine how viewers
incorporated telenovelas in to their habits and daily
practices. More precisely, I decided to investigate when,
why and how themes related to telenovelas spontaneously
came to the fore in everyday situations. By taking such a
standpoint, I moved my focus away from the moment of
broadcast (or from the places where immediate reception took
place) to streets, parties, and everyday conversations and
The focus on non-immediate
receptive processes made me realize that for the most part,
informants’ commentaries and references to
telenovelas were fragmented and mixed with other topics and
thought associations – telenovelas worked as a catalogue of
images, landscapes, characters, names and persons that could
be used to comment upon real events, places and persons. And
the other way round, everyday events could also lead to
associations about fictive characters and situations.
Moreover, I could also observe that viewers did talk about
telenovela plots, their contents and characters, but they
also talked extensively about telenovela actors, their
diets, the spas they frequented, the food they ate, their
gymnastic programs, their fashion, and their plastic
surgeries. My informants were not only relating to a
delimited and well-circumscribed program or text – the
episodes of a telenovela – but to a series of entanglements
and intersections that these programs had with other media
and other domains of society.
participant observation gave me access to the spontaneous
ways in which viewers incorporated telenovela-related themes
into their lives, I found that interviewing, on the other
hand, allowed me to obtain more specific data about these
I conducted twenty semi-structured interviews,
most of them (seventeen) with women, aged from fifteen to
forty-five. I booked a time and a place and arrived with my
tape-recorder and with a list of questions that I intended
to ask. This questionnaire was open to modifications and
extensions, depending on the answers I got from my
informants. The questions I asked were structured around
three main topics: 1) Practices of watching and familiarity
with the genre; 2) The relationship between fiction and
reality, and the reception of the telenovelas’ messages; 3)
Reflections and representations on gender, sexuality, race
All these interviews were tape-recorded and
transcribed. Even if these interviews were important for my
material, since they made people talk almost exclusively
about subjects of my own choice, I felt that my informants
often gave “official” answers to my questions, as if there
was a right or even a politically correct way to respond.
Many times, what people told me when the tape-recorder was
on, totally contradicted things they had previously said, in
more informal situations. So, in the last months of
fieldwork, I started inserting the interview questions I had
formulated into informal situations and conversations: for
instance, if someone mentioned anything about the outfit of
a telenovela character, I took the opportunity to ask this
person’s opinion about the impact of telenovelas: “How do
you like this fashion?,” “Are television and telenovelas a
good fashion guide?” My idea was that people would thus talk
in a more spontaneous and informal way about subjects which
were directly related to my research interests. Using this
technique, I came to gather many “structured conversations”
on the most varied themes. I also applied this method with
some of the persons I had interviewed previously, since I
interacted with them frequently in the course of my daily
routine. These structured conversations (most of them were
written down, not tape-recorded), combined with participant
observation, contain much of my best information.
In 1997, during the six months period I spent
in Belo Horizonte, eleven telenovelas were broadcast (ten of
them at prime time, i.e., between seven and nine o’clock in
the evening) from Monday to Saturday, on four commercial
channels. Of these eleven telenovelas, two were imported
from Mexico, and the rest was produced in Brazil. TV
Globo, the major producer and exporter of the genre and
the fourth largest television corporation in the world,
broadcast five telenovelas daily. I video-taped several
episodes from different telenovelas, several television
programs, and gathered newspapers, magazines and articles
about telenovelas. Most of the ethnographic material I
gathered during this period contains references to four
- Maria do Bairro,
a Mexican telenovela that tells the adventures and
misadventures of Maria, a poor woman who marries a rich man.
It was broadcast by SBT at 7:30 p.m.
- Xica da Silva,
a Brazilian telenovela about Xica (pronounced ‘Sheeka’), a
female slave in Minas Gerais who became one of the most
powerful women during colonial times. It was broadcast by
Manchete, at 9:00 p.m.
- Salsa e Merengue,
an urban, Brazilian telenovela that focused on varied kinds
of interactions between people coming from different
socio-economic backgrounds in Rio. It was broadcast by
Globo at 7:00 p.m.
- A Indomada (“The
Untamed Woman”), a telenovela with touches of magical
realism about people living in Greenville, a fictive town
colonized by Englishmen who came to northeastern Brazil. It
was broadcast by Globo, at 8:30 p.m.
ethnography allowed me to grasp and visualize the complexity
of receptive processes, I then needed analytical tools that
would help me making sense of these processes.
Concepts for Analysis
Flow: Anyone who has watched more than
fifteen minutes of a Brazilian telenovela will notice that
the stories depicted in an episode are often interrupted by
commercial breaks. A typical telenovela is approximately 45
minutes long, divided by four commercial breaks, each of
which lasts about five minutes. Each of these breaks is
introduced and concluded by an audio-visual signal – a
shortened version of the theme song and opening images that
present the telenovela. Commercials and trailers of other
coming attractions are shown in between these signals.
Moreover, images and sounds of telenovelas are disseminated
throughout social space by the presence of television sets
in public areas, by written commentaries in the Brazilian
press and by the participation of telenovela actors in the
most diverse public arenas.
Literary scholar and media critic Raymond
Williams (1974:90,96) observed that what is conventionally
known as television programming, or listing, is in fact more
than a succession of differentiated items or programs.
Williams also noted that what is shown on television is a
flow of diverse and loosely connected programs,
constantly intercepted and interwoven with each other. He
suggested that instead of analyzing how distinctive units or
programs are watched by a certain number of persons, it
would be interesting to approach the “characteristic
experience of the flow sequence itself” (1974:95), where
images and emotions are offered to viewers as a boundless
and total experience.
