As a genre of entertainment, soap operas are often dismissed as the stuff of the masses, and disregarded as amusement for women and the working class. New research, however, suggests that soap operas possess a unique ability to mediate how people absorb new content. New developments in the way countries watch soap operas also suggest that the entertainment medium could even highlight a new direction for globalization.
For years, Latin America has been the world's quintessential producer and exporter of soap operas, enjoying commercial success both inside and outside the region. But things are changing, however, and Latin America is now importing several popular foreign soap operas, such as the Turkish melodrama "One Thousand and One Nights."
The series stars a widowed architect with an ill child, Sherezade Eviyaoglu, who agrees to spend one night with her multimillionaire boss, Onour Aksal, to earn the money to pay for her child's medical treatment. The two ultimately fall in love, but not before getting involved in countless amorous intrigues and misunderstandings that keep a happy resolution at bay.
The particularity of this classic culebrón (a name given to soaps in Latin America that comes from the word culebra, or “snake“) is that it could have very well been set Latin America, but it is not. The show's archetype story takes place in Turkey, which provides scenery that is exotic for many watching in Latin America.
It is precisely this exotic quality that seems to have won over the Latin American public. From Colombia, to Peru, to Uruguay and Bolivia, viewers are addicted. But it’s in Argentina and Chile where fans are taking their love of the show to the next level: by naming their children after the characters “Onur” and Sherezade.” Not everyone online, however, welcomes such enthusiasm:
Others have criticized the gender inequalities that they believe the shows seems to encourage. Meanwhile, some of the criticism of the show has been political, as well. For example, the Armenian community in Argentina condemns the soap opera, calling it Turkish propaganda. The community seems to object to any cultural imports from Turkey, in light of Ankara's refusal to recognize the genocide committed against the Armenian people 100 years ago.
Despite show's many detractors, it remains a triumph among Latin American audiences. In May 2015, Concept Media, an Argentinian consulting group, published a qualitative survey about "One Thousand and One Nights," concluding that part of the show's appeal is its “close exoticism” that allows the Argentinian public to approach a remote culture that is seemingly not so different from their own. At the same time, the focus group underlined that the TV show is familiar to viewers with all the classic melodramatic elements of a soap opera, highlighting the use of love stories without sex scenes as an element that has attracted audiences accustomed to the use of sex scenes in local productions as ratings boosters.
But the success of these soap operas has not been exclusive to Latin America. In fact, in the Arab world, a similar phenomenon has taken place, with both fans and critics. This could be seen as a response to the supposed “Westernization” of the so-called “Third World”, where societies of the Global South are said to prefer media and entertainment from the West above any other region.
These cultural exchanges also raise questions about the possibility of intersections between “peripheral” societies, such as Turkey and Latin America—two regions that, despite their differences, are comparable in many ways. Cultural exchanges like the export and import of soap operas could open up what was once a privileged space, creating new possibilities for a more horizontal kind of globalization through the flow of cultural products, even when the products in question are mass-produced, conservative, highly commercial, and from countries involved in widespread censorship.