Williams used the metaphor of flow to describe
an immediate perception of television watching. Williams’
flow sequence has been a source of inspiration for other
media researchers. Budd et al. (1985) for instance, did a
content analysis of what they called a “television flow” –
here meaning the combination of an episode of a certain
American serial and the advertisements shown within that
program’s commercial breaks. They found a structural
coherence between the fictive narratives and the
advertisement that immediately followed them. For instance,
if there were children in the fictive narrative, there would
be an advertisement with children during the commercial
break. They concluded that advertisements profited on
fictive narratives in order to promote their products.
Altman (1986) focused on the commercial aspect of the
television flow. Flow was seen as a way to keep viewers
“plugged-in” to the television. Allen (1985) saw the
narrative of soap operas as an example of a flow of
sequences (sudden changes from one plotline to the other).
Jensen et al. (1994) used Williams’ concept of flow to
create different analytical categories (super-flow, channel
flow, audience flow) in an attempt to understand the
practices of television watching.
Because it works as an unfolding metaphor that
can be used to describe processes of juxtaposition,
transposition of meaning and interconnections, flow has also
been a key word in anthropology and other social sciences (Castells
1989; Csikszentmihayi 1990; Hannerz 1992, 1997; Howell 1995;
Kroeber 1952; Lash and Urry 1994).
Inspired by this metaphor, I decided to
propose a new delimitation of what was being received
by my informants, and I came to call that the telenovela
flow. Telenovela flow stands for all the mass media
commentaries (television programs, advertisements, newspaper
articles) and spin-off products that intersect with the
plot, characters and actors of telenovelas. The term
telenovela flow is a way to describe a crucial part of my
informants’ receptive experience.
A Dialogical Perspective:
Interested in tracing and understanding the connections,
entanglements and interspersions that ran through the
telenovela flow, and the way my informants related with this
flow, I came in contact with the intricate and comprehensive
work of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin began
writing in the 1920’s but his texts have been considered to
foreshadow major post-structuralist themes. Stam (1989:2)
mentions some of these themes:
denial of univocal meaning, the infinite spiral of
interpretation, the negation of originary presence in
speech, the unstable identity of the sign, the positioning
of the subject by discourse, the untenable nature of
inside/outside oppositions, and the pervasive presence of
theories about communication and the process of
understanding are saturated with concepts such as
re-accentuation (1999:87), intonation (1973:103), multi-accentuality
(1973:23), and circulation (1999:162). These concepts focus
on the points of contact between voices, utterances, persons
and contexts. They highlight how utterances can be (and are)
transposed from one context to another, in a dynamic
commingling in which the involved parts constantly change.
derives from the word dialogue but it aims at describing the
mechanisms of interaction taking place between and betwixt
voices, utterances/discourses/words, persons and contexts (Bakhtin
1970; Hill 1993; Holqvist 1999; Peytard 1995; Spitulnik
1996; Stam 1989). In the introduction to the second edition
of the French translation of Problems of Dostoïevsky’s
Poetics (1929), published in 1970, Julia Kristeva
relates the concept of dialogism to that of intertextuality:
”Le dialogisme voit dans
tout mot un mot sur le mot, adressé au mot: et c’est à
condition d’appartenir à cette polyphonie – à cet space
”intertextuel” que le mot est un mot plein.” (Kristeva
in Bakhtin, 1970: 13).
I am aware that the concept of intertextuality,
roughly defined as “the interanimation and interfecondation
of texts” (Stam 1989:17), firstly suggested by Julia
Kristeva (1967, 1970) parallels in many ways to some aspects
of Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism. In my opinion, Bakhtin’s
concept of dialogism, besides referring to the commingling
and interfecondation of voices and texts (as in
intertextuality), offers an interesting dimension to the
study of reception mechanisms since it touches upon the
interactive, “transindividual” (Stam 1989:17) processes in
which meaning is generated.
From a media studies’ point of view, dialogism
offers a counter response to those researchers who described
the processes of reception of a medium as one-sided, where
media messages were said to exert a direct influence upon
its receivers, thus imposing their supposedly homogeneous
(and homogenizing) message upon a passive mass. Seeing the
process of reception as dialogic means that we can analize
how viewers socially position themselves and how they
actively negotiate between messages which are themselves
embedded with socio-cultural meaning, or, as Bakhtin would
put it, messages that carry intonations or social accents.
It follows that the content of media messages
can be seen in terms of conflicting or complementing voices
– for example, the voice and political or moral profile of
the broadcasting network, the voice of the socially
positioned author who writes the text, and the voices of the
characters within the text. To this combination and/or
confrontation of voices within an utterance, Bakhtin gave
the name of polyphony, or heteroglossia (Bakhtin
1970). Acknowledging such a complexity already at a textual
level is a step towards questioning the idea that messages
of a certain media program are the same everywhere and for
Applying this discussion to the
telenovela flow, it becomes possible to argue that the
telenovela flow has a dialogical character, much in line
with the idea of intertextuality: telenovelas are entangled
with other television programs, advertisements, other media,
and the most varied commodities. Voices circulate within the
telenovelas flow, accumulating multiple layers of
signification. For instance, throughout the eight months
that the telenovela A Indomada (“The untamed Woman,”
1997, Globo) was broadcast, many of its characters
and actors/actresses participated in commercial campaigns
for the most varied commodities. Eva Wilma, the actress who
played Altiva [Greenville’s moral crusader with a secret and
not so angelic past], appeared in commercials for headache
pills. Paulo Betti, the actor who played Ypiranga
[Greenville’s incompetent mayor] did commercials for a brand
of washing machines (in a possible nod to illicit and
corrupt practices of money washing?). The actor José Mayer,
in the frame of his fictive character Teobaldo [a successful
businessman of Egyptian origins], talked about the
advantages of buying a certain car and about why one should
trust a certain bank for its special services. By watching
these advertisements, viewers get information about
telenovelas that are being broadcast and about characters
within those telenovelas. By looking at the products
advertised, viewers get messages about fictive and real
consumption practices. This chain of references and
cross-references in constant and indefinite expansion, this
circulation of voices from the plot of telenovelas to other
domains of society, and the other way round – from everyday
life to diverse media and to telenovelas, illustrates the
dialogical character of the telenovela flow.
But there is more to it: by describing the
processes of communication as context bound (utterances are
enunciated and received from particular social positions and
laminated with socio-cultural meanings), dialogism
reinforces the necessity of studying media as interwoven
with other social practices. In other words, the active role
played by the viewer/receiver in the process of
interpretation and use of media messages is acknowledged, at
the same time that it is emphasized that these
interpretations and uses are generated within particular
The concepts of dialogism and
heteroglossia and the processes of circulation,
repetition, appropriation and reiteration
of meaning implied by them, can be used to understand the
mechanisms at play in the telenovela flow and in viewers’
reception of this flow: how and what messages are
appropriated, circulated and reiterated by viewers?
These questions, in their turn, intersect with
major issues within human and social sciences regarding the
relationship between structure and agency, conditioning and
creativity, individual and society: how are social practices
generated and how are they reproduced, circulated and
briefly described some key concepts guiding the analysis of
my ethnographic material, I now propose to examine some of
the ways in which people actually go with the telenovela
with the Flow
the Telenovela Flow
was a nineteen-year-old woman who worked for a family as a
live-in babysitter. We met because Meire lived and worked in
the same building where I lived. Meire was light-skinned (or
“light”/ clara, as she describes herself). She had
long, curly hair (cabelo anelado)
that she kept tied in a bun during the time she was working
so that it would look less frizzy when she untied it to go
out. Meire came from a smaller city situated in the southern
region of Minas Gerais.
She told me she saw babysitting as a temporary
occupation. She wanted to take acting courses and learn
about computers. In our conversations, Meire constantly
asserted that, in spite of working as a babysitter, she
belonged to another, higher class than her colleagues. She
told me she came from a well-established family. Her parents
could afford to have her stay at home, but she wanted to
earn her own money and decided to move to Belo Horizonte,
where an elder sister lived and worked. Meire said she
earned two and a half minimum salaries, which was more than
other babysitters earned (it still amounted to less than
Meire was very aware of class differentiation.
Conversations about her consumption habits and social life
were the means through which she marked her social
positioning as being different from her colleague
babysitters: she always made it clear to me and the other
babysitters who were listening that she preferred to buy
quality products and clothes, no matter what they cost.
She also had a boyfriend—”a rich boyfriend,”
she told me, who “owned his own car.” She was proud of
having “lots of clothes” (tanta roupa), so that she
could always have a different dress for each party she was
invited to (and she was invited to “at least one party every
Meire “hated to read” and the only exceptions
to this were fashion magazines, because she “loved fashion.”
She also liked to watch telenovelas. Meire followed the plot
of all of Globo’s telenovelas and she also watched
two other telenovelas broadcast in other channels.
When I asked Meire her opinion about why so
many people watched telenovelas, she answered:
“I think they want to
learn something. Novelas show so many clothes, and
then if people want to open a shop, then they look at the
fashion in the novela and start to sell the same
thing. So I think they watch to learn. There are lots of
things to learn. And there are also lots of wrong things,
“And why do you watch?” I
“I watch to see different
things, because here, in Brazil, there is nothing different
to see…If you don’t watch television, then you won’t see
“And if you would write
your own novela, what would it be about?”
“It would be a novela
that would help people…a story about everyday life that
you see out in the streets – people who trample upon other
people. Some with lots of money, who won’t give a cent to
the other one who is lying on the ground…I would make a
story that would help poor people.”
As I have previously mentioned, television
works as a common reference among Brazilian viewers. It is a
means to spread messages and information throughout a
country that is fractured by enormous social inequalities.
When Meire affirms that “if you don’t watch television, then
you won’t see [anything different],” she is representing a
shared opinion among most of my informants: telenovelas work
as a means to introduce new fashions (spas, clothes, looks),
new technologies (computers, liposuctions, plastic
surgeries) or simply “new stuff”(new unexplored landscapes,
cars, household devices).
According to Meire, television programs (and
telenovelas specifically) help viewers to gain access to
information that is otherwise unequally distributed.
Television and the telenovela flow translate unknown
situations and milieus into recognizable events and places,
offering viewers a cognizable basis for understanding and
living within a complex and unequal Brazilian reality.
Most of the time, in our conversations, Meire
related to the telenovela flow in terms of consumption—she
“loved” its fashion and bought certain commodities that
appeared on it. She related to the telenovela flow as an
insider—she was acquainted with it and mastered many of its
elements. Meire carefully scrutinized the dresses and
hairstyles of telenovela characters and actresses and she
spoke like an expert about the beauty secrets of telenovela
hair [the name of a young prostitute who was cheated by a
man who pretended to love her but who really just wanted her
kidney, for a transplant, in A Indomada, 1997,
Globo] is curly, but they wind it up in large rollers
and then do a brushing. That’s why it looks so long.
By circulating and appropriating certain
commodities similar to the ones displayed in the telenovela
flow (in her conversations, Meire referred quite often to
things and commodities she either planned to acquire or had
already acquired), by showing off her expertise about the
beauty secrets of actresses and the fashions of this flow,
Meire made herself recognizable (through her body and
clothing style) as being someone with a somewhat more
privileged socio-economical position (Bourdieu 1984). By
being in constant dialogue with the telenovela flow, Meire
appropriated certain legitimated consumption patterns and
reiterated them as an effective way of blurring and
downplaying her position as a (working-poor) babysitter. Her
“rich boyfriend,” who “owned his own car,” and all the
parties to which she was invited, were presented as
desirable effects (and evidence) of her successful
Meire illustrates the context-bound, shifting,
intertextual and interactive process of communication and
production of meaning, to which Bakhtin gives the name of
dialogism: by interacting with the flow she positions
herself socially and negotiates between messages which are
themselves embedded with socio-cultural meaning.
One evening, I met Meire sitting by herself on
one of the benches in the building’s playground. Something
that happened in the elevator earlier that day had upset
her. In the building where we lived, just like other
residential buildings all over Brazil, there were two kinds
of elevators: the “social elevator” (“elevador social,”
which in our building was decorated with marble floor
and mirrors), and the “service elevator” (“elevador
de serviço”, which was not decorated at all). All the
inhabitants of the building could use either of the two
elevators, but there were also rules, some explicit and some
implicit, governing the utilization of the elevators by
non-residents or servants. An explicit rule was that the
service elevator should be used to transport things (like
grocery, furniture, suitcases and the like). A not so
explicit rule was that workers, cleaners, maids and nannies
as well as people coming from the outside whose errands were
not of a social kind—such as electricians, plumbers, food
deliverers, should take the service elevator. That day,
Meire had taken the social elevator.
On her way up, she met a neighbor, a woman in
her fifties, who asked Meire if the other elevator was out
of function. When Meire answered that it was working, the
woman remarked that Meire should, in fact, have used the
“service elevator.” In this instance it became clear to
Meire that she had not been recognized as someone who could
afford a middle-class life style. On the contrary, she was
recognized as someone who had no place among marble and
mirrors. Meire got upset. She told me she answered the
neighbor’s commentary by asking: “Why are you saying this to
me? Is it because I am a mere domestic servant (“uma
Deep inside our bodies, you and I both stink just as much.
The only difference is that you have money. But, deep inside
our bodies, we both stink.”
She continued by telling me that “there are
people who have money, but they don’t know how to do
anything. Not even how to fry an egg. They depend on other
people. Look, it’s just like Antonio Fagundes [a telenovela
actor], in that novela [O Rei do Gado, “The
King of Cattle,” 1996, Globo]. He was so rich. Then,
once, he got lost in the jungle and he had to eat insects to
survive. With all that money!”
This incident marked an interesting and
momentary turn in Meire’s way of relating to the telenovela
flow. In past conversations with me, she had basically
related to it in terms of consumption, appropriating and
circulating commodities and opinions that would help her to
blur and downplay her low prestige position as a babysitter.
In spite of her efforts (her hairdo, her dressing style, her
accessories, all of which underscored her light skin), Meire
was addressed and recognized as someone who should have
taken the “service-elevator.” At this moment, she renounced
all the indicators of status that had failed to make her
recognizable as a neighbor (and not as a servant), and she
urged the woman who addressed her as a babysitter to do the
same thing: “Deep inside our bodies, you and I both stink as
much. The only difference is that you have money. But, deep
inside our bodies, we both stink.” Having failed to raise
her own status, Meire tried to lower the status of her
interlocutor. And Meire was happy with the effect of her
comment : “You know, she didn’t say anything else! She just
kept looking at me. Just like a fool (feito boba).”
Meire’s engagement with the telenovela flow
reflects how viewers, in spite of being active producers of
meaning, are bound to a Brazilian context which constrains
their own opinions and actions.
Meire relates in two ways to the telenovela
flow. First, she turns around and answers to a recurrent
interpellation that runs through it—social differences are
embodied and naturalized, but consumption focused on the
body (fashionable clothes, cellular phone, hairstyle) can be
a way to downplay class and at the same time give access to
prestige (all the parties to which she was invited) and
attractiveness (she had a rich boyfriend). Through her
appropriation of elements from the telenovela flow, Meire
tries to position herself within these hierarchical
traditions, embodying an idea that she would later
criticize: “if you don’t have anything, then you don’t count
here, you can’t be someone.” In another instance, when
Meire’s reiterations do not work, she refers to the
telenovela flow and to a special telenovela episode in order
to suggest that individuals should have the same rights, in
spite of their differing social positionings: “Deep inside
our bodies,” Meire declared, “we both stink.” Meire’s
appropriation and reiteration of elements from the
telenovela flow is not simply the manifestation of naive
consumerism, nor is it simply a sign of resistance. Relating
with the telenovela flow is part of Meire’s search for ways
of being and belonging.
the Telenovela Flow
The next case study to be
examined here illustrates yet another possible way through
which viewers engage with the telenovela flow. It is the
story of Maria, a fifteen-year-old black girl who came from
a small city in northern Minas Gerais, a poor and very dry
region, populated by a few rich cattle farmers and great
many poor people. Maria had not completed elementary school
and she worked as a domestic servant in her hometown. One
day, the family for whom she worked was visited by some
relatives who lived in Belo Horizonte. Maria was invited by
one of these visitors to come to Belo Horizonte and work as
a babysitter in a friend’s home. Maria’s mother, who counted
on her financial support to keep the household, did not
allow Maria to accept this offer. But the following weekend,
taking advantage of her parents’ absence (they were working
in a farmer’s fields), she packed up her things and told the
visitors that her parents had given their consent to her
moving to Belo Horizonte. By the end of that same afternoon,
she was sitting in a car with people that she barely knew,
heading towards a city she had never seen, to live and work
with total strangers.
Maria told me that a few weeks after her
arrival, she wrote a letter to her mother, telling her where
she was and what she was doing. She said that her mother
wrote back a very angry letter, saying that she was coming
to Belo Horizonte to take her home. But when Maria promised
to send her fifty percent of the salary she earned (a full
salary corresponded at the time to approximately US$110),
her mother let her stay.
Maria was full of energy – eager to get a
boyfriend, she anticipated with excitement the few occasions
when she actually had time off and could go out. On these
occasions, she would let her curl-relaxed hair down and she
would put on a roupa de sair (party clothes) – a
mini-skirt and a T-shirt or a tight mini-dress, which showed
off her home-made tattoos: a heart on her left thigh and
something that looked vaguely like the letter "M" on her
arm. While working, she sang, danced and taught all the
songs to the
two-year-old boy she took care of. After some months in the
field, I started interviewing her about her television
viewing. She showed great interest in being interviewed, and
seemed to watch all telenovelas that were broadcast: from
the re-runs, broadcast in the afternoon, to Globo’s
five-, six-, seven- and eight o’ clock telenovelas, and two
other telenovelas broadcast on other television channels.
Since her working hours were not delimited by
a time schedule, Maria worked practically all day long, more
or less intensively. It is interesting to notice that in
spite of her work (she took care of a little boy, but she
was also supposed to do some household tasks such as
cleaning and washing), she could, with varying degrees of
attention, follow the plot of many telenovelas, listen to
the radio, and see her favorite bands performing in variety
shows. During her first months in Belo Horizonte, she did
not know anyone in her age, neither did she know her way
around the city. Therefore, she stayed at home a lot. Once
she told me she had not gone outside the building’s gate for
a whole week. Watching television was her main source of
entertainment. Of all the telenovelas she followed, her
favorite was Xica da Silva [the story of a black
female slave, Xica, historically known to have been the most
powerful woman in the state of Minas Gerais on the
second-half of the 19th century. The telenovela
was broadcast by Manchete, in 1997]:
haven’t missed one single episode. It’s so exciting! I’m
always hoping for Xica’s best and I hate that Violante [a
bitter, rich and mean white woman who was also the former
owner of the slave Xica. Violante was supposed to marry João
Fernandes, the rich and influential member of the Portuguese
court in Brazil, but he fell madly in love with Xica and
broke his marriage engagement.] (Excerpt from fieldnotes)
When Maria explained to me why she liked the
telenovela Xica da Silva, she never explicitly
touched upon the subjects of slavery and racism, which other
informants thought were central.
When talking about Xica da Silva, Maria simply said
that she liked Xica, the character, and hated Violante,
Xica’s worst enemy. Maria watched this telenovela every
evening, together with the family for whom she worked – a
woman and her husband in their early thirties, the husband’s
mother, and Arnaldo, a two-year-old boy. As Maria told me,
“Arnaldo is a little afraid of some characters from the
novela, but he only goes to sleep after the novela
During the daytime, Maria amused the other
babás (babysitters) with stories that had several
parallels with Xica’s adventures. Just like many of my
informants, Maria could comment upon a specially interesting
event that took place in a telenovela and then connect this
event with a similar situation she had witnessed or
experienced without necessarily making explicit the
articulation between reality and fiction.
The other babás thought that Maria was
a little crazy and that she lied a lot, but at the same
time, they all enjoyed listening to her stories. Especially
engaging were her stories about her relationship with
Arnaldo’s grandmother. Maria was afraid of being fired,
because of a quarrel she had had with this old woman.
According to Maria, this woman had called her a “black
bitch” (“nega safada”) to which Maria responded by
calling the woman “an old granny with no man” (“véia sem
homem”). The parallels between this interchange and
those that took place between Xica and Violante are
striking. Throughout the telenovela plot, Violante
associates race to class and sexuality – she insistently
reminds everyone that Xica was her former slave, and she
accuses Xica of being an amoral, overly sexual beast. At the
same time, Violante describes herself as being a wealthy,
chaste and white virgin, perfectly eligible for marriage.
Xica, on the other hand, emphasizes the fact that Violante
despite all her money and influence is a “woman with no
man,” while Xica herself is together with João Fernandes,
the most influential man in the region. Maria’s quarrel with
Arnaldo’s grandmother and Xica’s feud with Violante, as they
were retold by Maria, highlight a very polemical subject
discussed throughout Brazil, namely, the question of
racialized notions of sexuality (where dark-skinned and/or
non-white persons are described as more sensual and
hot-blooded than white persons) and how these notions can be
used in opposing ways: non-whiteness, sexuality and
sensuality can, on the one hand, be connected to promiscuity
and thereby opposed to an idea of family building and
respectability. On the other hand, non-whiteness, sexuality
and sensuality can be associated with passion, attraction,
warmth, seduction and Brazilianess.
Right before Maria’s quarrel with Arnaldo’s
grandmother, Maria told us all that she was in love with
someone whose name she did not want to reveal. She referred
to her sweetheart as Cara Pálida (“Pale Face”). Maria
had taken this expression from the character Cuca, in
Globo’s six o’clock telenovela, O Amor Está no Ar
(“Love is in the air”). Cuca, a white, very self-confident
female circus-artist used this expression as a nickname for
a dear male friend. Cara Pálida, in the telenovela,
was a white, young upper-class man, who eventually fell
in love with the circus-artist.
To appropriate, circulate and reiterate slang,
idiomatic expressions, regionalisms and proper names coming
from the telenovela flow is quite a common phenomenon.
Maria’s appropriation and reiteration of the nickname
Cara Pálida managed to amuse her babysitter friends and
arouse their curiosity: “When are you going to tell us who
Cara Pálida is?” they kept on asking Maria. In my
eyes, Maria’s appropriation and reiteration of “Cara
Pálida” adds a new layer of signification to the term.
Besides denoting different life styles (just like when the
character Cuca used the term to call her upper-class
friend), Maria’s Cara Pálida drew one’s attention to
the actual color of the man with whom she was supposedly
having a love affair – it was a “pale face,” a man whose
identity could not be revealed, but whose skin-color (and
the class associations bound to it) were foregrounded.
After much suspense, and to everybody’s
surprise, Maria revealed that her very own Cara Pálida
was the younger brother of her employer (and the
youngest son of the old woman with whom she quarreled). He
was white, in his late twenties, and had a fiancée.
According to Maria’s story, this man had openly declared his
affection for her, when they were alone in the garage of the
building where Maria and I lived. By talking very kindly to
her, he told Maria that she was nice and beautiful, much
nicer than his fiancée. They finally ended up kissing each
other. Maria said that she even protested while hearing his
declaration, and asked Cara Pálida:
But what did you see in me?
Your woman is white, she has long, straight hair. She isn’t
pretty, but everything else is fine…and I’m black (preta),
with short, bad hair. And then he answered: "It’s because
you’re happy, sensual…" and a lot of things like that.
(Excerpt from fieldnotes)
Here again the parallels with Maria’s favorite
telenovela are striking: a white man (“Pale Face”), son of
Maria’s “worst enemy,” had fallen for her because she was
“happy and sensual,” and much nicer than his white fiancée.
Maria’s words sounded almost like quotations from the
dialogues in Xica da Silva. Despite that, and as I
have previously pointed out, when commenting events from
Xica da Silva, Maria did not touch upon the themes of
racism and class differences, nor did she explicitly draw a
direct connection between what she saw in the telenovela and
what she experienced in everyday life. She simply jumped
back and forth between fictive stories and her own stories,
without acknowledging any explicit identification with her
favorite character. Were her experiences of racism and
subordination so painfully close to the ones in the
telenovela that she refused to explicitly recognize them?
I cannot say, and I would have felt embarrassed asking her
such an intimate, potentially face-threatening question. My
embarrassment, and Maria’s palpable silence on the question
of race and the eventual parallels that could be drawn
between herself and Xica da Silva, coincide with what
anthropologist Robin Sheriff (2000) observed during
fieldwork in a shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: the
subject of racism was avoided in everyday conversations,
even between people who knew each other well. Based on
informants’ elicited commentaries about their decision to
avoid open discussions on the subject of racism, Sheriff
suggests that silence “should not be read as an absence of
political consciousness or knowledge” (2000:127). Instead it
should be understood in terms of shame – a feeling that
victims of certain kinds of physical or symbolic violence
have when they think that they somehow provoked their
attackers – blended with a wish to bypass and forget racist
experiences, in an effort to protect oneself from emotional
In this light, Maria’s silence can be seen as
a “perceptible lacuna,” rather than a “mere absence”
(2000:127). Respecting Maria’s lack of explicitness, here I
simply draw a parallel between Xica da Silva’s and
Maria’s stories: in both cases, fantasies of seduction and
love are tied to class, race and sexuality. Romantic love
challenges hierarchies of race and class, but it also seems
to spring from racialized notions of sexuality where
dark-skinned persons are described as more hot-blooded than
white persons, and racialized notions of class, where
whiteness is associated with wealth.
In both stories, subordination, racism, and sexual
exploitation are transformed “through the idiom of romance
into a story about love” (Rebhun 1999:99). It is also
important to remember that both Xica da Silva and Maria had
strong feelings towards their cara pálidas and that
an eventual alliance with such men was for them a way out of
Since stories and actual cases of (often
abusive) sexual relations between male bosses and their
female maids, babysitters, cooks or servants were a common
practice in colonial times and still abound in today’s urban
and rural Brazil, Maria’s babysitter friends were in doubt
about whether or not they should believe in her story. Was
this just another example of Maria’s craziness? “But this
story was so full of descriptions and details that it could
have been true,” they all concluded. Maria was fired one
week after her quarrel with Arnaldo’s grandmother and no one
ever got to know what really happened between her and
Regardless of whether or not Maria’s story
about her employer’s brother had some basis in reality or
was merely fantasy, I interpret her appropriation and
reiteration of parts of the telenovela flow (the expression
Cara Pálida, the fantasies of seduction, love and
happiness) as a means for her to carry over the thrill of a
telenovela plot to her own life-story, thus making it
recognizable, legitimate and interesting. Maria’s romantic
story conferred a certain intensity to her life.
Maria’s story can also be heard as an attempt
to narrate herself as a complex subject – she might well be
“preta, with short and bad hair,” but a Cara
Pálida told her that she was desirable. He kissed her.
And so, still according to Maria’s story, Cara Pálida’s
love, just like the love stories of so many telenovelas,
challenged (at least narratively) hierarchies of class and
Material and/or narrative appropriation of the
fantasies of seduction, love and happiness from the
telenovela flow can be a means to assert one’s participation
in, or one’s knowledge of things that happen at a national
and/or transnational level. Material and/or narrative
appropriation can, on the other hand, be a way for
informants to relate to the telenovela flow as a cognizable
and recognizable basis for understanding and narrating one’s
My point is that Maria’s reiteration of
elements drawn from the telenovela flow provides her with
the narrative means through which she can transform her
individual experiences into commonly shared and legitimized
stories. Maria’s case represents how informants engaged with
the fantasies of seduction, love and happiness from the
telenovela flow as a means to mold their own experiences in
the shape of fictive, commonly and nationally shared
acquaintances and stories. Her engagement with the
telenovela flow was one means she had to make her own story
recognizable, interesting and thrilling, much like a
telenovela plot. Maria’s narratives about how she attracted
the attention of a desirable man, can be seen as a means to
position herself, through her personal skills and assets, as
a complex subject.
A main goal throughout
this text has been to discuss how I, in an attempt to better
grasp and understand people’s reception of telenovelas,
moved my research focus away from the moment of broadcast
(or from the places where immediate reception might take
place) to streets, parties, and everyday conversations and
interactions. Ethnographic fieldwork allowed me to visualize
a crucial – though messy and complex – part of my
informant’s receptive experience. I proposed the term
telenovela flow to describe what viewers were
actually relating to.
I adopted a dialogical perspective to make
sense of that flow, and of how people related to it. I thus
emphasized the processes of circulation, appropriation and
reiteration of meaning taking place between and betwixt
media texts and people.
The way viewers turn around and engage with
messages coming from the telenovela flow varies extensively
and reflects the tensions and contradictions that exist
within contemporary Brazil. However, viewers’ appropriation
and reiteration of the telenovela flow is not free floating.
It is tethered to particular socio-cultural values. I tried
to illustrate that through two ethnographic case studies.
the empirical material presented here is also tethered to a
Brazilian, urban context, it is my conviction that the
theories and methods with which I have engaged can be
applied to other contexts of media reception.
This discussion is based on information obtained
from several academic studies about Brazilian
television (Kehl 1986; Mattelart and Mattelart 1990;
Mattos 1990; Silva 1997; Sodré 1977, 1997), its
programming politics, its audience (Fadul 1993;
Fachel-Leal and Oliven 1987; Girardello 1998;
Micelli 1972) and its relation with the state (Kehl
1979; Santos Jr. 1996). This initial description
serves a second objective, namely to start
delineating the relationship between telenovelas and
In England, the BBC started broadcasting television
programs on a regular basis in 1936. However, the
spread of television technology around the world was
intensified only several years after the end of
World War II. In Sweden, for instance, the first
official television broadcast happened in 1956.
According to Mattelart and Mattelart (1990:19), in
1970, 73 percent of the country’s industries were
situated in the southeastern region.
These magazines are published weekly or biweekly and
are sold by subscription, in supermarket checkout
racks, and at newsstands. Contigo! for
instance, has a circulation of almost 250 thousand
biweekly issues, and it cost R$3.90 in 1997.
See also Lave et al. 1992.
There is an ever-growing number of anthropological
studies of media. See for instance Abu-Lughod (2005)
and Butcher (2003). Since I am basically retelling
the steps of my Ph.D. research (Machado-Borges 2003)
I did not include these works in the present summary
because they were not yet published at that time.
Radway (1988:363) criticized the fact that many
media researchers still initiated their “inquiry by
beginning with texts already categorized as objects
of a particular sort. Audiences, then, are set in
relation to a single set of isolated texts which
qualify already as categorically distinct objects.
[…]Such studies perpetuate, then, the notion of a
circuit neatly bounded and therefore identifiable,
locatable, and open to observation. Users are
cordoned off for study and therefore defined as
particular kinds of subjects by virtue of their use
not only of a single medium but of a single genre as
DaSilva (1999) writes about race and symbolic
exclusion in telenovelas. However, her focus lies on
the content, not the reception of these programs.
When it comes to the relationship between age and
telenovela viewing, my material seems to confirm the
findings of previous research (see also Hamburger,
“Middle-class,” “upper-middle class,” and “lower
class” are colloquially used as concepts for class
differentiation in Brazilian Portuguese [classe
alta, classe media, classe baixa]. I am not
comfortable with a straightforward translation of
the term classe baixa to “lower-class” in
English, since this term carries a series of
negative connotations. The term “working class” is
also misguiding in the sense that even middle-class
people are workers, even if their occupations differ
from those of the “working poor” (O’Dougherty,
2002:46) Therefore, here I use the term ”low-income
women and/or men.” The complexities of this
discussion are beyond the scope of this paper.
Fieldwork was conducted in the state of Minas
Gerais, southeastern Brazil, during 1997 and 2000.
1997 was the most extensive period of fieldwork,
when I spent six months in Belo Horizonte. After
that, I returned to the field for shorter periods
(generally a month), once a year.
I use pseudonyms instead of the real names of my
See Fry (2000), Sansone (2003) and Wade (1997) for
a discussion on skin-color and racism in Brazil.
Empregadinha (“a little maid”): the
diminutive form can at times be used pejoratively,
meaning in this case “mere,” “insignificant.”
Simpson (1993) explains this music genre as “a style
of samba that begin developing in the late 1970s and
during the 1980s reached huge audiences and sold
millions of records” (p.84). A trend, since the
mid-90’s is to write pagode texts with a
double meaning. Texts can be sung as innocent songs
about “cocks and chickens” or as allusions to sex.
Every such a pagode has a special
choreography that illustrates, also in a playful
way, the double meaning of the song’s texts.
Generally, when people dance to these songs, they
reproduce the song’s choreography.
Joana, twenty-eight -year-old housewife. Excerpt
from an interview:
All kinds of prejudice are
discussed in Xica. They show how badly the slaves
were treated. They were treated like beasts. And
almost all the owners had sex with female slaves who
had to accept that. It was terrible. They couldn’t
Another example from my material illustrates the
implicit articulation between themes discussed in
telenovelas and everyday conversations: Meire,
Marina (a nineteen-years-old babysitter) and I were
talking about one of the latest episodes of the
telenovela O Amor Está No Ar [”Love is in the
Air”, broadcast by Globo in 1997]. One of the
main characters in this telenovela, Luiza, the
fiancée of Leo, was abducted by extra-terrestrials.
During the time this young woman disappeared, Leo
and Luiza’s mother were brought together and
eventually started a love affair:
Thaïs: Tell me, is it just my
impression or is Leo fond of Luiza’s mother? He
wants her, doesn’t he?
Meire: If he wants her? He’s
already got her!
Marina: Really? When did that
Meire: Yesterday, at the end of
Meire: I think it’s ok. Aren’t
there many older men who marry younger women? What
about the gays fighting for their rights to live
together? If men are fighting to put an end on this
kind of prejudice, why shouldn’t women and men of
different ages be together?
Marina [is quiet but shakes her
Meire: Take Xuxa [a mega-star in
Brazilian media] for instance. Her boyfriend is
younger than her. I read this in Caras.
Marina: Yes, but she can’t be much
older than him… I once had a boyfriend who was
seventeen years older than me. He wanted to marry
me, but I was only fifteen… then I had another one
who was also older than me, and who also wanted to
Meire [laughing]: If you had
married him, you’d have at least three children by
now…But once I dated a boy who was younger than
me…no, he was my age, actually. It was so boring! He
was so immature! We could not talk about anything.
Marina: Yes, women are more mature
than men. That’s why it’s better with a man that is
a little older than the woman.
By moving back and forth from
fiction to everyday life, these women found the
opportunity to tell private stories and express
their moral opinions on subjects that were at least
apparently related to the ones discussed by the
This double-edged notion of racialized sexuality, as
anthropologist Donna Goldstein (1999) points out,
seems to be applicable only to black or non-white
women. The attractiveness of mixed-race and
black men, Goldstein suggests, is not valorized to
the same extent (1999:568). For a discussion on race
mixture, sensuality and Brazilianess, see also
DaMatta (1978); Freyre (1933); Parker (1991).
Here are some further examples of the way informants
appropriated and reiterated slang and idiomatic
expressions that circulate through the telenovela
flow: Márcio and Gustavo, both undergraduate
students, appropriated the slang “corpos malhados,”
“corpos sarados” that circulated through
the telenovela flow to describe well-trained bodies,
and thereby marked their position as up-dated,
trendy and urban young men. Andrea, a
thirty-year-old middle-class housewife had a dog
called “Lindainês,” after a character from one
telenovela. Sandra, a nineteen-year-old housewife
was called “Regina Duarte” [the name of an actress]
by her cousins. Thelma, a fifty-year-old lower-class
secretary was called, during a period in her life,
by the nickname “Porcina,” after a female telenovela
character. Marina, an eighteen-year-old babysitter,
told me that she was using the expression “Pedro
Afonso, meu filho” (“Dear little Pedro Afonso”),
to playfully scold Ivan, the baby she took care of.
“Dear Little Pedro Afonso” was a pejorative
expression, used by a female character to scold and
reprimand her oppressed husband. Marina’s
reiteration provoked laughter among the people who
Fachel Leal and Oliven (1987:91) raise a similar
possibility when they try to understand the reasons
why poor informants consequently excluded a fictive
poor couple from their retelling of a telenovela
plot. These authors suggest the idea of
identification through denial: “one refuses explicit
identification because it is too painful. It is
through denial that the mechanism of identification
is reinforced.” (My translation)
For further discussions on the interplay of class,
race and sexuality in Brazil, see Parker (1991) and
Rebhun (1999). Wade (1993) approaches similar
questions when he investigates the case of racism
and race mixture in Colombia.
Goldstein (1999) affirms that stories about upward
mobility constitute a genre told by black low-income
women in a shantytown in Rio. She examines a
particular fantasy that circulated in the everyday
conversations among these women – a fantasy of
upward mobility (or at least of an economic
improvement in their lives) through the seduction of
older, richer, and usually whiter men. Goldstein
compares these women’s fantasies to the plots of
This particular theme is not
unique to these women, but is rather part of the
mainstream; economic mobility through marriage and
/or sexual seduction is a favorite theme in
Brazilian telenovelas […] In these telenovelas, the
class-based motivation for seduction of a wealthy
patron is a familiar scenario […] (1999: 570).
Rebhun (1999:202) comments that the story [from the
telenovela Tieta] rang true with many of her
informants. She quotes one of them:
In my family it’s
the same as in the novela. The history of my
grandfather is the following: He left Grandma and
went to live with the other woman. He left her with
nine children. So she always remained his friend,
sent food to him, everything. But Aunt Maria, who
was a teenager at the time, never accepted it. No
way. She kept crying, saying that he was no good,
So the woman died.
He’s already old, returned to live with Grandma.
It’s all right with her. But Aunt Maria, who never
married, who still lives at home, she doesn’t talk
to him, no. She doesn’t even look in his face. For
her, she doesn’t have a father. There was no way. He
had to leave there. Daughters never accept the other
woman. It has to be either the mother or her. He
can’t love anyone else (Catrina,
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Thaïs Machado-Borges is
a Researcher at the Institute of Latin-American
Studies, Stockholm University, Sweden.